Permanent death is a mechanic not often featured in many games today. But perhaps it should be. These games challenge you like no other, sometimes granting you only one life with which to finish the entirety of the game and if you should die, you have to restart from square one.
There’s a big difference between a game that’s controller smashingly difficult, i.e. Demon’s Souls, and a game that only gives you just one life to play with. It creates an immediate sense of peril, forcing you to ever so carefully tread new territory, not knowing whether your next encounter may be your last.
A game that made a name for itself with it’s striking artistic style and engrossing game play. Don’t Starve really shines when you set the difficulty to the highest possible, where death results in the end of your journey for good and the deletion of your save file. Suddenly this zany looking indie hit is anything but a joyous trek through the wilds.
You can relate to the nearly helpless, quirky characters and quickly find yourself deeply attached to the little buggers as they merrily skip across the screen. You watch them struggle for survival, day and night. Eventually, you fall in love with them and their adorably nifty personalities. Then late one night, a pair of shadowy arms mercilessly tears them from you, as you flail desperately in the hopes that something you do will the stop them.
Alas, the night consumes them and you’re left with a broken heart and a need for some space from the game. Or you could have just accidentally set your base, and your self, on fire while moving some things around, which is probably the lamest way to go. Well, next to starving.
Ever wonder how you would fare in a zombie apocalypse? Not very well if DayZ is any indication. This gritty survival game has you scavenging empty houses and fields searching desperately for food and water while also avoiding any and all encounters with the undead. You’ll need to find some ammo to help you deal with them but you’ll also have to keep in mind the presence of other players in the world who can be just as dangerous, or way, way more dangerous.
You’ll sneak up on someone as they rummage through a home, their life in your hands, as you debate whether or not to kill them and loot their corpse. Or you could try and reveal your presence to them, in the hopes that they too will prefer to cooperate rather than fight. But that puts you at risk of being gunned down and robbed. In a game where death is permanent such choices never becomes less nerve-wracking. Nowhere is safe. Snipers can pick you off from hundreds of meters away, you could be swarmed by zombies, or you could meet your fate at the hands of the very stranger you agreed to cooperate with not fifteen minutes ago when they suddenly snap and decide to murder you in cold blood.
This world changes you, it forces decisions on you that you often don’t want to make and therein lies the beauty of it all, the morbid reality of survival. The chaos that is DayZ simply wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for the principal mover at the heart of it all: permadeath. Watch your back out there.
Shifting gears to Turn-based strategy: XCOM: Enemy Unknown ushered in a rebirth of the classic series. Notoriously difficult, XCOM has always been about making difficult and sometimes punishing choices, sending your team into harms way to take on extra terrestrial foes hungry to tear them apart. The experience of your troops matters a great deal. More experienced soldiers can get away with making daring and rewarding moves against the enemy that would typically leave some punk-rookie face down in a pool of blood.
Managing your resources and planning your every move isn’t enough. You can spend as long as you like deliberating your next turn but you’ll still have to watch it all unfold with bated breath, praying that your plans pan out. The devastation of a botched turn is heart breaking. Especially when it means the loss of a soldier you’ve been carefully fighting with since the first mission.
This War of Mine
One of the few games in the industry that takes war seriously, This War of Mine puts you in charge of a group of survivors trying to get by in a war-torn land. Instead of playing some sort of super-human-mega-death-machine-Rambo soldier, you guide survivors through rubble and ashes in search of food, medicine, ammo, and anything you can get your hands on really.
Permadeath comes into play with the survivors, who are basically your life pool. Once one of them dies they’re gone for good so you’ll want to do everything you can to keep them going. Be careful with what you find, though. Giving your survivors alcohol and cigarettes may have seemed like a great idea at first but you’ll quickly learn that you really were better without that stuff. Depression and alcoholism are only steps away in this dark and gloomy reality and once your survivors slip into such cesspools of melancholy it takes a lot to get them out. Strangers will come to your base asking for help in the form of resources or pleading for shelter. They’ll tell you heartbreaking stories, making it all the more painful to turn them away for fear of stretching your resources too thin and dooming everyone.
Every life matters in this dystopian strategy game, and it weighs heavily on you.
After leveling a “normal” hero to level 10 the game offers you the choice of making a “hardcore” character. The game plays out in exactly the same way but now death is permanent. No longer can you troll leap into a massive horde of foes and spam buttons randomly until you’re sent back to town in a hearse with some slightly dinged gear only to do it all over again. No, in this mode you don’t get to make mistakes.
