Lives and Death

1 Up Mushroom

1 Up Mushroom

Lives are something of a reviled concept nowadays. Designers are increasingly pointing at Lives, saying that they’re no longer relevant, that they’re a hold over from arcade days; there to eat quarters and frustrate the player in to paying more to play.

And in part, they’re right. But most of what I’ve read about abolishing lives is surprisingly baseless. Yes; they’re a holdover from older games. Yes, they make no sense in a lot of newer games. But, they aren’t universally bad — and that’s something that gets missed.

So, why are lives usually bad? Well, that’s easy to understand if we first see how they’re good.

Lives allow the player to fail. It’s a way of providing them a limited number of mistakes between their start and goal. They encourage the player to get better within the confines of the game in order to make it further through the game. It is, ultimately a macro challenge, to complete the game without running out of Lives.

There are two major scenarios where Lives are bad. Foremost is when the challenge that Lives presents is disabled. This happens in games that provide great flexibility in saving, where games offer an exceptional number of free lives, or where the penalty of losing all your lives is negligible.

The second is where the challenge presented by lives is far beyond the ability of the player. This happens when there are scenes of instant death with little or no warning, where the difficulty curve ramps up too quickly, or where the ability to save is too rigid or inconvenient.

Most games fall in to these two categories. In fact, it’s rather problematic. Games that give you an enormous number of lives or allow you to save whenever are often happy to eliminate the player with sudden jumps in difficulty, or scenarios that are difficult to predict on the first attempt. Since killing the player isn’t a worry, they’ll do it a lot, and the challenge of the game is changed from surviving, to surviving long enough to pass the next obstacle. As much as I loved Half-Life; the auto saves and quick saves didn’t make it particularly challenging. Bioshocks resurrection chambers are similarly problematic, eliminating the majority of the game’s non-flavor tension. Most of the Super Mario games offer so many power ups it’s ridiculous.

The opposite isn’t better — players repeatedly dying and returning to far earlier points in the game. They get stuck, frustated, and stop. This is increasingly troubling as games get longer, often forcing the player to lose a lot of progress.

So when do lives work? Well, you need an experience that works with them. Lots of classic arcade games used lives successfully — they provided an experience that could be completed in a sitting. With a shorter experience, players are less likely to be frustrated when replaying early areas. This could be adapted for longer games by dividing the game in to sections which were treated independently. When a player completes one of these areas, their lives are reset, regardless of how high or low they were.

Nethack and other roguelikes also work well with lives; they generally offer you only one to start, making it a treasured resource — earning a second (normally through an amulet or something similar) is exceptionally useful. These games succeed in this way by making each play-through different, so they player can’t learn the game by rote. They further emphasize the value of each life by an unforgiving, but flexible, save system, which only allows a save file to be reloaded once, and you must quit when saving — more of a bookmark than a save point.

Just a consideration — Lives, like lots of old mechanics aren’t necessarily outdated. You just need to consider the context in which you use them.


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