The Ryan Lambie Column: the end of three lives and you’re dead

Videogames don't give you a set number of lives any more. Ryan looks at how the health bar has emerged victorious...

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

Once upon a time, three lives was the rule. It was a given, back in the early day of arcades and consoles, that you’d have three attempts at a challenge before you’d see the big ‘Game Over’.

This ‘three lives and you’re out’ concept was, of course, a product of the arcades – coin-ops in the eighties were designed to make as much money in as brief a time as possible, and the fact that games from the early part of the decade were particularly difficult didn’t put people off; Defender is still remembered as one of the most challenging shooters of all time, and its extreme difficulty was perhaps the reason that it raked in so much revenue.

Modern tastes are very different however, and it seems that the concept of lives is fast becoming an outmoded one. Repetition – once the backbone of videogaming – is gradually disappearing, as games become more a journey through a narrative rather than a pure test of skill.

Compare the Wii’s Super Mario Galaxy with its 2D ancestor on the NES, for example. The original Super Mario Bros was a typical classic Japanese platform game; it required good reactions, split-second timing and a good memory to complete. Like so many other Japanese platform games of the era, Mario had an almost didactic quality to its gameplay: mistakes were punished while persistence was rewarded. ‘You timed that jump wrong. Go back and try again’, they seemed to say. This philosophy was taken to its platform game zenith in the original Sonic the Hedgehog – while it was possible to whizz through the levels in a matter of seconds (particularly early on), the player would miss out on all the hidden secrets each stage had to offer. Games from this era required patience, accuracy and tenacity.

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Super Mario Galaxy, while 3D, is still a platform game, and still contains the ‘fall down a hole, lose a life’ mechanic – but something fundamental has changed. Lives are now so freely rewarded (and frequently ‘sent’ to the player by the princess), that the likelihood of ever seeing the Game Over screen is virtually non-existent, even to less skilled players. This means that, despite its roots in eighties gaming, SM Galaxy keeps repetition down to a minimum. A few frustrating moments aside, the game whisks you through one colourful stage after another.

The way the Mario series has changed in each iteration is a microcosm of the gaming medium as a whole: it began as a 2D affair with a handful of stages that could, with practise, be completed in a few minutes. The SNES’s Super Mario World, released in 1990, marked a tipping point in the series – its number of levels had soared to over seventy, and it was the first game to allow the player to save their progress. For the first time, a Game Over wouldn’t require a complete restart from the beginning. Super Mario Galaxy, like many modern games, replaces intense, moment-to-moment difficulty with a longer campaign which takes many hours to complete.

The modern video game, which can take hours – even days – to finish, has rendered the concept of lives obsolete. While todays games have their own challenges (more complex controls, huge maps to explore), dying, and having to start again at the beginning should you do so, has largely become a thing of the past.

The replenishing health bar, popularised in such games as Gears of War and Halo 3, has further blunted death’s once fearful sting – the ability to hide in an alcove and wait for your energy to recover makes dying a far less regular occurrence. Naturally, some exceptions will always remain – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve died in Ninja Gaiden II, for example.

Death and repetition have been replaced by narrative flow, and in this sense video games are becoming more like novels or literature – we play them for their atmosphere, their storytelling. Video games, once an intense, five minute diversion, are rapidly becoming something quite different from what they once were – they’re evolving into an alternate world, a sandbox where we can lose ourselves for hours on end without fear of the dreaded ‘Game Over’.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.

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