Kyle Orland has an article up at the Escapist (a few weeks old) titled “The Slow Death of the Game Over”. He briefly describes how the limited number of “lives” or “continues” one gets in a game was based on the economic reality of arcade play, and how that has changed in the console world, with games that don’t require much tedium or keep you out of the action for long.
He notes that games that require you to replay material after dying do have “limited appeal to anyone who wasn’t willing to put in hours of mind-numbing practice,” but also suggests that forcing people to slog through the not-so-fun part of dying actually makes the game feel more tense and exciting because you actually have something to lose: “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.”
I’ve been thinking enough about death and consequences in games that I’ll probably have to write a paper on the topic once my plate is a little more clear, so I figured this was worth keeping track of. I’m of two minds about Kyle’s point: on the one hand, I think that sending players back several minutes of gameplay and forcing repetition is out of place in story-based games, as it ruins any sense of continuous narrative. On the other hand, I do agree that death (or at least failure) should have consequences such that it too makes sense in the narrative.
The only possible alternatives that have occurred to me so far are to design work-arounds in which death doesn’t impede narrative sensibilities (e.g. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time lets you turn back time, or frames death as a misstep in a spoken narrative), or to to design games such that failure does not equal death except in extreme cases, and in those cases, death is final (or at least your initial protagonist dies and you take over another character). I’d be interested to find out what other games handle death in unusual ways.