The concept of permadeath did, for a while, enjoy a center stage when it came to gaming debates. As computer role-playing games and multi-user dungeons were shambling their way into massively multiplayer genres, the idea that when your online avatar dies .... it's not coming back was still a pretty viable concept.
Today it might sound like as much as a game design throwback as extra lives. As coin-ops stopped being the main arena for gaming, the idea of having a set number of lives has also been minimized. Who cares how many lives you get when you don't have to pay for them? Sure, some games like Viewtiful Joe or Alien Hominid maintain this concept strictly, but that itself is an indication of the old school designs they've championed.
Next time you're around someone who plays World of Warcraft or Guild Wars ... float this idea past them: if you die somewhere unreachable by a priest ... that character is dead and can't be played anymore. After insuring them you're serious, you'll likely be met with a look which is something like utter terror. How could anyone possibly wish to spend hours and hours building up a character only to have them vanish if they get overwhelmed?
When this debate was still open, pro-permadeath players had several decent reasons. For one thing, it's an instant source of tension. Combat has a completely new dimension when everything is on the line. Another concept is that it would increase the prestige of high-level characters. No longer are they simply people who have logged many hours ... they're players who have survived many hours.
Clearly it's not always feasible. In the common first person shooter, nobody wants to start from scratch because they died. Most players (myself included) don't want to play the last five minutes over. Add in a jumping puzzle into the scene and you have a game I'm far more likely to never finish.
In some ways though ... I do miss the concept. One of my biggest complaints of the Grand Theft Auto III and it's sequels is the ease in which the player can save. Get a better gun? Run to the hideout. Get a good car? Run to the hideout? Make a load of cash? Run to the hideout. Success in GTA3 becomes largely a factor of hoarding the right stuff. But it's a crime story. It's a gangster story. Pain and loss should be part of it. No reloads, that's how it should be played.
With permadeath, you can ask the player to make real investments into their avatar. Two of the best examples I can think of would be Scorched Earth or Nethack (or their various clones). Scorched Earth might not seem to fit, since it's a repeating turn based game. Once you croak in SE, though, you've lost the round. You better decide well on how to spend that money, because it's an investment which could either pay off or leave you broke until you win again.
Nethack is, however, the epitome of how permadeath simply works sometimes. Of course it feels cruel and unfair sometimes ... but what should we expect from the lives of avatars entering a perilous dungeon day in and day out? I think Diablo made a grave injustice when it removed permadeath from it's take on the genre. It could have been the difference from an adventure which was great to something which could have been epic. Can you imagine the feeling of finally beating Diablo with a character who had survived the whole time? Suddenly the terror of the townspeople would have been your own ... and you would have overcome it.
I fear as a design concept, however, permadeath is meeting it's own maker. Not even compromises, such as extra lives (or clones/rebirths/ressurections) or, as I read once somewhere in the MMO blogosphere, the notion of inheritance so that players can retain some of their former wealth. As innovation becomes a risk in game development, permadeath will continually sound like a bad gamble.
My 2D project right now is something of a mix between Asteroids and Nethack, but I'm not sure what parts of which will be used just yet. Permadeath? Perhaps. Thankfully as simply a hobbyist in this game, I don't have to fear either the marketplace or The Reaper.
tagged: game, gaming