Death is the tie that binds.
Permadeath: when you die, you die forever. In real life it’s a given, not something that’s thought about too often, but in video games it’s haunting. A mechanic that scatters all of your progress to the digital winds, leaving it as if you never existed at all. Forcing you to start over and accept that you’ve wasted a ton of time that could have been spent, well, doing anything that wasn’t going to ultimately be erased.
When it was revealed that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice would have some form of Permadeath, it left some divided on whether it was a welcome addition. For those who have yet to play or even do a bit of reading on Hellblade, it’s the latest game from Ninja Theory (Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, DmC: Devil May Cry, Heavenly Sword) and follows Senua as she fights through her own psychosis, a veritable living hell, in order to save the soul of the one she loves. It’s dark and twisted as players are subjected to endless voices pulling your attention every which way, hallucinations, doubts, and fears made real. The developers have carefully created a waking nightmare that so many experience in the real world and dropped players into it, forcing them to come face to face with an ugly reality.
When I heard that this experience, one that was letting everyone in on a very personal hell, was going to have permadeath, I was intrigued. Not only would I be stepping into Senua’s mind, but I would have to careful while treading that ground. Her plight, her very fears, would no longer be her own, because a slip-up on my part could spell the end of both of our adventures. I liked the idea of having such a strong tie to Senua, one that forced me to care for her in her vulnerable state as I would care for someone I love, or even myself.
Yet, the permadeath mechanic in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice isn’t all that it seems. While yes, if you die enough, the rot will reach your brain and end Senua’s life (along with your hard-earned progress). However, the death’s aren’t compiled through the entire game. Rather, they’re counted between sections, allowing for the player to die much more often than one would assume.
PCGamesN reported that the permadeath is largely a bluff for thematic purposes, and even shared 50 of their own deaths, a number that even players who aren’t very good at Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice would likely never reach. The rot that players are threatened with in the game’s opening moments refuses to spread, allowing the player in the video to continue through, and reportedly complete the game.
Right now, it’s very unclear whether or not permadeath is actually in the game or not.
If this was a bluff, it’s an extremely bold, and in some ways, clever move by Ninja Theory. The perceived inclusion of permadeath incited many gamers to condemn the game, possibly causing some to skip the game entirely.
For those that stuck with the game though, there’s a good chance that they approached the game completely different than would have normally. If true, Ninja Theory essentially just mind-gamed the hell out of their launch day buyers.
Permadeath didn’t have to be real, only the idea itself had to exist and that put many (myself included), in a similar position as Senua herself. She moves through the world frightened of all that she sees. There’s no telling what actually exists in her psychosis, but for her it’s all quite real to the point where it can prove deadly. Her fears, doubts, and anguish slow her pace and cause her hands to tremble, they keep her from taking risks at times, afraid of losing everything that she holds dear. The idea of death does the same to the player, stunting our courage, forcing us to be more careful and methodical so as not to lose all that we’ve worked towards. It’s genius honestly, and personally, I’m not hurt by being duped into thinking it was real. I’m actually sad that it’s not true.
Some, perhaps many, might have released a sigh of relief once finding out that permadeath is either extremely hard to “attain” or might not even be real at all. For a moment, though I was right there with Senua. We feared the same things, triumphed over the same nightmares, and walked that same tight line between existence and darkness. The threat of losing everything punctuated every blade strike, every successful parry, and every eureka moment as I solved a new puzzle. Each time I fell to the ground, and struggled to catch Senua’s breath, which had become my own breath, I was reminded that if I didn’t get up we would both lose. But that weight is lifted, and with it, a lot of the magic that makes Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice so unique is sadly gone.