Think for a moment about the sheer number of times that you have died in video games. As for myself, the number is surely in the thousands; after gaming for nearly twenty years, the deaths simply pile up like bodies on a cart, losing all sense of definition. Amidst all of this moribundity, what does the loss of life really mean?
The answer is somewhat unfortunate; to the gamer, death means little. We fail, we restart, and we carry on through meaningless failures until we reach the credits, each death standing as nothing more than a low hurdle to be leaped over deftly on our way to a game’s completion.
Yet there are a select few games that return the usually inalienable quality of permanence to death. In them, failure is total – and against all odds, they can offer experiences that meld foreboding with fun. Read on to see why permanent death is something that should be included in far, far more games.
Games have sought to approach permanent death in a variety of ways, but there are, overall, two main approaches that have been used in recent memory. The first of which was utilized by 2008′s Valkyria Chronicles. Squads are formed of unique characters with varied personalities – and most of them can fall in battle and perish completely. The main characters, however, are exempt from this; if they fall, you are forced to restart.
The 2009 action RPG Torchlight takes a somewhat opposite approach in a couple of ways. While Valkyria‘s permanent death was integrated into the main game experience, Torchlight offers it as a completely optional, non-default setting that can be turned on independently of the difficulty level. However, in this case, permanent death applies to the main player-controller character, and if you die, the game ends with no option to continue that character’s story.
Who in their right mind would willingly subject themselves to something like this, especially Torchlight‘s brand of punishment? Based on the desire of some gamers to complete permanent death runs of Far Cry 2, there’s a demand for these sorts of experiences. The possible benefits of permanent death actually stretch farther than you might think.
Most significantly, the constant threat of death - real death – has the power to completely change your approach to a game. This was no more evident than in my time with Torchlight on the hardest difficulty setting. What was originally a relaxing point-and-click affair turned into a tense, nigh-Herculean journey. Every enemy suddenly became a threat, and bosses were to be conquered rather than casually slain. In essence, it felt like an entirely different game.
And while the possibility of your own death is a constant source of worry, each death that you bring about becomes far more rewarding. In games similar to Torchlight, killing quickly becomes a routine, and smiting your enemies rarely feels as if you’ve overcome, well, anything at all. The entire existence of enemies seems to be devoted to nothing more than dying and adding to their slayer’s stats.
But when those enemies are given the power to kill you – to really kill you – everything changes. They’re no longer meaningless lemmings to slog through. They’re individual triumphs, varying in intensity but steadfast in their significance.
Lastly, the connections made to characters are instantly stronger. This is far more apparent in Valkyria Chronicles: a game where characterization is at the forefront of the experience. Each of these characters is under your control, and when things go poorly in battle and one of your squad members dies, it’s on you. Your failure has led to the death of a soldier, perhaps someone you liked. Knowing this brings about a far stronger connection to each character. You’ll hold onto them far more strongly when they can disappear completely due to your negligence.
Yet for each one of these benefits, there is a potential drawback. For one, while the possibility exists to completely change your approach to a game, this isn’t always a change that gamers want to make. The plodding pace required for such careful play styles isn’t something that all gamers are willing to devote their time to.
Related to this is the extreme frustration that can come along with permanent death; it’s akin to losing that 30-hour save on your memory card. When your character disappears, so does your progress, and your journey to complete a game has to start back at its genesis. And how many people realistically have time for that, especially in games where the experience will be identical each time?
There are also plenty of game types in which this approach could never work. Imagine, for instance, permanent death in the Call of Duty series, full of its infinite enemy respawns, highly scripted design, and sudden, unavoidable deaths. If permanent death were inserted as an option in this sort of game, the experience would benefit little, and be hurt plenty. Being forced to abandon your progress after a lucky grenade exploded at your feet is about the worst idea I can think of.
There’s been a long standing debate about permanent death in MMOs. Star Wars Galaxies famously enabled permanent death for any character that became a Jedi: a process that was a massive time commitment. Everything went south once masses of players began to gang up on Jedi, effectively wiping out weeks of progress – and relatively easily, too, thanks to some cheap tactics. This eventually led the developers to make some massive changes, even going so far as allowing people to choose a Jedi from the start.
Obviously, this was a horribly flawed idea. Other MMOs have created servers or modes devoted to permanent death, though none have experienced much success. Everquest even gave a shot to permanent death servers in an extremely short-lived experiment.
So, what will make permanent death options succeed? The answer is in the nomenclature: optionality. Any game that forces permanent death upon the player is doomed to be a failure, as this is simply a struggle that not all gamers are willing to endure. It’s a thin line. I would be loath to purchase a game where permanent death were mandatory, yet I would be intrigued by any game that included it as an option.
Divorcing the option of permanent death from the overall difficulty is a brilliant decision that makes Torchlight’s mode far more manageable. For instance, choosing the permanent death mode and easy difficulty gives the player that dread of death without constantly waving the reaper’s scythe in the player’s face. Those who would opt to wave their members at the reaper can attempt those higher difficulties.
There’s no way that permanent death will find its way into every game; it doesn’t need to. Instead, developers should simply have freedom to experiment with the possibilities. Mass Effect, given optional permanent death, could be incredibly rewarding, adding not only to the difficulty of the game, but also to the sense of accomplishment that they player has upon completing it.
Similarly, picture a Silent Hill game that was frightening not only because of the atmosphere and storyline, but also because a very real death could be right around the corner.
While the right implementation in the right kind of game, permanent death could add an entirely new layer of depth to a lot of game experiences. It’s certainly not for everyone, and even those who enjoy it will likely do so in moderation. Yet I can’t help but think of all of the wonderful possibilities, from those mentioned above to those I cannot yet fathom.
Though our characters may fade as we lay their corpses to rest, our time with them will bore deeply into our memories. Though frustration may make us threaten to abandon these fragile characters, their triumphs will justify our many failures. And while accessibility and mass-appeal will always eclipse those elements branded “hardcore,” at least in the public’s eye, I hope that more developers will see new life for their games in this wretched brand of death, even if it is something as simple as a small check box accompanied by a frank warning:
Death is permanent.