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Gone Forever: How And Why Permadeath Affects Us

by Mike Mahardy on Oct 16, 2012 at 12:00 PM

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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 Way

Not 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 Aftermath

In 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 Value

Gamers 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.