On Hellblade and Permadeath

Permadeath
(in a video game) a situation in which a character cannot reappear after having been killed.

Yesterday morning, mere hours after the release of Ninja Theory’s latest game; Hellblade, news broke about a potentially game changing system that was built into the game. That system is ‘permadeath’, and in relation to Hellblade, it meant that after your character dies X (we just don’t know) amount of times, the save would be deleted, and you’d be forced to start over. From the very beginning.

In the time since, we’ve heard rumours that the system isn’t nearly as tough as first feared; that maybe dying X times won’t force you to begin afresh. Or that maybe the system doesn’t exist in the game at all, that it was all a hoax to make combat feel tenser and more desperate than it already is. We just don’t know. And with Ninja Theory keeping quiet on it, maybe we never will.

As such I’m not here to tell you that the system is rightly or wrongly used in this game. That its anti consumer or a detriment to the game. No, I’d like to instead tell you how the threat of having my save deleted made the game so much more interesting to me.

I’m not usually a fan of difficult games (make no mistake, Hellblade isn’t all that difficult), I find the idea of being repeatedly murdered, of having to start over again and again to be, well utterly unappealing. In short: I don’t have the time or the patience for it.

And yet with Hellblade I found the threat of having my save game deleted if I fucked up too many times to be thrilling. It made the already tense combat encounters all the more fraught with terror. I became fearful of the next fight, scared that I wouldn’t make it through this one without giving up one of my ultra precious lives.

And with all that added texture, I realised something. What would normally be fairly run-of-the-mill combat encounters became fights to the death. They became a one on one battle of wits and of skill against the game itself. Rather than being ‘fun’ they became anxiety inducing moments of tension that I was desperate to see the back of.

And when I did finally send the last bad guy to his death, I found myself taking a moment to both regain my composure and enjoy my success; rather than simply moving on with the story or seeking out my next combatant, I wanted to wallow in the juices of victory, take in that stench and enjoy it. Victory became satisfying in a way rarely felt in games. Each small fight had become something to be conquered; to be bested. And when you do get the best of it, the game feels truly fantastic.

Maybe the permadeath system is a lie. Maybe it’s real. We don’t know at this point. Either way, the threat of losing it all makes the game so much more than the sum of its parts. And that’s why I love it.

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8 thoughts on “On Hellblade and Permadeath

  1. I was put off by this when I first heard that there was a hidden permadeath system. I like to know the rules of my game before going into it, but I can see your point on that fear factor being ever present makes the game that much more threatening. I’ll probably give this a go a some point now.

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    1. I agree with Rob: when I heard about the permadeath feature, I was debating whether to remove Hellblade from my wishlist. Although I love video games, I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m good at them (my coordination sucks) and the thought of losing a save file is really unappealing. If I got sent back to the beginning, I could see myself not giving the game another shot.

      Saying that though… I’m definitely intrigued. And I feel better about it now you’ve said it’s not too difficult. 😉

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      1. I believe I’ve died 3 times so far. Only one of them was through direct combat, and the other two were through very avoidable fuck ups.

        Hellblade is an experience. It’s probably not my favourite game of the year but it’s certainly looking good for a top 5 finish.

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      2. So a pretty good game then? And only one ‘real’ death, so the permadeath feature sounds like it’s more of a threat than anything else. Ok: Hellblade remains on my wishlist for at least another day.

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      3. Yup. Now I’m not saying it isn’t a thing at some point, but the threat of it adds so much to the game that I’m not sure I’m bothered that’s it’s included.

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      4. It’d certainly be interesting to know how many times you have to die for the feature to kick in… hopefully I won’t find out when I get around to playing it.

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