There is a thoughtful piece on Game|Life today about the returning trend of permadeath, found in various permutations in games like DayZ, Dark Souls, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The real nugget comes from XCOM lead designer Jake Solomon:
The downside of strong narratives, Solomon said, is that they’re usually a clue to players that the game’s hero will never be in mortal danger.
“If you have a hero character at the heart of your narrative, and you have 10 hours of story designed around that character, there is no conceivable way for that character to die,” said Solomon. “Unfortunately, the player knows that too. And so they know that the environment that you’ve created is not authentic. … They know they’re not going to die. The whole point of the experience is to prop the player up until the final cutscene plays.”
This is a great point and worth turning over. A certain kind of core gamer decries the dwindling supply of narrative-rich single-player experiences, and yet these experiences may be the "safest" gaming experiences a player can have. What is "hardcore" about a narrative that the game expects - wants - you to complete? Certain games - the Call of Duty series comes to mind - kill off playable characters without remorse, yet these tend to be the same games in which you don't give, for lack of a better term, two shits about the characters.
I'm hard-pressed to think of a single shocking character death in gaming, with the obvious exception of course, of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. I haven't seen Hitchcock yet, but at the theater last night I saw a preview for it. The movie concerns, I'm given to believe, the making of Psycho and in particular the decision to kill off the main character halfway through the film. Obviously, the idea of permadeath is bound up with the idea of difficulty, and neither Aeris' death nor Janet Leigh's makes it particularly difficult to complete either narrative. For death to be meaningful in games, it seems, it can't just be shown, as in a film. It must be felt, must be punished.
That's why I don't think we've yet had our "Psycho" moment in the medium; the universal play experience in which the character dies, the player is punished gravely, yet keeps playing. The first terrifying playthrough of Demon's Souls comes close. This was a watershed moment in my gaming life; challenge and the death-state in most games since has felt arbitrary or not carefully thought through. Yet I think that game was just a bit too alienating to move the needle of game culture. Dark Souls, of course, was no easier. Furthermore, neither game has a real narrative to speak of. I think if FROM Software ever decides to make a more inclusive, more story-driven game, they may yet produce that modern moment of shocking death for our medium.