Don't Hit Reset

Tom Mc Shea looks at how permanent death can create a strong emotional connection.

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Death. The word settles in your stomach, cold and heavy. An inevitable fate, and always much closer than you'd like. Fading into the pages of history is a terrifying and sobering prospect, and that's why we relish an escape from this gloomy outlook. Video games are a safe haven. Checkpoints, extra lives, quick saves, and continues all shield us from life's ultimate end, perpetually giving us another shot to correct our past mistakes. And yet, when games embrace the inescapable reality, the gravitas of each moment is profound. One false step could spell your doom, so you move carefully, stay alert, and count every small blessing you receive.

Fire Emblem: Awakening views death with a calculated gaze. As you march into war with knights and archers by your side, you understand that not everyone will join you for the return home. If an enemy mage conjures a ferocious fire blast, or a rival horseman gets his full weight behind his mighty axe swing, your allies could meet their untimely end before you can think of a contingency plan. Once they're struck with a fatal blow, they fall to the earth in slow motion. The music is momentarily silenced, and memories rush through your head. Virion's detached arrogance. Olivia's humble exuberance. Anna's buoyant brawn. All left behind as you continue onward.

Fire Emblem: Awakening views death with a calculated gaze.

The temptation to hit the reset button is undeniable. Henry, with his dark sense of humor and darker spells, joined your party only moments before his early exit. Yarne was almost reunited with his mother before a stray arrow ended his life. It would take no more than a quick button press to erase your failings and start over with a clean slate. And yet, such a moment of weakness would topple the tower Awakening so expertly erects. The cost of war is ever present, and the people who join your party do so with full knowledge of the approaching end. Sacrifice is a theme interwoven throughout the story, so to run and hide from failure would be a disservice to your friends who died fighting.

Death has surfaced in games other than Awakening. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the soldiers you develop and grow attached to, named after your friends and family, can die from the nefarious alien attacks. And once their limp bodies crumple to the concrete, they're left there forevermore, alive only in the memories of those they served with. Final Fantasy Tactics makes your heart race. When comrades fall, a timer counts down the rounds left until they pass into the light, so you rush to their side as quickly as possible, to save them from an irreversible slumber.

It's a mechanic that seems to go against the very nature of playing a video game. You're supposed to find solace within a virtual world, run away from the terrible demands of everyday life. Games should be a barrier that prevents bad feelings from infecting us, a sweater that wraps us in its protective warmth. And yet, when dire consequences loom, a game with permanent death doesn't push you away. Instead of being bleak and foreboding, it's empowering. The emotional connection between you and the fictional denizens strengthens the deeper you get into the journey. You're invested in the lives of your characters, in protecting them when danger strikes, and so you continue to play, even though each moment is fraught with tension.

To run and hide from failure would be a disservice to your friends who died fighting.

Video games let you explore difficult situations from the comfort of your living room. Because nothing can hurt you when a controller is in your hand, you can experience events that would be catastrophic in real life. We don't like to think about how death would affect us, what it would be like to lose someone we're close to. But games like Awakening and XCOM conjure this feeling of attachment in meaningful ways. When you spend hours with characters, learning their histories and hopes, building them to be powerful and durable, and then they die, it's like being struck in the stomach. You've grown attached to these characters, and enjoyed seeing them grow and mature, and then their lives are cut short before you were ready to say goodbye.

And that impact doesn't dissipate when the next battle starts. It intensifies. Whereas before, you relied on the irreplaceable expertise of your fallen comrades, there is now a hole in your plan that can't be filled. When you bond with a character on both an emotional and intellectual level, when the character arc is as intriguing as the character build, then the penalty for death becomes much more scarring. Game writing may stumble at times; it may be stiff or lifeless. But when you create situations in which you strategize and scheme, guide your characters along the perfect path to dominance, and then see your hard work die in a dizzying flash, it hurts.

Such severe punishment in most games would be difficult to handle. There are times when you want to run and jump without worrying that your next leap could be your last. But developers shouldn't shy away from such a system if it fits the themes of the games. Think about how often you've had squad members fight beside you, absorbing enemy blasts without so much as a scar, and yet you're supposed to care when they die in a prerendered cutscene. Such a disconnect between the action and the cinematics is all too common, but by injecting the fear of losing a partner during the gameplay, the connection to the events can be more affecting. It would be a tough balancing act to include such a punishing death system while still keeping the core action entertaining, but by experimenting with how we experience death, a world of possibilities unfolds.

