Cathode Tan - Games, Media and Geek Stuff
logo design by man bytes blog

Friday, June 09, 2006

Don't Fear The Reaper: Permadeath in Gaming

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: ,


Jason "Botswana" Cox said...

Inheritence sounds like a great compromise to permadeath.

I thought about this as well when I was kicking around ideas for my round table topic, but I just never could quite pull it together.

Essentially though, if we can have permadeath without ending the game, then there are some possibilities there. Fable might have an interesting aspect if you got too old to carry on but your quest was continued by the offspring of a marriage.

Unfortunately, death is meaningless in most games and I think designers are reluctant to touch it. Gamers have become very comfortable in their routine and it is too easy to restore from a save game.

I think MMO's could even benefit so long as they didn't cheat the player by putting them in impossible circumstances. Players who are of level [X] would know not to go into the Hills of Doom or somesuch because they know that there could be monster challenges that could overwhelm them.

Though I would not remove the possibility entirely, though you'll never get it past the MMO gamers.

Josh said...

The dreaded save game critique is big. And I can't disagree with it. I hated one of the latter day Turoks for it's long, winding levels with few savepoints in between.

Story based campaigns, or puzzle based ... I mean it's hard to ask anyone to redo specific portions of a game just to increase the tension. Permadeath is a niche thing which would need to be handled well in a case by case setup.

But it's a shame, I think, that as some developers try more things with large, dynamic worlds ... perfect for permadeath ... that it's been taken off the table.

Patrick said...

I'm interested in the opposite, taking death off the table completely. Or making it part of the end-game, a major mechanics that deals in resolutions and conclusions, instead of a cheap trick to cirvumvent timespace.

Josh said...

Well, oddly of my two current projects ... one I'm stongly leading to strict permadeath and the other the opposite ... death only as an appropriate end to a story.

There's certainly such a thing as permadeath, or simply death, abuse. Prime vice of the of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure design is that one door has a lion and the other a maiden. How many great stories get far with that?