Editorials

Permadeath and Permanence

Are games that feature permadeath and permanence more fun or frustrating? More games are including options that leave the choice in the hands of players.

Ari Margo

After finishing my Fire Emblem: Awakening review, I decided to play a game that had been sitting in my backlog for far too long. But when I started playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I had no idea that I was about to start playing a very similar game to the one I had just completed. While XCOM: Enemy Unknown certainly isn’t an RPG, it is a turn-based strategy game with abundant similarities to the strategy role playing game (SRPG) Fire Emblem: Awakening. Although thematically as different as night and day, it could be argued that these two games are of the same genre. Among the similarities present between the games are a variety of punishing features like permadeath that—while frustrating and unwelcoming to newcomers—may be the basis of what makes the games so fun for hardcore gamers and genre enthusiasts.

Permadeath or 99 lives?

Fire Emblem: Awakening - Just Made It

Prepare to be one shot.

Perhaps the most highly debated of these features is permanent death or permadeath. Permadeath is a term used in the gaming community to describe the amazingly rare circumstance where a character can die permanently as opposed to being revivable. Most video games allow the player to try again if a character dies. For example, in Super Mario Bros. (or any of its plethora of subsequent sequels), Mario is given a number of lives and extra lives can be earned and accumulated. Even if Mario runs out of lives and the player is presented with the Gamer Over screen, there is still an option to continue. And in many RPGs and strategy games, if a character falls, they will only be temporarily incapacitated.

By contrast, both Fire Emblem: Awakening, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the games in their respective series are notorious for their use of Permadeath. The permanence of losing a character in either of these games can be devastating for a variety of reasons.

In the case of Fire Emblem: Awakening, the characters are well developed in terms of the storyline, and may have even formed relationships with each other. If a pair of characters has been married and one of them falls on the battlefield, there is an extra bit of emotional impact for the player. To make things worse, the characters in that game always have some brief last words for their dying moment.

Outside of the storyline, the amount of time spent developing and molding the characters into formidable powerhouses in combat can make their loss a frustration and a crippling blow to a player’s overall strategy. XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t develop the recruits in terms of the storyline, but the player can fill in the blanks as they spend time battling waves of aliens. When a new recruit falls, it’s not so bad. But when a high ranking officer gets hit by an unlucky shot and is killed instantly, it can be demoralizing.

Let the Players Decide

Fortunately for certain gamers, both games have methods for the player to get around permadeath. In Fire Emblem: Awakening there is a “Casual” difficulty setting that removes permadeath entirely. In that mode, if a character falls in battle, they retreat from the battlefield instead of dying. And in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the player is allowed to save at any time, so it’s easy enough to make a save file before taking a risk and rolling back if it doesn’t pay off.

On the other hand, for hardcore gamers, permadeath is what it’s all about. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, “Classic” is the difficulty of choice for those players. In addition to featuring permadeath, it also removes the option of creating a save file during combat, and replaces it with a suspend file, which, if loaded, is immediately deleted. This makes every choice on the battlefield permanent. The “Ironman” mode in XCOM: Enemy Unknown takes that one step further by giving the player only one save file which is automatically saved over after any decision is made. Since that game involves a great deal of resource management outside of combat, “Ironman” adds weight to every choice throughout the entire game.

Diablo III - Permadeath is permanent.

Fun, fun, fun!

The importance of decision making and the effects of permanence might be part of what makes games featuring permadeath so appealing to hardcore players. In fact, there are a lot of games that are designed to be enjoyable by the casual market but also include options to increase permanence. Diablo III is a perfect example of one such game. When creating a character, the player can choose to make that character “Hardcore” in which case if it dies, it becomes permanently unplayable. This option is also available in Diablo II, Torchlight, Torchlight II and even Minecraft (though in that case, the entire world is deleted when the player’s character dies, not just the character itself).

