Persistence & Permadeath: progression in Spelunky, Into the Breach and roguelikes

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Progression is so often an illusion. Many games use the idea of permanent progression as a way of tickling our lizard brains with a growing pile of loot or numbers which constantly tick up, so that we feel like we’re achieving something while we sit in front of a computer and repeat the same set of tasks over and over again.

The beauty of permadeath is that it does away with all this. Characters grow and collect things, but then they become permadead, and it’s time for a new explorer to begin their adventure. The only thing that progresses is you, the player, slowly learning a set of systems with each failure. At least, that’s the theory. We spoke to the designers of Spelunky, Into the Breach, Dead Cells and Rogue Legacy to learn more about persistence within a permadeath mould.

Permadeath isn’t quite as permadeadly as it used to be. There are an increasing number of roguelikes, roguelites and other games with forms of permadeath that kill a character but leave traces of progression behind. Your character might be gone, but some of the updates and unlocks they accessed live on. Exactly how this persistence is implemented, though, varies from game to game.

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Take Into the Breach, a recent and brilliant example of the form which not only included persistence between playthroughs but managed to weave it into the game’s story. Losing means the end of an entire timeline, as the last remnants of humanity are claimed by giant bugs. But you can send one of your mech pilots back in time, with their experience and skills intact, to try and save the world all over again.

“We knew from the early stages of working on Into the Breach that we wanted to build the ‘try again and again’ aspect of rogue-lites into the narrative design of the game,” says Justin Ma, co-founder of Subset Games and co-developer of Into the Breach. “Following a band of heroes as they travel back in time over and over lets the player potentially feel like the whole experience of the game is connected rather than being fractured individual attempts.”

Jump back a decade, and you’ll find these persistent elements in the game which first introduced many of us – or at least me – to the concept of permadeath: Spelunky. It’s structurally a classic roguelike, with your spelunker descending deeper and deeper below the surface until they die, at which point you have to start again from the shallowest levels of a freshly-generated world. Until, that is, you meet the Tunnel Man.

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In exchange for payment – cash in the 2008 freeware original, equipment like bombs and ropes in the 2013 remake – the Tunnel Man will dig you a shortcut that can be used to skip immediately ahead to later levels.

“I think that in games there are two things that can make play feel meaningful. One is a sense that your actions are having a permanent, positive effect on your character and the world around them,” says Spelunky designer Derek Yu. “The other is that your actions have consequences – namely, if you fail, you lose something that has some real value to you within the game. The randomness and permadeath of roguelikes are a great way to add consequences, but the high level of challenge makes it easy for players to hit a wall and lose that positive feeling.”

Spelunky works mostly on the latter principle, but the inclusion of Tunnel Man adds a sprinkling of the former too. The idea, Yu explains, was “to give players something positive that they can work toward even if they feel like their skills aren’t progressing. And the home he sets up in the entrance cave offers a sense of comfort as a permanent fixture in this constantly changing world.”

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Finding balance between these two principles – let’s call them progression and consequence – is the key to making persistence and permadeath work together. Fail to provide enough of a sense of progression, and players – at least, those who aren’t hardcore roguelikers – can get frustrated.

“It’s not mandatory to make death a frustrating or a bad experience in a game with permadeath,” says Motion Twin’s Sébastien Bénard, when I ask him about including persistent elements in his ‘roguevania’ game Dead Cells, currently in early access.

That game gets its name from the balls of energy – ‘cells’, natch – dropped by defeated enemies. Although it also features a traditional gold-based economy, these cells are Dead Cells’ real currency, to be invested in permanent unlocks of new abilities and equipment. When you die, any cells currently on your person are lost forever. But if you can reach the marketplaces at the end of each section you can effectively bank them.

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Having to bank your progress in this way, whether it’s by handing money over to the Tunnel Man or investing your cells towards a long-term upgrade, creates a beautiful tension. Namely, ‘can I get to the end of this level before that last bit of health is chipped away?’ It’s a microcosm of what makes roguelikes so satisfying in the first place, successfully balancing consequence – you die at the final hurdle and lose everything – with the thrill of progression when you pull it off, and finally gain access to something you’ve been working towards for hours.

However, it can also encourage you to play the game in ways you otherwise wouldn’t.

Which can be a good thing. As mentioned earlier, Spelunky’s Tunnel Man was tweaked between the two versions of the game, moving away from cash-in-hand payments, and towards a bomb-and-shotgun barter system. This change was intended to be “instructive to the player, since it suggests conserving items and using (or robbing) shops,” Yu says.

