The Problem With Permanent Death

"Here in video games," game designer Matt Burns tweeted last week, "we invented a new word, 'permadeath', to describe what in real life is called 'death'." Hilarious, right? We assume that if we die in a game, all we have to do is hit the continue button to come back to life, so we've come up with a brand new term to describe what it's like to lose somebody for real. Permadeath.

This is a concept most recently exhibited in Fire Emblem: Awakening, an excellent strategy-role-playing game that comes out for 3DS next week. At the beginning of Awakening, after selecting a difficulty mode, you can choose between two gameplay modes: Classic and Casual. In Casual mode, when one of your characters loses all of his hit points, he'll stop fighting. In Classic mode, the character will die. Permanently. You won't be able to use him in combat again.

If you play a lot of RPGs, this might seem like a strange choice. Usually, when one of your party members or companions loses all of their health, they'll pop back to life before the next battle, Aeris-related deaths notwithstanding. But in Awakening, as in most Fire Emblem games, dead soldiers are dead for good. All of that work you put into levelling up their stats and building their relationships? Kaput.

Ask an experienced Fire Emblem fan what mode to use, and he or she will tell you that it's not Fire Emblem without permadeath. But here's the thing. Most people playing Awakening won't actually let permadeath affect them. Most people, from what I've seen both at Kotaku and during chatter on Twitter and gaming message boards, will just restart the game whenever they lose somebody they care about.

It's only human, after all. Loss is hard enough to deal with in real life: do we really have to experience that sort of tragedy in our interactive entertainment, too? I mean, come on. We spent like five hours grinding.

On the other hand, if you're going to just restart the game every time you lose someone, why even bother using permadeath in the first place? I asked Kirk Hamilton that question the other day, and he said something like "Well duh, I play totally differently with permadeath on." Which to me sounds like nonsense.

I mean, yeah. With permadeath on, you move around the battlefield more carefully. You pay extra attention to your characters' health and strategy, because leaving someone out of position just once can lead to their untimely demise — and force you to lose a ton of progress. So as much as I hate to admit it, Kirk does make some sense.

But what's the fun in hitting the reset button over and over?

Screw it. I'm going to try something new. In my game of Awakening, I'm playing with permadeath, and I'm not going to restart. Not once. Whatever happens, happens.

It's worth a try, right? Sure, I might lose hours of work with a few bad decisions, and I might wind up whittling down my army until all of Ylisse is destroyed, but hey. That's just part of the fun.

Maybe I'll write a diary of the experience. Maybe I'll regret it. I will probably regret it.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


    Agree fully. If you play differently because of permadeath knowing death just means a restart, playing without restarts is going to be different again.

    Make the choices you make in a game mean something.

    A fair point. It's really up to the player to determine whether restarting is okay or not. I've played quite a few Fire Emblem games and I don't plan on going Casual any time soon, but you do raise a good point. If there's a unit I've particularly invested a lot of time in and I see them die, I will most often restart the game.
    However, Fire Emblem is usually a pretty hard game. Often a mission will take several tries to actually complete. To me, permadeath means sacrifice. When you're playing the game, if you lose someone you really care about, you'll probably restart. However, if it's a mission you've spent hours on and you're desperate for victory, sometimes you have to accept that unit's death as a necessary loss. If you keep restarting you'll NEVER win, so you need to accept a few losses and move on. I think that's where permadeath's true nature comes in. It's not about restarting to avoid losing anyone ever, it's about knowing when restarting is a bad decision to make.

    Though, it depends on the game. I have yet to play Awakening, but the games vary in how saves work. Some you just save every turn and restart to avoid losing the units (yes this contradicts what I've been saying) while others will limit when you can save.

    Not sure which awakening is, kinda hoping the latter...

    Ahh this turned into a wall of text very fast ^^;

      Yeah, this is how I feel as well. Weighing up whether or not to restart based on the character you lose is what makes it interesting for me.

      I'm just glad permadeath is an option in this game so everybody can play the way they want.

    There is no reason for perma death to be an option. Without it, it is no longer a game, you can just mash A to win.

    Perma death actually makes it a strategy game, it allows them to set a difficulty and then punish you for mistakes. Hence the name Tactical (or Strategy) RPG. If you remove this or even chose to play without it (Which I disagree with it even being an option) then there are no consequences, the difficulty ceases to exist. What then is the reason to play when it doesn't matter what you do? To see the Story? No you could just Google it and read the story , wait a week and i bet even some youtuber will have the entire game cut scenes and story to watch.

    So to me I don't see the point of having perma death off, it only detracts from the experience. Its like an easy mode dark souls, when you remove the difficulty the whole point of the game is lost.

    In regards to the rest of the article, its quite natural to want to restart the LEVEL not the game (which you seemed to not have differentiated properly in the article). You may just want all the characters to live or to not have wasted training them. But i think the main reason people restart is for the challenge. The point of restarting is to win, to prove you can i suppose 100% the game, finish it and no one dies its a victory. If you finish it but had to sacrifice some of your guys then you weren't good enough. At least thats the way i play it.

    Last edited 02/02/13 3:36 pm

      Having options is always better than not having them, not everyone wants to play the game the same way you do.

      How is there no reason to open up a game to a wider audience?
      You've got to remember that not everyone has the same tastes as you and sometimes when they do, real life gets in the way of these tastes.
      I for one am so happy to hear about the removal of perma-death from this game because otherwise I wouldn't have bought it. My busy schedule just doesn't allow for such things.
      Years ago when I was single I was always on the lookout for harder challenges in video games but these days, married with a child, should I not be included in one of my favourite hobbies?

