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Simulating Stakes Through Hellblade's Permadeath "Bluff"; Plus, Wet Hot American Summer's Triumphant Return

UNPREDICTABLE | Caty looks at the controversy revolving around Hellblade, and laughs a lot during Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later.

Analysis by Caty McCarthy, .

After taking a week off, we're back! Unpredictable is a column from Caty McCarthy circling around recent games and other happenings bustling in the world of media. This week features the game Hellblade (or rather, the permadeath controversy around it) and the show Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later.

Hellblade, the latest game from Ninja Theory (of DmC, Enslaved, and Heavenly Sword fame), is out today. The game's getting a lot of surprise praise for how it wrestles with its themes of mental illness, all with an astoundingly small development team—a mere 13 people—having brought the game to life. Yet it's also found itself the root of a little controversy.

I'll be upfront: I haven't gotten a chance to play Hellblade yet. We weren't able to land a review code in time, but rest assured, more than a couple of us have plans to check it out.

Now for the controversy: at the start of Hellblade, the player is threatened with permadeath. Die too many times in the game, and your save file will be deleted. Only, according to investigation from PCGamesN, it seems like a bluff. Even after dying 50 times, the rot on the character's arm never creeped to her skull like the game threatened. Death was something to be feared, yes, but it all seems to be a psychological ploy aimed at players connecting with the game and its heroine.

But players were pretty pissed about the implied permadeath at all, as if this concept was fresh and new and never witnessed before. For those players, I have a simple plea: if you don't like permadeath, just don't play games with it! It's really that simple. You don't have any right to be frustrated, really, because it's such an avoidable clause. Plus, there are players—like myself—who enjoy the higher stakes. The tension. And when you think of the popularity of roguelikes or Fire Emblem's brutal difficulty in the past, permadeath is not only well-trodden, it's just always been around. Ninja Theory's dance with permadeath is nothing new. And if anything, it's only substantial because it was only a threat; a means to simulate stakes in the game for the player as the character themselves feels them.

A lot of potential players were mad at how "anti-consumer" the threat was. Forgetting the fact that, yes, you have the option to not play a game for hours on end if you're afraid of the risk of losing progress. There have been perceived-to-be unfairly balanced games in the past, recent controversies around Rain World and Tumbleseed come to mind (the latter of which was later patched to be easier). I usually stand against most of these criticisms, believing that an intense difficulty doesn't make a game unworthy of playing. If anything, it's a game that works to decide whether a player is worthy of bringing it to task.

That said, I've been skeptical about Hellblade, as I stay around most games. In Hellblade's case, it had nothing to do with the current controversy. As whenever a game proudly puffs its chest about how it depicts mental illness (in this case, psychosis) "the right way," I immediately take a step back. I think of the rare games that are successful in shining light on things like this—hello, Yume Nikki—and remember how easy it is to fall on the trap of feeling corny and worse, exploitative. From the words of fellow critics, it seems that Hellblade doesn't skip along this troubled path with no care. Which is relieving to hear, honestly.

In the end though, I'll reserve judgment until I get my own hands on it. (Which I hope to this weekend sometime.) In the meantime, the controversy revolving around its permadeath bluff feels wildly overblown. I understand players are frustrated by the slightest inkling of a permanent game over undoing their progress, or even raising their arms at the hint of a developer "lying" about it. Nonetheless, a lot of the people outraged about this are outraged about a game they haven't even played yet. Hell, as I've stated above, I haven't played it. Reserve your judgments people. You'll feel all the better for it.

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Over the weekend I binge-watched Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later. It's technically the third entry in the ongoing cult comedy series. The first was the movie Wet Hot American Summer, which debuted back in 2001 with the likes of Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Michael Ian Black, Paul Rudd, and more starring. In 2015, a prequel series on Netflix debuted called Wet Hot American Summer: First Day At Camp, a silly prequel to the events of the movie (still starring the noticeably older cast). This past Friday though, the Wet Hot American Summer legacy continued with a true sequel to the film: taking the cast ten years in the future, to their "mid-20s."

The gag is, they are very much not in their mid-20s. When Wet Hot American Summer was first announced as getting a Netflix series, I met it with apprehension. Even with the original cast and director, I felt uneasy about it. There was frankly no way the same slapstick magic would be caught on film again. I was happy that my skepticism was proven so wrong. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day at Camp was as whipsmart (or rather, whipdumb) as ever, and now so is its sequel.

For the unenlightened, Wet Hot American Summer is a cult comedy series featuring the best and brightest comedic actors of today. Some have recognizable careers today, others in the past. Altogether, Wet Hot American Summer relishes in its absurdity of teens doing what teens do at a troubled summer camp. It's also the type of show that explains away the slightest inconsistencies with hilarious, respectable confidence—a recast masked by a "nose job," a plot hole shushed away by characters with a shrug.

It's rare for comedies to really land nowadays. The ones I've enjoyed most in recent years have been Master of None, the anime Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto, and the cartoon Regular Show, which goes to show the abysmal landscape comedies have fallen into in recent years. But hey, maybe I'm just weird with a taste in comedy too focused, too narrow, too keen on hearing needless pot smashing sound effects whenever someone tosses something.

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Comments 5

  • Avatar for Talraen #1 Talraen 12 days ago
    I do find it somewhat amusing that we are treating a limited number of lives like some novel concept that has never been tried before. Everything old is new again!
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #2 VotesForCows 12 days ago
    A negative reaction to the use of lives in a video game is complete nonsense. We've had them before, plenty of times. And not every game is for everyone, but I guess that last point is lost on a lot of people who think everything should be for them.
    Looking forward to playing this anyway.

    @Talraen Exactly right!Edited 2 weeks ago by VotesForCows
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  • Avatar for TheWildCard #3 TheWildCard 11 days ago
    One can't really judge whether it's a worthwhile thing to have in the game devoid of context, but I get why it has gotten the reaction it has. Most games with permadeth are mechanically built around it in some way. Hellblade has been marketed as a narrative focused AAA action game though, meaning it's either a) punishing for the sake of being punishing, which is weird for this category of game and while deter a lot of people away from it, b) is actually pretty easy, in which case why even bother putting it in the game if it has no teeth, or c) purely a thematic bluff, which will feel cheap and empty once the player sees through it. Or d) just a lame way to make the game artificially longer.

    Now apparently it is just a bluff. While I'm not necessarily against it if it really thematically justified, I'd hazard to guess Ninja Theory should have found a more elegent way of expressing feelings of tension without resorting to artificial threats of permadeth.
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  • Avatar for jay-ban #4 jay-ban 11 days ago
    People on internet find something to get outraged about... who woulda thunk it? ;)

    Hellblade from day one has been an experiment in many different ways, and an interesting one at that. Breaking away from so many industry staples to forge it's own direction, I guess it's somewhat understandable that gamers who are used to the established albeit unwritten rules of regular AAA games might be a little shocked out of their comfort zone by this game.
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  • Avatar for hester2 #5 hester2 11 days ago
    My issue with the permadeath (if it's not a bluff) isn't that it's there, it's that it was only communicated once people started playing the game. That's an instant turn-off for a lot of people with limited free time, and it's something that should have been communicated in advance by the devs rather than by day one purchasers.
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