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Push too far towards progression, however, and you risk encouraging a playstyle that’s disconnected from any real sense of consequence. 2013’s Rogue Legacy uses a similar unlock system to Dead Cells, but with one vital difference: you get to keep whatever loot you’re holding when you die. The whole stack does have to be spent before you begin your next life, but it’s enough to shift the emphasis of a run. Players might feel encouraged to sacrifice their current character in order to reach a loot chest, knowing the benefits will be inherited by their successor.

“We wanted to reduce punishment,” says Cellar Door Games’ Teddy Lee, co-designer of Rogue Legacy. “By which I mean, having a play session and gaining nothing extrinsic from it. This is one of our more contentious decisions, and a lot of people say this is what makes our game grindy, but removing that artificial punishment opened a lot of avenues to add depth and difficulty that would be harder to offer in other roguelikes.”

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This decision makes sense in the context of Rogue Legacy, because it is at its heart a game about breaking the rules of roguelikes. You can even, at a cost, stop the game from generating a new level – ‘heresy!’ cry the genre purists – and instead stick with the same layout between runs. This subversion is all part of the thrill, but it does push the game away from the end of the spectrum we’ve marked ‘consequence’.

This balancing act was on the minds of Subset Games when they created Into the Breach.

“What exactly gets sent back was a tricky thing to balance,” says Ma. “If you can improve the odds of your next run considerably by sending back powerful items or skills, you might feel obligated to use a single playthrough to farm the items you’d like to start with, then abandon the run to start your real attempt at victory. Such a situation didn’t sound fun so we opted for the current method of sending pilots, who are certainly helpful but are unlikely to be a primary factor in success or defeat.”

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This is the key to making persistence work alongside permadeath. Dying should always be able to squeeze a yelp or curse word out of you – that all-important feeling of consequence – but a little progression can make it easier to swallow the sense of wasted time. As Dead Cells’ Bénard puts it: “Death should be turned into an exciting moment because it’s the beginning of a new game before being the conclusion of another one.”

15 Comments

  1. shinkshank says:

    I take issue with the point made by the Rogue Legacy dev. I’ve played that game, and in terms of gameplay it’s honestly just a mediocre platformer/mild metroidvania, not something I would exactly call “Deep and Difficult”. Except, of course, for the difficulty provided by having enemies have hilariously bloated stats and and being beyond annoying to fight until you level up enough, at which point you’re one- or two-shotting your way through them and get to the next zone, at which it all starts over again.

    And even beyond that, I can name a dozen games that are very much deep and difficult, while still featuring permadeath. Maybe it’s because they didn’t have any per-death permanent stat boosts to make the progression, what’s the word… artificial?

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    • Kitsunin says:

      Literally the only metric by which it could be considered a Roguelike is having a random map. The only thing you lose by dying is your powerup. It’s procedural action-platformer with a heavy focus on progress via grinding sufficient gold (basically the antithesis of most Roguelikes).

      I think it’s a fun (but not great) game, but it honestly makes me mad that they call it a Roguelike, and so obviously banked on the roguelite genre’s popularity boom without even, y’know, making a game within said genre.

    • DodoSandvich says:

      I think it is a problem with the balance of the progression system more than anything. But yeah, the powerups are eventually going to get so powerful you just cut through everything but there is also a point where the game is tough as nails before that.

      If you are really looking for a challange, I recommend the remix bosses. You are playing with a pre-defined character so progression does nothing for the difficulty of the fight, and they are really hard while utilizing the interesting mechanics of the game.

  2. FrancoBegbie says:

    You should talk to Julian Edison, the developer of ‘In Celebration of Violence’, I’m sure he’d be glad to chip in.
    In Celebration of Violence (Steam store)
    ICoV has a progression system (well, several) that is really something different.
    Generally speaking, you slowly, deliberately hack and slash your way through different maps, kill enemies and bosses for XP gem drops until you kill a god and decide to end your run or continue in a looped mode.
    Eventually, you’ll die and retain some of your collected XP gems.
    These can than be used to permanently upgrade your stats for all future runs – or you can take them into the next game to buy a new weapon, resources or blessings from gods.
    Here, a new player can fall into a trap: thinking that he needs to conserve as much XP as possible to level his characters so he can get to ‘the fun part’ – but the (initially) weird part is that the blessings or weapon upgrades you can buy in the Sanctuary (your starting hub) will make your character ways stronger than he could possibly become by leveling while spending the same amount of XP.
    Most things in the game cost XP: Blessings (straight-up stat increases) mementos (passive pick-ups), spells (both for buying as well as for using them; there’s an intricate system where XP basically functions as mana) – to the point where you’ll eventually make more XP by bying everything in sight than by saving it up for the level-ups – which sounds nuts and needs some adjustment on the player’s side to overcome the ‘conditioning’ of other games.

