Permadeath just won’t die, but what’s behind the popularity of such a punishing mechanic?

Games in which death really is final can rob players of tens of hours of hard work. So why are they so enduringly popular?

Some say life’s too short. It is when you’re playing Spelunky. Our most recent journey into Derek Yu’s mines ended in tragedy when a run that had seen us grab a jetpack, climbing gloves, a shotgun and a pitcher’s mitt was cruelly cut short by an astonishing chain reaction. We set a bomb, which blasted a rock into an arrow trap, which fired an arrow, which fell on our head, knocking our dazed body onto a sacrificial altar. We had to watch as we sacrificed ourselves to the goddess Kali.

Still, it went better than our most recent attempt to save humanity in XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s Ironman mode. This one’s embarrassing. Hoping to rescue as many humans as possible during a terror mission in Canada, we arrogantly rushed our star character, a sniper, ahead without scouting the playing field. The sniper strolled right into a Muton ambush, and the aliens followed up by slowly picking off the rest of our team.

Both of these experiences share common themes. Each starts with us not planning carefully enough. But both are compounded by the inescapable nature of our mistake: neither game offers us a chance to undo the damage, to rewrite the past. In Spelunky, we’re sent back to the start of the mines without any of the gear we’d collected. In XCOM, we have to carry on playing with five fewer soldiers and one thoroughly unimpressed North American nation threatening to withdraw its funding. One game carries on, the other restarts, but death has permanent consequences in both.

When we talk about permadeath, we’re really talking about permanent consequences for mistakes. Since games tend to be concerned with conflict, those consequences often manifest as death, but any unrecoverable mistake could apply. Mismanage multiple aspects of XCOM’s strategy metagame and you will slowly lose the support of eight nations, prematurely ending the experience. In practice, we’re also talking about how a game handles data: consequences are only permanent if you can’t simply reload an old save.

The idea of irredeemable failure might be anathema to many modern videogame developers, but it’s rooted deep in the history of the form. “Boardgames, card games: those games all have lose conditions, especially if you’re playing against other people. Someone has to lose,” says Jake Solomon, director of 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game whose no-reloads-allowed Ironman campaign mode sparked a resurgence of interest in videogames with permanent punishments. “Strategy games came out of that more traditional game experience. The goal is to learn a new system, and develop expertise at it. That’s why permadeath is so affecting, because if you don’t have it, you know the game isn’t authentic. If a strategy game didn’t let you lose, you wouldn’t feel any joy at eventually beating the system.”

XCOM’s Ironman mode forces you to play on when carelessness or chance rob you of a soldier. Perform particularly badly in a mission and you can return to base with all of your most elite troops in body bags

The underlying threat of a fail state, in other words, adds tension to your XCOM games and weight to decisions, just as the permanent death of your troops forcibly reminds you of the possibility of total failure. “The fear of losing creates tension,” says Solomon, “but on the opposite side, that creates the exhilaration of winning.”

Any game with permanent death can cash in on this simple equation, and roguelikes have been doing so for years, recently spawning a number of genre-splicing descendants. Spelunky is a platformer of uncommon drama because a flubbed jump really can be fatal. FTL: Faster Than Light captures all the excitement of a space opera because you play in the knowledge that your entire crew really can die. Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve is a survival game genuinely about survival because death means starting from scratch in a freshly generated landscape. What all these games have in common is a dash of procedural generation. Not only does this mean that players aren’t able to predict the threats heading their way, it softens the impact of the inevitable restart.

Restarting is, of course, the downside of permadeath. The wearying feeling that, after all you’ve just achieved, you have to start over again. Avoiding repetition is why indie developer Tom Francis worked the opposite of permadeath into Gunpoint, which autosaves every few seconds. Despite removing the sense of threat you might find in Spelunky, Francis argues that the ability to instantly restart and try something different in a sense achieves the same result as Derek Yu’s game.

“I’ve always hated having to repeat myself in games, so I was pretty determined never to make the player replay anything they’d already done well,” Francis explains. “I think Derek Yu has the exact opposite philosophy to me. I’ve heard him complain that Mark Of The Ninja’s checkpoints are too regular for him to get invested in the game, whereas for me they’re not regular enough. But with Spelunky, he’s managed to satisfy both of us: extremely high stakes for death, but no repetition when you restart. [Death] changes everything from level structure down to individual jumping puzzles.”

