I think that with time games will remove death if not failure altogether. We are in an age of transition from shallow one dimensional challenges that only appeal to the teenage male, to a mainstream accepted form of media. This change is impacting full on the way we design our games more than any other factor. The budgets may rise and fall, the stories may compel or fall flat, but the consensus on design is changing and will continue to do so.
We’ve all seen that games have become a lot more forgiving and just plain too easy in some cases, but as the industry grows this will become more than a trend, it’s going to transform into a general design law.
In the arcades, games had unlimited progression or in other words, they were just unbeatable. The difficulty got so hard that it wasn’t humanly possible to continue anymore at some point. With time, the concept of being able to finish a game struck developers over the head, but sadly they were still too used to savotage the player’s progression and to stretch gameplay time with what Shamus calls DIAS (Do It Again Stupid).
Even today developers don’t want their players to finish their games, or at least that’s what it looks like. The mentality of the arcades is still alive and kicking but fortunately it’s aging and becoming less and less frequent. Remember the first Zelda? Once you finished that incomprehensibly hard game you were greeted with “a new quest”, then thrown at the beginning but with everything in a different place. Super Mario Bros does the exact same thing. Padding much? Look if you didn’t want us to finish just make it literally impossible would you? That would have saved me some precious time. If a game would have the nerve to do this today, rest assured that every single review will bring this up as a negative point *cough*galaxy*cough* (that is, the ones made by reviewers that bothered to finish it).
I understand that some of the “fun” comes from achieveing difficult challenges, but it’s also true that these challenges are the very reasons why we stop playing games. Sometimes things are too hard and we can’t be bothered to waste more time just to see the ending cutscene, jump around like a school girl and then thinking about the hours we just spent trying to achieve a goal people with common sense would laugh at. These are all valid points to some degree but the important one is that fiero (the “fun” after beating a hard challenge) acts almost like a drug in reverse, in order to feel the high you have to first be miserable for hours on end. To top it all off the incredible high you get when you finally succeed doesn’t last long, it will become at most a nice memory. For some people this is ideal, for other people pain is a pleasure so to each their own, but let’s be clear these people are in the minority.
On the other hand we have plainly punishing games in which from beginning to end you will be doing mostly one thing: dying. It’s not like the game is going to go easy on you for not knowing how to control everything from the start as if you played the game before. So you will have to learn how to control the game and pause every few seconds because something has just killed you and is your job to find out why and learn from the experience. So, dying becomes a feature more than a punishment, to learn you must die first. Again and again until you succeed or set the game on fire and throw it out the window.
Of course all of this is supposed to be forgiven when the game has quick loading and saving, sometimes it seems on purpose because otherwise the game would be unbeatable. This solution solves some issues and softens the frustration quite a bit, but it brings it’s own set of problems. Death becomes meaningless, any random check will give the best outcome possible if the player is willing to press the load button enough times. Anything bad happens? Load. To compensate for this, death becomes more than common, it’s an expected outcome for every single action. Anything short of happy happy joy joy is reverted and the player ends up having to be fed bad outcomes only through cutscenes and scripted events.
The only positive side is that there’s no frustration for any punishment if you saved recently, which it was up to you, it wasn’t the developer’s fault.
Anyways, I think the primary reason why games have abandoned for the most part the arcade mentality is because the audience is asking more from games than mere fiero. We want stories, exploration, progression, compelling & fluid gameplay, all within a wonderful atmosphere, and old-school punishment is getting in the way of our enjoyment.