Friends, I'm afraid modern video-game design philosophy has painted itself into a corner where it's now virtually impossible for players to lose. So long as you adjust the difficulty down to your skill level and apply some persistence, you'll eventually win every time…guaranteed. That effectively separates video games from every other category of game in existence.
Hey, I grew up in an age where a quarter bought you three lives or less. Maybe you earned a few more, but when your last ship vanished in a fiery explosion, game over, man. Now everything automatically resets on death, bumping you back to the last save point and quietly erasing all traces of failure. Oh, you’ll find plenty of examples that offer unforgiving modes, from a few Diablos to the more recent Dead Spaces, but I’m talking about something more serious. And permanent.
So are others. Permanent character death is on the rise as a core game mechanic, and it’s exactly the shot in the arm the industry needs.
Rougelike games have incorporated permadeath for years, but the idea started escalating into a trend when underground hits Dark Souls and Demon's Souls came along. These games became famous because they’re actually hard. Every single encounter could prove fatal, at which point you lose all the souls — the major in-game resource — you've collected.
Strictly speaking, that's not permadeath, but it still added something completely lacking in other games: consequences. You can’t afford to take any fight lightly, because losing carries a steep price. And gamers loved it.
Compare that to BioShock’s “epic” Big Daddy fights. The first few times I elected to take out one of those roving murder dispensers, I planned out meticulous ambushes and prayed it all worked. But on normal settings, BioShock resurrects you instantly, weapons and equipment intact. It wasn’t long before I switched to chip-damage tactics, constantly dying, resurrecting, and running out to cut a few more slivers off Daddy’s health bar. Attrition did my work for me.
The Souls games allow you retrieve lost souls from your rotting corpse, but most likely whatever killed you the first time is back to full strength and waiting around to kill you a second time. And a third. And a fourth. Until you either get better, or you take the hint.
Always assuming something doesn’t tag you along the way, which isn’t an assumption you can afford to make when permadeath’s a factor. Nothing sinks the stomach quite like charging around a corner and right into the sights of a way-too-powerful foe.
A constant sense of risk makes every moment important. You pay attention. You focus. You’re drawn in.
Paranoia kicks in, too. I wouldn’t think twice about slaughtering scores of undead in any number of games, but in DayZ, a survival mod for massively multiplayer online shooter ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead, seeing a solitary zombie shambling around in the distance raises the hairs on the back of your neck. It’s a serious thing. You give those walkers a wide, wide berth. If it sees you, it’ll charge. Using a gun to defend yourself might alert more zombies. Three or more at once pretty much insures it’s lights out. To say nothing of constantly watching treelines and windows for unfriendly players who might snipe you and claim your stuff.
Without permadeath, all the tension in DayZ goes away, and that’s really the main reason to play it. You’re in a real zombie apocalypse with deadly ghouls and unpredictable humans. Its website even tracks player death stats just to make the situation perfectly clear. Don’t get too attached to breathing.
That makes it tough to get attached to a story, too, though Heavy Rain pulled it off by interweaving four playable characters and their plot threads. If one died, their future levels could be lost without breaking the narrative. I can’t think of anyone else who’s even tried something as ambitious lately.
And of course, permadeath de facto makes a game much more difficult, which can be a turn-off. Nobody pays 10 bucks to see 70-percent of a movie. They really won’t pay $60 for a game they can’t finish.
Ubisoft’s trying to split these differences in their own zombie romp, the upcoming Wii U-exclusive ZombiU. Unless you have a syringe that acts as your get-out-of-death-free card, one bite kills you, period. You then switch to another nearby survivor — an actual character, as opposed to DayZ’s fairly blank slates — who sets out to finish what the last guy started. You can even find and headshot your former character — now a part of the brain-eating horde and conveniently tagged with a waypoint — to buff your inventory.
Just think. Permadeath on a Nintendo platform. I’d call that fairly hardcore.
I'm not suggesting that permadeath fits into every game plan. A breezy adventure a la Uncharted simply stops working if the bad guys ace lead character Nathan Drake in the first five minutes and he never comes back. But I’d love to see it tried in something like a Call of Duty, where you’d click over to another member of your squad every time someone drops you…and fewer teammates makes your job tougher going forward. That would turn the Michael Bay movie of military shooters into something more Steven Spielberg.
And yes, you’d fail. That’s fine with me. I want gamers to fail more. Failure helps us learn, and it make victory sweeter…but only when our failures carry a price. In any other type of game, that means loss. Video games might be in a class all their own, but it wouldn't hurt to play it old school now and again.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase your ticket now to save $200!