Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw can be accused of many things, and chief among them would be that he is ‘opinionated’. The source of many of his opinions is the fast-paced video review series, Zero Punctuation. In which he delivers at a breakneck pace often-witty observations about whichever video game he’s been tasked to deliver an appraisal of, and more often than not levels criticisms according to his particular tastes in what constitutes a good or bad game.
Sometimes he has good points. Other times, I think it’s opinionated drivel and those are the ones in which he derides the time-honoured convention of lives in games.
Yahtzee’s position is, that lives are an archaic tradition left over from when arcade games were designed solely to rob the player of as many real-world coins as possible; that the loss of them and restarting is a tradition that should’ve been dropped a long time ago, presumably when it became commonplace for even home consoles to save game progress.
I can see where the man is coming from, although don’t share his absolutism on the subject. Like many tools available to a game designer, a lives system has its place. Could one imagine Final Fantasy with a lives system, for example? The idea is absolutely preposterous for a great deal of reasons: this would encourage cautious, grind-heavy play if the price of failure is more than that of a quick reload – but also such a mechanic is not suited to a game whose central driving force is the narrative.
Books don’t have a fail condition, save for the reader losing interest and not continuing to read. The captive reading audience will not be asked to retry a paragraph or chapter for any reason, let alone be refused access to the rest of the story as punishment for failing to meet a pre-defined target. The same is true of sequential art, theatre and film. However, these things are linear in nature, and by that very nature are expected to reach their conclusion organically.
Games are wildly different by virtue of the influence their audience potentially has over the flow of events. A player can succeed, and further the narrative. A player can also fail, but what then?
What Croshaw seems to advocate is to let the player continue. A quick slap on the wrist, maybe a loaded game from the nearest checkpoint, but to continue regardless. Repeat until it is finished.
Those words though, sound less like the idea of a ‘game’ in the traditional sense and more like a mere task. Were I to spray-paint my brother-in-law’s car, I would continue until it were finished. When I painted the room in which I type this very article, I continued until it were finished. I’m playing through the PSP version of the original Final Fantasy of late, and will continue until I am finished — and although it’s a charming romp through some colourful environs with creative monster designs and a delightfully-quaint soundtrack, it feels less like a game and more just something I’m passing the time with.
Repeat until it is finished.
What if such a statement were “you have three tries to paint the car without making a mistake”. That would be the perfect example of gamification.
Repeating until it is done is relatively free-form outside the constraints of the game’s mechanics. It allows a player to continue at their own pace, to employ whatever methodology they wish to reach the eventual conclusion; a given as long as they persevere.
Limited chances to repeat, all of a sudden, include conditional failure. It is possible not to be able to do the thing, and by extension possible for others to succeed where one has failed; or to let the game (and thus its designers) best the player. There is an element of competition inherent in this that is less “let me tell you a story” and more “let’s see if you can do this”. And in games where the primary driving force is not the unfolding of narrative, but the constantly-evolving challenge, lives are a proven way to pit the player against the designs of the game’s creator. To make a game of the game.