Let’s rewind the clock a bit. And by a bit, I mean roughly four decades.
Its the 1980s. The video game industry is just starting to boom. Arcades are still a booming business. The Atari 2600 has been swept aside by the Nintendo Entertainment System, and games are coming out at a rapid pace. But the hardware is expensive. Adjusting for inflation, you’ve got to spend over a hundred dollars for one game. Arcade machines are even more expensive.
As such, developers need to make sure their games will last in order to validate that price tag. Unfortunately, due to technological limitations, they can only make a game that is about thirty minutes or maybe an hour long. How do you pad the game out so that the ludicrous price tag of the time isn’t a total rip-off? Or, in the case of arcade games: how do we make the player put more quarters into the machine?
The answer: make them hard. Stupid hard. Throw a ton of horseshit at the player that they won’t reasonably be able to dodge, so it’s easy for them to die. And make dying extremely punishing; if a player runs out of lives and continues, send their ass right back to the start of the game and make them do it all again.
So was born the Game Over. The words that every video game player dreads to see. Get hit by one of these, and get ready to do it all again. It would become a staple in video games for decades to come.
But in recent years, things have started to change in dramatic ways. More games are coming out than ever before and the price tags are fairly low (with the exception for most triple A games). Tech restrictions are lower than ever before, allowing developers to do all kinds of crazy things to fulfill their visions. More importantly, the strict limitations that required the insanely difficult and punishing systems of the past are long gone.
Many games have rid themselves of any sort of Game Over mechanic. Super Mario Odyssey, for example, barely punishes the players for dying, simply relieving them of a small number of coins instead of slapping the dreaded words onto the screen. Some games, like Crash Bandicoot 4, offer modes that remove any consequences for death at all. Even many classic games have been rereleased with options that allow players to circumvent a game over, such as the rewind function of the Megaman Legacy games or save states in other such releases.
Other games have taken a more creative approach to death, one that incorporates it into the gameplay rather than using it to end gameplay. Dark Souls, for example, offers players unlimited lives, but punishes them for dying by reducing their stats and depriving them of the currency they need to buy items or level up. Roguelike games such as Hades or Returnal send the player back to the start for dying, but they incorporate that into the narrative and provide mechanics that lessen the bitter sting of death. Dying in the Middle Earth: Shadow games creates a change in the orc social structure, which the player must maneuver around to further their own ends.
It’s easy to see why these changes have occurred. At the end of the day, people love winning far more than they do losing. It simply makes more sense to make winning easier and reduce the costs of failure.
My question is this: should Game Overs be done away with entirely? Are they a thing of the past, a relic from the old days of game design that simply stayed because of their legacy? Or do they still provide some value to a game?
I’d argue yes. How could you incorporate infinite lives or death loops into a game like Metal Gear Solid? You’d lose those legendary game over screens and voice lines! Where would the challenge go in a fighting game’s arcade mode if you could just lose as many times as you wanted and still get to the secret boss? Would Five Nights at Freddy’s ever have become as famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) as it side-stepped its many game overs?
Still, there is an argument to be made that a less punishing and more creative approach can always be taken. For example, maybe the player can get captured in Metal Gear Solid, requiring them to escape from their cell and get their gear back rather than simply killing them and making a character yell Snake’s name in dismay. Or something else along those lines. Perhaps a more unique approach is always better than a simple ‘game over, you lose, try again’ approach.
Is a simple game over outdated? A bit, yes. There are many different, arguably better, approaches being implemented into video games these days. Still, I have a soft spot for a good game over screen.
Maybe I’m just used to their abuse after all these years.