Every time you leave the safety of town you feel an unshakable sense of mortality. Suddenly it’s not so fun to be surrounded on all sides by dozens of Khazra goat men with a champion foe bee-lining it towards you. Fights on hardcore mode are nothing like those on normal. The fear of a permanent death looms over every action you take. Potion popping has to be done at exactly the right time, enemies need to be kited and managed masterfully, and situational awareness has never been more important, unless of course you would enjoy watching your hero lose their only life to a one-hit KO.
Worst of all, everything your character was carrying is lost forever. So unless you’ve been stashing sets of gear in your chest throughout the journey get ready to start back at level 1 in your skivvy’s.
Picture building a giant fortress over the course of a month, carefully collecting rare ores and blocks from deep underground while navigating monsters hiding in the dark and lava pools just waiting to punish you for a reckless step. In these circumstances every single block collected feels like an achievement, every cave or tunnel excavated becomes a legendary triumph, and every night as the monsters grow stronger your will to survive grows with it.
It’s amazing that such a simple mechanic can turn an aimless do-it-yourself lego-like builder into a hardcore adventure game. If you haven’t tried it before, this might just be the kick in the pants your Minecraft experience needed to feel fresh and exciting again. Just be careful when you’re up there working on the fifth floor. Wouldn’t want you to fall off an-………….. damn.
Looking for something with a little more direction than Minecraft? Terraria offers a great 2d dungeon delving, boss infested alternative. Oh and it also comes with a permanent death option.
Much like Minecraft, permadeath amps things up to create yet another harrowing experience out of this otherwise inviting world. Everything you find and build will disappear in an instant should you let your guard down. Your first priority is to build up your defenses and hope you’re lucky enough to find some epic enchanted gear. You also really can’t afford to run out of torches while exploring underground, lest you find yourself viciously obliterated by those hopping slimes in the darkness. By the way, we’re all still very perplexed with how it is they manage to commit such violence with their squishy, limbless bodies.
The Oregon Trail
What’s a permanent death list without a tip of the hat to this PC classic? This educational adventure tasks you with guiding a group of settlers across America while keeping as many of them alive as possible. Death will put up one hell of a fight though, using measles, snakebites, and various diseases to ensure none of your settlers make it. And if dysentery should fail to kill them all, you can always count on an accidental gunshot wound to get the job done.
You can probably find a way to play it on the web these days. See how you fare.
Fire Emblem: Awakening
If you’ve yet to experience the joys of this series, you’re missing out. Continuing the tradition of excellent gameplay and a compelling narrative, this tactical RPG will have you plotting your next move as you attempt to pick your battles and outmaneuver your foes. And you’ll want to be careful out there, as every member of your party is liable to drop dead if they are outmatched. The loss is nothing short of devastating. Awakening does such an incredible job immersing you in it’s events that you’ll care for many, if not all, the characters you meet. Their personalities are dynamic and they can even fall in love, giving you the chance to become invested in every one of them, and their children.
The game thoroughly indulges in the permanent death mechanic, treating players to amazing cut scenes when a hero dies. Witnessing these moments is sure to drown you in a hazy mix of devastating sorrow and blind fury. Few games come close to matching the emotional high and lows of this 3DS masterpiece.
The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings
The Witcher games have never been anything to scoff at. Every iteration challenges Geralt to take on brutish foes and nasty beasts. In a world so full of danger you’d probably want to stay as far away as possible from permanent deaths. Yet the Witcher II’s “Insane” difficulty taunts you to take on just such an impossible task.
With one life, you are expected to finish the game in it’s entirety. No re-spawning, no second chances. This was nothing short of ludicrous for most players. A difficult game by any standard, rich with mechanics and intricacies, the Witcher was never eager to hold your hand and guide you. Instead, players were often expected to venture into the unknown with little information, left to discover all the dirty secrets and treacherous foes that await them in every swamp, forest and tavern in Temeria. Considering that some enemies would easily one-shot you if you faced them unprepared, Insane mode really challenged the player, as every truly great permanent death mode ought to, to put themselves in the Geralt’s shoes and truly fear for their safety. You’ll spend hours in preparation, mixing oils and crafting gear, yet a single mistake could still cost you your life, like say, I don’t know, pissing off a troll and incurring his boulder throwing wrath maybe?
There are a lot of other great Permanent death games out there, what are you favorite implementations of the mode? What are your thoughts on permanent death in video games? Do you think more games could use the addition? Any painful, not so fond memories of the feature? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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This post was originally authored by Ahmed Khattab.