        Then why are you playing the game?, certainly not for the strategy because without perma death there isnt any, you can just rambo in to win. So the only thing left is the story which as I said you can look up on youtube, so i find it hard to believe a family man and all wants to spend the $50 odd just for the small story elements.

        So i dont see your motivation for playing at all, which is why i see no reason for a permadeath option.

          There is so much more to this game than the strategy that is created by perma-death. You are selling it short.
          Fair enough if that's all you get out of it.

          Because that's all some people want to do. Having never played this particular game I can't comment on that aspect of it, but the death/permadeath things has been an argument for a long time.
          Some people just like to jump into a game and blow seven bells out of things without having to worry about loosing all their stuff too. It's called a "game" for a reason.

    The stories in Fire Emblem games are always great and I love them, but ultimately FE is about tactical gameplay and the challenge of getting through unscathed, which becomes moot once permadeath is turned off. There are many ways to play FE, but I think that there are only a few "right" ways to play, which is what I personally enjoy about the franchise - finding the perfect path.

    A better example of permadeath, though, is Valkyrie Profile on DS. You can basically sacrifice a character for a huge special attack or advantage, but they're gone forever. Its an interesting tradeoff, which is the only thing really missing from FE. FE doesn't give you much reason to not reset if a character dies (in other words, there's not much tactical advantage to letting a character die).

    It may even be fun to have a Hardcore Mode in FE where you are penalised for resetting, or the game autosaves when a character dies, so you can't reset.

      I would love to play that every move would be nail biting. Though perhaps a full campaign like that might not be so good, maybe a shorter version or something you unlock after beating the hardest setting.

        Yeah it would defs be an unlock after Hard Mode.
        But I, personally, would love to play a mode like that over the full campaign. Thats what I like about permadeath, at the end seeing who you lost and where, mourning their death for a second, then starting all over and trying again.
        Defs not for everyone, thats alot of time commitment, but FE fans are pretty dedicated.

    Back in the good old days of Ultima, when my party members died, they died. However, I could always get another party member to carry their body (after emptying the body and the carrier of inventory) and then carried this body to a healer for resurrection. Perhaps a less drastic but more fun compromise?

    Noob question: is this game playable on a regular DS or must it be a a 3DS?

      Awakening is 3DS only. Comes out in April in Australia.

      (There is a Fire Emblem game on the DS, but it's not very good in my opinion :P)

        Apparently we're supposed to have it available via eshop on the 4th...

    for a gaming audience like us, you could have abbreviated this article to say 'im going to play fire emblem ironman style and see what happens'.

      I hear what you're saying, but as someone who's never played and isn't likely to play Fire Emblem, I'm glad Jason went into detail.

    X-COM ironman mode. How could anyone forget that!?!?

      I was about to say that. I still weep for my soldiers.

    I see what you say but try this on Maniac mode....... haha

    Makes me think of games like Max Payne, where I guess you could say I completed the game without taking a hit ever because I'd quicksave/quickload hard, meaning I'd then know where everyone in a room was.

    I've never played a Fire Emblem game (yet), but it makes sense to me that a strategy RPG would have permadeath. The whole point of this kind of game is that you plan and use a strategy, weigh up your options, and occasionally make sacrifices. Permadeath adds to the game-play because without it players are more likely to rush in and just go straight for victory without having to strategize. Where's the fun in that? Having said that though, I like the idea of having an option of permadeath or not-so-perma death. Maybe some players are like me and they suck at these types of games. Personally I would like to play through without permadeath, but still play to the best of my ability, and then once I've finished go back and replay with permadeath.

    restarting is what makes it I think. I was stuck on one map for days trying not to let a character die once in the gba ones and finally clearing it with everyone standing felt so good

    I remember the first time i played a fire emblem game, I lost alot of my people a few maps in. ahh good times.

    be a man and use permadeath without restarts!

    I never played FE but I would probably lose interest in a game if I had to start again. I'm not sure how long a time investment you would need but I play WoW where you could have characters for years and I'd hate to lose a character permanently but some pvp-ers would like a permadeath option in WoW.
    After your character is deleted it would take about six weeks to reroll another character although some brag about doing it in a week or two which would be 24/7

    Honestly, I don't see the point of permadeath if you are just going to restart anyway. Having the option to not use it is pretty much a timesaver. Or, maybe some people would like to play it more like standard RPGs.

    Rambo: What's wrong with enjoying Rambo-ing in and killing everything? If someone enjoys that are you going to tell them their fun was invalid because it didn't come with a challenge?

    I always think having an easy option is a good thing, you wouldn't stop somebody from reading a book they paid money for if there was one chapter they couldn't comprehend, likewise you shouldn't stop somebody from playing a game because there's one mission too hard for them to beat.
    Certainly keep the hard option for those that like the challenge, but for those people just trying to build up their soldiers relationships and such, permadeath could simply turn them right off the game.

    The point of perma death is that, if you restart, you don't progress. You have to be extremely careful whith what you do with your weak characters (in the fire emblem games I've played, the emeny will often target the weakest, often resulting all its life in one turn). This changes the strategy. You can't simply 'sacrifice' a character and see them later. You either loose them and progress, or keep them and stay at the same level,

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