How Permadeath Changes The Way People Play Games
The Influence of Permadeath on Gaming
Permadeath is an intriguing concept, take away a player’s ability to respawn or load an old save and you fundamentally change how the game is played. It’s a risky feature too in an age where developers work tirelessly to make their games as accessible as possible which is why the feature is often an optional mode, an additional challenge for those who really want to amp up the tension of their playthrough. Gamers suddenly become much more cautious stocking up on health potions or grinding for better gear in order to ensure their survival. In games where you can customise your characters the stakes are raised further as that character you spent time with and building up some sort of backstory is wiped away in an ill-fated decision to attack a high-level enemy.
One of the most influential games in making permadeath a persistent feature in the medium is the 1980 title Rogue. I’ve already spoken before about the influence it had on procedural generation but it was one of the earliest games to introduce the idea of permadeath. Once your character reached zero health, that was it. No reloading a save, no resurrection, you simply started again. Procedurally generated dungeons and permadeath persisted down the years and it’s where we get the term ‘roguelike’ from showing the game’s lasting impact. The feature can be seen as a punishment, a way of making your mistakes mean something but also as a challenge, adding replay value to a game that you may have otherwise finished with hours ago.
Despite the influence of early permadeath games like Rogue, the feature is still used relatively sparingly. There’s a number of reasons for this. First of all, permadeath doesn’t suit every single game, imagine playing certain open-world games and being sent back to the start for falling off a ledge or worse getting stuck somewhere. Another possible reason is that a lot of people might dislike permadeath and simply want to play the game without the worry of doing it all over again. As a result the game’s that do permadeath well in major and minor ways stand out and can serve a very dedicated niche in the gaming marketplace.
One of the best examples of permadeath is the XCOM series. For those who don’t know, XCOM in recent times involves customising, equipping and organising a squad of soldiers against an invading (or in the case of XCOM 2, occupying) alien force. The games create a wonderful sense of being the underdog with the aliens or ADVENT as they’re known constantly being one step ahead of you with better armour, better weapons and more powerful abilities. Once you lose a squad member they are gone for that playthrough and in XCOM 2 they are even commemorated by a little plaque recording their rank and number of kills. As squad members gradually grow more powerful the more experienced they are, losing a high-ranking XCOM member can have a devastating impact on your playthrough.
This sense of loss is heightened further by customisation. You can choose to leave the randomly generated soldiers as they are but you can also customise many aspects from their nickname, biography and nationality to their clothing and even personality. If you enjoy role-playing this can lead to some fun mini-narratives with your soldiers and make their losses and successes feel that much more impactful. Firaxis Games is enhancing this even further with XCOM 2‘s expansion, War of the Chosen which allows soldiers to form bonds with one another for strategic value and if a bond mate loses their buddy they will lose control for a short period of time.
It’s not just big franchises like XCOM that have changed how we perceive death in games. Undead Labs’ State of Decay gave us our very own zombie apocalypse to survive with real stakes for your characters. In the game you have a pool of characters to choose from and by taking them out to scavenge items or kill zombies their stats and the resources you need for your base increase. You might recruit someone who has an excellent shooting stat – very handy when swarmed by the undead. But should you find them killed by a zombie horde you’ve lost a very useful asset and your next journey probably won’t go as smoothly with someone who doesn’t even know how to reload. Having a game like State of Decay that plays out like a season of The Walking Dead is a great way to use permadeath and make it punishing but not the end of the world as there’s always another character to go recruit.
Smaller, indie titles have also found success. Survival games such as Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve takes many of the features of roguelike games including permadeath as you guide Wilson through hostile environments in order to survive. This adds an urgency and immediacy to the game that is well represented in the title. FTL: Faster Than Light uses permadeath in a different way – to teach you where you went wrong. In FTL players must guide a spaceship through several stages choosing which systems to priorities and what actions to take when under attack. Once your ship is destroyed you return to the start where you ponder what you could have done differently and which decisions were poor ones.
A very recent example of wise use of permadeath in games is the smash hit PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds which sees players dropped on an island to scavenge for weapons and armour in a time-limited battle royale. Matches can be incredibly tense as you scrounge around looking for the tools that will keep you alive. You may be wiped out by jumping and landing near too many other players or you may not see anyone for almost the entire game and be shot in the head after being spotted hiding in a bush. The game does a really good job of making you nervous and unwilling to gamble in what can sometimes be a tense game of cat and mouse. Your death can be crippling for others too in certain modes. When working in teams, your death can leave your teammates completely exposed.
Permadeath doesn’t always suit every game or indeed every player but when used in a smart way it can extend the life of a game and create a more meaningful experience for the player when it would otherwise come across generic. Whether it’s making a character mean something more to you because you customised them extensively or teaching you to learn from your mistakes, permadeath is a neat feature in video games that continues to evolve the way we play.
What are some of your favourite examples of permadeath in games? Do you enjoy the difficulty of no respawning?
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