Permadeath (short for permanent death) is one of the main features of roguelikes. It consists in the fact that once your character dies in the game, you can't restore him to a previous status via save-files or save-states. This means that once your character dies, he is dead for good.
Although the feature is commonly reffered to as "Permadeath", it applies not only to death: whatever bad (or good) thing happens to your character, you cannot go back in time. (One exception: roguelikes should allow the player to restore character if the game crashes due to a bug or external reason.)
The idea may scare people from other RPG genres, such as console and common "plot" RPGs, as it is common custom to reload the game after something bad happens to the main character or his party; however, this feature makes roguelikes unique, demanding all your attention and thinking your best moves because the life of your character must be kept.
Permadeath is not as horrible as it might sound at first. The design of roguelikes is built around this concept. This is one of the reasons why they tend to be light in plot. Unlike an RPG, where starting over can involve doing the same hundred page conversation over again, a roguelike presents you with fresh challenges every game. Some other traditional roguelike features, like hidden traps and requirement to identify potions, also make more sense with permadeath.
Of course, roguelikes have saving facilities that allow long games to be played for several days, weeks or even months; but the save-file is deleted upon the death of the character.
The Permadeath can usualy easily be avoided via backup of save files, however this is widely considered as cheating, and not the right way of playing the games. Using backups of save files is known as Savescumming.
Some argue, that Permadeath is just a obsolete heritage from systems that couldn't handle proper save/load, that it is taking away the freedom of the player to play with the game, yet the concept has still a strong support in the roguelike world.
So what are the advantages of having Permadeath?
- It produces the feeling of responsibility - you will be responsible for your actions. If you fail on a quest, it's all your fault and you have to live with it. If you attack a friendly and he dies - you will suffer the consequences. The player is more attached to his character, for he knows he may loose him. This increases immersiveness.
- It produces the feeling of anticipation/fear - will you win? Or will you not? If I go into those caves now it might be the end of me, if I attack that dragon will I stand a chance?If not these 2 weeks of playing will be lost! Again -- it increases the immersiveness.
- It waries the player of doing stupid actions - the player will play more realistically, wont go for unneccessary risks, and hence feel that the world is more real - immersiveness.
- It makes the game harder -- if you fail at a task after playing for a while, you need to cope with it, and try to rise back. What means that you will face more challenges. And feel more satisfaction if you win -- for you know you could loose and have to live with it. The reward for the player when winning is hence a lot bigger -- a lot more satisfafction.
Permadeath in other genres
Yes. This concept may be excellent. But it wont work with every game. I might work great with Civilization-type games, where you can suffer setbacks as well as victories. Generaly Permadeath may work with games that:
1) don't have sudden-death situations -- because if they do, then permadeath get's really frustrating (some roguelikes suffer from this)
2) which give many options of failure without loosing the game -- failures are very interesting, for they provide a challenge. In roguelikes non-death failures are for example loosing a valuable item to a monster attack, getting your levels drained, etc.
3) are balanced enough that the failures don't mean game over. If one failure would mean that you don't stand a chance in the rest of the game then it would in fact be a game over, what would violate the sudden-death rule.
The author of this section once encountered OGame, a massive web-based space strategy game. He got quite involved with it, and then it hit him -- It was not because of all the players around him, that it hooked him so much. It was because each time he had to send a fleet, or do something vital he had that feeling of anticipation, and a little nervousness, because he knew that decision was final. No save/load folks...
That was also Permadeath.
Not Permadeath per se (because in most massive multiplayer games you can't die) but the fear of failure. Failure was permanent. Hence it should be probably called permafailure...
That makes one think about what games would be nice to play with permadeath that could follow the above defined requirements. The first couple of games that come to mind are strategy/tactics games -- UFO, Sindicate, Civilization, Master Of Magic, etc. They might work perfectly without the Save/Load option. Actually they already are quite playable if one doesn't Save/Load, many people report that they sometimes play those games that way.
What about other types? Permadeath would probably be a bad idea in FPS games. They violate all of the above requirements. RTS's on the other hand, are fine in mission-scope, but violate the rules in campaing scope. But here improvements can be made - if the campaign had a branching system -- that is if you loose you go to that mission, and if you win, you advance to this mission, then they would work really good - and it would gain a lot of replay value by the way. The branching feature wouldn't work at all with save/load because the work spent on all those missions that are not on the all-win path would be wasted, because most players would load each time they'd loose a mission.