Massive Bioshock, God of War 1, Portal and Arkham Asylum spoilers imminent. You've been warned!
Take a good hard look at what the phrase "Game Over" means.
The "game" is whatever experience the player is immersed in at that moment in time. "Over" means finished. The word "over" implies a sense of finality; the game hasn't stopped temporarily, it's done with. A game over represents a halt to the game experience. It denounces your approach to the game and serves as an absolute denial to the player; you can't do that so do something else. And because of it's nature as a punishment, it's pretty much always a bad thing. The player gets nothing out of it other than being told "no".
This means, feasibly, that there's nothing good about a game over. It disconnects the player from the game experience. It is a robbery of the player's flights of fancy. In one fell swoop a game over can cut the head off the game experience. It is contradictory, largely ineffectual, and practically suicidal wherein the doctrine of player failure directly opposes the feelings the game tries to impose on the player. It is an oppressive skin that videogames don't need anymore, and it's high time for it to be shed.
Is it not the general consensus that the game aims to please the player? The was I see it, the goal of the creation of a game is to garner acclaim, in the form of player approbation or profits. In the case of profits, this means that money is either garnered for the finance of the design of new games or goes straight to the pockets of some buisnessman, in which case said buisnessman is convinced that game production is a profitable venture. In the case of player support, it means that more people provide feedback for the development of future games, and that whatever the developers tried to express with the creation of the game has been exposed to their target audience. Either way, A game should always try to create an environment that appeals to the player in some way. Conversely, a game over is a consequence, a punishment, and thus entirely opposes whatever fun is to be had by the player, unless the fear of or feeling of failure is an integral part of the experience. Why should the player have to prove their worth to the game in order to enjoy themselves? You catch flies with honey, not with vinegar, so why would the developer want the player to feel inadequate?
It is due in part to the homage game designers feel obliged to pay to the cherished games of an age gone by; those 8-bit classics or late 90's shooters or whathaveyou that defined the structure of games today as quests, as interactive stories and not futile fights against the machine. Failure is a well aquainted shackle of game structure, something that everyone has come to terms with since the dawn of videogames. The relationship between modern games and failure is feudalistic; homage is payed out of respect solely for time-honored traditions, because the presence of failure in those games made it seem that failure should be a staple component of all games. This is a misinterpretation.
One such idolized gaming paradigm is Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Super Mario Bros essentially gave birth to a videogame Renaissance; at a time where the novelty of the videogame medium was beginning to run it's course, Mario Bros. proved that a game could serve as a creative enterprise, a veritably expressive medium in much the same way as books or television. Because it defined the videogame as an adventure and not a struggle of desperation, Mario Bros. opened a creative floodgate; it was realized that games could use interactivity to tell a pathological story to the player. If Super Mario Bros is the ancestor of modern game structure and every game that exists today (that isn't directly spliced from the fight-the-machine regiment of old) adopts it's concepts, then of course it makes sense that player failure would be established as a staple component of videogames today. The game was a platformer, a fight against the environment, so in Super Mario Bros. the player was routinely chastised for losing said fight.
There is a multitude of games that borrow from Super Mario Bros and aren't platformers, and thus don't need to follow that practice, which is why it strikes me as odd that so many do so regardless. The failure mechanism has been entirely taken out of context; games that aren't fights against the environment punish the player for doing things that would cause you to lose the fight you would be fighting while playing Super Mario Bros, except oftentimes you aren't fighting that fight. Yeah.
The fact is this: the reason this failure existed in those games of old is because said games explicitly required them. A game certainly doesn't need to be a life or death battle with the environment like Super Mario Bros. was, and thus failure isn't something that can or should apply to all games. It applies solely to those games, but because those games are the bedrock of modern game design, the conception has been formed that failure must apply to all games. An action game like Contra isn't the same as an action game like God of War. God of War's game experience revolves around feelings of badassery. Kratos carves through his adversaries with ease, because God of War is a testosterone-injected machofest. As Kratos, you are supposed to feel like a beast surging with power, not a diminutive weakling. The game experience of Contra is supposed to be heartpoundingly frenetic, with the fear of death prevalent during every waking second. Both are action games, but both utilize distinct methods in order to establish the game experience: Contra summons the fear of death and God of War doesn't. God of War doesn't need for failure to be so substantial, and it would probably just be burdened if that were the case.
