Over the past few days, Ninja Theory’s new title Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has caused ripples within the gaming community with talk surrounding its save system. Allegedly, the game will delete the player’s save file after a certain amount of deaths, forcing the player to start the game from scratch – this is commonly referred to as ‘permadeath’, and is already featured prominently in games such as Fire Emblem and Binding of Isaac.
The inclusion of such a feature in Hellblade has yet to be categorically proven nor denied – though some folks have already tested the feature extensively and found that the game may in fact be bluffing. Nevertheless – real or not – it’s certainly caused a fair bit of chatter, both positive and negative. It begs the question – is permadeath a fair gaming mechanic, or is it too harsh?
As games have evolved, it’s safe to say that they’ve also gotten more and more accessible as the years go by. Mechanics such as regenerating health and auto save have allowed gamers to quest with reckless abandon, safe in the knowledge that their failures come with little to no consequences. Even the Dark Souls series, famed for its intense difficulty, allows you to restart indefinitely upon death, with the only consequence being the potential loss of ‘souls’ – the game’s EXP and currency. Otherwise, you’re free to tackle the game over and over again – at least until you launch your controller out the window.
Compare this to games from the NES era, and you’re looking at quite a different picture. Games such as Super Mario Bros and Mega Man would grant you with a limited number of lives, but once those lives have been depleted, that’s it, game over. The games would put you back onto the title screen and you’ll need to start over from the beginning.
In all fairness, this is more due to the limited capabilities of the hardware at the time, and many games, including Mega Man, would circumvent this with a password enabled save system. It could also be argued that thanks to the short, arcade-like nature of the games, permadeath wouldn’t have much of an impact on the experience. Still, the point still stands – these were hard games, and failure resulted in severe consequences.
Today’s games are, generally, much longer than they were back in the day. Depending on the genre, you’d probably be looking at anywhere from ten hours to over one hundred, or in some cases an indefinite amount of time. Permadeath, whilst an enticing prospect for dedicated gamers, simply wouldn’t work in many of today’s franchises. Could you imagine getting through the majority of Uncharted only to be forced to start over upon death? It wouldn’t work in such a story-driven title, and you can guarantee there would be widespread condemnation.
On the flip side, there are certainly some titles that benefit greatly from the constant threat of permadeath. ZombiU (later titled Zombi following a rerelease) features one of the most inspired permadeath mechanics I’ve ever seen in gaming. You assume the role of a random survivor in the midst of a zombie outbreak in London. If you die in the game, you take on the role of an entirely different person. The previous character will then become part of the zombie horde, becoming the very thing you’re tasked with eliminating. If you want to reclaim your lost items, you must hunt down the zombified version of your initial character and destroy it once and for all.
Granted, it’s a mechanic bereft of any true meaningful consequence to the player and is actually very similar to how Dark Souls deals with death, but it’s a nice touch other than the simple ‘die, reload, repeat’ mechanic seen in the majority of games. Additionally, ZombiU also gives you the option to play the game in a ‘hard-core’ mode, which removes the option to restart the game as a different character. If you die, you die. Back to the beginning you go. Still, compared to something like Uncharted, this mechanic simply works in a zombie apocalypse game such as this. It give the player both a sense of urgency and forces your actions to be more deliberate, more considered. It heightens the fear in a way that couldn’t be achieved if you were granted an infinite number of retries.
Developers need to take more risks in their games – that much is clear – but permadeath is certainly a mechanic that needs to be handled with great care. There’s a fine line between enhancing an experience and completely ruining it. A game’s length would need to be considered, along with its theme and content. Gamers are easily pissed off, and they sure like to complain. But they also want something new, unique, and they thrive off a challenge.