Despite the fact that I’m a guy who designed one Roguelike and is soon to release another game that many people will end up calling a Roguelike even if I don’t, you’ll never hear me use the term “permadeath”, unless it’s to explain why another person shouldn’t use it, or with extreme air-quotes around it. This is because it’s a word with extreme baggage, and it hurts everyone’s ability to make great strategy games.
That’s my claim here: if we don’t get rid of this horrible terminology and way of thinking, we can never make great single-player strategy games.
Up front, though, let me make clear what I am *not* saying, because I can already picture the top comment saying something like “yeah, permadeath is bad, it’s way too harsh!” This is not my claim at all. I am not saying that permanent death is too harsh, at all; if anything my claim is more like “all competitive strategy games require permanent death“.
What is Permadeath?
Just in case I have some readers who don’t know, permadeath is… well, it’s actually hard to explain what it is without all of the videogame baggage. Like, I can’t even describe it because to do so I would have to make some horribly offensive statements. So, here’s the Wikipedia definition:
In role-playing video games (RPGs), permanent death (sometimes permadeath or PD) is a situation in which player characters (PCs) die permanently and are removed from the game. … This is in contrast to games in which characters who are killed (or incapacitated) can be restored to life (or full health), often at some minor cost to the character.
In my opinion, that accurately reflects what most people think of as permadeath in videogames.
There are two major problems with this terminology.
1. It assumes that persistence is and should be the default way that things work
2. It erroneously mis-characterizes “permanent consequences/persistence” as a non-central “feature”
3. Minor issue, but still problematic – it presumes/implies that every game has some central, singular avatar. Like, you wouldn’t call non-persistence in Civilization “permadeath”, would you? “Death”, everyone should be aware, is a thematic element, not a mechanical one.
Persistence By Default?
Persistence, just so I’m clear, is this concept that you have some save-game file that never gets erased unless you erase it yourself. It usually means that your character/avatar/town’s power and resources are growing over time. Each time you sit down and play, you are adding to your save file. Very rarely is anything ever taken away, and if it were, you could just load the game to just before that point and do that part over.
I’ve met people – only people who come from digital entertainment backgrounds, mind you – who tend to think of persistence as the default way that everything should go, although with a huge caveat: only for single player. Videogamers tend to understand that you won’t generally be carrying stuff from one match in Counter-Strike over into your next match (well, at least, that used to be the case… becoming less and less so, with persistent elements in online FPS games being the new norm).
But when it comes to single-player, a lot of people don’t get the permadeath idea. I’ve heard some smart people say it’s “some kind of joke rule”, as in, it’s so absurd that you would have permanent death in a game, that it must be a joke. Of course, Tetris technically has permanent death, and so do multiplayer games, and yet that’s totally acceptable? Why is this?
Types of Systems
Many of my readers probably know about my hierarchy of interactive systems (if not, read about it at Gamasutra, here at my site, or in my book). Today, though, I’ll be drawing a very specific line in the sand that hopefully won’t be too hard to accept.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s divide videogames into two categories: Competitive Strategy Games and Non-Competitive, Non-Strategy Games.
Competitive Strategy Systems are basically things that can be won and lost, that include decision-making, that you can “get really good at”, and are often long-lasting. Sports are competitive strategy systems, as well as videogames like Civilization, Tetris, and Counter-Strike.
Note that by “competitive”, I do not mean multi-player, and I recognize that that will sound weird to a lot of people.
This is a point in the article where I almost stopped writing because I have to explain so much to get this point across. Basically, games like Civilization or Tetris at their core are competitive, despite being single-player. This is due to the score mechanism, the random generation, and the emergent nature of play.
The way that we need to start thinking about single-player competitive strategy games – games not focused around story or experience, but around skill-building, strategy, and winning – should be more like the sports golf or bowling. We should think of skill-based single player games as actually asynchronous multiplayer games, even if the opponent we play against is ourselves. This is a big topic, which I sort of just touched on for a recent Dinofarm Games article, if you want to read more about it there.
