As is the case with life, the problem with early arcade games was that eventually you have to die. Be it Pac-Man, Frogger, or Donkey Kong, early single player gaming experiences had no win-state, only a fail-state. These games were largely feats of endurance, efforts to rack up points, before an inevitable and expected failure. Of course, I’ve addressed this idea before in other writings (“Pac-Man Will Die: Cynicism and Retro Game ‘Endings’”, PopMatters, 28 July 2010).
One could, of course, compare one’s “more successful” failure to others’ failures on High Score screens on which one could enter one’s initials at the end of a session, but even those score boards were transient, as scores would be erased when a machine was turned off. Games were measured in lives, and multiple deaths were the way in which they ultimately ended.