Last year Han Cilliers wrote an opinion piece titled, "Death as the cornerstone for immersion in video games" her article centered around this quote:
“Death produces focus and causes change. Without death (whether symbolically or actually) a game has no purpose, no reason to pick up the gun and no sense of motion. Without death there are no wins. There is only activity.” Tadhg Kelly
Today I want to expand on that topic, with a focus on permadeath as the ultimate game mode. I will use Batman: Arkham Origins as the stage for my story.
I like Batman. I like Batman in the comics, I like Batman in the movies, I like Batman on TV and yes, I most definitely like Batman in videogames. With that shocking revelation it should surprise no one that the Arkham games all have a place in my personal top ten. Yes, even Arkham Origins, technical mess of a game that it may be. Because it was Arkham Origins that gave me my first taste of permadeath.
Permadeath, for those that don’t know, is a gameplay mode where you have one chance to complete the game and dying results in all your progress being lost and your save file getting auto deleted. It isn’t that new of a concept and actually predates Diablo II, the game that popularised the term. If losing all your lives in the old arcade games doesn’t qualify as permadeath then I don’t know what does. If you died and were out of money, that was it. There were no continues and no saves to reload. All of your progress and effort was for naught.
“I am the Night”
So yes, that brings me back to Batman: Arkham Origins. After completing the New Game+ mode, you’re given the option to give it another go on “I am the Night” mode. In terms of challenge it matches Hard, but one death deletes your save file and resets your progress.
As a member of the Batman faithful and a player of not insignificant skill I decided to give it a bash. How hard could it be really? Having completed the game at least twice already, I was already aware of the challenges to come and thus I felt I was prepared. I had completed a number of the challenge maps already, and was quite skilled at the stealth portions of the game. Again, how hard could it really be?
Vrek hard, as it turns out. Since I was already familiar with the layout of the city and sequence of story encounters, my progress was quite swift. My first death came less than two hours in while making my assault on the Penguin’s ship. Sniper bullet in the back, if you were curious.
I was livid. I lost because of carelessness and there was no quick reload as an option to continue. Playing “I am the Night” was so obviously a terrible idea. Why anyone would put themselves through this nonsense was beyond me. So of course I tried again, without a moment’s hesitation.
I found my next death at the games first boss fight against Deathstroke. Was this ever a painful experience? Crushing defeat, after crushing defeat and yet I kept banging my head against this mode. I was the Batman; I wasn’t giving up, despite my better judgement. That happened three or four times, but I eventually pulled through. And there were a couple more deaths after that as well, yet I kept restarting from the beginning until eventually I did complete the game with a single life.
That’s nice, but why?
So why did I keep playing? Why did I keep at this permadeath mode? The gameplay fundamentally remained the same, X was still attack, and Y was still counter. There was no secret ending or fan service Easter egg hidden away. Victory, in this case was its own reward.
It was the motivation for playing that changed, though, and that changed dramatically. One of the things people often say about the Arkham games is that they make you feel like you are Batman and that sentiment is at its truest during “I am the Night”. Like the ‘real’ Batman, it takes all your skill and all your perseverance and all your patience to see the quest through. Just one mistake, one moment of carelessness, one luck shot from a thug and it’s all over.
Every enemy encounter is wound tight with more tension and every victory rewarded with greater glory. Everything just carries more weight. Each decision feels more important. Playing “I am the Night” just makes the game feel more important, somehow.
The mode Arkham deserves, but not the one it needs
Here’s the thing I came to understand about permadeath modes. It isn't about challenge, though it is challenging, but about attitude. Your mind-set is completely different when playing under these circumstances. In Arkham Origins normal modes, I would take on every group of thugs I encountered, because the combat is very satisfying and it’s just plain fun to wail on thugs. Now, I regarded them much more wearily, since every enemy was a legitimate threat. I had to really think if it was worth it pouncing on a group that was just standing around minding its own business.
In stealth mode, I would often try for stylish takedown. Now it was whatever was most effective, that would draw the least attention and get me out alive. I wasn’t worried about getting achievements or looking good, I was worried about survival and stopping the Joker. This, I would imagine, was pretty close to Batman’s own mind-set. Playing it this, really put me in the Cape and Cowl.
You learn when playing a game with permadeath, that most games are beaten through attrition. It’s often time less about skill and more about luck and stubbornness. In Call of Duty, if you just keep hammering at it, eventually you’ll pull through. Rush in, scout what’s coming, die, and then restart from a convenient save point, with a better understanding of what’s coming. There is no consequence.
But when the tiniest mistake means hours of play can just disappear, that’s when you really start to play a game. You start to think carefully about every move. You stop just forcing the narrative forward, but actually start to play the game. It’s a difficult sensation to accurately convey, but at the risk of spewing out a pseudospiritual nugget, it could be said the game just feels more pure.
It’s not a mode that will suit every game, but where it does work is in games with strong gameplay fundamentals. To put yourself through the torture that is a permadeath mode, the game absolutely has to be fun to play, else there’s no reason to keep playing. It’s why it works so well in Diablo II, DayZ and Xcom, because the base gameplay is itself enjoyable.
Ultimately, the whole permadeath concept is a stupid one. But it’s that good kind of stupid that brings immense joy. Like bungee jumping and skydiving. Just with less horrifying consequences.
Talk to us about your feelings towards permadeath in video games. Necessary evil or a waste of time?
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Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd