A friend of mine posited that modern video games don’t punish failure of the player, usually death, harshly enough and that is what’s wrong with modern games. It’s a position I’ve heard before, but his discussion had me actually put my thoughts to type, so here it is:
I disagree with this for many games. For the most part, designers of modern games want to encourage players to be reckless, to take chances, to explore and see as much of the game as possible. With too much punishment for death comes conservative gameplay, which frankly is boring and repetitive, much like how the Mega Man series got insanely stale after being insanely fun for so long.
Many games are so much more now than reflex challenge exercises, they are worlds molded by the choices of the players, branching narratives that adapt to player decisions and interactive fiction that challenges players emotionally and philosophically. To punish them too much for for getting something like a character driven decision “wrong” would be effectively limiting player experience.
Further, once “most optimal” becomes the only way to play a game, a lot of the life get sucked out. There’s a concept in in chess called “going off the book,” a term coined after the massive tomes of series of most optimal chess plays and counterplays that Russian chessmasters used to memorize. Essentially once the match becomes a game of chess that has never been played before, the game is off the book. Up until that point, all the moves have reactionary moves that have been proven to be most optimal, chess doesn’t truly begin until the game has gone off book.
The Starcraft scene has suffered partly because it tries so hard to be “chess on steroids,” there’s only a few builds that are optimal, and even fewer reactions, essentially leading to the same games over and over until player error. The professional scene has shriveled as players flock to titles like League of Legends, who’s book still hasn’t been figured out (and is constantly evolving thanks to patched design). League rewards bold plays, at the same time still punishing bad play, but not overtly. Dying in League of Legends gives your opponent an advantage (more resources), but doesn’t directly negatively affect the player (like losing a limited amount of lives or loss of equipment, money or experience points).
And this extends well beyond multiplayer and esport, the single player experience is most fun when the player can innovate, not feel stifled to play most optimally. While there are some titles that still make that thrill of playing that one perfect way, it’s really not conducive to modern game design. And that’s a good thing, it’s allowed games like The Walking Dead, Gone Home and Mass Effect live along side Super Meat Boy and Braid. The art form is richer for the lack of harsh punishment for dying, which is really more an invitation to innovate, customize, personalize and trail blaze.