Aliens & Dwarfs: An Abridged History of Permadeath


The death of your character doesn’t usually make for a thrilling gameplay experience but the concept of ‘permadeath’ has grown in popularity in recent years, representing a niche of games that reset your progress, delete your saved file or kill your characters forever in the event of failure. In 2016, it’s the domain of games like XCOM 2, Fire Emblem, and State of Decay.

Games with permadeath have a long history, however, dating back to the early days of video gaming. Here are three of the most important:

Rogue (1980)

If you’ve ever heard the term ‘roguelike’, a word applied to modern titles like FTL, Don’t Starve, The Binding of Isaac, and Enter the Gungeon, you’re halfway to meeting one of the most influential games in history. Rogue, an ASCII-based game about a quest for the Amulet of Yendor, pioneered permadeath, procedural generation, and turn-based gameplay back in 1980.

The goal of Rogue was to reach the bottom of a dungeon, collect the amulet, and then leave again, all while the world colluded to destroy your nameless adventurer. If you died, you had to start all over again. Rogue didn’t make a lot of money, even by the standards of the 1980s, but it is forever enshrined in gaming parlance, a reward all on its own.

UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994)

If UFO: Enemy Unknown is a true representation of Earth’s chances in the wake of an alien invasion, the human race is finished – and that’s the entire point; the game’s XCOM unit are woefully undermanned and outgunned, representing a ragtag bunch of survivors organized into a guerrilla force. There are no good endings in the XCOM franchise.

Permadeath in UFO means that every soldier you lose on the battlefield dies for good. As soldiers gain experience from each battle they survive, subsequent losses mean that XCOM gets weaker until you’re fielding the equivalent of marketing assistants and postmen against highly trained alien soldiers and robots.

With success or failure hinging on the roll of a dice, UFO had more in common with the kind of lottery games offered by iGaming companies at times. However, that doesn’t make it any less influential. The title has inspired games as varied as Xenonauts, Darkest Dungeon, and Hard West, as well as titles in other sectors, like Lottoland’s Space Wars, a slot machine featuring strange, alien life forms.

Dwarf Fortress (2006)

Dwarf Fortress is an intimidating game, not least because of its text-based graphics. Reportedly an inspiration for Markus Persson’s open-world masterpiece Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress is a strange combination of simulation and roguelike, in which the player has to lead a group of dwarves in developing an underground fortress.

Horse is no longer enraged.” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by rcourtie

It’s not for everyone. Dwarf Fortress is a game out of time, featuring basic graphics in an era when The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion first joined the market. It’s also very difficult. However, its longevity (it’s still being updated) is testament to its inspired gameplay – just make sure you keep your dwarfs healthy; they won’t be coming home otherwise.

Games with permadeath are an acquired taste, their unforgiving nature either the primary attraction or an immediate turnoff. It’s hard to deny their influence on the modern gaming scene though, especially with games like Dark Souls championing extreme difficulty and No Man’s Sky offering a procedurally generated universe, concepts native to the original Rogue.

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