When I finally sat down to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown (a franchise completely new to me, in a genre I don't dabble in very often), I was offered a pair of options upon starting a new game. The first was the difficulty, and I chose Normal, this later turning out to be a mistake because I suck somewhat at strategy games. The second was “Ironman” mode.
Ironman, for those of you who haven't played XCOM before, is a game mode in which you are assigned a single save slot to record your progress, with no control over when it saves. This essentially means that you are permanently tied to every single decision you make in the game, and cannot simply "re-do" that fourth mission because the soldier you named after Mary from work died to an alien's beam weapon. No backsies.
What struck me as odd about this option was that a lot of the XCOM players on my Twitter feed would turn it on when playing through the game for the second time, rather than the first. It was something I chose without hesitation on my first play, though, and this is primarily for one reason: In any game, I believe all my choices should be permanent, by default. Because when they are, it starts to feel like my interaction with games matters.
The problem this raises is that some people make mistakes, and not just tactical ones. Taking the wrong option on your soldier's talent tree. Buying ten vests of carapace armour instead of one. These are understandable mistakes, but there are of course ways to design the game around them, to ensure that these mistakes cannot actually be made.
But on the battlefield, you'll learn a harsh lesson from Ironman. As many of you have done, my squaddies were named after myself and those I know. Watching them die was a painful experience, and because it was permanent, I learned from it very quickly. There was no going back, reliving the same memory fifty times until I completed the mission, to the point where risk was a minor inconvenience.
When commanding forces on the battlefield, some of them will die. Bad luck, inexperience, being out-maneuvered. This is part and parcel of becoming a better wargamer. By learning your lessons using the same conflict time and again, you are teaching yourself nothing whatsoever that will be useful outside that exact conflict. Being forced into new, unfamiliar territory, constantly wary of the permanency of your actions, will mould you into a more fluid and wise leader. You are no longer “quick-save-quick-load” Bob from Accounts. You are a war leader, but one who operates unassisted by years of military campaigns in the XCOM world, with no team of advisors to hand. You will make decisions that will result in death. But you will accept it, and learn from it.
What I want from games, as the industry progresses, is realism. It frustrates me to hear people say that I'm being ridiculous, claiming that lightsabers shouldn't have a stopping point, or that there should be no sound in space, because aliens and spaceships exist. The latter two are entirely possible. The former two break my immersion. The same goes for Ironman mode — I don't see the disadvantage of learning as we do in real life, from mistakes we can't take back. Playing through XCOM as a commander who, as far as the game world is concerned, seems to have the ability to see into the future, almost like they’d failed at this exact mission ten times before, spotting all aliens ahead of time and positioning everyone perfectly, is completely ridiculous. Finishing the fight bloodied is a story, and one that is deserving of some respect.
To me it seems like a disservice to those on real battlefields, to have games that represent armed conflict in such a way that death means nothing. It would appear that roguelikes have reached the point of save-realism long before military games have done, each death a permanent event that requires you to generate a new persona with which to deal harm to your enemies.
Permadeath has been a part of games design for some time, but rarely as often as it is now with the rise of the roguelike and games like XCOM charging into the mainstream. It’s changing the way that the more reluctant of us play games. Minecraft now features Hardcore mode - die, and the game will delete your world. Diablo III's hardcore mode (a traditional feature dating back through the series’ history) does the same with your character. There's a message in the “hardcore” naming convention, too. This isn't an experience for those who want the escapism of Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom. This is for those who really want to sink their teeth into something that feels a lot more serious and important, who want to think very carefully and make choices that will haunt them for quite some time.
The point that some of these games are trying to make is that you're playing god with characters whom the developers want you to perceive as real people. Peter Molyneux parody Twitter account @petermolydeux once asked his followers to "imagine an action game where, upon killing each enemy, you see a 1-minute, unique cutscene flashing through their entire life." It seemed like an incredible idea at the time, and now it's beginning to come true in ZombiU, where every time you die - and death is permanent for the character you’re playing - you're given a new persona, with a randomly generated biography.
As I stand in XCOM, several of my friends are dead. Canada has left the Council due to panic. I'm currently standing in a city where I have no chance of saving even half of the civilians. But rather than feeling totally defeated, I suppress my urge to start again on Easy. I feel like a veteran. Like I can turn to a fellow XCOM fan at a pub and say "I've SEEN things, man. I've seen things."