20 February 2011

Cats Have Nine Lives - by Paul Evans

      Posted 02/18/11 08:05:00 am   "Oh no I died again!" - not something you generally get to say in real life is it? Yet gamers readily accept death as a temporary failure state - just a blip towards achieving their goal. Death has been abstracted in games in many varied ways over the years and in some games abstracted away completely. It has been used to provoke emotion, to punish, to teach, to up the stakes or just to increase a score.


But the cat came back the very next day...


Arcades with video games and pinball machines are quite rare now in the UK (now they are full of fruit machines) but are still a good starting point for looking in to players' lives in games. Lives in Pinball are represented by identical silver balls - a limited resource per game. A player may start with three balls and might even win extra balls but eventually the game will end with a score. Score is used as a measure of success across all of your lives, with each finite reincarnation another chance at increasing the net accomplishment.


Space Invaders sees the player's ship explode and be replaced with an identical clone a limited number of times. PacMan actually shrivels up in to nothing and makes a pitiful whining noise as his little spherical body implodes at the touch of Inky, Blinky, Pinky or Clyde… but another identical PacMan takes his place. These games are over thirty years old but the themes of credits, lives and scores still permeate throughout modern games in all sorts of disguises.


This kind of death and credit system is useful to monetize failure. Want to see more of the game? Well okay then… you have ten seconds to cough up the money and we will let you see some more. If you do not come up with the money then back to the start for you! Progression therefore will cost you, mastery of skills and patterns only earned after costly failure. Is it worth antagonizing a player with this kind of death in games that are not pay-per-play?


Mario and Sonic teach via death. I cannot believe that these games were designed so that a brand new player could get through the entire game without learning through a fatal kind of trail and error. Punishment for death can increase from the arcades where you can always bribe your way through a section, because in some games you pay in time instead. After dying a few times in a row the punishment goes from a pained animation to having to restart an entire area - taking away hard fought progress from the player. While some players thrive on this type of this type of challenge I would argue this action can be demotivating. Only a certain kind of player continues on to conquer this, others will just walk away in frustration.


'Splosion Man has death but you just bounce right back in a glorious splodey sentient cloud of insanity. The game has levels and stages to clear and it is not possible to save your progress in the middle of a stage. The game does offer the player an option to skip to the next stage if you die in a section too many times in a row. So a frustrated player can skip forward to see new content and get some sense of progress. I never took up the option… too much gamer pride. But I did hear something about a pink tutu you have to wear in the next stage if you do!


Games with lives and credits often also keep score, either in terms of points or fastest times. They promote competition through leaderboards, with players trying to out do each other for bragging rights.


If it bleeds we can kill it (apart from if it is the player)


There is a snowy mountain path continuing to the NORTH. To the SOUTH a noisy group of villagers carrying flaming pitchforks are closing in on your location. They all seem kind of angry. Well apart from the springer spaniel that is wagging his tail furiously. He seems to think this is the best walk ever.




You tripped over something and fell off the cliff, a whooshing sound fills your ears followed by a very nasty crunching noise. Breathing heavily and looking up you see the villagers standing where you were laughing. One shouts down to your broken body "enjoy your trip?" Another takes your INFRARED SUNGLASSES that fell from your pocket before your tumble and puts them on. "OOOh INFRARED SUNGLASSES, I've always wanted a pair of these! I'm seeing red... oh look at that INVISIBLE TRIP WIRE across the path!" Rolling your eyes, you promptly expire.




If only the player would have typed USE GLASSES. Ah well. It was all great playing that text adventure until you died, then you had to consider if you really wanted to play through all

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