Fire Emblem: Awakening and ZombiU Developers Outline the Challenges of Permadeath
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
"[Writing ZombiU] was the toughest challenge...in over 10 years of writing"
In an era of gamers regularly debating the level of challenge offered in modern titles, an argument that can be tough to resolve, the concept of permadeath is a relatively rare feature that caters to those seeking a lack of compromise in their experiences. Taking away readily-accessible checkpoints, a return to full health and a full compliment of items is a bold move, with various mechanics used to strip a gamer of their hard work and punish their mistakes.
Naturally, the permadeath idea can be utilised in a variety of ways, as outlined in an enjoyable EDGE magazine feature from the latest issue. Some games simply dump you back at the start of the whole campaign with a selection of items or, sometimes, no tangible benefits at all, while others allow you to retain upgrades and slowly, painfully, level-up and progress further with each attempt.
Two titles exclusive to Nintendo systems get a mention for their approaches to permadeath. Fire Emblem: Awakening is highlighted as — in a first for the series — it introduces the Newcomer option that removes the permanent loss of squad members; it can be easily ignored, of course, but director Kohei Maeda explained that it was important as a tool to remove the fear factor for some gamers.
I think that all of the Fire Emblem games are fun, but a lot of beginner players stay clear of them because they think they are difficult. I think this is a real shame. A big reason for wanting to include this mode was so that those kinds of people could play Fire Emblem too...Since your characters come back when they die, one advantage is that you can play more aggressively or take more risks.
Awakening has been critically acclaimed and, importantly for the future of the series, a notable commercial success. Perhaps providing that Newcomer mode was vital, though Wii U launch title ZombiU — which perhaps deserved stronger sales — makes permadeath mandatory with some potential to retrieve the situation. When losing a character they are dead forever, including the gear being carried at that time, though it's possible to store essentials in a base and kill the zombie of the previous playable character, retrieving gear in the process.
That hub location also means that, combined with quick-travel options, the game can be resumed with minimal loss of progress. Weaving these scenarios together was a major challenge for story design director Gabrielle Shrager, who also admitted that incorporating ever-changing playable characters meant that, visually, the team couldn't dedicate resources to producing beautifully defined, attracted leads.
(Writing ZombiU) was the toughest challenge I've faced in over ten years of writing for games. It took... the whole production team to find solutions for all the 'But what happens if you die here?' issues, which were sometimes mind-bendingly complicated.
I created the Prepper character and the survivors' notes to establish a link and reinforce between the survivors who all fall under this mysterious character's influence. Without a main player character, you need to embrace your main NPCs.
... Our character assemblage system produced avatars that were less gorgeous than a single player character would've been.
With so many games throwing excess lives, regular checkpoints and regenerating health into the fray, rare examples of permadeath can certainly be welcome — if not necessarily suited to all tastes.
The question is, did you use the Newcomer or Classic mode in Fire Emblem: Awakening?