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August 3, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design

Reaping the Consequences

If permadeath in RPGs is anything like Fire Emblem, don't ever sign me up with the hardcore.

Permadeath--the idea that a video game character gets one life, ever, and must start completely over in case of fatality--is generally restricted to gung-ho online gamers, who can usually be considered insane in the first place, or the Steel Battallion series, which is unquestionably mad (sure, I'll pay $200 for a video game that comes with a fake cockpit for the giant robot and deletes my save game if I die. Then we can practice home trepanation for fun). But it's also a "feature" of the Fire Emblem series, a series of cute wargames that permanently removes from play any units that fall on the field.

If I were trapped on a desert island (one that somehow had power generators--what kind of desert islands are these scenarios, anyway?) with a single game, it'd be Advance Wars, so I figured I'd like Fire Emblem too--same company, same basic gameplay with a few twists. I could handle the death thing, I figured. I was wrong. When a character gets wiped out, they make this little speech about how they'll never see Paris or something, and it hits me right in the perfection reflex. I can't help it: I immediately restart the level from the beginning and try to get through it without losing any of the main characters. I have to start the battle over, actually, because the designers have anticipated that I might just save a game while everyone is alive and then reload it, so they added backup autosaves after every turn. I appreciate the idea, but I wish they'd just let me cheat.

This wouldn't be so frustrating if it weren't the astonishing weakness of some of the troops. Of course, if the player doesn't use them, they won't get any stronger, so you've got to take them out--at which point the enemy AI will probably also take them out, if you know what I mean. I've played through the fifth level at least twenty times now, and this Ross kid keeps biting the dust. Which means I keep starting over. I've about reached the limit of my patience with it.

If I just let the virtual grim reaper carry off the odd straggler, I'd probably have a much easier time. But games elicit a powerful impulse to do things perfectly and minimize loss. I'll only play through this thing once, probably, so I don't want to miss out, and I don't want to get slammed in later levels because I let one too many units pass on. Instead, I may just pass on the game. I am not this hardcore. I've got better things to do.

Indeed, if the permadeath experience is indicative of anything, it's how little tolerance for mistakes that games instil in players, and how players react to that. The people who are the biggest fans of permadeath are not really interested in realism, I'd guess. They're interested in perfection--they want to force players to play a completely clean, rational, sterile strategy. Perhaps it appeals to their heightened sense of order. Maybe they're just jerks. Either way, their obsession is unnatural compared to other media. While my other hobbies--music, writing, a rare sketch or two--can find new opportunities or inspiration in mistakes, I'm not aware of any game that rewards errors, other than the sense of recovering from them. That's too bad. Mistakes add richness to life. They're at the heart of scientific progress, and the inevitable byproduct of any creative endeavor. We should be encouraging mistakes in interactive media. I just have no idea how to do it.

I know how I'm not going to do it, and that's playing through level five again. It gets one more try, and then me and Fire Emblem--and permadeath with it--are quits.

Future - Present - Past