Death in real life is, so far, permanent.  Though this is comforting when it comes to, say, Hitler, permadeath is arguably a bad design decision.  It’s been emulated by a few games, as it adds a certain weightiness to your choices.  But to be frank, permadeath fans are probably really good at the game already, so it’s just an extra challenge for the jaded.  In a roguelike game like Dredmor, I think it just inhibits the player from exploring.  The thought of redoing eight levels has made me reluctant to even continue the game.

Adventure games normally just sweep death under the carpet.  The game coughs politely (or, as in the Arkham games, razzes you a bit), then pretends it didn’t happen.  No real problems there, except metaphysical ones.  A successful run through Half-Life 2 or Skyrim basically consist of spliced-together sequences each of which ended in failure.

Some game impose a penalty for death: a respawn timer (as in TF2), or a fee (as in Borderlands).  More interestingly, occasionally death can be exploited.  It’s often a good idea to die in Left for Dead if you’re weak, as you respawn with 50% health.  (More routinely, death can serve as a quick fast travel back to a safe spot.)

The most intriguing approach is to make respawning an acknowledged part of the gameworldBioshock and Borderlands have this: if you die, you’re reconstituted elsewhere as part of the in-game technology.  In terms of player experience it’s much like any other respawn, but it’s a stunning bit of conworlding, as it means that in the gameworld, death is only a setback.

However, even these games don’t really treat this consistently.  Borderlands comes close, in that enemies respawn if you leave an area for a bit, but people still give you quests where you have to kill boss X, and it’s assumed that doing so has consequences…. even though you can later return to the same spot and kill them again.

However, Borderlands 2 I think messes up the concept.  (Spoilers below; select the text to read it.)

One of the NPCs, Roland, is killed near the end of the game.  This is treated as a big bummer.  But Roland was one of the player characters in BL1.  So even if not everyone can be resurrected, he can be.  He’s registered in the New-U database.  (The database belongs to the evil megacorp, Hyperion– but they never prevent you, the player,from respawning, though you’re an even bigger threat than Roland.)  This bugs me, because they went to the trouble of making the New-U an actual part of the conworld, and then didn’t work out the consequences. 

Plus, why doesn’t Jack come back after you kill him?  He’s the frigging head of the company, you can bet he’d be backed up   Ditto for Andrew Ryan in Bioshock.  I’m not sure offhand how this could be fixed, but they should’ve come up with something to patch it over.  (“You can only respawn 1000 times, and these characters exceeded that.”)

While we’re at it, did Star Trek ever face up to the fact that its transporter technology was also immortality tech?  (A sf story that does work out at least some of the consequences is Charlie Stross’s Glasshouse.)

An interesting mechanic might be a horcrux or something that allows some but not all characters to respawn.  Naturally the PC gets one… but you might have to perform one mission without it.  (I.e., that mission must be completeed without a death.)  And some of the bosses could have a horcrux which must be demolished before you can actually permakill them.

(It might also be interesting if, say, respawning took one hour in-game.  For the PC this would normally mean little.  But killing a boss would give you an hour when he’s not around, which could be useful.)