Designer Talk: Permanent Death

I’ll be talking about a favorite series of mine, and why it properly executes a mechanic that can be really hit or miss depending on how it’s done. This...

I’ll be talking about a favorite series of mine, and why it properly executes a mechanic that can be really hit or miss depending on how it’s done. This is the mechanic known as Permanent Death or permadeath, depending on who you ask. This mechanic means exactly what it says. The character you’re playing as, in whatever form this takes, will no longer be playable if you die.

Fire Emblem Sacred StonesFire Emblem is one of the most notorious series’ in that regard. If a character dies in a Fire Emblem chapter, they are no longer playable for the duration of the game. But it’s not just a mechanical element. If the character is not absolutely imperative to the story (I.E. a Lord character) they will have a tragic death scene, complete with a final plea. The Fire Emblem games are really strong because of this. From a narrative perspective, it requires them to be able to sell tragedy without using death.

The death of main characters is now a mechanic, and as a result can’t become a crutch or narrative tool. Not that death as a narrative tool is inherently bad. It’s just that, when it becomes a crutch, writers seem to avoid using other experiences to mold a character. Someone dying is influential, but someone losing a limb, or being betrayed by a loved one, or even falling in love, can be equally tragic.

That being said, there’s more to this mechanic than its influence on narrative. Permadeath, especially in the context of Fire Emblem, can really change the way you interact with your units. Some players may take a more callous approach, viewing them as an expendable resource, while others might see them all as integral to the game’s completeness, and play with a level of caution that makes the game far more in depth.

Permanent death seems like it might make for a frustrating game experience, but if done right, the mechanic can really change the way you interact with the game.

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Designer TalkDiscussionFeaturedFire Emblem

Mustapha is a young yet spirited university student majoring in Game Art and Development. While he's but a senior in college, he has an extensive history with the art of gaming journalism. Managing his own game review blog for several years, as well as attending events such as Boston FIG and PAX East has given him extensive experience in covering game news. His knowledge of game design also serves as a tool to develop finite understanding of what makes games work.
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