Lives are Dead!

Remember lives in games? Of course you do! Remember how they stopped using them when arcades stopped being popular and we no longer had to insert coins to play games? No, neither do I, and I cannot understand why…


Lives are an outdated game mechanic whose only purpose was to keep us inserting coins into arcade machines. There is no other reason for them to exist and yet they are still used in many games to this day. They only made it across to console games because games were often released in arcades and on consoles simultaneously, and they are still included only because people value nostalgia over progress and innovation.

The Problem

Its an arbitrary limit on the number of an attempts you get to solve a puzzle, overcome an obstacle or defeat a boss. And if you fail you are forced to replay the entire level. Some games even give you a number of ‘continues’ and if you fail you must replay the entire game!! This is madness in a world without quarters. And now, worst of all, this creeping is back into mobile games thanks to the developers of Angry Birds and the evil, greedy, bullying bastards behind Candy Crush Saga.

Now, I have to concede that, in a handful of circumstances, they can be an acceptable choice. If you’re playing a multiplayer game like Unreal Tournament, then a ‘last man standing’ mode requires you to lose lives until only the best warrior remains. Games like Pacman need some way of defining when the game is over and when you have achieved a high score. But these are specific circumstances; competitive multiplayer or high-score chasing. There is no need for a lives-based system in a single player game where you are playing through a story.


So, what’s the alternative? Well, pretty much ANYTHING! Prince of Persia had a great system that was tied into the game’s narrative: The Sands of Time, which in the gave the Prince the ability to rewind time and carry on if he made a mistake. No limits, so arbitrary restarts… Just a cool feature that allows the player to make mistakes, but is forgiving (and is significantly less frustrating than having to play the whole damned level again!).

Bioshock had those resurrection capsules… much harder to justify in terms of story or science, but there’s no real need to explain it.At the end of the day we know we are playing a game and having to continue from a checkpoint when we die something we accept part of the experience.

Platformers are one of the biggest perpetrators of the misguided clinging on to this archaic and pointless game design trope. But some of the biggest platformers in recent years, even games that ooze retro charm like Super Meat Boy, manage to be great games and to challenge the player without using lives and are better games for it. How? By having Star Ratings, High-Score Tables and Achievements that challenge experienced players without punishing more casual players.

Final Thoughts

The fact is that there are much better ways to reward skill and punish mistakes than the lives system. Players can be challenged  without punishing casual players who don’t want to have to replay the whole f*ing level just because it took them more than three f*ing attempts to overcome a difficult (or occasionally badly designed!) obstacle.

So please, developers… It may be simple, it may be easier than coming up with a better system and you might think that being ‘retro’ is a good thing (which isn’t always the case), but please, just think about it. Don’t use this outdated system, there is almost always a better way!