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Aaron Waite Aaron Waite
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The End

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A discussion of permanent consequence

Two X-Rays, one leering at my entrenched squad from the top of a defunct train, the other slinking about the benches and flower beds of the ruined subway. The aliens had set up a bomb in the Japanese rail system, and it was up to us, the stalwart soldiers of X-COM, to make sure that Shibuya didn't become a smoking, whitewashed memorial to the advanced technological might of the extraterrestrial invaders.

I had slowly worked my way up the rails in two-man fireteams, deactivating the power sources to the bomb to buy us a bit more time, finally reaching the objective with a few kills under my belt and no casualties. My squad leader (fondly named after my wife, Janelle) hunkered down in cover, deactivated the bomb, and I assumed the mission would be over. My assumptions were proven wrong with the teleportation of a couple of Thin Men, the agile assassins of the aliens. My squad was immediately flanked and out-positioned. One Thin Man had made the mistake of dropping in a clear line-of-sight of my squad leader, and Sergeant Waite immediately turned him into space waste. However, the issue of the enemy on top of the subway car was made plainly evident when he used his advantageous position to line up a shot on one of my support soldiers. Corporal Bjorn BeDouben bit the dust in a swarm of plasma.

I've been playing 'X-COM: Enemy Unknown' on Ironman Mode, which means when one of my soldiers dies, they're gone. There's no reloading a previous save, no resurrection. Every decision that I make on the battlefield is weighted with the knowledge that not all of them may come back. It brings a tension, an uneasiness to each every mission (especially knowing that if my wife's character dies, I'm never going to hear the end of it).

Now, I know I've written on the subject of the emotional effect of permanent death in games before, but I'd just like to touch on its legacy in terms of difficulty.

Reaching back to 'Doom,' we as gamers are a fairly eager lot when it comes to pushing forward in games. We charge in, guns blazing, knowing that we have the safety net of respawning to shield us from the permanence of our ridiculous death wishes. However, if you give the player a true burden of mortality, knowing that all progress, all of their hard work could lost with an single ill-placed footstep, it brings about a huge change, not only in their playstyle, but their psyche as well. Watch a gamer playing 'Diablo III' on hardcore. A subtle stress that shows on their face, sharp intakes of breath in tense situations, the celebratory sigh of relief when death is narrowly avoided are all signs of someone enjoying the tension that permadeath brings.

Is it more stressful? Oh, incredibly. However, it's such an incredible rush to know that at any point, your character could be snuffed out. You feel attached, as if you have a stake in your virtual life. To sum up the experience, I believe Winston Churchill said it best:

'Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.'

Aaron Waite would like to remind people in conference workshops to breathe quietly. There's plenty of air for all of us.


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