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Games are extraordinarily forgiving. You might rail at a punishing encounter or an unfair boss fight but, for most games, failure is just a prelude to trying again. Death doesn’t have much sting if it’s closely followed by a refilled health bar, a pat on the back, and a ‘better luck next time, kid.’ This isn’t just a quirk of modern checkpoint systems and autosaves, even roguelikes are much the same. Dying in Spelunky isn’t much fun but you rarely lose much more than thirty-or-so minutes of progress, less if you die early. Same goes for FTL, Rogue Legacy, and so on. There are some exceptions, like Tales of Maj’Eyal, which can take a dozen or more hours to beat. That’s not even to mention the meta-progression in modern roguelikes, which have you racking up permanent upgrades or new characters and such even from failed runs.
So, death is a setback, a minor inconvenience, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not bemoaning games getting more casual or wishing we were still feeding change to arcade cabinets with bottomless stomachs. People have lives and jobs and they don’t need to be playing the same six hours of game over and over again because one hard section keeps punting them back to the start. The thing is though, challenge-wise, it feels a bit weird, doesn’t it? Let’s say you’re playing Dark Souls, and you die nine times at the same boss. You beat it on the tenth try, hooting and hollering, delighted with yourself and savouring a hard-won victory. But would you win if you had to fight it again? That guy beat you nine times over and next to that your one win looks pretty meek. If that boss had been another player, a nine-to-one ratio would mean they had the better of you and it’s generally accepted that facing off against a real person is harder than fighting AI opponents, predictable and susceptible to cheesing or exploits as they are.
Again, I’m not complaining about this. Gaming is in so many ways the suspension of disbelief and suspending those particular beliefs is conducive to having a good time. It wouldn’t be much fun if you had to beat a boss in a best-of-five to prove beyond all doubt that you didn’t just get lucky. No matter what you might know intellectually, on an emotional level it still feels good to finally beat a boss or encounter that’s been giving you trouble. By the way even I’m mad at myself for using Dark Souls as a reference point like every hack in games media but the remaster is out soon and it’s an undeniably easy shorthand for ‘difficult game’ but more importantly, it illustrates another crucial point. Namely, that it grafts narrative justification on to the player’s ability to cheat death, making an indomitable will as much a weapon as any magic sword. You get to try again because in Dark Souls, your character, in the story, is nigh impossible to actually kill. Your character could go hollow if they die enough times, if they lose enough souls, but if you you have grit to keep getting back up, so do they. Death in Lordran, Drangleic, or Lothric is just a setback in the exact same way that it is in real life and so long as you have the will to try again, neither you nor your character can ever be truly stopped; your triumphs are an act of sheer determination both in-universe and out.
This is all one of those unique vagaries of games as a medium: fail states. If you’re not skilled enough, you can’t progress and probably the most common and obvious fail state is death. It’s probably not wise for all games to work this into their stories like Dark Souls does, so lacking this excuse, most just expect players to buy into this quirk. Dara O’Briain has a joke about this: a movie won’t stop you halfway to check you’re paying attention and a book won’t cap off every chapter with a quiz but most games will absolutely deny you access to the rest of their content if you can’t prove your mettle first.
For most games, it’s just accepted that you’ll have as many tries and as much time as you need, and there’s no call for any Undead Curse to explain away why that is. So, if most games don’t have excuses like this, I wonder why so many of them don’t let players challenge themselves more by simply taking away all excuses? For clarity, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the system of checkpoints and respawns we’ve basically stumbled into, but it does often lack a sense of genuine threat. And here we are, finally, at the point: hardcore modes. Permadeath modes if you want to be less obnoxious. I’ve been playing Crate’s excellent ARPG, Grim Dawn recently and I’ve been playing it with the threat of death looming over my head every time.
At every character’s creation, in Grim Dawn, you can tick two boxes, one for ‘Veteran’ mode and one for ‘Hardcore’ mode. I’ve been having a lot of fun ticking them both. See, Grim Dawn is quite easy. This is partly because it follows the general ARPG formula of relegating higher difficulties to higher-level characters, having you progress to each higher tier upon completion of the last, for the most part ensuring that difficulty is congruent with player power. Beating Grim Dawn on Normal unlocks Elite, and beating that gets you Ultimate difficulty. The stakes do get higher with the numbers and later content can sure be challenging but levelling is ultimately kind of bloodless. Veteran mode goes some way to fixing this by making playthrough one a bit more deadly but it still suffers the same problems. Namely, death doesn’t actually hurt much; you just respawn and run back to where you died. You even keep your progress. Enemies stay dead, bosses stay injured and you can get lost experience points back without much effort. Eventually, you will win because all the high numbers and all the devastating incantations in the multiverse won’t stop the warrior with the ultimate weapon: an autosave function.