    Then there are a number of other systems at play that carry over between games like the favour you have with the different gods which really mix things up – f’r instance, if you pray to a god that looks favourable at you, he may give you not just flat stats but some bonus mementos or spells as well which can be really powerful and game changing – but if you kill that god, you will destroy his shrine in the sanctuary and lose a lot of favour with him, and building up the latter can be a task in itself since some gods become really hostile.
    (There is a late-game way to reset your sanctuary, as well as a chance with each death to restore shrines – the game never locks you in.)

    The there is a permanent system of discoveries for spells, mementos, enemies, weapons and eqipment.
    Initially, you know barely anything about what things actually do – e.g. mementos have a cryptic description that give away next to nothing, but picking them up several times will eventually reveal an in-depth description of their exact effects.
    But you don’t need them if you’re observant enough: whenever an item procs, it will display a small icon of itself in the area realated to its effect, e.g. everyones favourite memento, the Rat’s Tail will display its icon next to your weapon stats (damage/power values in the GUI) whenever you swing your weapon. You may see that it decreased your damage 2 minutes ago, but now it increases it, so what has changed? Again, the game never locks you in, if you can’t possibly figure out the effects of a specific item, just pick it up often enough and after a while you’ll have your own in-game reference for all the things.

    To quote the store page: “In Celebration of Violence is meticulously unclear. The most you get are the basic controls. All other items, secrets, and mechanics are up to you to decipher. It is difficult, and much of the challenge comes from figuring out the systems at play.”

    It’s brilliant and if Julian wasn’t so terribly bad at marketing you’d all know by now.
    It’s 8$/€ for crying out loud, give it a chance.

    • Dewal says:

      Bought it today and had some fun with it for a few hours. Very nice roguelike and it’s a pleasure to learn its logic.

    • skeletortoise says:

      Why pay to market your game when they have folks like you spreading the good word?

      • FrancoBegbie says:

        Yeah, I know what you mean and that my praise could invite cynical reactions.
        But then, I bought the game when it came into early access about 1 1/2 years ago (full release was on feb 16 this year) right at a time when I found myself getting actually angry about myself with the slightest misplay in Binding of Isaac and a lot of the other action-roguelikes (-lites, whatever floats your boat) like Gungeon or Nuclear Throne etc just didn’t click with me.
        This was the 1st time I’ve feeled compelled to write some guides and be active and helpful on the forums (even on its discord) instead of just being my usual anti-social self.
        It’s the kind of game I’d like to make myself (which will never happen) and gave me / still gives me a lot of fun – and after close to 200hrs I still learn new things occassionally and find myself in discussions about synergies and things like that.
        If it was up to me, the game would make Julian moderately wealthy so he can (and has to lol) make a follow-up.

        • FrancoBegbie says:

          urg words… ‘feeled’ my bad, I knew something felt wrong about that… wasn’t there an edit button some time?

    • Kitsunin says:

      Well you got me to buy it. Good job!

      I really dig how it kind of asks you to bet on how far you can get. Do you bank your experience, giving your next life a big boost, but leaving you with almost no chance of making it through the next area? Or do you hang onto it and bet on being able to bank way more experience by surviving to defeat the next boss?

  3. Tony M says:

    When did turn Alex Spencer into a Buddhist philosopher?

    Progression is so often an illusion.
    we feel like we’re achieving something while we repeat the same set of tasks over and over again.
    The beauty of death is that it does away with all this.
    The only thing that progresses is you
    try again and again

    Disclaimer: My knowledge of actual Buddhism is limited to vague memories of Tripitaka from Monkey.

  4. Catterbatter says:

    It’s weird to refer to roguelikes throughout the article and not actually mention any by name! But to get the ball rolling, ToME has exploration mode as a donator perk, which eliminates permadeath completely. That’s sort of fun in a way. But I personally appreciate the fact that progression in a roguelike takes place within a given run, and the player progresses by gaining experience with the game, but each run is still a new adventure. Permadeath isn’t a punishment in this kind of game; it’s just starting again. If I lose a chess match, should I start with two queens the next time?

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