Why permadeath is alive and well in video games

Permadeath games are defined by punishment. If you snuff it--or more accurately, when--your character is gone for good. No retrieving your equipment, no reloading an earlier save. It's a ruthless way to play. So what’s behind the popularity of brutal, permanent death?

There's no perfect definition of a permadeath game. They vary from single player survivals like Don't Starve to shooter MMOs like DayZ. The concept drives low-budget roguelikes like FTL and big-budget blockbusters like XCOM: Enemy Unknown. There's even an iOS game called One Single Life that can't be played again once you've died (well, unless you delete then reinstall it).  

There are twists, too. Dark Souls and ZombiU let you retrieve souls / items from your own corpse to reverse failure, while the hacking game Uplink can see your computer permanently 'disavowed' from the fictional in-game network if you’re caught. Permadeath can feature in various genres, then, but it can also be a genre itself. Essentially, permadeath is about being unable to rewrite the past--mistakes carry consequences.

The concept echoes in gaming’s infancy. Before games let you save data, every death meant restarting. In coin-gobbling arcade games such as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Centipede, this was not a quirk of design but the norm.

So why are developers returning to permadeath? For Sir, You Are Being Hunted designer Jim Rossignol, “It heightens excitement. If the player is risking something--in the case of most games the time you have invested to reach a certain point - then taking risks with that investment is more thrilling. If you can just hit a key and get everything back, it's less of a thrill to succeed, and less of a horror to lose.”

And what’s behind its popularity with gamers? “Boredom,” says Rossignol. “Gamers want excitement as much as they want convenience. While there's a strong school of thought that suggests that players shouldn't lose anything and should always be able to reload, there's also a good reason to believe they want to feel the kind of risk and reward you get from, say, gambling.”

This same brand of Permadeath is central to Rust. Its designer Garry Newman explains: “It was important to us in Rust to make it so the characters never left the world. Not only does it make sense in-game, but it also solved a bunch of other gameplay problems we were seeing... like players picking up every item they own before they disconnected, keeping their stuff safe. It adds emergent gameplay, players could create a hotel where they watch over and guard their sleeping buddies for example.”

“I guess ultimately gamers are always on a quest for new and different experiences,” Newman continues. “Permadeath is a new and different experience. We treat the player like shit. They’re not used to that. And they like it.”

So if permadeath games treat gamers like shit, how do they avoid frustrating them? Roguelikes such as Spelunky and Starbound sidestep level repetition by procedurally generating them, while FTL grants new ships upon restarting. Rogue Legacy has its own unique spin. “Permadeath plays a huge role,” says one of the game’s designers Teddy Lee.  “We use a modified version of it though, so it's more like a quasi-permadeath system. You still retain all the gold you gained that run so it's a little more casual. It allowed us to give players all of the benefits you get from permadeath mechanics (i.e. ability to refresh the level layout, meaningful consequence to dying, etc.) while lowering the frustration bar.”  Systems in these games transcend death, altering starting parameters to avoid repetition and ultimately preventing the waste of players’ time.

The unforgiving XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the opposite--hours of progress can be lost in the blink of an eye. You might see your custom-named soldier scrape through countless battles, but if he dies so does the time you spent training him. Actions have repercussions and death is irrevocable. Indeed, permadeath forces you to get good. “The best thing about permadeath is that it encourages mastery of the system,” says Lee. “Because the world (usually) changes every time you die, the player has to understand the rules of the game world and lean on that foundation instead of relying on rote memorization to beat it.”

Permadeath encourages emotional rather than logical thinking. The question when encountering enemies isn’t “How do I take them on?” but “Do I even want to?” This emotional angle powers player action in DayZ. People have been robbed, kidnapped, and even forced to sing at gunpoint. This works precisely because everyone has one life, and just like in the real world, they'll do anything to preserve it.

Some games are a little more lax with permadeath. The likes of Dead Space 2 and 3, and Batman: Arkham Origins, restrict it to separate difficulty modes. Minecraft calls its permadeath mode ‘hardcore’. “This sets the difficulty to the highest possible level, and if you are killed the game will delete your world,” says Minecraft programmer Jens Bergensten. “It's intended for players who enjoy the feeling of unforgiving danger.”

“The best thing is that it puts a lot of extra tension on the experience. Every encounter needs to be taken seriously. The bad thing is that it may add a lot more of trial-and-error gameplay. Surprises and unexpected behaviour become unnecessarily unfair to the player.” Because not everyone responds well to soul-crushing difficulty, the ability to turn off permadeath is sometimes crucial.

Mass-market affairs tend to be more narrative-driven, and this is simply incompatible with permadeath. Heavy Rain’s branching missions, built to facilitate the fact that your character can apparently die at any point, only branch so far. And imagine how dispiriting it would be to restart Uncharted because you died five hours in.

Just how do you write in the possibility of a side character biting the bullet? Mass Effect features the permanent death of squadmates, but dialogue is recycled by stand-ins. Fire Emblem is even more inconsistent, with soldiers who retire on the battlefield still appearing in cutscenes. Not only is permadeath niche and potentially off-putting to a mainstream audience, but it also throws up all manner of narrative headaches.

