Permadeath, where is your sting?


Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
“Hamlet”, Shakespeare

“Permadeath” is the new black. Wired did a feature on it and games featuring it (above all DayZ) have made waves in the past year.

I haven’t played DayZ yet, probably because I am not really much of a multiplayer, partly because the immediacy of the demand on me scares me, partly for reasons better explored by The Oatmeal and Yahtzee.

I have however recently played Hitman Contracts, inspired by the disappointed reviewers of the most recent entry in the franchise, Hitman Absolution. Contracts features what might be termed degrees of permadeath: As many saves as you like, limited saves and no saves. In the last option death simply means that you restart the current mission. Always one to do things halfway, I chose the middle option. Give me liberty or give me mission-relative semi-permadeath. For someone used to hitting the quicksave key like an angry caffeine junkie, stresstesting his keyboard, this is a big step.

The theory behind the recent revival (Jet Set Willy, anybody?) of permadeath is that the knowledge that you/your character will simply respawn/reload/rebirth takes the sting out of death. You do not loose your life, just a few minutes or even seconds of game time. This has two consequences, goes the theory: First, if you do not fear death, you cannot experience excitement, because nothing is at stake. Second, the only punishment for recklessness is the loss of a few game seconds. But a reckless death followed by a reload is often the quicker way to play. Rather than lengthy reconnaissance followed by careful strategizing, why not just get that sniper to reveal himself by offering yourself up as a target, then reload, shootout and quicksave? Thus tempdeath favours a reckless playing style, rather than caution and forethought. And this is a bad thing because, well, it just is.

Is permadeath the cure for these ills? I am not convinced that it is. I tend to agree with the diagnosis I laid out above. Quicksaves mean less fear and therefore less excitement. And recklessness should not be encouraged. But unlike Hamlet we fear death not because we do not know what lies on the other side of it but precisely because we do. It’s drudgery. Yup, the land from which no traveller returns is exactly the same as this one. Sorry to disappoint your dark fantasy, my sweet prince. Imagine waking after your own death. The ghastly spectre standing in front of you bids you hearken. And informs you that you must retrace your steps right up to the point where the bus hit you… and only then should you deviate from your previous path lifting you up above the traffic and into the windscreen of an oncoming car. But I have free will, you protest, I can do things differently. Death shrugs. Sure, he says. But it will be pretty much the same experience anyway and you did most things right, so there’s no real reason to change anything this time around. And off you go only to end up in that same accursed windscreen, awakening with a dreadful sense of deja vécu.

My point is this: We want the thrill of having made it without the crutch of quicksaves. We want that fear that unlike a movie hero, we might not actually make it. What we don’t want is the boredom associated with doing things over and over. While the idea of permadeath is grand, the reality is absurdly pedestrian. Sure, practice makes perfect but a lot of replay is not practice, it’s just learning by rote until you can navigate a path in your sleep. Open worlds might mitigate that problem slightly but it is still going to be quite a lot same-same-but-slightly-different.

In Hitman Contracts I created the following challenge for myself: I wanted to pass through a well-lit, heavily guarded underground tunnel without murdering anybody. So I needed to shoot the lights and stick to the dark corners. Seeing as I was out of saves, I had to do the entire tunnel in one go. Once I got to the point where I could make it two thirds of the way I started feeling somewhat of a badass. But towering over this achievement was the fact that what I had learned was:
– The guards only have a sense of hearing and seeing. There can literally be an elephant in the room, humping their leg, and they won’t notice unless it coughs or walks in to the light.
– Guards will rush towards a source of sound. When they reach it and find that it’s too dark to see anything, they will return to their default positions.
– While they are on their way back, they’re on a break. Shoot all you want, they will deal with it once they get back to default positions, alright??!! If you shoot again after they get there, that is.

You see where I’m going with this. I learned all the things that you really shouldn’t about the shortcomings of the AI and used that to pass myself off as a badass. It just felt like a bad conjuring trick. It was like being reincarnated into lower and lower life forms, each more knowledgeable about how shallow and false this world is, yet each more hellbent on using that shallowness to my own advantage.

And this really brings me to my problem with the Wired feature: It doesn’t distinguish between permadeath meaning a ‘do-over’ as in single-character-games and permadeath meaning ‘playing-along-with-setbacks’ as in an RTS or other multiple-character setting. In the first sense I think it just becomes a recipe for drudgery as I have described. In the latter sense I wholeheartedly agree that games should encourage players to keep playing rather than reload and aim for the perfect game in which nothing bad ever happens. The best Crusader Kings-games I played had lots of setbacks. If they hadn’t, I would have been crowned King of Europe many times over. Single character games could learn from this. Injuries could be treated as, gosh, injuries, incapacitating your player character rather than being an X percentage point decrease in life force. Setbacks increase the challenge; death is just one more go on the big hamster wheel of game life.

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