Lives (complete)

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 movements 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.

But to bring this discussion back to the realm of lives, more and more games today are removing limited lives as a consequence for failure.  Now, the only consequence for failure is “You don’t go forwards” rather than “You go backwards”.  And when consequences for failure are removed, whether it be in a video game or in real life, people do not learn.  You don’t really learn how to conserve ammunition or health, you don’t really learn how to time tricky jumps or aim properly, and you don’t really learn how to pace yourself through the entire length of the game.  Why learn how to run when you can just walk and still accomplish the same thing?

Let me clarify something that’s gotten me into trouble in the past when I haven’t clarified it.  I am not saying that games with infinite lives are dumb and easy by design.  Anyone who’s played a mind-meltingly hard game like Super Meat Boy or I Wanna Be The Guy knows that they’re borderline impossible even with infinite lives.  However, games like this are different by design, because the difficulty is in the precision, not the length.  Movements must often be pixel-perfect for success, and since to err is human, the game grants you a small measure of divine forgiveness by letting you focus on those pixel-perfect puzzles instead of life management, since the precision is the crux of the game.

But there’s a difference between forgiving errors and catering to laziness.  Many gamers today simply don’t want to have to learn how to become good at the game; they just want to start it up, be good at it already, and win.  They want to be the action hero that saves the world.  Sadly, this seems to have caused more and more games to smooth out their learning curves, focusing less on gameplay and more on story so that anyone who picks up the game can become the action hero and save the world.  Not to mention that with the complexity of game design these days, it’s a lot easier to just program in tons of wiggle room for mistakes than make the game air-tight from the start; companies have to consider the bottom line when they’re selling a product, and that also means they need to cater to their consumer base.

I know, I know, I’m probably just a product of an old era that’s no longer relevant.  I know that I’m selfish: I want new games to be like the old games I played as a kid.  I see kids today breezing through games they love without any trouble, and somehow I feel cheated when I remember all the work I had to put into my gaming to get the same kind of enjoyment, like I think they should be forced to work as hard as I did.  Everything changes as time goes on; music is different, movies are different, books are different, so of course video games will be different too.  The difference here is that video games are such a new media that the changes are dynamic and highly-visible as the industry tries to discover where its place is in the world, and what it’s supposed to be.  Video games today are more casual, more user-friendly, and perhaps that’s what video games are meant to be, rather than the “work for your bread” challenge of skill they were back in my day.

But still, I feel there’s a danger lurking somewhere in this shift of style, as video games become less of something you play and more of something you just “experience”.  I feel that if they wander too far from their roots and forget what made them great in the first place, disappointment and destruction won’t be far behind, though I have no idea how or what.  All I know is that video games are already a physically-lazy activity that tend to attract physically-lazy people.  If they start becoming a mentally-lazy activity which attracts mentally-lazy people as well, it certainly wouldn’t bode well for the quality of either games or their gamers in the future.

{I could go on all day, really.  But I won’t.}

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