The hardest part of God of War 1 is probably the final boss in which Kratos finally comes face to face with Ares, the curator of Kratos's woes, and that's where shit gets real. Ares is that entity which gives context to everything Kratos does in the entire game. Kratos posseses a predilection towards Ares that contrasts wildly with his attitude toward anything else he comes into contact with, whether it be a central character, generic mythological creature or whathaveyou. Because everything else was just a stepping stone for Kratos to get to Ares, it makes sense that the final boss is probably the most challenging portion of the entire game. Ares is the only thing that oppresses Kratos, perhaps the only thing that Kratos even fears. In many ways, the face off with Ares is the only thing Kratos can fail at. To Kratos and to the player, this fight is to be the consummation of everything they've done in the game. It is do or die.
This contextual signifigance wildly differs from something like a Guitar Hero or Rock Band game, in which a preposterous difficulty spike is shoehorned into the end of the game. The boss fight with Lou at the end of Guitar Hero 3 is at first exciting and memorable, but then diverts to a cumbersome process of trial and error. Replaying the same song five times just so you can proceed has a way of diluting the excitement. Do you really think the player wants to sit there for hours with the end of the game just out of their reach? Imagine how disheartening it would be to reach the end of a game and not be able to partake in the excitement of beating it just because the difficulty said otherwise. I mean, the end or climax of a game is an integral component of the experience as a whole; you're going to leave a sour taste in the mouths of a lot of players if you reject them like that.
The injection of a failure mechanic directly intercepts the context of a game and augments the game world at the same time. The cube's ability to kill the player in Portal strikes me as immensely stupid. The only reason you die from the cube falling on your head is because the Laws of Game Logic dictate that you must, because heavy object on head must mean die. Did I really fail at the puzzle?
The inclusion of the possibility for death in other portions of Portal is entirely justified, and works to enhance the game experience. Maneuvering through a turreted maelstrom is a life or death situation in order to incite a feeling that one false move is going to result in a violent and messy consequence. Being sent on a conveyer belt into a fire pit appropriately establishes a climate of tension and dread, an "oh shit I better do something fast" feeling. But a block falling on my head? How is that a contribution to the game experience at all?
Remember how in the Genesis Sonic games you would run into an obstacle and it would bring your speed to a screeching halt? It deftly squashes your adrenaline rush. It contradicts that intense feeling of blind speed that the game supposedly intends for the player to feel. The Game Over is a lot like that, except it's a lot more substantial. It can be almost pretentiously abrupt and overdramatic, a nuisance in and of itself.
A failure is a turnaround; it tells the player "wrong way"; away from the game world they hoped to explore their own way. Failure bars a player from playing a game the way they want and in some cases tells the player they can't absorb the game world in a certain matter. Different players have different ways of observing the game experience, and in many cases failure denies them of this.
Imagine if BioShock's iconic climax had something the player had to beat, not just observe. It would lose so much impact, because contending with failure would occupy a substantial portion of the player's mindset. Imagine if you actually failed; the scene's impact would be effectively halved, and would cease to be one momentous occasion.
In a lot of cases, failure exists to point the player in the right direction; or to prompt the player into behaving the way the developer wants them to. When you die from walking off the boundary edge of the level, did you actually fail to achieve something? Or does the game just want you to know that wandering off it's beaten path is a no-no?
If you want to steer the player in the right direction, failing them is not the way to go. A game design fault that really rubs me the wrong way is when the consequence of the player's mistake isn't proportional to the signifigance of said mistake. If you walk off a ledge and the game kills you, you'll have to sit through a death animation and a loading screen that you don't deserve, and for little purpose.
These moments are inhibitors to what the game is otherwise trying to show to the player. The feeling of failing at a game, or the feeling of trying to avoid failing doesn't jive well with what the game is trying to say. But there is a salvagable function for failure. If failure is incorporated into a game's motif, it can be utilized as an apparatus to incite a pathological reaction.
