Permadeath. You’ve probably heard the word in at least a few video game presentations. It means that when your character dies, he loses everything he had collected thus far and you have to start from the beginning. Permadeath is usually associated with Roguelikes and Roguelites, but it has been enjoying some mainstream appeal lately.
On the surface, Permadeath doesn’t really seem that appealing. It essentialy means that, if you die, you have just wasted at least an hour of your life. Yet more and more games opt for that approach. Games with a Permadeath tag on Steam include Darkest Dungeon, XCOM 2, Necropolis,Vagante and the Binding of Isaac. All of these are not only very popular, but also enjoy very positive reviews. If you look a bit closely, you can find some similarities between them that make Permadeath a little bit easier to deal with and also more fun.
A common theme in Permadeath games is their replayability. You can play the game again and again and again. There’s a guy on youtube that has about 2,500 episodes of the Binding of Isaac. If one run of the game is about 35 minutes, this means he has played about 1500 hours. This is because Binding of Isaac (and most other games that feature Permadeath) have randomly generated levels. You’ll never see the same things in the same order, no matter how many hours you play. Moreover, these games have randomly generated items and events as well, meaning no run will end up in the same way. So, even if you lose, you don’t have to go through the same rooms and pick up the same items. It’s all going to be different.
Permadeath also really changes your thought process in a game. In a non Permadeath game, you are free to try random things. If they don’t work, you might die, but that doesn’t really mean much. In Permadeath games, it’s a fight for survival. Every move you make might end up with more casualties, some of them perhaps irreplaceable. On the other hand, when a crazy strategy works out it’s even more gratifying. Generally, Permadeath does a great job of upping the stakes in a game. I feel that the best example for this is XCOM 2. In XCOM 2 you lead a squad of up to 6 soldiers in a fight against allien invaders. One of the basic differences when you compare XCOM 2 to the first game is the character customization. You can rename your characters, change the way they talk and move and change their whole outfits. While this does make the character more endearing to you, it also skews the way you think in the midst of battle. You might make a reckless move just to save that character, because once he dies, he’s gone. Every time you customize a character, your priorities in game change, which might lead to some interesting results.
Of course, there are lighter forms of Permadeath, or ways to go around it. In games such as Enter the Gungeon and Binding of Isaac, you can get items that will make you respawn in the exact room you died in, with all your items. Other games only take your items, letting you keep your characters and his stats. Other games let you save scum, that is, reloading the game to before you died and playing from there. The good thing with the above methods is that they are either optional or rare. You won’t get an item that lets you respawn every run and it’s your choice whether to save scum or not. Especially the respawn items are treated my most as rewards, letting you not worry about a run for a bit.
A peculiar form of Permadeath is sometimes seen in a few Flash Games, although it has started appearing on a few obscure games on Steam as well. In this form of Permadeath, your character can die in a stage but the stage won’t be reloaded. Instead, you’ll start with a new character from the beginning of the same stage, with your previous character’s corpse still somewhere in there. This is very interesting from a gameplay perspective, since that corpse or corpses can act as shields for your next character or even as bridges. As morbid as this is, it also gives the game another layer of complexity that is more than welcome. So, while this is not really Permadeath, it’s a softer form of it that is used for a different reason then normal Permadeath.
All in all, while seeing the message “You Died” or its equivalents is a bit annoying, Permadeath is a really fun feature when used correctly. While I wouldn’t want to see it in all my games, there are certainly some that would profit by it.
–Philip “Snowchill” Alexandris