Perma Death

Perma death, or permanent death, is a difficult concept for many gamers.  Some series use the death of characters to enhance the storyline, but they then bring the characters back in interesting ways in order to appease the gamers who grow connected to the characters through the story.  Games like Demon Souls and Dark souls actually over use death to frustrate the player and allow for more difficult gameplay.

And then there are games like Pokemon that are at such an easy difficulty that it is rather rare for an experienced gamer to “die.”  When games like this are created and overplayed, like they are, players get creative in order to enhance their gaming experience.  And to enhance the difficulty.

Games like those within the Fire Emblem series have perma death already set up.  For most of the series, gamers have played to keep all of their characters amongst the living and thus they’ve made the game more difficult, but they also have a much stronger connection to their teams.  Gamers who play these games often reset after a character’s death and will play a level over and over just to make sure that their characters all make it through.  When gamers like those who play Fire Emblem, and create such a connection with their characters, play games like Pokemon they tend to find the game too easy for them.  As such they invented a perma death system on one’s honor.  A system known as Nuzlocking.  A nuzlock is a type of gameplay for the Pokemon series in which there are special conditions for which Pokemon in an area can be caught and that when those Pokemon are caught, they are subject to being released or placed within a box, never to be taken out again, so as to create the conception of that character dying off and being unrevivable.


On the other hand, there are people who hate the perma death systems and as such game developers have begun to move away from perma death.  Fire Emblem: Awakening, the newest game in the Fire Emblem series has been given a screen at the beginning of the game, before any gameplay and apart from the difficulty setting screen, that allows the player to choose Classic mode, where perma death is a thing, and Casual, where any characters who die come back at the end of the chapter.

I’ve always been a fan of the perma death system myself and I love the difficulty of keeping my characters alive and I enjoy the sort of connection I create with my characters.  I know many of my friends are the same way.  I decided to do my post on this subject because of the new Fire Emblem, but also because its a very fun and very difficult concept to wrap my mind around.  I understand the idea of making the character’s death within the game more real and more powerful and the connection that permanent death has to the real world, but what I don’t personally understand is the non-perma death games that attempt to create a very Earth-like world and/or a very realistic setting and yet they allow a character to die and rise again like some sort of Zombie.

Games like Borderlands 2 allow for the characters to die over and over again and be revived by machines owned by the bad guys.  And yet, at certain parts in the storyline people perma die.  And when you kill the head bad guy, he stays dead.  EVEN THOUGH HE OWNS THE BRING PEOPLE BACK TO LIFE MACHINES!  So I’m wondering what you all think.  Is perma death too difficult?  Is it fun?  Do you feel more connected to the characters when you play a perma death game or no?  And how do you think the games we’ve played fit in?

  18 comments for “Perma Death

  1. bharris
    February 14, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    I think that the main dichotomy here is one about gameplay vs. narrative. It’s the difference between a game like Pokemon, where literally none of your Pokemon have any relevance to the “narrative”, and a game like Dragon Age where if losing HP in battle meant permanent death, the entire story would be ruined, or at a minimum inescapably altered. The beautiful thing about video games is that they bring together so many different kinds of people, but that also is a huge drawback in a lot of ways. Games like Fire Emblem and Pokemon, I would assume, draw their audiences largely from their gameplay. These games emphasize gameplay above all else, and the perma-death aspect is made so much easier by that aspect.

    Games like Half-Life or Dawn of War 2 try to keep their narratives and gameplay relatively distinct from one another, and this is a symptom of bringing literary and film-style narrative conventions into the gaming sphere. There are plenty of gamers that play games to get what is essentially an interactive storybook or film; to say that they got a shitty story because they’re unfamiliar with a particular gameplay genre is, at least to me, a little unfair, especially when you’re selling your game based on that story.

    A huge reason for this is also the limits of technology, as well: even games that pride themselves on diverging storylines based on narrative-distinct choice gameplay, like conversation branches and interrupts, has a limit to how much the developers can and want to implement. If you were to add perma death into the gameplay of Mass Effect 1, then a player could very well end up having Ashley and Kaidan die, which makes the later choice of allowing one of these to live while the other dies wasted. This would be yet another story branch that would need to be continued through the rest of the trilogy. I would love to see a choice-based game that implemented perma-death, but to do so may go even beyond technological limitations and enter the realm of human limitations.