FTL: Faster Than Light

If your ship is destroyed in FTL, you’ll have to start over. But on the upside, you’ll be offered new ships to try on your next attempt, so the game doesn’t become repetitive

Other games have found different solutions to the dispiriting slump of a thrilling run followed by a restart. FTL, for instance, offers new ships for the player to unlock, altering the starting parameters of a run and requiring you to build your tactics around your new vessel’s abilities.

One studio has come up with an even more drastic solution to the complications of permadeath: an RPG-levelling system that stretches the definition of ‘roguelike’ to its limits. Cellar Door Games’ Rogue Legacy is a procedurally generated platformer that, on the surface at least, shares plenty of DNA with Spelunky. You die, restart from scratch, and the world reformulates itself to render previous strategies moot. There’s a twist, however: a set of upgrades paid for with the loot you grab on each run, which help you make each generation of adventurer hardier and more powerful than the last.

“We like permadeath because it adds a strong sense of consequence to the player’s actions. Strong not just in the sense of punishing, but in the sense that it’s appropriate,” says Rogue Legacy designer Teddy Lee, who also believes that randomisation and reformulation are crucial parts of a functioning permadeath mechanic. “At the same time, though, your standard roguelike is a little too punishing for us. We didn’t like the binary nature of you die, [then] you start from square one. So we tried to make our game more lenient. We actually like to call it a ‘rogue-lite’, but that term never caught on.”

Rogue Legacy’s trick is to randomise your character’s starting powers (and disabilities) in order to underscore the notion you’re playing as a fresh person, even as your upgrades and equipment carry over. It cleverly blends the thrill of permadeath with the compulsive grind of an RPG, but there’s no denying that some of the tension has been diluted. But that’s not a failing, since it’s exactly what Cellar Door had in mind.

“[Diluting the impact of death] was one of the motivating factors for us when we made the game,” Lee says. “Demon’s Souls influenced us a lot in this regard. We thought the way [From Software] handled death in the game was really brilliant. But it was still too punishing for what we wanted, and it also has the effect of discouraging exploration. For our game, we wanted to encourage exploration [and] make a game where dying is fun.”

Rogue Legacy deals with the grind of starting over by giving your character a new, random set of abilities for each playthrough. You also get to keep any gear you collected on your previous run

And dying is fun in Rogue Legacy. It’s the bit where you get to spend money, pick a fresh, distinct character, and plan new strategies. It’s not an endpoint or a fail state.

However, if developers opt for tension over compulsion and wish to preserve the impact of their fail states, they may well run risks along the way. The first of these is simply putting off potential players – people unwilling to invest time in a game that might reject their efforts. Such concerns have led to Nintendo opting to include a permadeath-free Newcomer mode in recent Fire Emblems. “I think that all of the Fire Emblem games are fun,” says Fire Emblem: Awakening director Kohei Maeda, “but a lot of beginner players stay clear of them because they think they are difficult. I think this is a real shame. A big reason for wanting to include this mode was so that those kinds of people could play Fire Emblem too.”

More subtly, permadeath might end up adversely affecting the way players approach a game. When it came to our XCOM experience, we found that while Ironman mode made the overall journey through the game more tense and rewarding, it forced us to rely on conservative tactics. We couldn’t run the same risks, couldn’t experiment, without the safety net of a reload.

“You make a good point,” Solomon says. “What Ironman did was expose some of the problems in the tactical combat. I mean, they aren’t problems necessarily if you play without Ironman on. A very important part of tactical games is the idea of risk and reward. But the stakes were raised so high in Ironman, and the game doesn’t care! You’re like 15 hours into the game, and the game’s like: ‘I don’t give a shit. If you lose this mission and wipe out your squad, you’re probably fucked. That’s the rules.’ So the player can’t evaluate risk on an emotional level; the player has to get dispassionate. The tension is ratcheted up quite a few notches, but the player is going to consistently do the safest thing possible. And if the safest thing possible, the ‘best’ way to play the game, is also the most boring way, that’s not the player’s fault. It’s my fault. I think that Ironman, in the higher difficulty levels, really highlighted some problems in the design that wouldn’t have come out if it wasn’t for the mode.”

