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The Slow Death of the Game Over


When was the last time you were really distraught about seeing a game over screen?

Think about it. If you’ve been playing games for any length of time, you’ve probably seen hundreds, maybe thousands of game over screens. At one point, these straightforward messages could be taken at face value; as distinct separators between one game and the next. Yet over the last few decades, the game over screen has slowly morphed from a full stop to a perfunctory pause in most games; from a period to a comma in the constantly unfolding gameplay story.

Sure, modern games still penalize failure, but often in the most trivial ways. Getting caught by the police in Grand Theft Auto III will roll back your bank account, but won’t do the same to your progress in the game. You’ll never see a game over screen in Jak and Daxter – the worst punishment there is being sent back to a few hundred feet to the edge of the current environment. Going into a Metal Gear Solid boss battle? Just use the codec to save your progress and you can die as many times as you want without having to retrace your steps.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the day, game over screens were a business necessity for arcade owners. More game overs meant more turnover, which meant more quarters and more profit per machine. There was a financial incentive for designers to make games where each play session was nasty, brutish and short.

Early console games kept this convention going, even though the financial incentive for failure was gone. Getting eaten by a duck-shaped dragon in Adventure meant a trip back to the beginning of the maze. Losing all your lives in Super Mario Bros. meant playing through the simple, familiar World 1-1 yet again. It was a little tedious, but it gave players a great incentive to get better quickly if they wanted to see that final game over screen. You know, the good one. The one where your character doesn’t die.

As games started to get bigger, though, it was clear that primitive negative reinforcement wasn’t going to work anymore. After all, what good is packing dozens of levels into a game if most players won’t be alive long enough to see them. Save systems, passwords and continues became the order of the day, letting players work their way through an epic game piece by piece over many play sessions. The game over screen was slowly changing from a death sentence to a brief setback.

It was still a setback, though – most designers still made sure death had serious consequences. Losing that last heart in The Legend of Zelda meant heading all the way back to the beginning of the dungeon. The password system in Mega Man 2 would only take you to the beginning of Dr. Wily’s brutally hard five-stage fortress. Many games offered a limited number of continues – those that offered infinite continues often had no save system to retain your inevitable progress once the system shut down. Games that were too long to be endurance sprints were turning instead into stair-step climbs through a series of breath-catching plateaus.

The beginning of the end for this era came in 1993 when Doom burst onto the scene. The seminal first-person shooter popularized many concepts that still impact the gaming world today, but the most insidiously revolutionary was its pervasive save system. Sure, PC simulations and roleplaying games up to that point had routinely let players save their progress at any time, but Doom, and, to a lesser extent, its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D, popularized the idea of the save-anywhere action game. Suddenly, the first time you killed an enemy could also be the last time, provided you remembered to bring up the save window after every significant kill.

It was impossible at the time to appreciate how revolutionary this change would be. On the one hand, the save-anywhere system meant an end to the often tedious process of replaying familiar, already-conquered areas – surely a step forward. On the other hand, the system ruined the tension of not knowing when an errant bullet would ruin all – or at least some – of your careful progress. With the save-anywhere system, you could always rush in, shooting first and asking questions later, knowing that if you failed you were just a few keystrokes from rushing in again from the exact same point. Overnight, the stair-step approach to longer games became more like an escalator, albeit one that occasionally stuttered to a stop for a brief game over screen.

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In the wake of Doom, games slowly but surely became more forgiving and less likely to knock you back a few paces just for failing a challenge. Super Mario 64 allows players to save after every collected power star, rendering the franchise’s signature 1-UP mushrooms practically meaningless. Action games like The Getaway and Gears of War allow injured characters to heal some or all of their health back just by kneeling behind some cover. Player-coddling found its standard-bearer in the quicksave, the one-button immortality machine that became a reflexive part of many post-Doom first-person shooters. Kill an enemy, tap “F3.” Repeat until you win. Yawn!

But shockwaves of the quicksave revolution aren’t all bad. It’s easy to wax nostalgic about the game-over-bred familiarity of Super Mario Bros.‘ signature World 1-1, but let’s face it, restarting from the beginning every time you died was annoying. Where’s the fun in spending hours working through the first four levels of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, only to be thrown back to the beginning by a tricky passage in the fifth? Gaming in the days before pervasive saving was often a masochist’s errand, and one of limited appeal to anyone who wasn’t willing to put in hours of mind-numbing practice.

Still, it’s easy to feel that today’s gamers are being a bit coddled by the overly forgiving nature of many action games. For evidence, look no further than the tepid critical reaction to a Dead Rising save system that actually forced players to (gasp!) find infrequently placed save points. “An awkward save system bogs down your progress more than the repetitious play,” moaned a 1UP review. “Potentially forcing players to replay sections because of an overly punishing save system is the polar opposite of fun” whined a Gamespot review. Still, some writers recognized the importance of limiting a player’s outs. “It forces you to put some skin in the game,” said Wired‘s Clive Thompson in a commentary on the game. “That’s why people seek out life-threatening sports like sheer-face mountain climbing and skydiving. In situations of genuine danger, your senses snap open and you experience things more fully – or, as any extreme athlete would boast, you live more fully.”

And even in the age of the quicksave, some games are still willing to capture that extreme snap, God bless ’em. Much of Resident Evil‘s tension comes from the limited number of saves offered through typewriter ribbons scattered about the game world. Maximo: Ghosts to Glory cumulatively raises the cost of each continue, meaning it’s possible to run out of options after hours of play and dozens of play sessions. Steel Battalion, in an extreme example of negative reinforcement, actually deletes your save file if you fail to hit a pyrex-encased eject button before you die.

Are these systems annoying? Sure. Do they sap the fun out of a game? Occasionally. But in an age where everyone seems to run from responsibility, it’s nice to see some games are willing to let you know that screwing up has consequences. So here’s a toast to the punishing, brutal, unforgiving, masochistic games of the world – the kinds of games brave enough to have game over screens that actually mean the game is over. For those about to die, we salute you!

Kyle Orland is a videogame freelancer and co-author of The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual. He’s written for a variety of print and online outlets, as chronicled on his workblog.

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