The lights are on
There is no shortage of death in video games. You witness myriad enemies succumb to defeat, and the good guys fall as well. In a well-written narrative, the loss of a close ally or vulnerable friend elicits emotions not commonly found in other media. In rare cases, developers have even forced you to die vicariously through the protagonist. As the player, it’s disconcerting when you realize that you have no control over the lives of your characters or comrades. Being the governor of a game’s story, the developer decides who lives and who dies.When the developer hands that responsibility over to the player though, the response is something entirely different. Gone is the helpless feeling that comes from having no control. You have the power to prevent the deaths of your beloved characters, and when they’re gone - it’s permanent. By using permanent death, games impart something unique: guilt.In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, this mechanic influences every decision you make. If you are the driver, then permadeath is the person in the back seat with a gun to your head. From simple move commands to global satellite positioning, every choice carries weight due to the extreme consequences. Permadeath is a formula that, when done right, succeeds in creating a suspenseful atmosphere in numerous games. Progression And The Brick Wall In Its WayNot only is losing a soldier in XCOM emotionally draining, but it’s a tactical setback as well. You pour hundreds of credits into new armor and items, while the time required for promotions makes them investments in themselves. Losing an upper-tier colonel with abilities that saved rookies on multiple occasions creates a gap in your roster that takes time to fill. This makes progression all the more important because the newly gained abilities can prevent their own future loss.The Diablo games give players the option of having permadeath with Hardcore mode. In action-RPGs, where the tide can turn at any second, this mode demands split-second decisions and complete skill mastery. Experience and exploration become much more important without the possibility of respawning, and every quest feels much tenser. Should you die, the character is erased and you’re forced to start over at level one with no items at your disposal. This loss of items and abilities is even more effective than in XCOM, considering how unique each character can be. Whereas a leveled XCOM soldier can be replicated in a handful of missions, you need dozens of hours to recreate an elite Barbarian in Diablo. Nothing drives home the importance of decision making and resourcefulness like the looming threat of death. It’s one thing to be annoyed at the prospect of respawning when you’re close to mission completion, but to be permanently erased from the game makes you appreciate progression so much more.Emotional AftermathIn games with more emphasis on their narratives, characterization becomes paramount when extracting lasting emotions from the player. You wouldn’t mind being responsible for someone’s death in Mass Effect 2 as much if a bond hadn’t been created beforehand. Completing loyalty quests, entering romantic relationships, and holding engaging conversations with characters creates an attachment to the NPC that ensures the end is all the more draining. You can even argue the point that the actual life or death decision isn’t as important as the characterization leading up to it. You feel regret because that character would have been helpful in later, but you feel guilt because you actually cared for them. Much like Mass Effect, Heavy Rain is fundamentally based off of its characters and the decisions surrounding them. However, in this case you’re in charge of your own life more so than the lives of others. Playing four different people involved in a series of grisly murders, you’re presented with difficult decisions that convey emotions ranging from fear to extreme discomfort. In several cases, your choices can result in one of their deaths. Their absence affects you emotionally because you controlled them, and not merely interacted with them. Shock ValueGamers have become accustomed to second chances. The wide majority of modern games have, at the very least, implemented a respawn system that removes that sense of risk before making a difficult decision. Who cares about the consequences if you can reload a save in mere seconds? To be transported back to the heyday of arcades where one wrong move meant game over means nostalgia for some, and discomfort for others. Permanent death in games is a big selling point for those looking for a fresh experience. The risk of each situation paired with the potential guilt of bad decisions creates emotions largely absent from the majority of video games. Shocking people is becoming harder and harder in video games, but the guilt that comes from a character dying under your watch drives it home every time.
Not many games can do permadeath right. Heavy Rain is one of the games that do it right.
Permadeath does add a shock value when some of your highest ranked and best soldiers died on the battlefield in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
RIP Lt. Elisabeth "Le Smokey" Bernard- 5/17/15
the only french soldier who never surrendered. you will be forever missed... =(
I had no idea that XCOM had this. I was sitting on the fence regarding buying XCOM now I have just purchased the game because of it, I love the emotional impact these mechanics have in gaming. More of it please devs.
I'm just not a fan of people taking clips of bullets during gameplay like it's nothing, but then dying with a single shot in a cutscene.
Great article Mike, hopefully some game developers somewhere are reading this and taking notes. One can only hope!
Another great example regarding permanent death is the Walking Dead. The choices you make, will affect who lives and dies.
In a medium where restarts and load checkpoints is all too common, permanent death of either the protagonist or his/her compatriots is a welcome reprieve from the vacuous approach to death. When the time of death's visitation and upon who is contingent upon on the players decisions, the games replayability, depth, and immersion multiplies ten fold. I dare not suggest all games can or ought to take advantage of this concept, much like QTE's, it has its proper place but not all games should employ the mechanic. Video games is not just about entertainment but any medium its about immersion into the world created. Permanent death makes the consequence, either good or bad, that much more pressing on ones decision and therefore, more relatable to reality that our conscious/soul/persona meets every day, no respawn--whats done is done.
I've been a fan of permadeath since I first played Fire Emblem on my GBA. Taught me a valuable lesson about tactics and emotional attachments.
You want to really feel the consequences of your actions? Try a Nuzlocke run on any Pokemon game. When your starter/favorite teammate dies from a critical hit or lack of planning, it's the worst feeling in the world.
Reminds me of all the stress the Fire Emblem games put on me!
I honestly think the Fire Emblem series is the best example of a permadeath game because of how helpful the units can be, and how attached you become to them. They're personalities are always charming, and you never want to lose any of them. That makes you think just a little bit more when you're about to move a unit.
I could see gameplay permadeath being included in an MMO or in hardcore difficulty in an action adventure or RPG But its not something that should be forced on people and chances are if you include it in to many action adventures, shooters, or RPGs with otherwise strong narratives you may turn people away from very great games.think about playing assassin's creed 3 with permadeath gameplay having to completly start the game from the being every single time you die, to have to watch the character say the same thing a 100 times over would be infuriating to those of use who like to follow the story just as much as we like to play the game especially if you are near game completion. Permadeath should be something you can switch on/off in any game. I probably would not even touch permadeath until a second playthrough. sorry for typing too much I'm just trying to get a point across
Awesome article. Couldn't agree more.
I don't think I've played many games with permadeath beside Mass Effect but I always get angry when my game doesn't save and I have to start over from up to an hour before. I hate that stuff so I don't think permadeath is good for me.
I'm a fan of games that have permadeath. I think it adds a higher replay value and makes your choices that much more important. When 'Game Over' really means game over, you don't act reckless.
Wonderful article Mike! I do enjoy the permadeath feature in games. It adds extra stress and pressure to make sure and keep everyone safe. XCOM has been my game of choice lately, and I have to second and third guess all my maneuvers before sending out my soldiers to keep them as safe as possible.