The Problem With Permanent Death

"Here in video games," game designer Matt Burns tweeted last week, "we invented a new word, 'permadeath,' to describe what in real life is called 'death.'"

Hilarious, right? We assume that if we die in a game, all we have to do is hit the continue button to come back to life, so we've come up with a brand new term to describe what it's like to lose somebody for real. Permadeath.

This is a concept most recently exhibited in Fire Emblem: Awakening, an excellent strategy-role-playing game that comes out for 3DS next week. At the beginning of Awakening, after selecting a difficulty mode, you can choose between two gameplay modes: Classic and Casual. In Casual mode, when one of your characters loses all of his hit points, he'll stop fighting. In Classic mode, the character will die. Permanently. You won't be able to use him in combat again.

If you play a lot of RPGs, this might seem like a strange choice. Usually, when one of your party members or companions loses all of their health, they'll pop back to life before the next battle, Aeris-related deaths notwithstanding. But in Awakening, as in most Fire Emblem games, dead soldiers are dead for good. All of that work you put into leveling up their stats and building their relationships? Kaput.

Ask an experienced Fire Emblem fan what mode to use, and he or she will tell you that it's not Fire Emblem without permadeath. But here's the thing. Most people playing Awakening won't actually let permadeath affect them. Most people, from what I've seen both at Kotaku and during chatter on Twitter and gaming message boards, will just restart the game whenever they lose somebody they care about.

It's only human, after all. Loss is hard enough to deal with in real life: do we really have to experience that sort of tragedy in our interactive entertainment, too? I mean, come on. We spent like five hours grinding.

On the other hand, if you're going to just restart the game every time you lose someone, why even bother using permadeath in the first place? I asked Kirk Hamilton that question the other day, and he said something like "Well duh, I play totally differently with permadeath on." Which to me sounds like nonsense.

I mean, yeah. With permadeath on, you move around the battlefield more carefully. You pay extra attention to your characters' health and strategy, because leaving someone out of position just once can lead to their untimely demise—and force you to lose a ton of progress. So as much as I hate to admit it, Kirk does make some sense.

But what's the fun in hitting the reset button over and over?

Screw it. I'm going to try something new. In my game of Awakening, I'm playing with permadeath, and I'm not going to restart. Not once. Whatever happens, happens.

It's worth a try, right? Sure, I might lose hours of work with a few bad decisions, and I might wind up whittling down my army until all of Ylisse is destroyed, but hey. That's just part of the fun.

Maybe I'll write a diary of the experience. Maybe I'll regret it. I will probably regret it.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.