In Support of Permadeath
Per-ma-death - noun : The player choice or game mechanic wherein a character dies and remains dead permanently. The player cannot or chooses not to reload, revive, or return to a save with said character.
Respawn. Load Last Save. Return to Main Menu. Seeing these options appear within your game is about as routine as the act of putting a game disc into a tray. With this black or blood-spattered screen – which may go as far as to taunt you with the gratuitously redundant message YOU ARE DEAD - comes a brief and fleeting moment of retrospection. You have just failed in a task. Perhaps it was your fault, perhaps it was the fault of the game, and maybe the fates simply decided everything that could go wrong would do just that and would do it simultaneously. You shake your head for a moment, consider what other things you should be doing today, and then, with a shrug, you jump right back into the fight one more time.
This was you, mourning. That was the length and breadth of the only funeral that particular protagonist will ever receive and it lasted all of four seconds. A digital life snuffed short and now forgotten. It sounds brief and perhaps even unsympathetic, but it was actually a quite fitting requiem for a character whose life span began twenty minutes ago after the last time you died horrifically.
Death is the most common element in quite nearly every video game title in existence. So much so, that we craft whole systems to manage how frequently we perish. Save files, check points, autosaves, save states. The culture of gaming makes one assumption almost unanimously. You will die. A lot. We accept that, because we need consequences for our actions and as difficulty increases we encounter more situations where these consequences shape the decisions we make.
It’s for this very reason that I find the concept of permadeath so interesting. Not just because the act of playing through a game with only a single life is an invariably difficult challenge. It most certainly is. Rather, just by applying this rule to your game, you’ve taken away perhaps the most attractive and fundamental quality of the entire spectrum of video games. Immortality. Once you’ve taken up the challenge, there’s no bigger consequence. You risk losing it all, hours of work, at the mercy of one bad call or a random fluke.
All your effort and enthusiasm and empathy are no longer spread across particular moments, but all come down to that one singular character. His or her fate is now your own too and, from that, the distance between player and character is that much shorter. You are no longer learning from deaths and mistakes, but adapting to the struggle of existence. Every enemy now poses a real and dangerous threat. The result of each decision is harshly absolute. Mercy is a term by which your game no longer abides.
Permadeath is different than your typical stakes-raising difficulty options. It’s a challenge that is purely player enforced. Besides requiring a specific virtual masochism, it also means is that the game can’t adapt to it. It can’t take into account your struggle and adjust the enemies or levels according. It can’t be Left 4 Dead’s AI director. Legions of zombies or henchmen with assault rifles can’t expect you to only have a single life, so they assault the same as they always have; without mercy. The game has no rewards in place for your success and it hasn’t spaced out health and ammo with your cruelly terminal existence in mind.
Admittedly, I can see how this doesn’t sound very appealing. In fact, it runs completely opposite to how most find their enjoyment from their games. For most, the joy of their favorite games isn’t from crippling challenges and brutal consequences. Instead, it’s about escaping these very things in the real world. The joy of gaming comes from winning, getting to be the infallible hero. For the very same reason video games happily offer a multitude of difficulty settings, games are designed with the leeway for everyone to get their kicks from the same framework. But something really powerful can come from upsetting the paradigm of protagonist invincibility.
I still passionately recall tales of playing Fallout: New Vegas with a single life with the same enthusiasm I might tell an exciting story from my own life. I retell the deaths of my mercenary buddies in Far Cry 2 with a twinge of potentially legitimate remorse. The tale of a short-lived permadeath run in Red Dead Redemption becomes an inverted Western, with the hero John Marston struggling against the forces of himself and corruption, but never quite achieving his – well – redemption. Sometimes, it's not even for the emotional or narrative experience. I have a friend who brags about his permadeath completion of Bioshock and that sense of accomplishment is no less remarkable.
But it’s not all about experiences and feelings. Putting all your focus into a single life, even in multiplayer, can have remarkable effects. Normally, the thought of staring down at our comrades through a spectator screen, still in the throes of fun and challenge, troubles us somewhere in our subconscious. So we tighten our grip and phase out the world around us for a few moments. We will ourselves to stay alive. Despite the fact that the death looming over us is imaginary and the blood is pixels, the player experiences the urgency of mortality nonetheless. Not over the loss of life, but of entertainment. Which, in the world of video games, is as paramount as existence.
Restrict the respawns to zero in a game of Rainbow Six terrorist hunt and the results are significantly different than the usual unfocused chaos. Not only do I always do better with the knowledge of only one life looming above me, but all my friends playing alongside me experience an instant change in demanor. The banter fades and is replaced with strategic talk, shouts for back-up, and genuinely mournful bellows upon the death of a comrade. We become not just invested in our own survival, but in keeping our friends alive. Put this sort of imperative to you and your friends' survival and your teamwork will never be stronger.
Increasing the difficulty of a video game in the conventional way is easy. It’s as simple as addiction and subtraction. Add enemies, take away bullets. Add dragons, take away potions. Normally, bolstering a game’s challenge can often be akin to just telling the player to go to the other end of a hallway, giving them a time limit, and then knocking over a few trash cans in their way. But permadeath is something from a different realm entirely.
It doesn't just make things harder, but makes them different. It injects a powerful sense of significance to every action, applies earnest weight to every choice, regardless of how minute. With it, there is no such thing as a small victory. Your sense of success is bolstered not just with every complete level, but with every individual second you reaming breathing. Just getting your character from one room to the next is enough to make you feel like you’ve already won the game. With permadeath, every sigh of relief or involuntary cheer of success is authentic, poignant, and worth all the difficulty of its achievement. So check your skepticism, dust off a favorite game, and give a peramdeath run a go.