But Hardcore mode spits in the face of all that by keeping you dead when you fuck up enough to die. Despite the game being comparatively easy, this isn’t an empty threat, at least on Veteran difficulty. When I say it’s easy I don’t mean death isn’t a danger. It is, and complacent play can earn you an empty health bar in seconds because Grim Dawn doesn’t mess about with enemy lethality in the same way something like Diablo III does, which a first-time player can beat pretty handily without dying at all. At least its main campaign at any rate. Hard encounters with dozens upon dozens of enemies and high-damage boss fights require a good deal of concentration and careful positioning in Grim Dawn, but it does let you get through much of the game through sheer attrition if you do keep dying.
I understand this decision. Lots of people play ARPGs just to get to the endgame and repeating sections of gameplay just draws that process out but I don’t really see the appeal in endgames. Once you hit it, it’s just getting higher and higher numbers until you run out of enthusiasm or run out of legendary shoes to collect and that’s a bad aftertaste. For me, Hardcore mode has been a lifesaver (ha).
Encounters of all sorts on Veteran difficulty are no joke, especially for flimsy caster-type characters and high DPS ranged builds. Many bosses can just about one-shot characters like this and a punishing cooldown period on health potions means you can’t just chug your way through a tough battle. I can honestly say some of the most exhilarating fights I’ve ever had have been on Grim Dawn’s Hardcore mode, especially as I love to tempt fate with the generally higher level side-content. Emerging from a desperate clash still breathing is pure bliss and just barely surviving prods your animal brain better than any survival horror title.
With such lofty heights come the inevitable lows, though. By its nature, permadeath doles out agony alongside its ecstasy. Losing a dozen hours of progress stings, really stings but successive deaths grant a kind of zen-like acceptance. I’m not an angry player as a rule but Grim Dawn probably got me the world record for Loudest Shouted Expletive. Without this though, the victories wouldn’t be so thrilling and learning to accept the loss is damn near enlightening.
There’s a feeling of raw, calamitous unleashed power in the game’s many monumental encounters that’s a perfect marriage to Grim Dawn’s, well, grim tone. ARPGs are rarely very self-aware – you are, after all, doing nothing but massacring literally thousands of enemies for basically an entire game – but Grim Dawn really leans into this. It takes place in a world that’s little more than a battleground for powers incomprehensibly outwith the human experience, beset on two fronts by alien invaders from other dimensions so abhorrently hostile that they might as well be the vacuum of Space.
The looting and levelling you do in every ARPG gets reframed as a true ‘become a monster to fight the monsters’ story that’s emphasised in spell and item descriptions, and visual effects. There are spells that see you possessed by occult gods and bleeding acid, abilities that sustain your ravaged body with the blood of your enemies and items that take an enormous psychological toll just to wield, whispering madness in your ears even as they grant you the strength to overcome still more insanity. Higher level characters with stacked auras will warp the very air around them with sheer eldritch might and you’ll lay enough bloody waste to be considered some kind of arcane war criminal. Of course, this is all mostly just flavour but embracing the madness sets Grim Dawn apart from other games in its genre, which mostly act as if being a conduit of unspeakable destruction is functionally the same as being a regular old fantasy adventurer, something you can just retire from when you’ve killed enough to Make Everything Right Again. Grim Dawn is absolutely goofy as hell, but it knows it. I actually wish the game focused on this more and had some mechanical and narrative consequence to back all its tone-setting up but now I’m digressing.
