Ironman Mode, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Permadeath
Having your actions matter more than usual, and dealing with the consequences of your poorly-thought up actions. And, how to grow as a person (but that seems less important, doesn't it). Published on Sat, Nov 16, 2019. Written by Michael Bassili.
- Part I: Ironman Desires And Consequential Ire
- Part II: Learning To Love Failure
- III: Concluding Thoughts
- Appendix I: Thanking Patrons
- Appendix II: Sources And Citations
“If you build the guts to do something, anything, then you better save enough to face the consequences.” -Criss Jami
For years, ironman modes in games have been my go-to way to play. Most I speak to about this, however, disagree. This is my little love-letter to the permadeath mode everybody hates, and that I love to death. This is: “Ironman Mode, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Permadeath.”
The reason I suspect people I surround myself with dislike ironman modes in games is because they don’t want to lose valued members of their in-game party. They don’t want to be punished for accidental laziness, or they don’t like the looming feeling of potential loss ironman modes introduce to gameplay. They probably feel like real-life is already filled with high-stress situations, so why would I willingly introduce undesired stress and worry to my playtime? Well, let me tell you… that’s a completely reasonable explanation.
(I originally had this whole thing written about how “people who don’t play on ironman modes aren’t playing the game correctly.” But, after some percolation, I’ve realized I was just projecting my own personal preferences on the people I surround myself with. And, what kind of man spends hours of his life writing thousands of words of projection? This man, right here, apparently. But, I have a self-imposed deadline for these kinds of deliverables, so I’m going to talk about ironman modes in a different way…)
What makes us upset when we lose a party member in a game like XCOM? Is is that we’ve spent hours building their skills and proficiencies up to some desired level only to have them eliminated from your party? Or, is there something more personal about the loss? Personally, I can’t name party members in XCOM after my friends or partner because if/when they die, I lose the desire to keep playing; losing my good pal in my XCOM game is enough to stop me from playing the game. What gives, brain? The dude in the XCOM game isn’t actually my friend, so I shouldn’t feel so bummed out when they are shot to death by an alien. But, it does, and that kind of bothers me. I don’t really have this problem when I assign random names to my XCOM dudes, so this has to do with the personal connections I have with my pals (and their names). I tried replicating this in Civilization, where I’d name cities after friends. I also tried replicating this in Total War, where I’d name entire provinces after my friends. And, sure enough, when the Sassanids took over Joe Generic Province, I felt kind of shitty. Joe Generic would be so very upset that this extinct, pre-Islamic civilization has taken them over. I fought long and hard to improve the living conditions within Joe Generic Province, so I’m naturally broken up about this loss. Turns out: I will reliably become bummed out when ANY in-game item named after someone I know in real-life is eliminated from play. What gives, brain?! As you can probably, tell, this frustrated me enough to sit in front of a computer screen for several hours to write about it.
This little experiment yielded another result, however. Not only was I disappointed when my named game assets were eliminated from play, but before elimination, I tended to spend more time improving said assets. I.e. when I named a province in Total War after my partner, I tended to spend more time improving its living conditions and defences when compared to all other regions in the game. The effect seems to work both ways!
So, looks like I value game assets I name after people I know. Neat. Wait! How did we lose focus here… this piece is about ironman modes in games, personalization of game assets (although, that could be a fun topic to explore more thoroughly).
Without ironman mode enabled, you can safely play through the game without worrying about the lives of your party. In other kinds of games, like Hearts Of Iron, ironman modes mean you can’t manually save, which pretty much does the same thing: you make a mistake, and you have to live with the consequences. I don’t know when this happened, but I grew into the kind of person who loves knowing that all my game assets can be lost in an instant. Now, this often means I never finish games like Hearts Of Iron because my country is invaded by some foreign power and I don’t have any old saves to restore. But, I find that when ironman mode is enabled, I value every little interaction with the game more. Every little decision, every in-game event, has its impact doubled by the potential for total loss. This turns games like Hearts Of Iron and XCOM into these dedicated events where I’m always on-guard for potential threats to my party. Games like XCOM turn from casual turn-based combat RPG to these personal, challenging experiences where I’ll do anything and everything to preserve my custom-named soldiers, even if that means sacrificing my lesser-skilled fodder soldiers. Inclusion of ironman modes are some of my favorite things to see in games, because I know I’ll be taken for a ride. Almost every good story I have from XCOM, Hearts Of Iron, Stellaris, and FTL are from a save where I was playing in ironman mode. So much so, in fact, that I’d wager that playing a game in ironman mode amplifies the probability for memorable experiences by 2; I’d contest that playing your game in ironman mode is more likely to produce a good story than a game being played without it. In this sense, ironman mode is like a black box where you input more stress and effort on your part in return for a more interesting overall experience. Neat! But, this doesn’t address the original problem.
