Life Systems

How do you feel about life systems? There seems to be this idea that they don’t belong in modern console/PC game design since they’re a hold-over from arcade games. I’ve feel this idea that there are certain things that just shouldn’t be done anymore to be shallow but I’d like to know what you think

It’s completely dumb. Life systems are just another way that games can checkpoint themselves. The only reason life systems are looked down on is that most modern games featuring them make them superfluous by only setting you back a small amount for losing all your lives, like NSMBW or NSMBU, and the others don’t exist.

The transition away from lives as a type of currency against an overall failure, or being set back multiple checkpoints is concurrent with a transition away from the concept of overall failure and checkpoints that set you back much further than a few feet. Very few modern games, excluding roguelikes, want you to suffer consequences for failure. Suffering severe consequences for failure means the likelyhood of you seeing the ending is very small, when the likelyhood of you seeing the ending in games without severe consequences is already very small.

The other thing is that lives are not immersive. They’re anti-immersive. They’re very blatantly artifice. The industry wants to move away from reminding people that they’re playing a game. The two most common representations of lives are like a shoot ’em up, where you lose a life and the character instantly respawns and you keep going, such as space invaders, touhou, ikaruga, dodonpachi, or a run and gun like contra or metal slug. Losing all your lives will mean restarting the game from scratch or from the beginning of the stage if it’s more of a home console game. Or like in a platformer such as megaman or mario, where you have a limited set, losing a life will send you back to the beginning of the screen or to a mid-level checkpoint, but losing all your lives will send you back to the beginning of the world (mario) or the whole level.

Seeing your character die and instantly come back like in Shmups or Run & Guns, doesn’t make any sense from an immersive point of view. In a game like say an RPG or an FPS, you load from a save, you recover from the last checkpoint, and it’s sort of implicitly taken that the session where you died didn’t really count. The “story” of the game that sticks with people is that the character miraculously defeated swarms of thousands of enemies single-handedly, leading to Gordon Freeman being taken as a messiah in HL2. The alternate takes get cut, those are your story, not the character’s story, and the developers silently hope you forget that story. If you’re dying and respawning, then all illusions that you’re watching and vaguely participating in a story instead of yourself acting are shattered. Arcadey games are the ones most separated from immersion because early games were heavily influenced by the artifice of Pinball. They operated on a more limited narrative syntax, had scores, flashing lights, lives (also carried over from pinball actually, pinball even coined the term 1up).

Modern creators don’t want to create games, they want to create worlds, and in order to do that, lives have to die, no matter what merits they may have.

Re: live systems. Sorry, I didn’t get what you were calling “completely dumb”. Life systems or the industry looking down on them?

The industry looking down on them. I don’t mind life systems at all. It’s just kind of funny that people reject them so hard lately. I really think it’s because of a collective push for immersion, which I’m frankly not a fan of.

Right after answering that I tweeted about this concept: Imagine when you die in a game you get a commander or something pulling you out of the field, and debriefing you, in the process telling you how many chances you have left to complete the mission. Maybe you earn more chances by performing well.

I’m sure that, if written and presented well with a bunch of unique lines of dialogue so people don’t become overly familiar with the commander’s lines, the crowd that dislikes lives would still like this presentation; even though it’s exactly the same mechanic, just a different wrapping paper. The thing they dislike about lives is literally none of the actual operation of lives, it’s the fact that it’s game-y and an artifice. They don’t dislike the concept that you have a counter that ticks down every time you run out of health and undoes one of your checkpoints sending you back to a further one when the counter runs out. They don’t even consider it that way. They dislike that our collective presentation of this in video games is so blatantly artificial and not fitting into the concepts of the fictional worlds in question. “Megaman collects a copy of his own head allowing him to come back from being literally destroyed? Why are Megaman heads littered everywhere? How is he storing his heads? What device is being used to resurrect him?” There’s no answer to these questions but contrivance and these people get mad over that.

I don’t see why lives would matter outside ‘arcade-style’ games. In an FPS you have a checkpoint system, so having lives would be pointless. I mean, say you were playing Half-Life, and ran out of all your lives, what would happen? Would you restart the entire game? That would be terrible pacing.

Most games where you had to restart the entire game when you ran out of lives were games that were only 30 minutes long if you won, like shoot ’em ups or run & guns. The exception is Mario 3, which I think had limited continues, and once you ran out of those you had to start from the complete beginning. Even then, there was a life counter in addition to a continue counter.

You’re thinking too far in the bounds of the games you’ve played before. Most first person shooters create a presentation style where there is no view of a continuous game. You have these save states you can save and load to at any time. Imagine if the presentation style was a bit different for a first person shooter, like how Quake has episodes. Imagine you started a quake episode with a limited number of lives, you couldn’t save or load in levels, and there was a dialogue between levels that automatically saved what level you were on and let you quit out or continue. All restarts were from the start of each level, and when you die it asks if you want to retry the level you were on sans one life or quit out of the episode. When you run out of lives, you have to try the whole episode and the levels inside it over again. Only real issue there is that episodes are maybe a bit long for this type of thing.

In a game like Half Life, all the areas are continuously connected, there’s no overworld or dialogues between levels, from a presentation standpoint it’s not clear where you’d go back to when you die in the first place (made further ambiguous by the crazy save-state system you can use at any time), let alone with a life and game over system in place. In these types of games, you’d need to implement a more clear checkpoint system for it to really make sense. Like how Borderlands and Far Cry have checkpoints you revive at when you die.

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