The Unnecessary 1-UP (Death in Video Games Pt. 2)

Around a month ago, I found myself playing New Super Luigi U for the Wii U with 2 of my brothers and a friend. 4-player Mario (or in this case, Luigi) is complete chaos, but it is also an absolute blast. I bring this up because when you play 4-player Luigi U, you die. A lot. There aren’t very many consequences if you do die, you simply lose a life and come floating back into the play area in a bubble. It’s only if every player dies within a few seconds of one another that the level ends. So falling down that pit? Not a huge deal.

While we were playing, I found myself wondering – is the life counter an antiquated concept?

Looking back in video game history, the life counter made sense. Arcade games utilized life counters as a representation for play time. If you ran out of lives, your quarter was fully spent. Death is a constant fear in arcade games because the faster a player dies, the sooner the machine needs to be fed again.

This “constant threat” mentality continued on with major console games in the NES era. Games that now had a story and a concrete ending still used life counters, often due to limitations on saving progress. Think of all of the games on the NES that had no save files or continue codes (Super Mario Bros. 1-3, Contra, Ninja Gaiden, CastleVania, BattleToads, TMNT). To win the game, you had to finish it in one sitting, all without running out of lives/continues. Death was devastating. To conquer the game, you picked yourself up after the Game Over screen and started anew.

Obviously, things have changed. With the length of games increasing, almost every game these days has some sort of save file. We consume video games in small pieces now, where a checkpoint is a crucial marker to save you from replaying content over and over, as well as gives you a logical stopping point between play sessions.

Meaningless Death

Almost every platforming Mario game comes with a life counter. As I previously mentioned, this made sense with the first few Mario games – you run out of lives, you need to start over. However, with the release of Super Mario World in 1991 on the Super Nintendo, Mario fans were met with a new save file system. For clearing out a special level (Ghost House, Fortress, Switch Levels), the player was given the option to save their game. If they ran out of lives, then they’ll revert to the last time they saved.

This made sense, as Super Mario World was a long game. Gone were the days when a lost life meant a lost 3 hours. But that was 1991. Why, in 2013, are we still seeing a life counter in Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U? Progress is saved after every level is finished. If you teleport to a different world, progress is saved. Even if you quit to the menu, your progress is saved. The only time you are going to lose any kind of major time commitment in this game is if your save corrupts.

So I have to ask, what’s the point in having a life counter in these modern Mario games? The only purpose I see is for entertainment value. When I was playing Super Luigi U a few weeks ago, it was pretty funny every time one of us fell down a pit or missed a jump. When you depleted all of your lives, you were given a fresh set and a counter going up for how many “continues” you had used so far. I found that pretty entertaining, but that’s about it. If you die in a modern Mario game it simply means you mistimed a jump, and you’ll have another shot at it very soon. Death has become a toothless, clawless lion, and the green 1-up scooting around the stage is just another way to grab 1000 meaningless points.

Kitten-Scratch Demise

Some games treat death with a very light touch – minimal repercussions for not surviving a challenge. Part of this conversation began when I was talking to a student about what happens when you lose a battle in Pokemon. Do you reset the game to your previous save or take the hit? This process of “dying” is technically called a “blackout” – you are forced to return to the last Pokemon Center to rest your Pokemon, and you lose a portion of your money. Different generations of Pokemon calculate your losses differently, but I have never seen the amount lost as devastating.

For example, if I were to blackout while playing my current run of Pokemon White, I would lose $5520 in game. This is a pretty minuscule amount when you compare it to my cash on hand: $166541. I call this a Kitten-scratch demise because the drawbacks to losing aren’t going to make me upset. I’m not losing any progress, and the only time I am losing is in running back to where I just blacked out.

What I find odd, is diagnosing my behavior of constantly saving in Pokemon games. As far back as I can remember in playing Pokemon games, I have always saved prior to a big battle, and rather than taking my loss in stride, I reset the game. I realize this is my own issue in the way I play the game, but perhaps Pokemon isn’t providing a deep enough consequence for losing a battle. Perhaps your team members become demoralized for a little while after being let down by their trainer?

One of the best-selling video games of all-time could be slapped with the label of “Kitten-Scratch Demise”. Grand Theft Auto V takes a portion of your money and ammo, but leaves your guns. Not that anything about GTA V is supposed to make sense, but when you are busted by the police, you are let go – with your guns still on your person.

Older GTA games made death a lasting effect, causing you to regroup and find a Weapon Shop to buy your weapons again. I feel like this shift in one of the most popular video game franchises out there is indicative of where the medium is heading in general, towards a consequence-free death in the game that keeps the pacing intact. Which leads me to the majority of games played, ones featuring a heavy reliance on the checkpoint.