People will always be opposed to losing people/things that they’ve put effort and time into, because… well, they put effort and time into them. It’s only human. You’ll always become attached to your five favorite XCOM soldiers if you have just played 20hours of XCOM with those same five XCOM soldiers. My defence for ironman mode doesn’t come at the expense of this reaction, but rather at the acceptance of the potential for loss. You will feel bad when you lose your favorite XCOM soldiers, and that’s okay. You’ll now need to deal with life without them. You’ll need to learn to move on, just like real life.
“We are free to choose our paths, but we can’t choose the consequences that come with them.” -Sean Covey
Like real life, games offer the potential for catastrophic failure. It’s failure that often forces us to grow, as both people and players. Struggle facilitates self-improvement, after all. In this part, I want to try to convince you that you should give ironman modes a chance.
My minuscule foray into the world of Zen Buddhism taught me that loss is something that will happen all the time, and you’re better off overcoming said loss and moving forward. Loss is but a change in states; your old self differed from your new, loss-encountered self, and that’s okay. It is what it is. We need to learn to accept the now instead of lamenting the then. It’s only then that you’ll rise above the… oh wait, let’s ignore the spiritual stuff. Not really relevant to this conversation. A side effect of learning about how to deal with loss is that games with ironman modes because a lot more enjoyable. You can never get back those XCOM soldiers. You can only train up new ones, and honour the dead. Older, less loss-adept Michael would’ve been angry at the loss of my most cherished soldiers. But, current, enlightened-Michael knows that it’s simply not possible to recover those that I’ve lost. The healthy thing to do then is to thank those you’ve lost, be thankful for who you have right now, and move on. That’s essentially the backbone for this piece: “Thank who you lost, appreciate who you have, and move on.” Really easy, straightforward stuff. But… it’s not that simple! If it were, I wouldn’t have to write this article. While it’s one thing to be told how to feel and act, it’s another thing entirely to practice it yourself. It’s tricky and taxing to be on-guard for emotional distress and angst; the default human mode of operation when encountering loss is to react and become upset. This alone is probably the reason a lot of people I know dislike ironman modes; they don’t want to experience the feelings and emotions that go along with permanent, irreversible loss. Changes that alter your playthrough forever; consequences you never intended, potentially opening you and your party up to massive loss.
We shouldn’t let fears of loss prevent us from doing potentially valuable things (and we definitely shouldn’t let it prevent us from playing games in ironman mode). So, let’s talk about some strategies for learning to become accustomed to loss, both in video games and in real life.
The most valuable practice you can do is simply play any game in ironman mode. Turn off manual saves; understand that things will happen that you don’t intend for. Tell yourself, “I will react and accept the consequences regardless.” When something goes wrong, check in:
- “How did this make me feel? What am I feeling right now?”
- “It’s okay to feel the way I’m feeling right now. It is a natural human response to what just happened to me.”
- “I’m going to collect myself and make the best of my current situation. I can’t go back in time, so I must move forward.”
Do this whenever you lose a comrade in XCOM, a province in Hearts Of Iron, a crewmate in FTL. Check in, and then move on. It’s going to feel like there’s a lot of friction there, and that’s expected. It gets a little easier every time, and if you keep this up, I guarantee you’ll start to make composing yourself and moving past loss into a habit. Completely automatic, both in the context of games and real life.
Do this in real life too! When you lose your phone, or someone takes your seat in a restaurant, check in, accept it (if you can’t directly change it), and move on. Accepting micro-losses in day-to-day life is a healthy practice to enjoy, and it will help you become a more easy-going, happy person. The end goal with all of this is to make you into a more composed, thoughtful, and happy person. The whole ironman mode thing is really just a Trojan Horse. If you freak out when people cut you off in traffic, this practice is for you. If you get upset when you don’t do well on an exam, this practice is for you. If you complain about others’ actions to friends and family, this practice is for you. Just check in, and move on. Learn to stop worrying about what you can’t change, and accept loss for what it is: something you can’t change. And, maybe, over time, you’ll be able to find some joy in it all. The beauty of the ephemeral nature of all things. The constant appreciation for what you have because you know how quickly things can disappear from your life, completely out of your control. That’s how you stop worrying and love loss (and consequently, ironman mode).
