In the beginning, there was the quarter. The business model of the arcade inspired games that were designed to vacuum up the most quarters per hour. Simple economics and self-interest of the gamemaker: Keep the player entertained, but also keep him dropping the quarters into a slot as often as possible. The “virtual death drive” became a driving influence. So we ended up with high difficulty and a set number of lives. It’s not like we had another way to play our video games — not yet anyway. So Donkey Kong’s average length of play was just a few minutes.
Why did I enjoy that game? I really have no idea. Almost no multiplayer (hey, leaderboards matter) and not much sense of achievement. A platformer full of raw punishment for any deviation from perfection. Back then, my parents likely wished I didn’t waste so much time and money in the damn thing. But somehow the family finances survived. The investment might even be considered to have paid off, in the fullness of time.
Anyway, unless you’re one of the tiny number of people making or porting coin-up games, your revenue doesn’t dribble in with every two bits fed into a slot. Today, we don’t have any financial incentive to kill our players. In the abstract, a player wants an enjoyable experience for his or her fifty or sixty bucks, and death can only disturb that. Even if we take it for granted, it’s the most obvious break in the connection between player and character. And yet… our games rely on conflict. And thus most obvious form of conflict: fighting. So, death, death everywhere. I wonder just how many avatars my failures have sent tumbling down to the virtual underworld. It has to number in the tens of thousands, at least.
Now, I know there are some good reasons why we slaughter our virtual player personas. One, habit. Two, the fundamental logic of combat-focused games. More meaningfully, we need an instrument to measure failure, and to allow for game difficulty. Players want a challenge, or else they will become bored (FarmVille notwithstanding, apparently). Death is simple and easy to understand, and so death is our default penalty for failure.
It doesn’t have to be. Historically, games don’t simulate death. Consider: sports and sport games don’t. Card games don’t. Strategy and puzzle games don’t. These are the real origins of what we call games, even if we can’t ask their designers any questions, if we could even identify who they were. Losing just meant losing: someone else got more points, or got to the finish line before you. “You” didn’t die. We can track the prevalence of death in games to the relatively recent phenomena of controlling a virtual character. We’ve developed this habit in less than thirty years, since Space Invaders, etc. (Senet is over five thousand years old by comparison.) Logically enough, I think the simulation of death in games can be traced to the widest permutation of the term “roleplaying” — any situation during which the player becomes embodied.
Most players haven’t gone aboard the death train that you (likely reader) and I accept. Truly popular games — stuff on the web, on Facebook, the Sims, etc. — don’t really involve player death. And certainly doesn’t simulate it. As much as I love Modern Warfare, Battlefield, and Splinter Cell, given the opportunity to think about it, I’d like to find a way out of the death trap. Many games of the day no longer bother to explain death and respawning. The player’s character dies from too much damage, and we restart him at a prior checkpoint. It’s a game, and we’re so used to the mechanic that the designer doesn’t deign to explain the logic of reincarnation or time travel.
Speaking of which, another option is to adopt a mechanic to “avert” death. In Sands of Time, our protagonist announces “that’s not how that happened”, and instead of suffering a mortal wound, we rewind back in time. Similarly, in the more recent Prince of Persia, Elika intervenes when failure would result in the hero’s demise. There’s no gameplay difference in either case between that and killing the player and respawning, but instead of complicating or disturbing my relationship to the game and its characters, the system behind those two games reinforces my connection. Planescape: Torment, Assassin’s Creed, and Bioshock have their own answers to evade the reaper, though they weren’t without complication.
The impossible design challenge would be to take a core player experience — a “realistic” shooter, most obviously — and then turn around the game’s failure system to remove death from the equation. The obvious thing is to hack the system with magic, imaginary worlds, simulations within simulations, or other tricks. And I think we’ll continue to do so, to take away the sting of the player’s failure. Hopefully, without annoying the player so much that he hates the innovation so much that he’d rather resort to a fast reload to checkpoint, logic be damned. Stepping outside that box would probably mean ditching a health-based model completely. Stealth games do that, but not that many of our action genre games step outside of health as a core feature.
Neither Boethius nor I have an unambiguous conclusion, much less a prescription. The closest I’ll come is: Don’t take death for granted. Just because it’s the default failure condition of the day, doesn’t mean it has to be.