What If Death In Video Games Was Permanent?

What If Death In Video Games Was Permanent?

What if death in video games meant something? What if you only had one life and to lose it meant you could no longer play that game? How would that affect your decisions? How would that change your style of play? These are all questions that the new iPhone game, One Single Life seeks to answer.

“In late 2009,” claims Lead Designer Anthony Dempsey, “I found myself pondering why I rarely felt genuine emotions like fear or anxiety in games. Then it struck me. The reason I was never truly afraid of that ‘perilous’ jump in an otherwise thrilling adventure game was that deep down, I knew the worst possible consequence was having to start the level over or be returned to the nearest checkpoint.

“The rules of the game told me ‘Failure is just a speed bump’ and sub-consciously I relaxed just a little. That got me thinking… What if there was a game with literally only one life? Where every action was meaningful and the consequences real? A game where the real skill was not in learning the controls but in being able to overcome one’s own fears and doubts when the moment of truth arrived.

“Like the pro footballer walking to the penalty spot in the World Cup Final, agonising over exactly the same question, I wanted to make a game which asks, ‘do I have what it takes when it matters most?'”

The game is available on the App Store now and is free. We asked Anthony what the rationale behind making the game free was.

“My hope has always been that as many players as possible would get a chance to experience this thrill,” claims Anthony. “However because of the subject matter (Permadeath) we risked turning a percentage of players away if they stood to lose their money immediately and the only real solution – if I was genuine about taking it to the masses – was to make the game free.”

It almost reminds me of the type of fear I felt after slotting my lunch money into Golden Axe in the arcade. You’ve paid your money. When the game ends it’s all over, and the consequences of that are important to an eight year old with extremely limited pocket money.

In some strange way I almost feel like the fact the game is free somehow removes some of the danger from the game, but I’m keen to try it regardless. What about you guys?


  • In Fire Emblem, the character deaths are permanent, so you won’t be able to use them anymore for the rest of the game. Most FE players will restart the chapter whenever someone dies so that the team won’t lose anyone.

    I haven’t played it, but I think I Wanna Be The Guy already has the one-life concept.

    In this iPhone game, are you able to replay the game from the start if you died? Or are you ‘locked out’ and won’t be able to play anymore, essentially wasting how much ever money it cost?

    • That’s exactly what came to mind for me when I read the title. This new game doesn’t give me the impression that there’s any emotion to be had. In fact, it looks like the kind of game I’d play till I died and then never play again anyway, thus defeating the point of not being able to play again. What incentive is there to play it again? In One Chance there were choices to make, your character had a family, there were emotional circumstances for you to consider. This new game just doesn’t look like a good genre for the single life feature.

  • I was thinking about a game like this but I decided that you couldn’t sell it. I didn’t make the leap that you could distribute for free. I’m extremely curious, although I got my taste for perma-death back with NetHack. Good times…

    • True, but you had to be pretty bad at the game to have it happen, it was obvious when you were at one of the few points in the game that death was possible, and you would still continue the game with other characters. On top of that, there really wasn’t any pressure, as you could just reload the chapter and have another crack.

  • Really like the concept and will check out the game. If you die though, can you uninstall then reinstall?

    I’d like to see a version of the first Super Mario Brothers using the same concept. Excited, you dash forward and BAM, run straight into the first Goomba. Game over! Sorry, find something else to play!

  • It’s like hardcore mode in Diablo.

    Except when you have a Diablo mod. In which case it’s nothing like hardcore mode in Diablo.

  • Remember Steel Battalion on the Xbox? It was the one with the crazy million-button controller. If you died in that, it wiped all your saves.

    Generally I think it’s an interesting thing to explore, but I’m not sure if it’s a good idea. If I can make a silly mistake or worse, if a game glitches, is badly tuned or otherwise not extremely carefully designed, then losing progress and having to start from the very start of the game would just be immensely frustrating and I imagine the first time it happens during a long session will be the last time that person plays the game, ever.

  • The article doesn’t explain what happens when you die – are you locked out of the game entirely?

    For my mind, that sense of anxiety or apprehension about decisions really only works in games that build up characters and the gameworld well. I don’t care much about a random jumping stick figure, but after 30+ hours with Anders the last arc of Dragon Age 2 becomes incredibly poignant.

    For death specifically, I think a “permadeth” penalty is often too great for something that should be – after all – an intriguing narrative experience rather than a frustrating money/time sink.

  • Nethack, ADOM and most rogue-like games only had one save and perma-death/save delete if you died.. The deeper in the dungeons you went, the higher your level and the more loot you accumulated, the more you protected your character.

    It was a really good concept and made you appreciate your fragility.

  • G’day guys!

    Great forum. I feel like I’ve stumbled upon a mad-keen group of gaming theologists (not just ranting gamers) as there are a lot of solid points and arguments made here. I’ll be back for sure.

    Director, Lead Design (One Single Life)

  • Very much like when I was a kid and had only 20cents pocket money a week. To die in a game meant no lollies and no game for a whole week.

    Maybe this is why using MAME lacks?

  • Hey look guys! Something that has been done many times before but now it’s on an Apple platform so let’s report on it!!!

    We get it!! Something on an Apple platform is a continuation of something done many times before. Could we PLEASE not look at it as if it is revolutionary and original?!?!

    By God, at this rate there will be reports on how awesome Apple are for having invented breathing oxygen.

      • So that’s why we have ANOTHER article on a concept with gaming done before that happens to also be on the Apple platform.

        • It’s just a quirky story – why take it so serious.