The point is that in a magical apocalypse which all but demands you become less and less human to survive, death shouldn’t feel so inconsequential and permadeath suits it wonderfully. If you die, it’s because you got complacent or because you hadn’t embraced enough forbidden power and humanity suffers for it. You suffer for it, until you learn to deal with the loss. It really is zen-like when you simply accept it and move on to either the next run, or just quit playing and get on with your life. It’s all ephemeral anyway. So you’ve lost 15 hours of progress but what did progress get you except more? More things to kill and more loot to collect and on and on and on until you’re sick of it. There’s a sense of closure to deaths in Hardcore mode that beating Grim Dawn just doesn’t provide. Thus ends the tale of humanity’s last hope: he positioned badly and got ripped apart by a Chthonic abberation, or some such. That’s it, that’s the the end of your story and if you’re not happy with it, try dying with a little more dignity next time.
It’s a feature I wish more games would implement. And why not? It doesn’t really cost you anything, it’s not some big expensive addition that’s going to shoot up development time. In Grim Dawn, it’s just a box that you tick and why couldn’t that box be in more games? It’s not intrusive to players who won’t use it anymore than the The Witcher 3’s Death March difficulty is to players who don’t use that. Hell, it’s less intrusive because nobody needs to actually balance a permadeath mode like they do different difficulties. It doesn’t have to be fair because it’s not meant to be. If it’s just for the masochists who’re going to put themselves through it, why not include it?
I’m not saying every game should have permadeath modes, or even that it’s somehow the proper way to play Grim Dawn. It’s a tiny addition to the game, nothing more than locking me out of a save file upon death, but it extended my enjoyment of Grim Dawn well beyond its normal limits. I don’t think I’m alone in that and plenty of other games could do well with it. Plenty of them do, in fact. Hollow Knight, easily the best game of 2017 by the way, has its ‘Steel Soul’ mode. Even if its campaign barely registers as a challenge, humble Diablo has a permadeath option. Minecraft and Terraria have them too. XCom functionally does; if you lose the campaign on ‘Ironman’ mode, there’s no scumming back to a previous save. There’s other examples, but why not more? Resident Evil VII’s Madhouse difficulty limits saving like the first Resident Evil but imagine how tense the game would be if instead of giving you limited saves, it deleted your save when you died. You could do with it any game: Halo, Call of Duty, Dishonored, Stardew bloody Valley if you wanted to.
I’ve never been so pissed pants panicking than when I get zapped with a Doom Bolt and reduced to a fraction of my health, knowing that I have to play this perfectly or it’s almost 20 hours of play down the bastard drain. No horror game could come close, cause in the end no matter how terrifying they are, death has little to no consequence. Ah, no, don’t send me back to the last checkpoint, whatever you do! This is coming from the guy who literally can’t beat Heroes of Might and Magic: Dark Messiah anymore, one of my favourite games, cause of those fucking dreadful spiders. I don’t know how but they only get more horrifying the older I get.
Now, I’m not saying horror games aren’t scary because you get to try again but this is something that Noah Gervais has covered in his video on Alan Wake and The Evil Within: at some point, when the same monster has killed you enough times, it just becomes another gamey obstacle that’s stopping from you enjoying the rest of the game, rather than an urgent existential threat. When every fight can potentially send you screaming back to square one, everything is an existential threat. It’s a thrill that I think genuinely cannot be replicated any other way in a game and I think more developers should take advantage of it. After about 100 hours already spent, I probably wouldn’t have picked Grim Dawn back up if it wasn’t an option and I just wonder how many games that I’ve played to death might be able to draw me back with an innocuous little box to tick.
And there’s a very good reason for that little box. “Why don’t you just stop playing when you die, then?” I hear you ask. I actually do this in a great little game called Conquest of Elysium. It’s kind of a roguelike-strategy mashup (you can revert your saves though) and you have a player avatar that you name and everything. When that avatar dies, you can keep playing but I never do. As far as I’m concerned that’s me dead and whatever happens afterwards, I won’t get to see it (on account of my being dead) so I stop playing. But here’s the thing: the first time I died in Grim Dawn’s hardcore mode, I was distraught. I was having a blast playing a guns-akimbo Inquisitor and then I got stun-locked and murdered by an ancient golem and his pals.
I immediately searched for a way to undo my death, to turn back the sands of time and continue headshotting eldritch abominations right where I left off. There are ways to do it, as I found out. But in the time it took me to find out, I’d come to accept my loss. I made another character, more meat for the grinder, and stepped right back in. All because that little box locked me out of my save for just long enough for me to think better of my hubris. I made a choice and I ought to live with it. And that cautionary tale is why NO ONE can be trusted to just stop playing, if they want to be truly hardcore.
Give us more boxes to tick.