How Permadeath Changed Games

Permadeath is a fairly new trend, showing up in tons of new games. It's captured the indie scene by storm - but it's not a new tool. Games like Hades, Risk of Rain 2, and the Binding of Isaac have made a stunning leap forward in the gaming scene and this article can tell you why permadeath has changed gaming.

How Permadeath Changed Gaming

The gaming industry has seen a surge of permadeath mechanics. Best sellers like Hades (and soon Hades 2) and Vampire Survivors have used to great effect. In fact, the genre of “roguelike” (or rogue-lite) has exploded in the past decade, becoming a phenomenon. Larger studios like Sony Interactive’s Housemarque have joined the mix as well, with their game Returnal. The genre thrives in indie especially, with games such as MonolithNuclear Throne, and Inscryption being incredible. (On a personal note, play Inscryption. Fantastic game.)

As a concept, permadeath can be a turnoff for some gamers. Naturally, the style doesn’t fit games with heavy story, like God of War or Halo – though there’s ways to work around it. Another issue is how games like Darkest Dungeon allow you to create characters, name then, and so on – just for those characters to die and everything to be lost. It’s a lot of effort than can be lost in mere seconds of poor playing. Plus, a (near) complete restart on death means high difficulty. So how exactly has permadeath (and the roguelike genre) changed gaming?

Hades II - Reveal Trailer

The Origins of Permadeath

Permadeath has its primary origins in the game called Rogue – which, by the way, is why the roguelike genre is called what it is. The game involves a character exploring a randomly-generated dungeon full of enemies and items. Sound familiar?

Yes, there is clear reason to why roguelikes are…rogue like. Roguelikes, generally, can be explained as role-playing games where the player crawls through a dungeon, obtains upgrades and fights enemies with the threat of permanent death. For example, Spelunky HD (and its sequel) has the player scour through caves looking for a long lost treasure. In Risk of Rain 2, while not a dungeon, the player has to explore and obtain items in order to escape the planet. Another important part of roguelikes is that they tend to be brutally difficult in nature.

This all works due to the risk and mechanic of permanent death. In all roguelike games, if the player dies, they lose all of their progress and have to restart from nothing. Some games however add in persistent upgrades or unlocks.

How Permadeath is Fun

While not universal, there’s a large amount of players addicted to the gameplay loop of permadeath games. They are designed to be played quickly and on a whim; The Binding of Isaac has seconds between opening the game and playing. Most games also give a direct “Retry” option on the death screen in order to completely reduce that friction. In all of the images above, the only game without an immediate retry option is Noita, which takes only an additional click.

This is what gives permadeath games their edge – they’re stupidly easy to replay. Even Rogue reviewers back in the 80’s mentioned going in for “one more try”. Some games also try giving you consistent progress, like different unlocks (Enter the Gungeon and the Binding of Isaac being good examples), new characters, and so on. Hades does this particularly well, crafting a story that unfolds as you die, encouraging the player more. 

Aries comments on your progress in Hades.

Aries comments on your progress in Hades.

Because of all of this, and because it’s so easy for just one more game, these games are addictive. I personally have found myself going for another round of Spelunky 2 way too often. These games try to make it harder to stop playing than it is to (re)start them.

How Permadeath Changed Games

That’s the title of the article, and also why you’re here! Permadeath has exploded in the past decade as smaller and more amateur developers have made increasingly complex and interesting games. From the original flash version of the Binding of Isaac to technically impressive games like Noita, smaller studios have significantly improved on the roguelike formula. Even still games like Vampire Survivors are creating their own spins on the genre – itself becoming a sort of subgenre.

On a more personal note, permadeath is a mechanic I like a lot. Obviously the points above included – but something about the amount of content a roguelike can give you is awesome. I’ve enjoyed playing more story focused games like It Takes Two, for sure. But typically indie roguelikes cost way less for a ton more replay value. Not only that, but permadeath has influenced me as a game designer. Making a roguelike or adding permadeath mechanics is an incredibly fun thing to design. Heck, I played a bunch of games for screenshots for this very article!

So, what was once a niche subgenre for quote-unquote “hardcore gamers” has flowed gently into the mainstream. And with the recent announcement of Hades 2, the future is looking as bright as ever. 

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