    Just to be clear, I don’t believe any kind of game is any more “real” or relevant than any other. Video games are among the most diverse forms of art that exist, and rather than turning any discussion into a pissing contest about how Nintendo games are the last real games because they eschew any sort of narrative depth, for example, I’d rather discuss all kinds of games’ strengths.

    • Dylan Tibert
      February 14, 2013 at 2:34 pm

      I wholeheartedly agree that appreciation for game mechanics and appreciation for a visual storybook experience are two separate appeals, as in that sense they are a dichotomy, but by no means do I believe one needs to be sacrifice one in favor of the other. The thing about Fire Emblem is that it doesn’t just stick to one, the heavy narrative and the complicating game mechanics (in this case permanent death) are woven around each other. In Fire Emblem your army has certain plot intensive characters that are cast out into the fray where they are subject to random death, but the narrative repercussions of this are circumnavigated through a story that changes itself based on which characters are alive to ultimately tell the same story. Sometimes a unit will simply become “injured” rather than deceased if they are killed on the battlefield, but the Fire Emblem games don’t fall back on this too heavily.

      In Mass Effect permanent death becomes problematic because the narrative and “key decisions” were solidified without any such complicating mechanic as permanent death in mind. My point isn’t that Mass Effect should’ve had something like that implemented, but that could have. Sure there are going to be some restrictions, but that shouldn’t encourage developers who care about their story to resign to a lack of challenging mechanics.

      On the other end of the spectrum, I think Nintendo’s effort to focus on mechanics and bypass juicy narratives is stifling as well. A recent example is Paper Mario Sticker Star, which was gutted of all character and story elements that made it’s predecessors lovable in the name of Miyamoto’s ridiculous mechanical purism.

      The boundaries between game mechanics and narrative can be broken down the moment developers stop assuming it to exist. I’m not saying that all games should include both either, but as a gamer the combination of interests is what draws me so heavily to a game like Fire Emblem that at least tries.

  2. Ross
    February 14, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    I really like games with permadeath. It adds more meaning to every decision that you make in the game. Having weight to your decision helps reveals your priorities in game and make you play conservatively farther into the game when you might not otherwise.

    I disagree with categorizing some of the games you mentioned as utilizing permadeath. If you can replay a level to ensure your character survives you have a fallback for failure and not true permadeath. In my person experience, the connection to the character isn’t what makes me want to keep them alive as much as the hassle of having to start a completely new game if I fail.

  3. mkessler
    February 14, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    By replaying a level, I don’t mean that there is a choice in game, but rather that one can shut the system down and reload the game from the last save point. Hard resetting! Using the hardware to do what you want in/with the software.

    • Ross
      February 14, 2013 at 1:31 pm

      Having that save point available to reload from excludes the game from having true permadeath. If it is possible to go back, the purpose of permadeath is negated and the player can make decisions without consequence.

    • bharris
      February 14, 2013 at 1:33 pm

      Is there really a difference?

  4. mkessler
    February 14, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    What game longer than an hour of gameplay, and perma death, doesn’t have a save file?

  5. mkessler
    February 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Ohkay, I shouldn’t have said over an hour, since you came back with a game that takes two to beat. What I mean to say is that games of over the length of a single sit-down type game having their particular concept of a permanent death. The Fire Emblem games can easily take 30 or 40 hours to play it without allowing any characters to die. Without the ability to save there might be 1 person who would play the game through to the end. A game of that length has no way to have a perma death type system without a save file. And if it were to have a true perma death system, I agree that the game should have an in game save immediately when a character dies or when they’re about to, but to my knowledge there are very few if any games like that.

    • Ross
      February 14, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      I’m not disputing that games that long have a difficult time incorporating permadeath. I just think games like Fire Emblem can’t really do anything meaningful with permadeath if it isn’t really permanent.

  6. mkessler
    February 14, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    But it is, unless you cheat and hard reset… Hard resetting is not a part of the game. It’s like the Nuzlock in Pokemon, just a different way to play the game. The game still has perma death, but its the player that changes whether or not its used. and in such a way that defies the actual game

    • Ross
      February 14, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      The game requires the player to enforce their own code of honor by allowing a hard reset to circumvent permadeath. In Pokemon, if you mess up, the first thing you do after messing up is turn off the game and go back to your last save. You can’t really say a game has permadeath built in if it doesn’t enforce death as permanent. By allowing a save file to be loaded after critical changes to game state, the architecture of the game excludes itself from using permadeath without the help of the player. I think having a distinction between player enforced permadeath and gameplay enforced permadeath matters.