Permanence or Flexibility

Another form of permanence that existed in Diablo and Diablo II—which is notoriously absent from Diablo III but still present in the Torchlight series—is stat and skill distribution. In Diablo III, the player cannot choose how their character’s stats increase as they level up. Those increases are instead assigned automatically (though it can be argued that the player’s choice of gear is a form of stat distribution—though without any permanence). Also, each character learns every class appropriate skill in the game by the time they reach the maximum level. Instead of meticulously choosing skills and determining builds, the skills and skill modifiers (runes) can be equipped and unequipped freely, with no permanence whatsoever. Many fans of the series find that disappointing, but at least there is still a “Hardcore” mode providing permanence for those players that find permadeath enjoyable.

Diablo III - You Have Died

Well, crap.

The fun of permadeath can be traced all the way back to an early video game from 1980 called Rogue. Rogue is a dungeon crawler where the dungeon is randomly generated and filled with equally random monsters and treasures. The enemies become progressively more difficult deeper in the dungeon, and if the character dies—you guessed it—it’s back to the title screen to start a new game. Rogue spawned an entire genre of games called roguelikes which traditionally feature random dungeons, permadeath and turn-based character movement.

Many modern games that are not actually roguelikes themselves include roguelike features. FTL: Faster Than Light is a perfect example. It’s a space exploration game with a randomly generated universe where the player must attempt to escape from an enemy fleet, improve their starship and eventually destroy the enemy flagship. But if their ship is destroyed, as expected from a roguelike, all progress is lost and the player has to start a new game.

But is it fun?

Whether or not dealing with all of this permanence will be fun really depends on the player. In my case, there’s a line to be drawn between fun and frustration. For example, I enjoyed the early Fire Emblem games on Gameboy Advance. I did reset those games game whenever a character died, but eventually I was able to win every battle without a casualty. In those games, there was no way to disable permadeath. However, in Fire Emblem: Awakening, I got a bit too frustrated and chose to start the whole game over with permadeath disabled.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown - Thin Man

They’re thin. They’re men. And they’re going to shoot you in the head now.

And in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I took full advantage of the option to create save files during battle, and always backtracked when a soldier fell. And yet, now that I’ve completed the game, there’s something oddly compelling about the idea of playing the game again with “Ironman” enabled. I may lose all of my favorite units and get to the point that I literally cannot continue, but somehow, it still sounds like fun. Also, completing the game with “Ironman” on is a rare achievement that is a worthy challenge. XCOM: Enemy Unknown also includes a few other options for those hardcore players looking for a praiseworthy trial. There’s “Damage Roulette,” which greatly increases the range of damage that can be dealt by attacks in the game, “Not Created Equally” which randomizes the starting stats of new recruits and a variety of other choices that greatly increase the replay value of the game.

All and all, I’ve been on both sides of the conversation. I’ve played a variety of games that feature differing levels of permanence, and in most cases, I’ve enjoyed the added weight of my decisions. I’ve found permadeath to be suitable for games like FTL: Faster Than Light, which can be completed within a couple of hours. In long games where the effects of my decisions can be felt for dozens or hundreds of hours, I find permanence less appealing. Then again, sometimes perfecting a build or character can be immensely rewarding in those long games and the emotional impact of losing a character has value as well. To each his (or her) own, of course. But I’m glad that game companies are making these features optional for those that don’t enjoy them.

So what do you think? Do you enjoy games with permadeath and permanence? Or do you prefer less punishing mechanics? Let us know in the comments below!

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  • http://www.gamerhorizon.com/ Ted Polak

    Steel Battalion from the Xbox would be an awesome example here. If you didn’t flip up the plastic and press the eject button, your Game Over screen is accompanied by THE GAME DELETING YOUR SAVE FILE.

  • Holyfire

    Permadeath is very important in hardcore games. I havent played either game above. But i remember back to my original Turok days, where I was forced to master my play skills in order to adventure into the breathtaking levels ahead.
    A recent article sighted Crysis in general as only a moderate success. This is one of the main reasons why. No one plays it seriously. Its just spawn, die spawn die, progress die, spawn, die, spawn , progess etc… For the entirety of the game