Permadeath- Taking Games to the Next Level

As those of you who have read my Until Dawn review will know, I really dug it. I think that what made it really fun in that first play through was the sense of tension that came from knowing that any of my characters might die from any misstep. Decisions had to be made carefully and QTEs heeded, or else boom: character gone. No checkpoints, no take-backs. Playing the first time through trying in vain to keep everyone alive, it struck me that the potential sudden and permanent death of any of my characters hung over me sword of Damocles- like, essential to the experience and tension.

Not that permadeath is a new concept at all. Until Dawn plays very much like a David Cage game, and Heavy Rain featured multiple POV characters who could die. There’s a good argument to be made that any game that boots you to the start after losing all of your lives counts as a kind of permadeath game, although classically the term applies to games that don’t even give you multiple lives, like hardcore mode Diablo or The Binding of Isaac (or any number of roguelikes, for that matter).

It’s fairly obvious why permadeath adds so much tension to a game. While checkpoints allow you to endlessly reload the game to try again, permanent death kicks you right to the start of the game, which can be a real kick in the teeth if you’re a few hours in. This gives the player a mechanically-driven dread of the punishment death, which leads to a deeper connection with the player-character as the will to keep them alive grows stronger.

The sheer frustration of permadeath is often illustrated in the length of games which utilise it- The Binding of Isaac, FTL, and Rogue Legacy can be completed in around an hour. Obviously Diablo’s hardcore mode is something of an outlier in terms of game length, but it’s a game in which you can more reliably gear up as you go along, while the roguelikes employ some level of randomness to upgrade drops.

Perhaps the key to effective permadeath is to be one of two games, then- either be a short, eminently repayable game with a degree of difference between playthroughs, with differing levels and upgrade pickups a’la roguelikes, or a longer, meatier experience with an emphasis on careful approach to gameplay and preparation, a’la Diablo. However, Until Dawn and Heavy Rain are somewhat outside these two classifications, because they’re a decent length at 10-15 hours each, with fairly stable (albiet branching) sequences of events.

Despite its length, I think Until Dawn is very well designed to be played multiple times to experience the story in different ways, with different characters dying and surviving. The permadeath drives the tension in the first playthrough, but keeps you on your toes on subsequent playthroughs- don’t mess up, or Character Y will die again and you won’t get to see how they play into That Thing Later On! I think that if it were slightly shorter, say 5-6 hours, the story wouldn’t have been as satisfyingly twisty, although I would very much like to see a game in the same vein with a simpler story and more emphasis on branching storylines based off what happens to the characters. Like a kind of mix between Until Dawn and The Stanley Parable.

But what of longer games? A brilliant use of permadeath is used in Fire Emblem and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as well as Mass Effect 2. These games feature casts of characters that you can learn to love, or at least appreciate, as you spend time with them and level them up. While the permanent death of a character in these games won’t remove your ability to finish the game, these characters are either useful (in the case of XCom), or have been around for long enough that you’ll find them endearing as characters and want to see them live through adversity. I remember being so shocked and dismayed at a character’s death in Mass Effect 3, that I had to walk away from the game to refrain from reloading my save rather than living with my decisions.

Permadeath might be rarely implemented, but I think that it really sets apart games that make use of the mechanic. It really does add something to the gaming experience; a sense of panic and accountability for your actions. It’s always an interesting option to play with, and I’d like to see how developers can develop the concept further. Perhaps a game that when you die, you become a ghost for the rest of the game? Or one where you go to hell and the story changes to being about avoiding Satan’s lava hot tub party? Or one where you have to sit through five hours of footage of your own father disapprovingly berating you?

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