Working Around Permadeath

Why I Love Permadeath

I’ve always loved games that feature permadeath. Having a character die for good is realistic, which can improve immersion in the game world. I definitely felt that way when my soldiers died on ground missions in the super-tense game XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Permadeath also increases the stakes for every battle where dying is a possibility. For instance, in Fire Emblem: Awakening, you level characters, choose their classes, even marry them off to improve their stats — but in any battle, they could die, and you’d lose all that progress. It’s sad to see all of that hard work go to waste, which gives me more incentive to strategize with care in every battle.

Other times, permadeath has an emotional impact, too. Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission is heartbreaking if you lose a character — or several characters — you’ve come to care about. The Mass Effect series is known for its strong character development, letting your Commander Shepard have conversations with squadmates about everything from their military backgrounds to daddy issues. Getting to know the characters so personally makes the suicide mission even more emotionally intense.

ME2's suicide mission
ME2’s suicide mission

But video games have save points. And save points are temptations, even for permadeath-lovers like me.

My Death-Defying Fire Emblem Experience So Far

I started Fire Emblem: Awakening with the best intentions. I decided to let fate take its course and whisk my characters into the fictional afterlife whenever it was their time to go. It was sad and at times frustrating, but I let death happen. Then I moved on. When I heard about people who do the permadeath thing but reload battles when someone dies, I thought, “What’s the point of permadeath then?” I was confused, and I was tough, and I was going to let the blood spill when it spilled and not cry over it.

I'd save Gaius most of all.
I’d save Gaius most of all.

But at some point, I realized that I was missing out on too many great characters. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, you can marry characters to each other for stat boosts, and they’ll help cover each other by fighting in tandem or pushing one another out of harm’s way when an enemy sword, arrow, or spell gets too close.

This system is ridiculously fun, but it also means that you don’t just invest in individual characters: You invest in pairs. And that means that if you lose one, you lose something of the other, too. The stakes are just incredibly high.

Beyond marriage, your characters can also have children, who inherit some of their parents’ abilities. This makes strong pairings essential for unlocking more characters later. I’ve heard Donnel is a great father — you know, in terms of stat boosts to his kid and stuff — but I don’t have him around in my permadeath-ridden game. This means I’m missing out on him and the boosts he could offer his potential wife and child.

Maybe I’m just not very skilled at Fire Emblem: Awakening, but I’ve gotten to the point in the game where battles are suddenly very challenging. I’ve always been impatient, so occasionally I rush into battle with a little too much bravado and find key characters getting their health sliced away, fast.

At one point, Lissa died. And I love Lissa. I had her all ready to marry someone, and I’d switched her from her previous position as the resident healer to a pegasus knight so she could deal some damage of her own. I’d invested in her, and I refused to let another good character and potential mother die on my watch!


So I reloaded the battle to save Lissa. I made use of my previous save file, which is so video game-y of me. There’s nothing that breaks immersion in a game quite like a save file that lets you redo mistakes.

Dying is Easy, Resurrection is Hard

But maybe that’s exactly why we love games. Nothing is permanent in a video game with save files — not even permadeath. If Fire Emblem: Awakening had the autosave feature that games on other systems often have — rewriting past progress with the latest progress so you have just one save point at any given time — the stakes would have been even higher. Maybe they would have been too high.

Now that I’ve banished permadeath from my Fire Emblem: Awakening experience, I find myself more frustrated in some ways. Having to restart a battle tries my patience after I’ve failed a couple of times in a row. And there are even times when I want to let characters lay where they’ve fallen, because as much as I love them, they’re not essential to the progress I’ve made with the group as a whole. Do I leave those characters and only save the ones I need most? That would be playing god a little too much, and it might break the immersion too much for me to pick and choose like that, just for the sake of finishing a long battle.

I suppose the key for me will be taking care when I enter every fight and, you know, playing better. Sure, permadeath inspired me to play carefully so I wouldn’t lose characters, but working around permadeath is even more grueling. It’s a total boot camp for getting things right the first time, because otherwise, I have to restart the sequence over and over until I do get it right. When working around permadeath instead of embracing it, there is no room for failure.

Fortunately, I love Fire Emblem: Awakening, so I’m glad for the kick in the ass to improve this time.

— Ashley

17 thoughts on “Working Around Permadeath”

  1. I skimmed through mostly because I don’t need to want Fire Emblem any more than I already do, but I agree with you. The permanent death aspect is a big reason why roguelikes like FTL and Binding of Isaac also appeal so much. A mistake loses you the game forever, not just until reloading!

    Sure, it adds stress. But the good kind that immerses you more.

    1. I totally agree! It’s a kind of stress I enjoy. I’d definitely like to get FTL at some point soon, didn’t know about the permadeath in it. I can’t remember if you played XCOM or not, but Enemy Unknown is awesome for having realistic progression and missions that fail if people die (or if you pull out your soldiers because they’re about to die…), and if you lose too much support around the world, you have to restart the game.