          The point is you can’t play it again. You can’t restart. Even if it has been done, this is a new game and an opportunity to invite discussion on an interesting topic.

          You’re missing the point.

          • So there are articles on Fire Emblem for it’s idea of a single death in a game? Or One Life on Newgrounds? Or NetHack? Steel Battalion or Armageddon (using this feature since 1991) or any one of the many many games using this same feature?

          • Are you reading what I’m writing or just ignoring it to troll? Cause your post makes it seem like the latter.

            New game. Just released. Chance to discuss interesting concept. The end.

          • So an app for an iProduct will also warrant a full feature article because it has the concept of shooting things?

            An interesting concept would be acceptable had it not come around and been used in quite a lot of games for the better part of 20 years.

          • Full feature?

            It was a quick post designed to start a discussion – a discussion you’re attempting to derail with your bullshit trolling.

            Nothing is original – but this is an interesting concept. So what if it’s been explored in a handful of other games, there’s absolutely no need to be a dick about it. This reeks of self serving, ‘look at me, look at all this stuff I know’ shit stirring.

            I don’t know why I took the bait to be honest.

          • It’s interesting that you’re also the one to post the iPad 3D feature a few days back that, like this article, others were quick to point out that it was not anything new or fanciful and had been achieved many times before.

          • Interesting that you’re trying to take the argument in a fresh new direction because you’re losing steam and making no sense at all.

            The iPad app was new. It worked with camera tracking. And even if it wasn’t the exact first time it had ever been seen that doesn’t stop it from being post worthy. Stop reaching.

            EDIT: You know what, don’t know why I got into this with you. I should be sleeping right now. Just be assured these went up because I thought they were interesting. Nothing more, no need to get all worked up about it… like we just did.

    • Raven, seriously, get over it man. No-one else has a problem with Mark starting a discussion about a new game or gaming tech that’s on current hardware.

  • I just tried this game, didn’t even know it existed until this article came up.

    Didn’t expect to complete it, and I didn’t. I think I just got past half way and then missed the jump.

    Was pretty fun, felt the tension rise. The jumps themselves didn’t feel harder, but the simple fact that you had accomplished so much and still was so vulnerable to failing; this was the source for all this tension for me.

    To me this sort of pressure is fine when the game bases itself or very much surrounds it. But say for games that I thoroughly enjoy the plot and want (or perhaps, need) to see the end (e.g. Mass Effect or Red Dead), I would go absolutely ape shit if I died and then never got the chance to finishing it.

    Thanks for bringing this game to the spotlight, interesting concept the developers were running on.

  • Oh, Mark, how you make me laugh.

    I’m reaching because I pointed out that this isn’t the first time that you praise a release on the Apple platform that achieves something that has already been done many times before?

    Yep, that’s totally it. You caught me…oh I’m so ashamed. Busted by iMark Serrels.

    • Just when I got all nice in a post edit, you go and say that.

      Come on man, this is so pointless. And you know you’re being unfair.

      • I didn’t see the edit till you just mentioned it.

        All I say is that my beef stems from the lack of mentioning those who pioneered the exact concepts mentioned in the articles.

        So agree to disagree?

        Either way, sleep well, Marky. (I should be sleeping as well)

        • Agree to disagree!

          Agree that I also need to sleep!

          Also – my bad for stealth edits – especially when you guys don’t have them yet!

    • Obvious troll is obvious, keep up the good work Mark, I enjoy the articles here and ‘most’ of the discussions it creates in the comments.

      I for one have never heard of games that had this feature before and am glad that people mentioned previous games that do, no need to get riled up about it though.

    • So if Mark Webber wins the F1 in a Red Bull, no-one should congratulate him or talk about it because the championship has been won before in a Ferrari? 😛

  • Like a lot of people are saying – it`s been done before. The most noteable example, however, is not your obscure JRPGs, but good ol Diablo, with its hardcore mode. Obviously, none of you have ever raised a barbarian to the 5th act, only to have baal spawn an extra set of tentacles for some reason that proceed to kick your ass in a heart beat. Easily, the biggest rage i have ever had in a video game. I actually punched a whole through my bedroom wall.

    Ill admit that the threat of permanent death certainly intensifies the way you play – in particular, making you take a lot less chances. However, I dont believe death should be such a big punishment. Video game deaths are more about letting you know that you did something wrong, or took a wrong turn somewhere. If the fear of death was so great, there wouldn’t be any sense of exploration. People would be too chicken shit scared to attempt more than the most basic of strategies, on the most simplest of paths.

  • re: Raven v Mark – I’d like to point out that the success of the iPhone AppStore has finally given indie developers a chance at a very large commercial market and thus has resulted in an increasing number of interesting/noteworthy game concepts being experimented with – and while its certainly true that many of these ideas have been tried before (which is really no less true of the wider game industry as a whole), many of these prior examples are hardcore/niche/obscure and its really only thanks to the huge number of iDevices out there that these ideas have a chance of reaching a wider audience, and I think that gives these articles somewhat justified significance.

    In regards to the topic at hand though, the biggest problem with permadeath is that its really only feasible if the experience itself is largely throwaway – almost no-one’s going to play a huge story/rpg if there’s a chance of losing all your progress and potentially never being able to even see how the story ends. In arcade games it works because the challenge is all about seeing how far you can get without dying in the first place. Its certainly a very interesting concept from a game design perspective, but the reality of the money/time invested in playing makes it very hard to incorporate in a manner that won’t negatively affect players…

  • There is a way to bypass the whole “One Life, if you die once you can’t play it again” system.

    Just delete the app from your “i” device, and re-download.

    Simple really.

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