Thoughts on Permadeath


I hate to return to this topic so soon, but it has been awhile since I’ve blogged and I’ve been reading a bit about it. Back here I blogged about why playing roguelike games can be a gratifying and important experience if you’ve never tried it before. I want to step back from the genre in general and focus in on just one feature.

Recall that permadeath (shorthand for “permanent death”) is a game mechanic where once you die you must start the whole game over again. Even within hardcore roguelike gamers and game developers there has been a lot of controversy surrounding this mechanic. Isn’t it unfair if someone puts in 12 hours of work, and then a random event outside of their control makes them start all over again? Right at the very end. It seems punishingly unfair.

Well, let’s consider a thought experiment which I think exemplifies the purpose of permadeath. Imagine you are going to a job interview, but you live in an alternate universe where you can set a clock and time travel back to that point in time. You set the clock right before the interview. You go into the interview. You are way too passive and modest and some other person that exhibited more ambition gets the job.

No big deal. You travel back in time, and you take the opposite approach. You go all out with your risky self-promotion. You seem like a jerk that won’t fit the team, so you don’t get the job. You travel back in time. Each time you try new things based on the feedback you got from your last attempt. You never feel any pressure to get it right, because you can keep trying until something works. There’s no real penalty for doing poorly. Finally, you get the job.

This is exactly how save points work in a game. Maybe in real life you think this type of thing would be great, but notice what it does to a game. All of a sudden, a challenge presented in the game that you were supposed to think about and develop the skills to get past no longer functions in that way. You lose all motivation to try to get it right the first time. It is no longer challenging, because you can keep repeating it and seeing what went wrong until you calibrate a success. You are virtually guaranteed to be successful.

This type of success can feel mildly rewarding, because you still made progress and got better until you were good enough to get through that part. But you have no sense of real danger or excitement or real accomplishment when you play this way. What does success even mean if there is no risk of failure? You could try act as if you didn’t save, but it won’t create the same effect. The point of the permadeath mechanic is to get your blood pumping with excitement that if you make one wrong move you could lose everything. It is far more exciting to be living on the edge like that.

Permadeath makes you take your time and plan your strategies carefully. You can’t just blindly spam a bunch of attempts until something works. When you get good enough at the game to succeed, it is a real success. Puzzles and challenges are actually puzzles and challenges in the sense that you need to solve them to get through them. There’s no guess and check.

There are of course varying degrees of save points, but in the extreme scenario above, I think the case is clear. It is hard to get the gamer to experience any sense of danger or reality with excessive save points. On the other extreme, permadeath tends to elicit anxiety and fear just walking around an empty corridor. In some cases, this may not be desirable for your game.

I’m not saying one way or another is better or worse. I just wanted to explain what I think the game mechanic’s purpose is. Sometimes it is quite inappropriate. There have been tough platformers that I never would have gotten very far in if they had permadeath. This is to say that even though I find permadeath to be a very rewarding way to play a game, it doesn’t serve its purpose in some genres.

To tie this back to roguelikes, I think this is really the perfect genre for permadeath. The reason is that roguelike games tend to have a massive amount of randomly generated content. Your starting stats, items, character, etc are all random. The rooms and level layouts are random. The enemies you fight are random.

This means that when you die and start all over again, you aren’t just repeating the exact same thing over and over again. Each playthrough gives you a totally new game. Permadeath would be quite tedious and obnoxious if you had to keep playing the same content over and over again. I think that would be a misuse of it. Save points serve a good purpose in that case. If you’ve demonstrated you can get through a certain part, why make the player do it again if it is exactly the same?

If you want to see other opinions, here is a 203 comment discussion on the topic.

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