The Checkpoint Death

Call of Duty (campaign), Gears of War, Halo, Assassin’s Creed, the Batman Arkham series, God of War, just to name a few. These are all AAA games that sell boatloads of copies, and they all rely on a checkpoint for you to advance in the game. It’s a relief when you see that autosave icon in the top/bottom right of the screen. This checkpoint means that you are one section closer to completion. All you have to do to win the game is keep conquering these sections until there is nothing left. If you die, return to the beginning of the section. Once you complete a part, then you never see that part of the game again unless you go through a second play through.

In these games, death means nothing. The only thing you can gain from losing your characters life is knowledge on how to better hurdle the obstacles in your way. It is an internal growth as a player with no repercussions on the character you are playing. Simply “hit any button to continue” and that death never happened.

So is this a bad way to make a game? I have no idea, I’m not a game developer. I just play ’em. I’ll add that I love all of those series I just named above. But maybe there is a better way to do this.

More to Come: The Ideal Death

Different games clearly have their own ideas when it comes to a player dying in their worlds. Is there a right way of doing this in game design? In part 3 I will examine how some of my favorite games treat death in video games and look for some common components for a worthwhile demise.

TwitchPlaysPokemon Returns

It’s been a year since Twitch was rocked by a brief phenomenon: TwitchPlaysPokemon. This unique gaming stream put control of the game in the viewers hands by allowing inputs in the chat window to move the player around. There were many ups (Bird Jesus, The Elite Four) plenty of downs (Giovanni’s Wild Ride) and even a fan fictional religion.

To mark the one year anniversary, the stream is back up, this time without all of the distracting extras. The goal: to catch all 151 Pokemon.

There is no way I’ll ever be as engaged in this stream as I was when it first occurred a year ago. But I think I’ll pop in every now and then to see how things are going.

All praise the Helix Fossil!

Death in Video Games

Over the past few weeks, I have been pondering the role of death in video games. What purpose does dying serve in the modern video game? Are numeric lives a now archaic tool of measuring success? What consequences come from death? Why is the range of consequences so varied across games?

I bring this up because I finished my second Fire Emblem game over the weekend, the 2005 Gamecube entry Path of Radiance. For those unfamiliar with the Fire Emblem series, it’s a popular strategy role-playing series of 13 games released on Nintendo systems. These games are turn based strategy with movement and combat set on a grid such as Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics. Memorable characters from the series even permeated into the Super Smash Bros. realm in Super Smash Bros. Melee (Marth & Roy), Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Marth & Ike) and Super Smash Bros 4 (Marth, Ike, Robin & Lucina).

One of the essential selling points of any Fire Emblem game is the concept of permanent death (permadeath), the idea that any character on your team can meet their untimely (and final) end during any battle. Typical chapters in a Fire Emblem game will grant you 10-15 units to deploy for battle during the chapter. If a character dies, you show goes on and the chapter is by no means over. In addition, that character will never be available to use in any future chapter. One caveat to this is the Lord character, often considered the main character for that game, whose death will cause a Game Over screen.

I’m not sure if I play Fire Emblem games the same way as everyone else, but if one of my characters dies, I simply hit reset. I’m not ashamed of this. In fact, I’m not sure how I would be able to actually beat the game if a few of the characters who died in my playthrough actually ended up dying. Sure, there are similar characters to reinforce your team, but many simply aren’t as statistically strong and most haven’t been trained due to the limit of units that you can deploy on each map. So when an enemy unit suddenly kills my Axe Paladin due to a critical hit, I frustratingly hit reset.

Here’s the catch though, by hitting reset in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, I am actually losing a lot of game time. Both in this entry, and Fire Emblem 7, there is no way to save the game during the middle of a chapter. So by hitting reset, you are forced to return to the beginning of the chapter. While that might not sound like a huge deal at face value, many chapters take over an hour to finish. The longest I experienced in Path of Radiance was nearly 2 and a half hours, and I didn’t lose anyone on that map thankfully.

Fire Emblem creates a real consequence in death if you mismanage your units. This can bring an overwhelming sense of dread when a fight between two units doesn’t go as well as you had planned, or a terrible critical hit wipes out one of your characters. In this game, every action is important and the looming threat of death causes many tense moments and an overall sense of anticipation. If you accidentally leave your archer in range for a Berserker attack, then “Sorry pal.” Either your archer is forever dead or you just wasted a good 45 minutes of battling.

But is that death a waste of time? Or are you walking away with a valuable lesson in always triple checking the range of enemy units to protect your own? I personally found myself at the crossroads of these two ideas due to my resetting behavior. While I always learned from my mistakes that caused a death in the game, it is a disheartening feeling when you realize that all of the progress made in the last 45 minutes or so vanishes.

Fire Emblem provides a unique take on death inside of a video game, but I would like to compare it to some other games to grab a larger perspective on the role death has in the pastime. I’ll do my best to write another entry soon!