However, what’s important is that developers are thinking differently about death. It can be more than just an accident--it can be an integral part of the experience. It can encourage emergent drama. It can push players to master new systems. It can increase the bond with your avatar. Permadeath can change the very way you play games. And why not? You know what they say: you only live once.

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  • simplethunder - November 12, 2014 10:01 a.m.

    What??? Day Z has no permadeath. DAY Z You select sex, start a random place without items with a "from scratch" char. When you die you lose your items. And then restart at a random place with a new "from scratch" char, without items. How the hell would day z be permadeath? If day z has permadeath, this would be day z without permadeath You select sex and start at a random place with a new "from scratch" char, without items. When you die you lose your character and start at a random place with same char but without items. WOW its the same fucking thing, basically. If day z has permadeath battlefield 1942 has permadeath.
  • shadowskill11 - March 9, 2014 2:22 p.m.

    I don't know why the writer kept mentioning and showing pictures of Dark Souls in this article. There is no perma-death in the Souls series. When you die you keep all of your items and soul levels(one boss in Demons Souls will de-level you). You drop your souls and humanity where you died. When you respawn everything in that level is alive again and you need to get back to your death spot without dieing again or else you loss those souls and humanity. The term perma-death by its very nature would imply that you would die and be at the character creation screen again ready to start from square one in the tutorial stage with nothing.
  • g1rldraco7 - March 7, 2014 9:40 p.m.

    At least it makes you use your brain, but still torturing gamers isn't nice.
  • BladedFalcon - March 7, 2014 10:08 a.m.

    Okay, I see the writer of this article re-wrote and amended that part that flat out stated that Dark Souls had perma-death, thanks for that, and I appreciate it, however, there is still a part that uses Dark Souls as an example, and it kinda bothers me still: "There are twists, too. Dark Souls and ZombiU let you retrieve souls / items from your own corpse to reverse failure." I don't see how these examples can be considered a "twist" of permadeath, if they go against the very concept of permadeath to begin with. I know this article makes the point that there are different types and applications of permadeath, but unless I am mistaken, the whole idea behind the concept is that it's a PERMANENT DEATH, meaning that there isn't, or shouldn't be any way to reverse or save stuff from your past run or mistakes, if you can do that, then how can it still be called a permanent death? Focusing on Dark Souls again, the only thing that happens when you die is that you are returned to your last checkpoint, and your main currency is lost, but you lost nothing else, yur level and equipment is the same, and your progression remains the same too, if you've defeated a boss already, that boss stays death. Honestly, Dark Souls works more similar to a traditional checkpoint based game, than a rogue-like or a game with permadeath, just because it has that added punishing mechanic of forcing you to go back and pick up your souls, doesn't make it remotely similar to permadeath. Furthermore, the Game's own lore makes it a point to specifically state that when you "die" you're not gone forever, you're a damned soul trapped in this realm, an every time you "die" you become more "hollow" and souless, but you are the same person, your death is not permanent, you're not gone forever. Compare this to Rogue Legacy, a game that DOES have a unique twist to permadeath because as this article accurately describes, even when you die, the money you accumulate remains, so that when you return with a new character, you do get some extra progression back. However, this one IS still permadeath because the character you had, and any progression you had made is gone forever, you still have to start from the beginning, and you have to defeat the bosses and clear door you had cleared before, and your character is a different one as well. So again, I know I am sounding anal in this aspect, but Dark Souls has NOTHING resembling permadeath even in the loosest sense of the term. And I do feel I have to point this out, because it's still clear to me that the Author still doesn't know or get what Dark Souls is, and just like we criticize and berate media pundits and outlets for talking about a game they know nothing about, we should also call out on game "journalists" when they make incorrect assertions of a game that clearly prove they haven't played or don't know their subject well.
  • somedude - March 7, 2014 7:50 p.m.

    You're right. Retreiving your loot from your corpse it's as old as Diablo and all his clones, that's no twist. I read less and less this articles now, they fell like they been writed by a cracked "journalist", they know games just enough to talk about it, but they are no experts at all. Hell, even my knowlegde is far superior than most of the staff who write this stuff, and I barely play games anymore.
  • gadjo - March 9, 2014 6:38 p.m.

    Hey now, be nice to Cracked. They never claimed to be journalists, just funny.
  • azarath-alghereties - March 7, 2014 7:08 a.m.

    Holy crap someone gave a shout out to Uplink.
  • BladedFalcon - March 7, 2014 6:44 a.m.

    Ummm... Dark Souls doesn't have perma-death at all. When you die, you lose your currency, yes. But you don't start fresh with a new character, your same character remains, with his same stats, equipment, and upgrades. I don't want to be a dick, but I get the impression that this article's winter has never played dark souls, or at least, doesn't know or understand the mechanics of the game, yet he's making the game the backbone of an article about a feature the game doesn't have. This is shoddy journalism right here
  • pl4y4h - March 7, 2014 8:45 a.m. Get em
  • somedude - March 7, 2014 8:51 a.m.