Permadeath, Difficulty and Roguelikes




My earliest memories of video games come in the form of multiple arcade games like TMNT, The Simpsons and Street Fighter 2; as well as my first console ever, Sega Genesis. We only had 4 games on the Sega Genesis - Sonic The Hedgehog 2, Toy Story, Vectorman and Batman Forever. This was basically all we played until years later when we got a PlayStation 1. When I think of a lot of these games and what they all had in common, difficulty is the first thing to come to mind. Despite being a youngster, there was a clear cut style of difficulty back then, whether it be at the arcade where your games do not save and you can only progress as long as you have the quarters or, my Sega, where a Game Over screen meant it was time to start again after you used up your incredibly scarce extra lives. This level of difficulty was never seen as a flaw of design, simply the norm. However in the many years following this generation of gaming, titles got easier and easier thanks to saves and a general design decision to make a wide majority of games more accessible for the less seasoned player. Lately more than ever, modern gaming has re-implemented "permadeath", a delicate gameplay mechanic where player characters that die are permanently dead and essentially completely removed from play. What is the reason for this relatively new trend of ruthless permanent death in indie games and AAA alike?

The idea of "permanent death" is definitely nothing new, but the recent resurgence somehow manages to be refreshing in key titles. I wouldn't call "permadeath" a sub-genre, since this mechanic manages to seep into all types of games across a plethora of genres. Don't Starve, a wilderness survival game, utilizes the mechanic perfectly. If players meet their fate in the wild, that's all she wrote. Game over, start again. Let it Die, FTL, XCOM, DayZ, Mass Effect, Fire Emblem and even Diablo 3's Hardcore Mode all use permadeath as a mechanic of gameplay and are very different styles of games. Some people may say, "That sounds too hard." or "How is that even fun?". While these are valid concerns, in general it is being used to to create higher highs for players. 


Due to some silly early mistakes, Bossman and Drew are permanently dead in my current XCOM 2 campaign. Bossman didn't even complete a single mission. RIP.

Single player gaming in general lacks the urgency and excitement that multiplayer games have due to a major experience; failure. In a multiplayer game failure is pretty common and a huge motivator to continue playing is to continue to succeed. That same mindset doesn't translate perfectly into a typical single player experience. In popular games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, etc etc, players aren't particularly ecstatically proud of beating the campaigns, since they can try over and over and over until they find success. However, when developers utilize a mechanic like permanent death, the intensity of genuine challenge finds itself back into gaming. Essentially, if players are risking something - like all the time invested up to this point - then success under these conditions will be even sweeter, since they cannot simply get all of their progress back by with the press of a button. I'll get more into this a bit later, but despite the pros of the "permadeath" mechanic, there are cons; the main one being player frustration. How do developers balance offering a genuine challenge via permadeath without frustrating their own player-base?

To anyone familiar with permadeath in gaming in the last decade or so, you may notice I didn't mention some really iconic titles utilizing the mechanic above. Games like Binding of Isaac, Enter the Gungeon, Ziggurat, Spelunkey, Rogue Legacy, Crypt of the Necrodancer, etc, etc all utilize permadeath in a very potent and interesting way. All of these games fit into genre called "Roguelikes", officially defined as "a sub-genre of role-playing games characterized by dungeon crawling through procedurally generated game levels, turn based gameplay, tile-based graphics, and the permanent death of the player character.". While the meaning of "roguelike" can be extremely fuzzy thanks to the term "roguelite" which is a roguelike but a little different and....well it's honestly just a pain in the butt. Simply put, roguelikes have procedurally generated worlds and permadeath, and the mechanics have managed to evolve in some really unique ways from there. I bring up this nebulous sub-genre primarily to answer the earlier inquiry of "How do developers balance genuine difficulty via permadeath without frustrating the player-base?". First off, "procedural generation" staves off the frustration of repetition, since levels are different each replay. Additionally, a lot of roguelikes allow some sort of progression even when you are forced to "restart" over and over, addressing one of the major complaints somebody may have; "Why am I wasting my time?". For example, games like Enter the Gungeon and Ziggurat give minor rewards after each run that can stack up to make the next run simpler. Rogue Legacy does this as well, one of the designers of the indie title states, "We use a modified version of permadeath. You still retain all gold you gained in the run so it is a little more casual. It allowed us to give players all the benefits of permadeath (ability to refresh level layout, meaningful consequence, etc) while also lowering the frustration bar." There's also the immeasurable reward of knowledge, which will help you in your future endeavors. However, there are still a multitude of games where permadeath is simply an end, erasing any progress at all. (RIP XCOM soldiers). Despite what I believe to be a great design choice, it certainly doesn't fit into every game. Even when it's a perfect fit, it can be off-putting to the mainstream audience and incredibly niche. Some games utilize a different type of soul crushing difficulty that does not include permadeath, and sometimes that's ideal.


Darkest Dungeon, a roguelike dungeon crawler known for its atmosphere of despair, is the definition of a niche game that employs permadeath to increase tension. Red Hook Studios also included a sanity gauge which is also capable of throwing a wrench in hours of investment due to bad decisions or just straight up back luck.    


One game series that has been praised for its difficult nature in recent generations is Dark Souls. Dark Souls is well known for its incredible (albeit cryptic) world building, level design and genuinely interesting enemies and bosses. Despite these strengths, there's certainly people (one of them are one of my best friends) who distinctly do not enjoy Dark Souls, whether it be due to difficulty or simply not liking the setting/theme; which is fine, of course. Dark Souls uses a formula of being able to recover what you have lost after dying by reaching the location you died and picking everything back up. Without utilizing permadeath, Dark Souls is critically acclaimed as one of the most difficult AAA games of this generation, and yet it doesn't include one of the best popular development strategies (permadeath) to earn that merit. Simply put, if Dark Souls did use permadeath, forcing players to restart after death, not only would the game become completely inaccessible to those not up to the challenge, it would essentially destroy what narrative the game does have. Other games, even when they may suffer from being a bit too easy would not benefit from permadeath at all if it was to simply be slapped on as an extra mechanic, but sometimes they make for an excellent higher difficulty choice, like in Diablo 3 and DOOM. 




I'll never forget the Dragonslyer Ornstein & Executioner Smough fight from the original Dark Souls. Even though I could try time and time again with almost no punishment for failing, this proved to be an insanely frustrating challenge at the time (2011). Since then, I have learned the mechanics of these series and can take them on with relative ease, an ode to how Dark Souls uses difficulty.

Personally, I love a challenge most of the time. I've recently been playing through XCOM 2, a run of Darkest Dungeon with some buddies and pounding away at some Enter the Gungeon playthroughs, trying to earn a platinum. That being said, I'm also looking really forward to Yakuza 0 and Digimon World: Next Order, both of which are not particularly difficult series. Difficulty, whether it be due to the permadeath mechanic or not, is a delicate formula to create immersion and player investment. It can be a fickle thing that can harm a game's sales or, in the case of recent trends, inspire players to delve into the challenge. I've vastly enjoyed my time playing games like Issac and Darkest Dungeon, even when I'm incredibly frustrated with the difficulty curves, but I personally prefer a balance of styles. I plan on writing a review of XCOM 2 when I manage to stop being bad and rip through the campaign and I'll delve a little bit more into permadeath as well. What permadeath games have you ever played? Are you a fan or not, and why? Let us know! Thanks for reading everyone!
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1 comment:

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