Alt-Take: Ironman & Permadeath are the bane of strategy games21 Jun 2018 0
Ever since Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade first came states-side in November of 2003, I’ve been a huge fan of the entire series. I credit it with cementing my love of strategy games in general, and I think it is one of the most iconic releases of the early 2000s for western audiences.
However, all that love comes with an equal utter disdain for introducing me to a particular game mechanic: permadeath. Nothing throws me into a frothing heap of rage faster than having to reset my game, and lose hours of time, because of a random critical hit from an enemy killing a beloved unit unexpectedly.
You can’t plan a strategy around the assumption that an enemy is going to hit it’s 1% critical chance and destroy you, that’d be ridiculous. In summers of my youth I would sigh and restart my game, hoping for a different outcome. Now, as an adult, I am extremely wary of diving into a game with permadeath mechanics or Ironman modes, I just don’t have the time or determination to constantly reset large swaths of content. That is, unless there’s an exception, a way around such rigid structure… The very phrase itself is attached to a negative connotation and is even considered cheating by some. I am speaking of course, about ‘save scumming’.
Simply put, save-scumming is the act of loading an earlier save while playing a game in order to 'undo' a negative experience that arose from your actions. Let’s say I missed a 94% chance to hit with a shotgun and now I’m facing certain doom in XCOM 2? Twenty seconds of loading and I’m back in action a few turns prior, ready to give this scenario another go. During Extra Life’s day of gaming last year, I found myself doing that very thing quite often. I had named soldiers after donors to the children’s hospital and didn’t want to disappoint them by letting their characters die due to poor RNG, or unfortunate planning on my part. Furthermore, XCOM 2 is a game where the core of the campaign is built around the idea of limited time and resources. Losing too many promoted and veteran units can quite simply kill any chance at successfully beating the game. Worse yet, you may not even realize you’ve already lost the campaign until hours of missions later down the road, when you are behind the power curve due to initial losses. With all due respect to Firaxis Games, I am unwilling to blindly follow a slow descent into certain doom and lost time out of adherence to 'the sanctity of my save file'.
Some would argue that save scumming really boils down to cheating yourself out of an authentic experience with a game, creating a false sense of achievement. In their eyes, by circumventing failures and messing with fate, you inherently do a disservice to the game and earn yourself a hollow victory. I would counter however, that such a viewpoint is far too narrow. These conversations must be more nuanced beyond 'save scumming is cheating' and 'permadeath is bad'. We should allow ourselves the freedom to make informed decisions of whether continuing with a save file, as is, is going to result in a fun experience. What is the point of continuing down a set path if I know the result is going to be my own frustration and inevitable loss? If games are built to entertain, then by their very nature this feels counter-intuitive.
I don’t even necessarily dislike permadeath in all settings, by all accounts it is fine and even very fun in some situations! The catch however, is that permadeath shouldn’t be built into games such that you can hit a comprehensive fail state and not even realize it. XCOM 2 is an easy example to cite given how it is structured around permadeath both within individual missions and the context of the entire campaign itself. Players are essentially actively incentivized to save scum and try to keep their soldiers alive for as long as possible if they want to win. I’m sure some individuals will disagree and think that’s a false assumption but let me compare XCOM 2 to a similar game that is built around the idea of permadeath. To note, I have never once save scummed in this title, because I didn’t feel the need to do so in the first place.
From the very beginning of booting up the game, Darkest Dungeon makes it extremely clear that you will be utterly wrecked by poor RNG, bad decisions, and difficult challenges. Your heroes will experience permadeath, and your hopes will be dashed away. Yet, despite this, Darkest Dungeon does not require or incentivize save scumming be enjoyed. Unless you are playing on the absolute hardest difficulty, there is no end to the number of heroes you can recruit from the stage coach, and there is no time limit threatening to kill your playthrough. The emphasis is on the permadeath of individual excursions, but not your entire campaign experience. Even 54 weeks into a save file, you can recruit a gaggle of rookie glory-seekers and romp through an easy dungeon. Darkest Dungeon is built around the idea of failure and permadeath as being a core part of the experience, without throwing you into a fail state. It doesn’t require save scumming because you cannot ever completely lose. Its difficulty mechanics never threaten to pre-emptively kill the fun.
Naturally, some developers have found a different solution to save scumming. I understand there are throngs of gamers who enjoy the challenge of playing through Crusader Kings 2 or Hearts of Iron IV, but Paradox Interactive’s near militant adherence to enforcing Ironman mode is a big turn off for me. Would I really be destroying the integrity of the community by earning the 'Sire five children' achievement in Crusader Kings 2 with a file that included multiple saves? If the gaming community at large all seem to agree that achievements are meaningless fun, then why are we gatekeeping them behind such a rigid requirement? It feels very archaic to force one style of play on everyone, claiming it is necessary to ensure a properly balanced experience.
I fail to see the harm in letting individuals enjoy single-player games in a way that derives the most enjoyment for themselves. How can save scumming be bad if it means I walk away from XCOM 2 thinking it was a great experience that I look forward to playing again, versus a frustratingly obtuse game reliant on RNG? Permadeath mechanics are not evil, but we can be smarter in how we design our systems to remove the feeling that save scumming is even necessary in the first place.
Even modern Fire Emblem titles have embraced the fact that strategy games should be designed for individuals of multiple tastes, incorporating a Phoenix Mode for those who fear the ramifications of permadeath. Enforcing a militant 'one size fits all' structure is overly restrictive these days. I think once developers realize that you can incorporate permadeath into design like Darkest Dungeon, such that it doesn’t have the potential to ruin the fun side of overcoming loss, they will see an influx of players that would have otherwise shied away from a purchase. That’s a benefit to everyone, even us save scummers.
What are your thoughts on save-scumming vs. permadeath/ironman? Let us know in the comments!