Why Permadeath is not a great idea for games tabula rasa

One criticism that I see crop up repeatedly in comment threads whenever Permanent Death is mentioned is that I chose to play a game (Far Cry 2) that I had plenty of prior experience with. This is a valid criticism – but only if I were trying to somehow prove how good I am at games. That’s not what Permanent Death was about. I’m really not that great at games.

I recently decided to try and play a new game in the Permadeath style ‘fresh’ and with no prior experience whatsoever – Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Suffice to say, I immediately headed off in the wrong direction; I approached mission targets in completely the wrong order; I ended up skipping all the on-screen tutorials that would have been quite helpful and only returned to them at the very last.

However I stumbled through and managed to survive even a rather serious chest wound by applying some kind of field dressing. But then, at the last objective remaing for the first mission, I got shot in the head. And I died. And that was the end of the Permadeath run. It was long, it was boring, and ultimately it was both extremely unsatisfying and devoid of any kind of personal meaning.

Anthony Burch talked at GDC recently about what Permadeath means for Far Cry 2 in the context of its themes, systems and narrative. In the briefest of summaries, it brings all of the game together and makes it hurt with a brutal clarity that is like a slap in the face – actions like the death of your buddies (even their survival) actually start to mean something to a player.

To criticise the Permanent Death exercise as being “wasted” on a game I was already well versed in is to completely misunderstand the point of the venture. All it tells me is that you didn’t get it, which is fine, but it also limits your ability to engage with the discussion.

This isn’t a personal issue for me – I’m not actually offended when people bring up these and other criticisms of Permanent Death, legitimate or otherwise. Yes, please, feel free to criticise the quality of writing. Please also feel free to critique the narration or my choice of rendering the final act as a strange kind of post-death post-script. If you are doing any of those things it means that you care enough to engage with Permanent Death. It means that you are actually reading the gigantic thing and that is, frankly, both a thrilling prospect to me personally and at the same time all I could ever ask for it.