Imagine if the permanence of death surfaced in modern military shooters. Would you be as willing to sprint into an open courtyard, picking off assailants high up in the balconies, if one sure bullet could end your run? Or what if your careful, calculated approach put your compatriots in harm's way? By using this mechanic in genres in which death is usually no more than a slight setback, it would add weight to your actions, and better communicate what the men and women of the battlefield are going through. If you stumble, if too many of your fellow soldiers die, you may not complete the mission. Your enemies would win. The same dread could work exquisitely in survival horror games as well. What's more terrifying than knowing your adventure could end if a monster corners you?

Experimentation with death has gained momentum recently, but has yet to become a wide-spread aspect of game design. Games are pure entertainment for many, and having to look death in the eyes is a daunting prospect. But spend some time protecting Clementine in The Walking Dead or braving the dangers of the Butcher in Diablo III's hardcore (permadeath) mode, and the emotional impact of these games will have you clamoring for more developers to subvert your expectations of virtual death. Game don't have to always be an escape. Sometimes, the most powerful moments are those that draw on real-life fears.

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Discussion

375 comments
packtop
packtop

I don't mind permanent death in games i have complete control over my characters.

But i don't like permanent death when i don't have complete control over my characters. 


Bubble_Man
Bubble_Man

Nah, I'd rather play on casual and not worry about resetting (as if anyone would contiue without resetting if they lost a beefed-up and promoted character). The first SPRG I remember playing is Shining Force and it didn't have perma-death at all.

Double_Wide
Double_Wide

Um...Final Fantasy Tactics was inconclusive of Ramza's and your party's fate. It seemed to imply that he indeed did survive somehow to provide Olan with certain content (demonic manipulation and such) of the Durai papers. It was the entire basis of the game's storytelling...

As far as in game, the only thing permanent death helped me decide on is whether to hit the reset button or not. :-P

Ciphas
Ciphas

Currently trying to beat The Witcher 2 on Insane...got about a third of the way through chapter 1 when an endrega queen one shotted me in the back. But instead of feeling deflated I'm more determined than ever to see it all through. Taking things slow really helped me appreciate the world CDProjekt Red created.

Mizarzeug
Mizarzeug

Wait also Lavitz from Legend of Dragoon and then the same happend with Lyod your nemesis to finally loose Rose my dear love triangle rgar died along with her first love your dad.

Mizarzeug
Mizarzeug

Since suikoden 1

more recently Dragon Age

kohle36
kohle36

Ohmygod Ohmygod!!!

If permadeath surfaced in modern military shooters, I....Oh wait, I still wouldn't play them.

lostEDEN77
lostEDEN77

You forgot to mention the most important game that dealt with death. Final Fantasy VII. RPGs are notorious for the fact that no death is permanent, some games now like Ni No Kuni, simply say your character is unconscious. When Aerith died in FF7 that was one of the most emotionally impacting gaming moment of my youth. I was unaccustomed to permanent death in any game much less and RPG. The game made such a point of making her an integral and important character and then she dies and no amount of Phoenix Downs could revive her. :(

Lucas Lemos
Lucas Lemos

a game with permanent deaths cannot be easy to save in order to avoid making a person reload after it occur. The game should take a nice ammount of time between each save, for instance. They can also make the storyline change with the loss of each team partner so the player know there are other paths to follow besides having a full team, and not just losing that character share on the story.

raics
raics

A very nice article, in the beginning death meant a total game restart, later it meant reloading a save, nowadays it usually means respawn or some similar mechanic. It did make games more accesible but also made them considerably less exciting. The danger of your game character meeting an irreversible and untimely end changes your whole playstyle and provides you with a rush many still enjoy. That's why a lot of rpgs offer some sort a hardcore mode for truly dedicated players, on Path of Exile servers for example hardcore players amost equal softcore in number.

1234ritchie
1234ritchie

Great article, I loved the way death was handled in XCom, in that you were pleased you completed the mission but had conflicted emotions over the death of one of the troops that had been with you since the very beginning.

smylexx
smylexx

Nicely written article Tom. Very much appreciated.