Do you remember the chainsaw guy from RE4? Of course you do. You remember him because of how shit-your-pants scared his very presence made you feel. Resident Evil 4 gives the player ample motivation to not get killed by Dr. Salvador. He`s going to do bad shit to you if you fail, so you make damn sure it doesn`t happen. Games like Resident Evil 4 use failure (or the player`s fear of or response to it) in order to heighten immersion. Dead Space doesn't do this quite as effectively, because, well, the consequence for failure isn't as horrifying in Dead Space as it is in RE4 (it's just not as scary). If getting killed by the chainsaw guy wasn`t a cause for fear, it would serve less of a function and feel superfluous.
In Demon's Souls, it is acknowledged right out of the gate that you are going to fail. You're going to fail hard, and the player is told through experience that a stample component of Demon's Souls as a whole is to contend with failure. In Demon's Souls, you're not being robbed of anything if you die because there isn't much else to be robbed from. The definition of Demon's Souls is to deal with the immense challenge, so when you die, you're just involving yourself with the game experience in a certain way. Failure is the game, and you always have access to it. If a game doesn't do that, if strikes me as odd that failure would even be a part of the game. Does it then exist to punish you? For what, taking your own approach to the game? Why should the player have to prove themselves worthy of the game experience?
Batman: Arkham Asylum in particular ultilizes one instance of failure in the most resonatingly manipulative form I've ever seen. It entirely complements pathos, existing only to coerce the player's experience.
That very last moment where the Joker shoots you is brilliant because it makes you feel like you've actually done something wrong, that you've failed. The first time I played through this sequence, I scanned my surroundings and tried every button press, thinking the game was going to try and deceive me. Regardless of whether or not you scanned the area for a way out or just went with the flow and walked down the hallway, the gunshot has the same effect on the player. The sequence uses failure as a tool and not a liability, and really, if failure isn't used in such a manner it shouldn't exist.
You are likely to experience death very infrequently while playing through Arkham Asylum. Why? Because you're Batman, and you're intended to feel like Batman. Would Batman honestly die in a fight against generic cronies? No, which is why it's nearly impossible to die while fighting the Joker's minions; the purpose of combat in Arkham Asylum is to evoke a feeling of uninhibited badassery. Failure hardly makes you feel like a badass, and thus has no place in the game experience. What would challenge Batman, on the other hand, are the Joker's life-or-death situational conundrums. These challenge the player's resourcefulness, something synonymous with a Batman experience. If you weren't running out of time and the game didn't make you feel panicked, the experience wouldn't come across the same way to the player. The fear of death/failure complements the game experience, as it always should.
But what's really irritating is the challenge maps, those supplementary missions that are dissected from Arkham Asylum's campaign. The player doesn't take the same approach to combat during a challenge map as they would while playing through the campaign; the objective is radically altered, and so is the way the player takes the consequences of their actions into consideration. For the unitiated, the entire point of the combat challenge maps is to flawlessly maintain an attack combo without getting hit once in order to accumulate points and thus earn medals. Suddenly, actually winning the fight makes no difference; it's an uncomfortable fluxation to say the least. In this way, the game spontaneously materializes a reason to fail you. It takes the game experience completely out of context and serve as a radical departure from the experience that encompasses the rest of the game. In what backwards wonderland does a room full of unconscious goons equate to my failure? Why is Batman standing around in places he's already been, seeing if he can beat down fools absolutely perfectly? Doesn't he have somewhere better to be? If Batman got punched in the chest once by Joker cronie #352 would he pack his bags and head home? No he fucking wouldn't, he would shove his damn fist down their throat! For these reasons, the player doesn't feel like they've actually failed when they come short of the score requirement for a medal; they've only failed because the game said they did.
A lot of games attempt to incorporate failure into the game experience, doing so outright badly; the desire of the player not to fail is foreboding and overcasts the other feelings the game attempts to incite within the player. Adhering to failure squanders the impact of the motif. If the developer doesn't trust that you will carry out an action to their intent, they have no faith in their own game. Failure is a pathological opportunity seldom taken advantage of at best; a copout a worst.