I really hope this struck a chord with somebody. Accepting loss is one of the most important skills I think a person can develop, because no matter who you are or what you do, you will experience loss. Someone will die; someone will lose their job; someone will get into a car accident. You can’t change unchangeable things. All you can do is improve the way you react to them. All you can do is relax. Stop worrying. Love what you have and thank what you lost for its time in your life. And, most importantly, play your games in ironman mode, because I think you’ll have a really good time.
Wanted to thank Kyle Isaak for his continued support of Mike’s Gaming Trove. If you want access to exclusive articles and goodies (and/or you also want to help support the site), you can support us on Patreon.
It takes a lot to write these things, and I don’t supplement my personal income with ads across the site, so I rely exclusively on donations and Patreon support from those who really enjoy my work. If you enjoyed this piece, even moderately, I’d love it if you gave my Patreon page a look. Just a dollar a month funds several large pieces on (hopefully) interesting topics on video games. It lets me do things like (1) write more, and (2) write better, as well as (3) not become homeless. It’s a good cause, I swear! If you don’t want to, that’s fine too. If you read this far, you’ve already made my day. Thanks a bunch!
Here are some books, articles, and other forms of media that were consumed while writing this. I’m trying to get better at citing sources, so I’ve gone through all the trouble to use the MLA citation format:
- “The One and Done Thrill of Ironman Game Design.” Game Wisdom, 25 July 2014, http://game-wisdom.com/critical/ironman-game-design.
- Rinpoche, Traleg Kyabgon. “Accepting the Unacceptable.” Tricycle, 14 Nov. 2017, https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/accepting-unacceptable/. Works Cited
- “A Buddhist Perspective on Grieving by Roshi Joan Halifax PBS.” Pbs.Org, 2010, https://www.pbs.org/thebuddha/blog/2010/mar/11/buddhist-perspective-grieving-roshi-joan-halifax. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019.
- “Alt-Take: Ironman & Permadeath Are the Bane of Strategy Games.” Strategy Gamer, 2019, https://www.strategygamer.com/articles/strategy-games-ironman-permadeath/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019.
- Buddha Weekly: Buddhist Practices, Mindfulness, Meditation. “‘Learning How to Die’ and ‘Why Meditating on Death May Bring Joy to Life’: What the Buddhist Teachers Say About End of Life, Dying, and Palliative Care - Buddha Weekly: Buddhist Practices, Mindfulness, Meditation.” Buddha Weekly: Buddhist Practices, Mindfulness, Meditation, 26 June 2019, https://www.buddhaweekly.com/learning-how-to-die-and-why-meditating-on-death-may-bring-joy-to-life-what-the-buddhist-teachers-say-about-end-of-life-dying-and-palliative-care/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019.
- “Buddhism: Beliefs about Death.” Funeralwise, 2018, https://www.funeralwise.com/customs/buddhist/death/.
- Domyo. “13 - What Zen ‘Acceptance’ and ‘Non-Attachment’ Really Are - The Zen Studies Podcast.” The Zen Studies Podcast, 4 May 2017, https://www.zenstudiespodcast.com/zenacceptance/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019.
- “Ironman Mode.” Old School RuneScape Wiki, 2019, https://oldschoolrunescape.fandom.com/wiki/Ironman_Mode. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019.
- Journey, My. “What Zen ‘Acceptance’ and ‘Non-Attachment’ Really Are.” My Journey of Conscience, 6 Sept. 2016, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/myjourneyofconscience/2016/09/06/zen-acceptance-and-non-attachment/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019.
- McCormick, Andrew J. “Buddhist Ethics and End-of-Life Care Decisions.” Journal of Social Work in End-Of-Life & Palliative Care, vol. 9, no. 2–3, Apr. 2013, pp. 209–225, 10.1080/15524256.2013.794060. Olivetti, Justin. “The Game Archaeologist: Ironman Modes and Elective Permadeath.” Engadget, Engadget, 30 Aug. 2014, https://www.engadget.com/2014/08/30/the-game-archaeologist-ironman-modes-and-elective-permadeath/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019.
- Popova, Maria. “A Zen Master Explains Life and Death to a Child and Outlines the Three Essential Principles of Zen Mind.” Brain Pickings, 27 July 2015, https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/27/dropping-ashes-on-the-buddha-death/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019.
- What’s Your Grief. “Grief and Buddhism: Comfort in Impermanence.” What’s Your Grief, 18 Feb. 2013, https://www.whatsyourgrief.com/grief-and-buddhism-comfort-in-impermanence/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019.
I’m doing this new thing where I treat these pieces as actual essays. So, I’m citing them and editing them and reviewing them with other people in an effort to improve their quality. We’ll see if this more-refined production process yields results.