The PC gaming year that was 2011 – Part 2

Another game about permanent death

.. and I’ve seen it before

.. and I’ll see it again

.. yes I’ve seen it before

.. just little bits of history repeating

Dame Shirley Bassey there, singing about PC games.

Have I ever told you about my first video game?  I’m not so sure that I have.  The first video game I owned was Super Mario Bros 2 that came with the NES I got one Christmas in 1990 or thereabouts.  The one infuriating feature of that game and pretty much every game of that era that remains so strongly ingrained in my memory, buried somewhere between memories of stubbing my big toe on mum’s coffee table and catching myself in the zip of my jeans, is that you could not save your game.  None of the games at the time let you save your game, apart from very rare exceptions (the first Zelda title did in 1987) the consoles and game cartridges just didn’t have the memory to support save games.  It took hours and hours to complete Super Mario Bros 2, even with a healthy knowledge of the hidden warp pipes to skip whole worlds (all of which would have to be found personally or learned from the playground, as the internet wasn’t an option) you could still spend an entire day reaching level 90 only to run out of lives and be booted unceremoniously back to the start.  Or worse a power cut would take it away, or you’d brush the overly sensitive reset button on the front of your NES and all those hours of hard work were worth nothing.

Thankfully technology soon caught up and the ability to save your progress or at the very least get a level code to bring you back to the last level you reached next time you loaded took off in the SNES era, meaning we didn’t need to worry about failing or turning our computers off quite so much ever again.  In fact the safety net provided by the proliferation of ‘quicksave’ buttons, save checkpoints and respawning over the course of the decade mean the modern gamer rarely has to play the same stretch of game twice, and is therefore no longer afraid of death.

Some people think that is not such a good thing.

PermaDeath is Dred-ful

2011 – The year of PERMADEATH!!!

So if there is one gaming trend in 2011 that I’m fascinated by the most it is the sudden resurgence of Perma-death as an acceptable gaming occurrence, and in some cases the entire premise around which to build a game.  Of course the idea of a game that doesn’t let you save is not new, and the genre that holds perma-death as a core belief, roguelikes, has been quietly producing games since the 70s right through to now, but 2011 was the first year I’ve seen so many popular games released where death means death.  Plus I’ve largely enjoyed all of them instead of running out of the room screaming, which is a first (Spelunky aside) since those heady days of the early nineties.

What games am I wittering on about you ask?  In no particular order I am thinking of:

Binding of Isaac  I talked about this in part 1.  Whilst it shares more in common with early Nintendo games in its gameplay it does share all the basic premises of a roguelike with: no saving, no ‘lives’ (well, except for one very rare 1up item), and every new level is procedurally generated at random when you start.  The beauty of the Binding of Isaac is each game is thankfully short, so even if you reach the second last level and die, it’ll only take you 20 minutes to catch up.  But maybe next time there won’t be any keys around to let you into the item rooms on each level leading to a certain death half way through this playthrough?  Or perhaps instead the devil will appear after an end of level boss and offer you a super power up in exchange for a heart of health that makes the difference and helps you reach the final boss?  It’s the random nature of each game and the never-ending list of items and power-ups to be found that make it so replayable, which is essential for a game that forces you to start again every time you die.

Dungeons of Dredmor Probably the most roguelike of the games I’m talking about Dredmor has turn-based combat, RPG levelling-up, item looting and crafting, and an increasingly difficult depth of dungeons to fight through.  Slightly disproving my point, though, savegames are an option in Dredmor.  However, Permadeath is still very much, err, alive.  Which just means you can spend all week getting further than you’ve done before, saving your progress as you go, levelling your character into a super Diggle hunter, crafting marvellous weapons of destruction, only to die in a slightly over-ambitious skirmish and lose everything you worked for with your saves being wiped instantly.  That said most of my attempts have ended in the first 2 dungeons, meaning I’ve barely levelled up or collected anything to lose.  While there’s a wealth of items to collect the biggest problem with the pleasantly humourous Dungeons of Dredmor is the decision to make almost all enemies Diggles.  They’re just so daft and repetitive.  They’re the RPG equivalent of Halo’s grunts.

Realm of the Mad God Mad is the operative word in Realm of the Mad God.  Give it a go now if you haven’t before.  It’s totally free and plays in your browser.  Go on, play it now.  Stick with other players and try to be the first to grab any dropped loot.  You’ll die within 10 minutes, but have a good idea what I’m talking about then.

Finished?  Have fun?  It’s insane isn’t it?  I can’t remember a game in which you level up quite so fast.  Once again it’s a game released in 2011 that cares not for how much loot you’ve collected or what level you’ve reached.  When you die, YOU DIE.  Imagine if Skyrim did that to you?  Realm of the Mad God shares that pace and brevity with Binding of Isaac that mean it’s not too frustrating to start again following death, and it brings back that other aspect of early nineties gaming – trying to beat a personal best.  It’s certainly wormed its way onto my favourites tab.  My highest level reached?  A pitiful level 10, so far.

Desktop Dungeons Again there is a free version of this if you want to try it (there’s also a spruced up complete version on the way).  This was the first game I played this year where permadeath was a key feature.  The turned based combat, loot drops, permadeath and dungeon delving are all taken from roguelikes and again they’re packaged up in an accessible, addictive, coffee-break lengthed blast of fun.

Made by the Spelunky guy.  He's got a thing about PermadeathSo…yeah.  that’s just a thing I noticed in 2011.  Will permadeath feature in more games next year?  Or were roguelikes just this year’s 2D platformers?  Will Modern Warfare 4 feature a ‘Realism’ mode where when you die the game shuts down and can’t be played ever again even if you take it back to the shop and get it replaced?  Will I take the hint made by the fun I’ve had with the 4 games mentioned and take a dive into a true roguelike, like Nethack or Brogue perhaps?  Probably none of the above.  But I will be playing Binding of Isaac and Realm of the Mad God again.  And again…  And again….