Give Me Permadeath, Or Give Me …

OK, I’m not sure how to finish repurposing the quote in my title. How about “Give Me Perma-Death, Or Don’t Get Played?” Basic idea: I love the idea of letting characters in games die permanently.

I had first hand experience with permadeath in my teens, playing a MUD called Armageddon (which is, amazingly, still active today). As the name implies, Armageddon is tough on new characters. But one of mine survived for almost 2 years, representing over 50 days of gameplay. That’s over 1,200 hours on one character – who died in under 10 seconds as the result of a single bad decision.

Why would I think that was a good experience? At the moment of death, I sure as hell didn’t. (Also, advice to my past self: nerdy gaming teenagers are too weak to punch through walls, but they can hurt their hands pretty badly.) But in retrospect, I don’t regret playing a game that so heartlessly wiped out my hard work. One, I will never, ever forget that death – unlike the thousands of others in different games. Second, and more important, the knowledge that I could die permanently made all the near-misses amid day-to-day play that much sweeter.

Games are generally still considered a casual medium. People don’t want to care enough to die. That’s something of an insult to games, since death is used powerfully in all sorts of non-interactive media, especially movies and books. It’s one of the major reasons The Wire gets called the greatest TV shows of all time so often. Unlike most TV, its writers were willing to use death the way movies do.

There’s a new trend forming in serious gaming, though. Most RPG players remember Aerith’s demise in FFVII, but that was a rare standout at the time. Just lately, I’ve encountered character death in Heavy Rain, the Mass Effect series, Fallout 3, Metal Gear Solid 4 and several others.

When the character that can die is your own, death can also become a useful mechanic. In Realm of the Mad God, you can unlock new character classes during play, but you might have to kill off your avatar to start the new one. Armageddon had this too, with a mechanic called Karma, which could invisibly build up as you played, unlocking new races and classes. Something like Karma is present in the new breed of roguelikes like The Binding of Isaac and Dungeons of Dredmor.

The test is whether the idea survives the shift from consoles and PC to more casual mediums. But I think it might, since smartphone games like Jetpack Joyride andDoodle Jump have already introduced new players to the idea of a one-way ticket. Like death itself, the idea might just sneak up on everybody.

(I originally wrote this for Somofos.)