There are stories that go around that most gamers have some difficulty completing a game on a single turn. Outrageous if you ask me. I’ve never done such a thing and I’d wager that losing a life in a simple contraption such as a video game leads to more issues in your life. Luckily I’ve never had such a weight hanging over my head. But it did get me thinking. What is the purpose of dying in a video game in today’s world anyway? To answer such a burning question we must journey to the past. A place that I am very familiar with given my station in the web-a-sphere.
Deep in the underbelly of malls, roller rinks and rooms full of plastic tubes and ball pits, floored a room with a special code. The room was dark, hazed with cigarette smoke (you could smoke indoors back then) and the sound of soft growls emitted from every corner. The only light came from an ominous glow of monitors flashed with colors from the entire spectrum. This, my fancy suit wearing friends, is the dinosaur known as the arcade.
The arcade was a special place where people from all over, of any age and religion could stand shoulder to shoulder in a battle of who was the best. The games played weren’t your mere lawn darts or bingo. No, these games consisted of bloody brawls, ships flying through space shooting down aliens or something as simple of a game of tennis. The only admission needed was a quarter. 25 cents could take you to a far away place or leave you crying beside the cabinet after a ten second failed venture. This quarter was the only currency recognized (although many would try to convert your change into useless tokens) and it was hailed that if you have a quarter, you have a game. I’ve seen a seven year old teach a businessman in a suit a thing or two about Street Fighter and college friends play for who’s buying beers on the Defender cabinet.
You have a quarter, you have a life. Just one. You lose that life in an epic battle of wits, you have to put in another quarter to go again. This is what is called a perma-death. Once you die, that’s it. You’re dead. No coming back, no continues, nothing. This is how all the arcade companies made money back in the day. By creating a game that allows for perma-death which wipes your high score or your place in line gives a reason to the death. It’s 25 cents. That was a lot of money back in the day especially if you were a kid like me. The worst was running to your parents begging for just one more quarter. Just one more game. This is why you died. To pump in more quarters. Staying alive the longest or not losing a fight was stretching that money making that loss even more prevalent.
Fast forward a decade and home console giants Nintendo and Sega are starting to make waves in the gaming sphere. Suddenly people aren’t going to arcades anymore. Arcades are coming to them. Sure the graphics aren’t as good or the controls feel a little wonky but it’s the game at its heart. And it was a one time fee. No need to pump more quarters into a slot and slamming the start button before time ran out. Now you start with multiple lives, a new thing called “continues” and a strange super secret password system that allows continued play after the machine is turned off. What?! You mean I can come back to my game days after I’ve stopped playing and restart right where I’ve left off? Are you a wizard? What kind of magic is this? Arcades were doomed. This was the first step in the decline in the arcade market. And developers started to get worried.
From here, the idea was to create a “home” experience but in the arcade. They were banking on the fact that the hardware was better than home consoles. That you can customize the controller to best suit the game being played rather than conform to a strict guideline of two buttons and a weird directional pad. You can’t play defender with a directional pad! Now continues starting making their way into arcade games. If you lost all your lives, rather than the perma-death, you had a countdown timer that gave you the chance to insert more quarters to continue your game. No more was the process a one and done. If you had the money you could continue till the end. I still remember pumping quarters into beat ‘em up machines like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Simpsons and X-Men hoping that I would last long enough to make it to the end to see the final boss. It wasn’t a test of skill anymore but a test of how deep your pockets were. You could figuratively brute force your way through an arcade game. This was the band-aid that the arcade industry held onto until it’s ultimate demise of console hardware catching up and exceeding those at the arcades. A sad day indeed.
OK, history lesson over. Let’s take a look at gaming as it currently is. One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that if you have to go into the Options screen, something is wrong. Either the controls don’t work like you want them to or the video doesn’t seem right. No developer puts extra lives and more continues in the option screen anymore. Every game it seems you have unlimited chances to progress through the game. There isn’t any perma-deaths. If you die or miss an objective you just start over from your last checkpoint. Your only means of knowing you lost, other than telling you, is a loading screen. That is your misfortune of dying in a video game today. A loading screen. Back during the launch of the first Sony Playstation (I know, more history), these loading times were excruciating. Some to the point where it would take up to a minute or two to load the game. With technology nowadays, these times are cut down to almost nothing. Most of the time you don’t even see things loading because it’s done in the background. Either way, you just restart and try again.
If this is the case (and it certainly seems to be) why would you die in the first place? It’s not like you have to pump money into it to keep playing. You just get another go. The story doesn’t change, you don’t get hinder in any fashion. Even in games like Diablo II where, if you died, you lose all of your weapons and items. But you can just come back to the spot you died and pick everything up again. There’s no consequence in losing a life. The only thing keeping you from playing is the idea of rage quitting. A point when you become so frustrated by the game’s mechanics or story or uneven enemies that you just shut it off. But, guess what? Your progress is saved up to that point anyway so coming back at a later time will just put you back to where you stopped.
With there being no consequence in dying with the exception of seeing a loading screen, why do developers continue to keep this element in games? Jonathan Blow, an independent game developer, tried to fix this with his smash hit Braid. The conception was creating after many talks with fellow game creators about manipulating time. So instead of falling down that pit where you would die, you could rewind time back to a point just before the death. No loading screens, no unnecessary menu options to reload your saved game, nothing. Just go back to before your mistake to try again. I don’t think this fixes the need for consequence from making a mistake but it proves that this can be patched or sidestepped in the gaming community for a new radical idea that works.
So what’s the solution? Do we go as far as putting in change boxes in every home where you have to deposit 25 cents to restart your game? Have someone come by every week to collect the money? Probably not. But what is important is to start the conversation about where we go from here. Games are suppose to be challenging, difficult, but more importantly fun. Not having something hang over our heads as we journey into battle against our foes brings a sense of accomplishment once the objective is met. If my only fear is seeing a loading screen or respawning from a checkpoint then there really isn’t a fear at all. Fear breeds creativity, the willingness to do something crazy with the small expectation that it might work, a reason to fight. Without fear, without consequence, we’re all just seeing who can last the longest without quitting by turning the machine off. For me, that’s not good enough.