Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Death Mechanics and Dark Souls

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 24 Jan 2012 12:00
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I have no life. That should be fairly obvious from, well, everything, but despite the fact that I am literally writing this with an attractive young lady who isn't wearing a bra clinging to my leg, I still have no life.

In videogames, that is! These days, a player character in a video game exists in a state of immortality, never dying, and ergo, never truly living. You die, you just come back to life, and when death carries no sting, we can't be said to appreciate the life we have.

That's why I have a grudging respect for the kind of retro games that would force you to start all the way from the beginning if you lost all your lives. Because at least that is overtly making the game into some kind of endurance challenge. You might eventually become so familiar with the first level of the game that you can get through it while knitting with your other hand, but what else were you going to do, junior, get your mum to buy you another game? Suck it up. Treasure Island Dizzy only gave you one life and you died when you touched practically anything that wasn't a tuft of grass, and that was not a short game, but I still had a smile on my face as I played it. Well. A rictus grin, anyway.

A game that just infinitely returns you to life is valid because it keeps the flow going and maybe telling your interactive story is more important to you than making your players induce physical injury upon themselves. A game with a traditional lives system is valid because you're focusing on creating an actual gameplay challenge, the victory for which will taste all the sweeter. But what I have absolutely no respect for is the wishy-washy in-betweeny approach that games with lives systems have these days.

For some reason it only seems to be Mario and Sonic that still does this. Maybe those two properties feel hamstrung by the need to call back to their nostalgic roots all the time, since nostalgia is the entire foundation of their mutual empires. I mean, what else are they going to use to carry their games, innovation? Actually being fun? Pff. Anyway, games like Super Mario 3D Land, New Super Mario Bros Wii, Sonic Generations, et cetera, generally all use the same basic system where you have a lives counter and if they run out then you just have to go back to the map screen and start the level again, without being able to return to a mid-level checkpoint. And that's it. That is your punishment for squandering the precious nuggets of existence some clandestine deity granted you.

I can predict an obvious counterargument. "Doesn't bother me! You never have to go back very far anyway! Let them have their harmless fun evoking the older days of gaming!" Which I might have said myself at one point, but playing 3D Land alongside Rayman Origins illustrated the significant problems with the system. For one, it's very harmful to the game's flow. Rayman never got frustrating even on those incredibly hard chase levels that require multiple trial and error attempts to get through, partly because the music is actually quite a joy to listen to, but mostly because the game doesn't dwell on your deaths, there's just a little plop, a quick fade to and from black and your next attempt begins. Super Meat Boy does this very well, too.

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