GrahamZ
GrahamZ

As an old timer I have a slightly different perspective. I came from a board game background -- there was no word for 'permadeath', it's just 'death'.  Early gaming carried on that tradition with Rogue, and it's ilk (some people forget that Diablo actually comes from that tradition).

Permadeath is NOT an innovation, it is the way things always were until video games became big business.  Non-permadeath gaming comes from the old paper and pencil rpgs, where GMs for the most part, did not want to kill off all the characters (although see rpgs like Paranoia for a different take on that).  Whenever board gamers and rpgers come together at gaming conventions, I've sometimes found that it winds up in conflict since the whole premise of even what makes a game and what the purpose of 'rules' are is completely different.


EvilDan666
EvilDan666

Great article Tom!!! Although I have to admit that I'm not a fan of permadeath... I don't have a lot of time to play games in a week and there a so many games coming out in a year that I don't have the patience to try a level over and over and over again... or to levels up new characters again (like in Xcom). If the game is too difficult I lose patience, I put it aside and try another one. But I understand the bond and the feeling that you have with a character when he or she dies...

Mitchell Sabbag
Mitchell Sabbag

No. I can't handle permadeath. In fact, should a character I care about die permanently, I won't hesistate reloading the previous save/checkpoint.

Zon Petilla
Zon Petilla

When I was playing XCOM, I hit the reset button many times. But sometimes, I had to move on lossing some members along the way. I still felt like a time-traveling god, but the loss of characters "by gameplay alone" that I grew attach to, was dis-heartening but added an emotional connection to the plot and gameplay. On the other hand, my friend just had his people kill themselves if he didn't like the recruit, and he's a grunt in the army:P.

Robert Lombardo
Robert Lombardo

It is my opinion that for a game to be truly uplifting (as opposed to just entertaining, or, worse, indulging some part of our lower nature) it must be possible to lose the game - to be finished, to arrive at a point where starting over is the best way forward. For the time being, yes, this kind of design more or less fails as a business model, as most of us lack the wherewithal to actually change our approach to a game that "punishes" us thus for being bad at it - instead, we complain (ironically) about fairness and move onto a less exacting game. Without "permadeath" - and why, by the way, was there ever a need to add that prefix? - anything a game really asks of the player can be circumvented by the use of TIME ... puzzle games are I guess an exception ... but, take a look at, say, WoW: my superior understanding & skill at the game can hardly do me any good against someone who has played longer. Now, your average shooter maintains a level playing field - no grinding; skill is ALL you have to your advantage - yet these games ask nothing from the player in terms of creativity, and furthermore the only real-world skill you could possibly relate to game skill would be urban gunfighting, so we must place them back in the category of "indulging our lower nature." What makes games valuable to humanity in a way that no other artform is - that is, what definies it as a separate and valid artform - is its ability to challenge the player to perform his or her own act of creation. For that to be an actual challenge, it must be possible for the player to create a failure.

Zon Petilla
Zon Petilla

Robert Lombardo what do you think as a player, and as a game developer?

dzgword316
dzgword316

To make this work in games where you don't control your party members, they need make sure your allies aren't idiots. They need to make better A.I. companions (and enemies to make it more fun) before even thinking of perma-death in shooters

Scarshi
Scarshi

In gaming, I hate losing my "stuff" more than my virtual life. Its actually rather sad because this is where the dread of making a will comes from in real life.

Never mind me or my mates, what about the "loot!"?

Do you know how many quests I had to drudge through to get this weapon/amulet/armor!!??    Sigh.

Daniel Courtney
Daniel Courtney

Depends, if its hardcore mode in xcom, then no.. because hitting restart just restarts it right after one of your characters die.

whiteranger23
whiteranger23

This might be where developers are headed. We've already seen Demon Souls and Dark Souls get welcomed back into gaming. And people raving over Telltale's The Walking Dead, who knows

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

While it all sounds well and good for so-called "challenge", we all know that most people, especially achievement hunters, will reset to escape perma-death. It may become less about attachment to character and more a n investment in stats and equipment.

Leigh Roebuck
Leigh Roebuck

I still cry over jools and jops dying a permadeath.

Dudeinator
Dudeinator

I think that, in order to pursue perma-death or death punishment in games, developers need to re-evaluate the concept of Difficulty.


In most games past and present, higher difficulty usually only meant = enemies do more damage, you do less damage.

