Lives have been used in video games for many years. Originating from pinball it was an easy indicator of how many attempts the player is allowed. The concept is if one were to loose their placement on the game board, depending on the amount of lives held by the player, they have the ability to continue without much loss. Of course for this to be relevant lives must be finite.
As time goes on it is believed limited lives are an archaic form from the days of games being designed to force players to spend more time on their short games or plop quarters into a repetitive grind. With a finite lives system, players are push to walk instead of run. Take time to explore, carefully decide when to make risks, find more lives, and in effect discover. While players would be penalized for taking cheap risks knowing they only have few attempts left.
With all this said, there are benefits to having a no life system or a arbitrary life system. In a game where the lives are given aplenty much like New Super Mario Bros, new players can enjoy the game with a relaxed pace while treated much like one of Pavlov’s dogs. They are thrown a treat in the form of a jingle tied to an on screen counter, this number conditions them to explore and raise that life count. Games like Super Meat Boy, which has no lives and a death results in an automatic respawn, give the designer the chance to create almost impossible platforming segment since it’s expected the player will have an unlimited amount of attempts.
If a life system is done wrong it can create a tedious play session. It can act as a figurative wall blocking the progression of a player not interested in exploring a linear world. With that said, if the world begs to be explored, a life system can and will push the player to take a breathe, look around, and realize they have been transported into a world. A world with risks. A world with rewards.