Video games are pretty much designed for you to fail, try again, and eventually succeed. (In a sense you might say that’s one of their moral shortcomings, since you can essentially avoid consequences by repetition – which is in total contradiction to the way the real world works. But as long as you treat them as entertainment and not your actual lifestyle, I don’t have a problem with that. But I digress (already).)
The idea of extra lives can create a continuity problem in a game’s story. There are a few ways of explaining what happens when your character loses a life and starts a new one:
- The straightforward way: Your character actually experiences everything you do. When the character is defeated, he or she is somehow transported back to some checkpoint to try again. The enemies and obstacles behave in essentially the same way each time the character attempts the level (or battle or whatever). The repetitive nature of enemy behavior can cause concerns with plausibility, as can the notion that your character is somehow transported backward.
- The “ideal path” way: Only successful attempts “count” in the context of the game. In other words, if you take five tries to complete a level, only the last one “really happened.” If you explain the game in this way, your character essentially completes each goal on his or her first try; the other time in game play represents an inaccurate attempt to explain what really happened. Again, this may raise plausibility issues. Worse, though, is the continuity problem that arises if the game allows you to save accomplishments you made before losing. In this case, you can’t disregard the character’s loss of a “life” while still explaining how the character acquired the saved item.
Ultimately it doesn’t really matter, because the real story of the game is about the decisions and progress that you as the player make. (That is, the straightforward explanation is generally acceptable regardless of its weaknesses.) But some games really do offer a reasonable explanation for how extra lives work. At least if you interpret them correctly (meaning if you interpret them as I do). Others aren’t so easy to explain. Here are a few examples:
In Mega Man games, when you run out of energy, Mega Man appears to explode – but really it’s just expanding circles flying outward from his last location. I believe this is actually an emergency teleportation. We know Mega Man can teleport, since this is how he enters each level. I think that he can set a limited number of teleportation beacons. He sets one at the beginning of each level, and an additional one near the middle of most levels, and yet another before most boss battles. When his energy is about to run out, he automatically teleports away to refill, then teleports back to the last beacon. If he has only energy for one more teleportation and his energy runs low, he teleports back to his base instead of the last beacon. (This allows him to refill his health and weapon energy, but any temporary beacons he has set are lost.) That’s what happens when you get a Game Over. (This explanation may also explain why you have to re-fight the Robot Masters in each game near the end – they may also do an emergency teleportation when their energy runs low.)
Metroid games have specific save points. If you lose, you lose everything since that save point. I think it’s reasonable to say that everything between a save point and a game over never really happened, and Samus is successful on her first try. (Of course, I mean your real first try. If you replay the game, knowing the most efficient path in advance, the story element makes less sense.)
Zelda games are harder to explain. You can save wherever you want, and if you quit you’ll start at some checkpoint – the beginning of the current level or some central Overworld location. The same happens if you get a Game Over. It’s not clear how Link gets back to the continue point, but warping is a common practice in Zelda games as well. I guess you could say that Link “Saves and Quits” right before losing his last heart, and only the “falling on his face” scene is not part of what actually happens.