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┬áchaos, 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.