Non-Competitive, Non-Strategy Systems are just the opposite – games that aren’t supposed to be competitive, and aren’t supposed to have deep strategy. RPGs would probably be the classic example of this, but really most single player entertainment software, especially those driven by a narrative, would fall into this category.
I think that most videogames fit into one of these two categories. Almost all of the time, “single-player” videogames are in the latter category, with notable exception of stuff like Civilization, abstracts such as Tetris, and also the Roguelike genre. An example of a non-strategy competitive game, though, would be something like Guitar Hero.
Why Competitive Strategy Systems NEED “Permadeath”
For Competitive Strategy Systems, you absolutely MUST have “permadeath”, and I’ll explain why.
- Reason #1: Impossible to Balance. If you have persistence, then numbers and resources are increasing, and the game is getting easier. If this is a system wherein the player can achieve skill, then you have a two-pronged attack on the difficulty that very few systems can survive. At the same time the player is getting better, his tools are ever-increasing in power. In pretty much every system that ever had a chance of being a competitive strategy system but that also allowed loading and saving and persistence, this was the cause of its eventual demise.
- Reason #2: Decisions Can’t Survive. If you can hit undo anytime you want, you never have to make a decision, ever. You just have to guess-and-check, trial-and-error, slog your way through the entire web of possibilities until you find one that makes you win for any given setup. In any game where you can just “re-load”, you never have to make choices.
What I’m saying is that Civilization should absolutely have “permanent death”. Tetris and other abstracts already do, as well as roguelikes.
But what bothers me is that people don’t understand that for these kinds of systems, permadeath isn’t some “option” or “feature” that’s nice to have. It isn’t some personal preference. In single-player competitive strategy games, permadeath is ESSENTIAL. The system breaks down into incoherence immediately without it.
This is why it bothers me to hear people say that they “like permadeath” or “dislike permadeath”. It’s fine to have a preference, but you should understand that if you’re dismissing permadeath, you’re dismissing the single-player strategy game altogether.
When Don’t You Want Permadeath?
For non-competitive, non-strategy systems, of course, it’s usually the opposite. If your system is story based, then you almost certainly want persistence. You don’t want the player to have to do everything over, you want them to experience the story. Half-a-story isn’t really worth much to a person, any more than half-a-match of a great strategy game is, so you want them to get through. It’s no good if you built this amazing story with a fantastic climax if many people don’t even get to that climax.
So, I would say that Zelda should certainly not have permanent death, at all. In fact, I suspect that Zelda and most RPGs shouldn’t have any kind of death, because these systems cannot support any meaningful consequences. I expect that in the future, games like these will follow in the steps of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, where death is not possible, instead it’s just that you lose some sort of metagame bonuses for taking damage (note: you’re still gaining stuff, just gaining LESS stuff).
Other kinds of systems that shouldn’t have permanent death would be “collection” based skinner-box machines, like Diablo, Farmville, or Pokemon. These aren’t really story based so much as they are just about perpetually adding +1s to your levels. Since they are always about that – collection – then it doesn’t make sense to really ever reset it.
In short, some systems require permadeath, and some require persistence. It is not like some “cruel joke”, and it’s also not “I LIKE PAIN!!”. Failure is not punishment, it is a measurement.
So, when I hear that a game has “permadeath”, I feel like the speaker doesn’t really understand what’s going on there. Like, no one would say that Tetris has permadeath, and not just because of the theme. To people, it’s obvious that Tetris with persistence would be pretty silly. It’s also obvious to most (if a decreasing amount of) developers that adding persistence to multiplayer competitive games is a bad idea.
I hope that this article will push the conversation forward, where we can understand what permadeath is in a more holistic way. If we do, we can realize a lot of stuff, and make better single-player strategy games than the world has ever seen.