  7. Steve
    February 14, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Permadeath is an interesting concept in video games because it actively breaks the original gaming mentality of dying and starting over to get that higher score. In reality, true permadeath is never incorporated into any mainstream video games, as the nature of any such game would be off-putting to the general consumer and would likely result in poor sales. As mentioned in the article, games like Fire Emblem and Dark Souls play with the idea of permadeath to an extent, but, as has been mentioned, the devices can be navigated around, thus making it something the gamer essentially has to buy in to. I wonder if there would be any accessible way to incorporate permadeath into a mainstream video game?

    • Ross
      February 14, 2013 at 2:46 pm

      One Chance was the closest I found to true permadeath. If there is going to be a mainstream game that utilizes permadeath i think it’s pretty clear that It would make sense to have it be shorter and not have to deal with the save file problem. I know FTL lets you save, but overwrites it as soon as you die or win. This let’s you play for more than one sitting but enforces some sense of permadeath. This could help make the game bigger/longer but I’m not sure if the mechanic would scale well to epic AAA type games. It’s an interesting problem.

  8. 302writing
    February 14, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    I do think perma death can have strong emotional consequences, but in Fire Emblem it also cripples your strategic work and prevents you from seeing character conclusions. Since Fire Emblem is largely driven by caring about your characters and developing them, losing them can be frustrating and cause you to fight the system, rather than enjoy it.

  9. Jonathan
    February 14, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    I think that this is an interesting concept in itself, but having a game that revolves around perma-death would not be fun at all. It would be good to have it as an option for people to experience that level of difficulty. Games like Diablo 3 have this and put to good use for the hardcore gamers that like to go above and beyond. Perma-death should be only be used by those who want a challenge because most people want to enjoy a game for what they offer and by adding the perma-death concept into it I think it’s an option that could change the gamers view on whether they should buy the game or not.

  10. Cameron
    February 26, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    The XCOM series handles perma-death in an interesting way, particular the most recent iteration. In the old XCOM games, the standard strategy was one of natural selection. You had a boatload of soldiers with generally randomized stats assigned to them and a borderline unfair difficulty level, so you would weed through your ranks to find the diamonds in the rough with every other unit acting as glorified cannon fodder.

    The most recent XCOM, though, uses death less as a punishment and more as the factor that drives the individual player’s own little story in the game. You don’t really lose your good soldiers that often (unless you’re a terrible commander) and you can’t carry around a whole boatload of expendable rookies like you could in the original games, so death is more of a dramatic moment reinforcing the tension of the game rather than a punishment. It creates an interesting level of play, especially when you realize one of your units is not going to make it back alive and you initiate your own “blaze of glory” strategy.

    I’m honestly surprised more games don’t use the prospect of absolute failure and death to positive effect. I’ve never played Fire Emblem, but I know the tension of knowing your characters can quickly end up on in XCOM’s “Wall of Heroes” can easily manifest as a strange sense of bravery. That is to say: you know that crashed UFO has several dozen angry, mind-controlling aliens and any mistake you make WILL result in casualties, but you’re going there anyway.

  11. patcrosmun
    February 28, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    I think the question of perma-death is really a matter of history, most of the games that include a permanent death feature tend to be RPG’s. This is probably due to the fact that Role Playing Games as a genre trace their roots back to table top games. In a table top or story telling game like D&D or WoD when you die the odds of your character coming back are pretty low (assuming one of your friends isn’t playing a necromancer and is also not a total dick who revives your dead PC as an NPC zombie). When you die in such RPG’s you have to “re-roll” your character or as happens in most cases a new character entirely. Perma-death is only effective and useful in a world where the death of a major character isn’t going to blow the world to hell. I’ve played D&D campaigns where the party had a baby sitter (NPC included by the DM to direct the party) who was central to the story usually (because DM’s are dicks) such characters are lawful stupid and take actions that force the party into situations that they wouldn’t ordinarily undertake for the sake of story. Sadly when the party eventually killed the babysitter (he was a preachy bastard after all) we lost our driving force and the only member of our party who could actually kill the final boss (which we didn’t know) and the story was a bust. The point is that perma-death can destroy plot and if a game’s focus is plot and not the experience of adventure from A-B then permanently killing narrative tools and vessels is probably a bad idea. So if its about being your character and playing them to a T then by all means bring on the perma-death but if you just want the adventure and the story perma-death is not the way to go.

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