This creates one of the worst illusions of challenge ever because it is essentially handicap. What ends up happening is player frustration as they die, reload the checkpoint, and try again. To implement perma-death or death punishment within this system of difficulty is one easy way of making sure players don't ever want to play your game again.


Games require a fair arena of difficulty so that when players suffer the consequences of dying, it comes from a sense of challenge rather than from cheap tricks. In other words, difficulty becomes more than just a difference of damage values of the enemy, but a re-imagining of a game's design in how players interact with their enemies. This goes far beyond than just improving AI. It also means pacing, environment, and control (and I don't mean it in the sense of 'keyboard+mouse, controller').


What I am trying to get at here, is that the concept of death can only be truly appreciated if other factors, namely difficulty, are re-evaluated so cheap AI and mechanics don't end up biting you in the ass.

Olm Hunnicutt
Olm Hunnicutt

I far prefer perma-death. Mount & Blade and Dynasty Warriors would have rocked with that feature.

DAOWAce
DAOWAce

Time to load up my PS emulator and play through FFT again.

God, I feel so many emotions right now.


Still have to finish my playthrough of XCOM.  No, not the re-imagining garbage; the original UFO Defense!

Hameed Mohammed
Hameed Mohammed

permadeath is a double edged sword, if it's implemented in an MMO game, it should be done right, or the game will be unbalanced and the people who entered the game first will go PKing newer players. But in other games I think ,if done right, that it could be fun.

Bryan Schloesser
Bryan Schloesser

Permadeath is one of my favorite mechanics in games. It makes you plan your strategies more carefully and you build relationships with your characters so you actually care if they die. Even if you can just restart the battle, you learn from your mistakes and to me that's good game design.

Samuel Rasquero
Samuel Rasquero

I usually try to fight it as much as possible. Mass effect, never did. Xcom, only if I lost my entire A team on a single mission. Or just restart. I like the ability to feel that I need to look before I leap.

LoG-Sacrament
LoG-Sacrament

Counter-Strike plays with death a little. It's not so much the absence of dead teammates (although being the last player on the team left brings a disquieting mic silence), but powerful bullets combined with death putting you on the sidelines for the round make each moment much more intense. The goal is no longer to trade bullet for bullet but instead to pick your battles.

Charles Raisor
Charles Raisor

Only if optional, and only in some games where it would make sense.

Squall Leonhart
Squall Leonhart

i always keep them alive even though i don't use them. :)

Trevor Whissel
Trevor Whissel

Being a huge fan of Final Fantasy Tactics I loved the permadeath feature. It forced you to play smart otherwise you would lose a member of your party that you trained into a specific role. Not having permadeath in that game would make it way too easy. Having no repercussions for dying is silly.

birdgang_1
birdgang_1

@lostEDEN77 The article is dealing with permadeath as a gameplay mechanic.  There is nothing you could do to stop Aerith from dying in FF7 as opposed to games like Fire Emblem where your actions do determine whether your characters will die or not.

OldKye
OldKye

@Scarshi What Aeris died!   I still have the Ribbon she had equipped right?  Those Gold saucer battles were tough.

whiteranger23
whiteranger23

@AncientDozer Achievements are my biggest peeve in games. They really need to rethink them and actually make them achievements

ELEMENTZERO707
ELEMENTZERO707

@Dudeinator  I agree 100%, thankfully some games actually do become more challenging but remain fair on higher difficulty's, like devil may cry 3 an even DMC, Soul caliber always felt fair on the high difficulties, and strategy games garner viscous but out-thinkable opposition

lostEDEN77
lostEDEN77

@birdgang_1 Granted you are correct. And FF7 was an older game, so in a way it was ahead of its time. So imagine RPG like FF series that started to incorporate permadeath.

ELEMENTZERO707
ELEMENTZERO707

@OldKye @Scarshi you mean if i send in my character to that spot, they'll die? but I need to get that item before the enemy does!

ELEMENTZERO707
ELEMENTZERO707

@Dudeinator To clarify the action games, would give the enemies new attacks and make them work better as teams while being more aggressive

AzureZenorag13
AzureZenorag13

@lostEDEN77 @birdgang_1 There is a game that came out even before FFVII that featured the permanent death of a character, it was Phantasy Star II, so even more ahead of its time than FFVII