It’s hard to blame Solomon and his team for not quite foreseeing the full implications of Ironman, an optional mode and thus not the central focus of the design. Still, it’s interesting to note that forthcoming expansion Enemy Within will scatter crucial resources over its maps, a ploy seemingly designed to lure cautious Ironman players out of cover. But if Solomon had the luxury of designing his game exclusively around the notion of permadeath, how would it change? Would it be easier to accommodate the inevitability of player failure?

“Oddly enough, no. We’d have to make the best way to play the game to be to take risks. And in XCOM, taking risks usually means moving. But it wouldn’t be easier. Because in roguelikes – and Ironman XCOM has a lot in common with roguelikes – succeeding isn’t the ultimate goal. The joy comes out of the risk, the struggle, and making it as far as you can. But in order for the game to be interesting, [I’d make it] more like a roguelike, about the struggle, about how far you could make it before you lose.”

Later entries in the Fire Emblem series have a Newcomer mode, which turns off permadeath for players who might otherwise find the mechanic intimidating

Maeda agrees that removing the threat of permadeath fosters a sense of experimental freedom in players: “Since your characters come back when they die [in Fire Emblem’s Newcomer mode], one advantage is that you can play more aggressively or take more risks.”

Permadeath can cause structural and narrative headaches for game designers, too, especially in non-roguelikes. Just how do you write the permanent loss of character into your game? XCOM works because its soldiers have no direct role in narrative sequences, whereas Fire Emblem had to embrace the surreal notion of units you’d lost retiring from battle and yet appearing in cutscenes.

“In a story-driven game of today, having a lose condition doesn’t make any sense,” says Solomon. “What if you could lose a linear shooter? That’d be horrible, right? Six hours into BioShock Infinite and you lose? That’s why I think lose conditions have become more rare.”

It’s funny that Solomon picks BioShock as his reference point, because Irrational’s series has tried to work death into its fiction while avoiding longterm consequences. Rapture’s Vita-Chambers provided realtime resurrection for players, while BioShock Infinite relies on Elizabeth (and its physics-bending story) to explain why Booker pops back to life each time he dies. Similarly, Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls take place in worlds whose inhabitants are expected to die and be resurrected over and over. Crucially, none of these games’ stories have had to explain why a player character has suddenly disappeared.

Still, two teams have recently tried to blend permadeath with traditional narrative design, and both arrived at similar solutions. Undead Labs’ State Of Decay and Ubisoft Montpellier’s ZombiU are zombie games about communities, not specific player characters. The death of whoever you’re controlling just means a subtraction from the group, and control then switches to another survivor.

ZombiU presents yet another variation on permadeath: when your current character perishes, you’re simply switched to another survivor, who can then carry on the story

“[Writing ZombiU] was the toughest challenge I’ve faced in over ten years of writing for games,” says story design director Gabrielle Shrager. “It took… the whole production team to try to find solutions for all the ‘But what happens if you die here?’ issues, which were sometimes mind-bendingly complicated.”
ZombiU’s clever solution is to turn its disposable player characters into proxies for an offscreen puppeteer, the Prepper, who sends them out to do his work, thus ensuring continuity of purpose and an overarching story. “I created the Prepper character and the survivors’ notes to establish a link and reinforce continuity between the survivors who all fall under this mysterious character’s influence,” Shrager says. “Without a main player character, you need to embrace your main NPCs.”

Even when you allow for this, disposable procedurally generated characters are never going to have the personality and charm of, say, The Last Of Us’s Joel and Ellie, especially when it comes to cosmetic details. As Shrager admits: “Our character assemblage system produced avatars that were less gorgeous than a single player character would’ve been.”

Even though they’re bumping up against narrative limits while trying to allow for designs that make failure more meaningful than just a visit to a loading screen, the designers of these games are embracing the potential of the form. Their games dare to tell different kinds of stories to the vast majority of their peers, where death is just an embarrassing deviation from a script borrowed from Hollywood. More importantly, by working death into their games, these studios are treating failure as something more engaging than just a weak motivation. They’re making it something from which players can learn, an excuse for a fresh start, or an emergent twist in an evolving story of their own.

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