      Also… just buy Fire Emblem: Awakening already! =)

  2. Very interesting article! I can totally see the appeal of permadeath and I can see how it would make a game both more intense and more immersive. Personally I would never choose to do it though. In games like Mass Effect where it’s occasional, I can deal with that, but having the constant threat of losing some of my favourite characters is too emotional for me! I only ever lost people in Mass Effect when it really couldn’t be avoided. I lost one person on the suicide mission in ME2 first time around and I actually reloaded and redid the whole thing just so I wouldn’t lose even one precious squadmember! Haha yeah I know, I know, that sounds a little extreme. I guess it’s come down to why you play. I play for escapism and I like shaping my own story and playing the way I want to play it and so if I can avoid having people die in any way, I’ll go out of my way to make sure that happens. I guess the appeal for a lot of games for me is in the characters and in the relationships, so I don’t want to lose those unless it’s to further the plot or would make the story particularly emotional. I like occasional high-impact losses, not the more realistic your friend could die at any moment kind of thing. Unless, I’m playing a bad character, then all bets are off! :D

    1. That’s true, it can be emotional! And if Mass Effect had permadeath, and every time a squad mate fell in battle the Medi-gel didn’t work…. OMG, I would not have made it through. So yeah, I can see where it could become TOO emotional in some cases, and I certainly wouldn’t want games to abuse permadeath if character development is important in a certain way to the story.

      If I could go back and start Fire Emblem over (well, I will at some point, but you know…), I wouldn’t play on Classic the first time. I’ve lost too many characters! But next time I’ll probably breeze through without the permadeaths to see what all the characters are like. =)

      1. Also a good one that doesn’t use Permadeath necessarily how you are describing here, but still well is Spelunky. Good game.

  3. Love this article! I’m not playing on perma-death for Fire Emblem for the first run. I think I’ve mentioned this before. It’s the high cost of losing someone and choosing to let them stay dead is what kills me the most. I want to be able to experience all the characters and the story at a leisurely pace. The fact that I would have to strategize better before sending someone off to battle is time consuming and nerve wracking. I plan on playing it on perma-death when I play it a second time. For now, I’m more relieved to get my characters back at the end of a battle! :)

    1. Yeah, I remember you saying you were playing without the permadeath this time. That’s a good idea for a first playthrough, I think. Now that I’m tackling permadeath, I’m looking forward to my second run through so I can enjoy the characters and story without quite the same level of stress, as you mentioned! =)

  4. This is something I’ve been musing on a lot since I recently started playing FE:A and tried my first nuzlocke challenge. I agree with your love of permadeath in cases like ME2, where the character’s death is a direct result of my choices or lack of skill, and then the actual event is treated with appropriate emotional significance. I’ve found this isn’t really the case in FE, so next time I play, it’ll probably be in casual mode.
    In FE, the characters’ deaths isn’t really given satisfactory treatment beyond them no longer being available to fight alongside their spouse: I saw no dialog that reflected that Chrom had lost his wife. Sometimes they aren’t really dead (just “injured”), and they show back up in cutscenes. Totally ruins the emotional impact it was supposed to have. And from a gameplay perspective, all I ever saw it do for me was create more grinding. At the end of the day, FE’s combat boils down to whether or not you’ve leveled a character enough to put them in that red zone (making it next to impossible to level healers btw). A simple fix would be some sort of randomization to how a character who can’t take the hit would die: That way you could responsibly take more risks and not just grind a bunch.

    1. That is so true! I would also love to see more of an emotional response from the characters after a death — at least some dialogue recognizing that another character has died. I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to that, but you’re totally right that the emotional impact is something that’s lacking in Fire Emblem Awakening.

      I also agree that it’s very difficult to level a healer, because healers go down so fast. I probably need to grind more, but as I progress, I’m finding that enemies deal critical hit kills more often, which seems punishing in some instances!

      1. I try to have my healers pick up the special event as much as possible in case it’s xp (pathetic to go that far out of my way for 15 xp). But what really does them good is healing even the tiniest bruise on everyone: They still get xp even if they heal someone who’s missing 1 hp. Even with this silly game-leveraging strategy, I still found them highly under-leveled.

  5. Lol, ive been going through X-com on classic ironman mode (Previously completed that on impossible difficulty but if I did that on ironman I would probably have gone insane with frustration and crying myself to sleep on regular occasions!). Perma-death is at least a good way to make you more careful and not take for granted our perhaps over reliance on infinite continues, regenerating health etc with little or no penalties. I don’t mind it so much as its offering a new experience than previous.

    1. I cry myself to sleep anyway. (No, I don’t.) I totally agree that permadeath can be intensely frustrating in some cases! It forces me to be more careful, as you said… and that’s hard for me, because I’m pretty impatient. But it’s certainly teaching me to be a better strategist!

      Glad to hear of another X-com fan! I’m terrible at the original but love it all the same, while Enemy Unknown has become one of my favorite games. =)

      1. Same here lol I bought the original on steam and am terrible at it. Although granted with this xcom I only got better through endless failed missions and a sky high casualty count! It is one of my favourite games tho too :)

  6. Being able to save a single moment in a game is a beautiful thing – a point of safety and hope you can go back to. Perhaps it isn’t as emotional, but it does allow you to learn and fix mistakes.

    1. That’s true. I do love that games — unlike real life — allow you to rewind and try again in many cases. Although I love permadeath when it’s there to embrace, I also agree with you that there’s a beauty in save points!

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