How it feels to die in a permadeath game after five years

On Wednesday, April 24, Twitch streamer Phil Watson was playing Minecraft, just like he does most days, for a small audience of a dozen or so viewers. He was digging a new mineshaft when things went to hell: a creeper, a baby zombie, a skeleton, and a spider all mobbed him at once, and by the time he realized he was in over his head, it was too late. He tried to run away and heal by munching on a golden apple, but the spider delivered a killing blow. He died to bad luck in a dangerous cave, just like Minecraft players do all the time. 

A week later he was on BBC News.

Watson, who goes by Philza on Twitch, lost five years of progress in Minecraft Hardcore that Wednesday, quite likely the longest continuous run anyone's had in the permadeath mode. Not only does Hardcore limit you to a single life, but it sets Minecraft to the hard difficulty, meaning enemies are tougher and it's possible to die from hunger. Philza survived for five years, streaming several days per week. Not many people watched him play, but a whole bunch have watched him die.

The death went viral. Philza reflexively yelling "No, that's how I die!?" and holding his head in his hands in disbelief has now been seen 1.3 million times.

"Within the first couple minutes it was just sheer disbelief that I'd died to something so stupid," Philza tells me. "After that it was just depression and coming to terms with it. Just, wow, that's five years just wiped. I ended up talking a lot with people in the chat. We could've done this different, we could've done that different."

Philza sat there for an hour just talking, "Game over!" plastered on the screen behind him, tearing up as the weight of what happened settled on him. "Fuck me" he whispered under his breath as he read out some of the chat's supportive messages, wiping his eyes.

"The night it happened I was so depressed," he said. "I was like, I don't even want to look at Minecraft right now, I just want to go to bed. I didn't even want to hear a zombie noise. It was really emotionally draining."

It's funny to say that I have a number that equates to my sadness. I can say hey, look: 'This sadness I felt is worth this many views.

Phil Watson

The next day he checked r/livestreamfails, because someone had mentioned they'd posted a Twitch clip of his death there.

"I was like, 'oh, it's got a couple hundred upvotes and it's rising, interesting,'" he remembers. "Then I came back after doing the shopping, I just had normal everyday shit to do that day, and it had blown up. Ooookay. Ah, shit, here we go." Pretty soon it was everywhere. He got calls from Denmark. Friends in Germany saw it. The BBC called for an article, and then a TV segment. It was a surreal moment of fame for an achievement he'd never intentionally been seeking.

Philza wasn't playing Hardcore to see how far he could get—it's simply his favorite Minecraft mode, because permanently dying ups the stakes so much. He's been playing since Minecraft's beta back in 2011, bouncing between mod servers, PvP, and vanilla. Hardcore was simply the one that stuck, and he's spent most of that time in that same world. Of his eight years playing Minecraft, five of them suddenly felt like they were gone in that moment.

It didn't play out quite like he expected when the clip went viral. "I thought I was going to get ripped to shreds," he said, for coming to such a sudden, unnecessary end. But instead of ridicule, he got empathy. "Something about that death I think resonated with a lot of people that play the game still."

A near-death moment from 2016, when a freak physics reaction nearly sent Philza plummeting to his death.

Philza partially chalks that up to sympathy from fellow Minecraft players who recognize how tough baby zombies can be. They're fast, and this one happened to be wearing enchanted golden armor. You can watch him hit it and hit it and hit it, and it refuses to die, and get a taste of the panic he was starting to feel, too. But even if you're completely unfamiliar with Minecraft, it's a painfully human moment, watching someone work through the stages of grief in real time.

That tragic moment has also, quite possibly, changed his life.

Within days, Philza's streams jumped from an average of 5-15 viewers—"20 if we were lucky," he says—to a new average of about 180. "The support's been insane. Nobody knew about the world, nobody knew about what we did at all until the death. That skyrocketed everything up into the stratosphere. It's been mental."

"That salt's going to stick for a bit," he says. "I could've done so many things differently. But seeing everyone's support, everyone being so nice… it's definitely helped. It's funny to say that I have a number that equates to my sadness. I can say hey, look: 'This sadness I felt is worth this many views.'"

For a week after his run ended, Philza took new viewers on tours of the world, revisiting everything he'd accomplished in five years. But then it was time to move on. He's since started a new world, in Hardcore, of course, and is getting used to streaming to his new audience. "If I could do it full time I would, but I don't think that's possible right now," he says. "I'm going to keep trying, though, streaming as much as I can, and see where it takes me." When I tune in to his Twitch channel, 205 people are watching.

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.