Lives (a)

When memory constraints in arcade circuit boards and game cartridges were tight, programmers simply didn’t have the ability to make a game very long by design.  However, a short game would leave the consumer disappointed as games were just as expensive then as they are now.  The solution was difficulty:  Make a game tricky to play and give the player limited chances to play it.  Lives created a consequence for failure, and progression created a reward for success:  it forced the player to keep playing and improve their skills if they wanted to achieve victory.  Each time the player played the same level, it felt slightly different, because they were slightly more skilled than they were the last time they played it, and thus their gaming experience became new as new options opened to them.

Let me state that point again:  Lives create a consequence for failure.  Lives have no place in a game where you continue from a Game Over in the exact same place you left off.  There’s no consequence for failure here, and thus, no reason to use lives; all you’re doing is wasting a player’s time looking at a Game Over screen.

Lives are a schizophrenic topic in the games of today.  With gigabytes today as plentiful as sand on the seashore, games are no longer constrained by memory; there’s no reason to artificially increase a game’s length with difficulty that forces you to replay the same area over and over and over until you learn how to time your moments perfectly.  But does this mean a game shouldn’t be difficult anymore?  I would argue with a loud and rapturous no, and respond with a question of my own:

What is the difference between a movie and a video game?

These days, graphics are improving.  The visuals in a 3D game match that of a 3D movie, and in some cases may even surpass it.  These days, stories are improving.  The story in a video game match that of a movie, and in some cases may even surpass it.  Voice acting, music, atmosphere, video games in this new age are finally coming into their own in terms of artistic merit versus films.  So why experience one over the other?  What is the difference?  The difference is, of course, that a game is interactive.

But then I ask, what is a game?  I once discussed this with my friends, and ultimately we agreed on this very simple definition:  a game is an entertainment activity that has rules.  Any game, using cards, boards, controllers, sticks, balls, back yards, all games have rules; there is a right way to play, and a wrong way to play.  If you play the right way, that is good; you are rewarded, and the person who has been the most good at the end is the winner.  If you play the wrong way, that is bad; you will be punished, and the person who has been the most bad at the end is the loser.

A game is a competition, whether it be a competition against the mechanics of the game, other people, or yourself.  And as with all competitions, they are the most exciting when both sides play with every fiber of their being and play the best that they can play.  A competition is about winning, yes, but it is more about the quality of the competition itself.  A victory against a competent opponent is worth more than one against an inferior one, and a loss against a competent opponent can be appreciated:  you did your best, and no one should fault you for that.  It was a “good game”.

A video game is no different.  An easy victory means less than a hard one.  What is the point of playing a game that is below your skill level?  There is no challenge, no threat of failure, no work put into it, and the victory is a hollow one.  What is the difference between a game you are sure to succeed at and a movie you are sure to see the end of?  If you want to work, work.  If you want to play, play.  And if you want to watch, watch.


{A work in progress}


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