Assigning Weight to Death in Games, Pt. 4: Permadeath

If you’re joining us for the first time, check out Part 1: The Problem and Challenges. If you missed the last entry in the Assigning Weight to Death in Games series, take a look at Part 3: Classes of Assigning Weight.

In the second installment of this series, I mentioned permadeath. I also said that I would cover it in some greater length in a later article. Well, the time for that article has come. So, let’s remind ourselves (not that I think anyone likely needs to): what is permadeath? Well, everybody knows that it’s when death in a game works in such a way that, when the player dies, their character is dead permanently. They aren’t coming back unless the game restarts. Simple, right? Well, I would argue not quite so simple as it seems. Not by a long shot.

The Pros and Cons of Traditional Permadeath

Permadeath, especially at first glance, has some pretty apparent advantages. It easily makes death something frightening for the player and adds to it some serious weight. Other big pros include that it doesn’t need any plot explanations for how the player character comes back, it’s intuitive, and it takes advantage of both fears of permanence and fears of futility. On top of that, a game doesn’t have to work on its checkpoint placement or any related mechanics. Overall, it seems to provide a powerful weight to death with very little investment.

The downsides, however, are rather significant (as I touched on in the second installment). First and foremost, permadeath can easily assign death too much weight. Why would a player invest the tens, hundreds, or thousands of hours in the games we love if all that work was simply going to be wiped away. Many players aren’t even willing to start a game with permadeath, considering the more time they invest, the more they risk losing on a single mistake. Beyond just that, the idea that permadeath is straightforward and simple to employ in a game strikes me as remarkably deceptive. Sure, there’s a lot that you don’t have to worry about, but there’s a trade-off. Namely, getting the difficulty just right becomes even more critical. Obviously, and like most other games, a game with permadeath doesn’t want to be too easy because otherwise it would be boring and would lose player interest. The issue is that, with permadeath, not making the game too difficult becomes far more critical than normal since a single death means beginning again. This can also cost a game its players and isn’t made any simpler by the different skill level of every player. A famous (if somewhat archaic) example of this becoming an issue is Takeshi no Chōsenjō (commonly known as Takeshi’s Challenge). It’s an incredibly difficult game and includes permadeath, resulting (along with many other factors) in it widely considered one of the worst games of all time. One might then conclude that permadeath is confined to be a selectable option for only the most masochistic of players to select, right? Not necessarily.

Making Permadeath Tolerable

I’m sure that some of you have been thinking to yourselves about how you love *insert your favorite game with permadeath* and how the permadeath aspect only adds to the experience. Those of you who feel that way: you’re right, there are definite exceptions. Most obviously we have the roguelike genre of games. While not the most mainstream of games, the genre’s popularity is undeniable. Roguelikes have eight key characteristics agreed upon in the “Berlin Interpretation.” Of the eight, two are particularly relevant to this what we’re discussing. The first is, unsurprisingly, that they use permadeath. The second, and genuinely crucial feature, in my opinion, is that they have random dungeon generation.

Rogue is the namesake of the roguelike genre. The dungeon you see is randomly generated.

Why is that such a key feature? Well, the most typical answer for why it’s important (and indeed the one listed on the Wikipedia page) is that it increases replayability. While true, it’s not quite the answer we’re looking for when viewing it through the lens of this series. The site RogueBasin gets it much closer when it says of the permadeath characteristic that “the random environment makes this enjoyable rather than punishing.” So then, the question is how does it do that?

To answer this, we have to once again return to what makes permadeath so “punishing.” More than anything, it stems from the fact that the player’s efforts are rendered futile by their death. Then, being forced to play through that which they have already played serves as a reminder of that futility and failure. With little or no new challenges to face or content to explore until passing the point at which they previously died (assuming they can even achieve that), the player is likely to become irritated, frustrated, and bored as a plank of wood. Roguelikes, through making the world random, along with complexity and exploration/discovery (two more characteristics from the Berlin interpretation), continuously provide new experiences for the player, even after they have to begin the game anew. The lesson to be learned is that by providing a new and engaging experience every “run” of a game, the game can employ permadeath in such a way that it assigns solid weight to death without feeling overly punishing. Put simply, a game can have permadeath manifest a players failure without rubbing their nose in it.

Beyond Roguelikes

So, can permadeath be made less punishing than even in a roguelike? I would say yes, as long as you’re willing to look at it in a particular way. When it comes to roguelikes, a game (that is to say a linear player experience through the game unbroken by restarting and possibly continued across multiple sessions) is referred to as a run. If we look to multiplayer games, there are many titles and game modes which have permadeath if we’re willing to look at a single round/game as sort of equivalent to a run. For instance, in the air realistic mode of Warthunder, when the player dies, it’s permanent. Well, at least in the context of that one game, or “run”, which Warthunder calls a battle. The player then proceeds to go and find another battle, much in the same way that a player can start a new run in a roguelike.

The parallels don’t end there. Much in the same way that roguelikes use randomization along with complexity, exploration, and discovery to provide a unique and engaging experience every run, the experience of these multiplayer games is made unique and engaging each round. The difference is simply that the unique nature is produced by the different players in each game making different decisions and normally having different equipment and/or abilities (often along with a random selection from one of a few premade maps). So then, what makes the permadeath in these games (generally) even less punishing than a roguelike? Two things.

First, there’s the time investment. A single battle in Warthunder can last a fair few minutes, but, for the most part, a game or round of the average multiplayer game with this kind of permadeath isn’t going to last more than ten or twenty minutes. By contrast, a run in an average roguelike could last far longer. As mentioned earlier in the article, permadeath becomes more and more impactful the more a player has invested in a game, so by making rounds short these games keep investment on the line relatively low.

Unlocking new vehicles is ultimately the goal in Warthunder

Second, an individual game or round of your average multiplayer game isn’t a massive deal. This is partially due to that low time investment, but there’s more to it than that. With these multiplayer games, winning any individual game often isn’t really the point. Many titles include a sort of meta-game or goals which progresses from individual rounds. Sticking with Warthunder as our example, the actual purpose of the game (at least to my eye) isn’t winning a single battle or even increasing relative skill or ranking as it is in many multiplayer games. Instead, it’s to continuously research, unlock, and obtain new vehicles. To do this, the player plays through individual battles in order to earn research points and Silver Lions (the currency), so they can progress in this higher level of the game. Because of this, dying in an individual Battle isn’t off-putting even if it is something I want to avoid in order to earn more of the resources I need.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article made you look at permadeath a bit closer than you otherwise would. This week you should have picked up on how the often overly punishing nature of permadeath can be mitigated to various extents through things like making each time playing a unique experience, keeping investment low, and making winning or losing an individual round or game not so big a deal. Clearly, permadeath is more complex than one might initially give it credit for. So complex, in fact, that there’s even more to discuss in the next installment. For those interested, the next installment should be out Wednesday, March 13. Thanks for reading.

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