There is no life without death. It’s defined by a start point and an end point. I think the best stories told have more to do with death than they actually do with life. Oddly enough, I find vampires enjoyable not for their immortality but for the threat they pose to others. Harry Potter wouldn’t even be a story if his parents hadn’t died. Childhood’s End does a decent job explaining the sense of hopelessness when mortality and procreation is removed from the equation.
The best games deal with death as a driver as well. Last of Us, Ni No Kuni, FF7, Chrono Trigger…you could look at the top ones and each seems to be driven around death or the imminent threat. It isn’t the violence or act of the PC doing the killing but the stuff around them. Plagues, meteors, evil wizards and whatnot. It’s a common fear and common driver.
To that end, I feel much more invested in a game where death is meaningful, touching on the topic of challenge/difficulty. Dying and just popping back up like no sweat is an odd occurrence to me, like death has no meaningful impact on the world. I feel somewhat removed from it all. The actual mechanics can be varied but there should be something to come from it.
Like in GTA, you lose all your guns. Or Path of Exile you lose experience (which could be a fairly large impact). In RPGs with save points, you lose the progress since the last one, which is why I prefer save points compared to save anywhere. When death has meaning, then it drives you strongly to avoid it. You don’t build a team of glass canons because you know you’re going to die. Zerging doesn’t work either.
The flipside to this is that death can’t be handed out like candy. If it’s just a meatwall of death, then what’s the point? Death can’t be meaningful if it happens all the time. It certainly starts to become punitive.
I think it’s pretty clear that these items are inversely proportionate, with personal preference for the ranges. For example, I have no fun in permadeath games. Roguelikes with meta progress are ok, where there’s some form of progress even though you lose a lot – like a small stat boost or knowledge to get passed it next time. Death in those games has to be earned though, so one-shots are just plain out of the picture and random for the sake of random is out too.
Graveyard camping is a great way to get me to quit a game. The death rate is too damn high, even though there are rarely any death penalties (except perhaps old school UO). Sniper roosts are one thing, but most of these camps are run by hackers/exploiters/greifers, with no benefit to themselves outside of misery to their victims.
Maybe this stems from my childhood at the arcades. If I lost, I was down a quarter. That was a tangible loss for me! I remember a good rivalry between myself and 3 other guys. There was certainly a much different motivation in the “winner stays, loser pays” games. Chasing win streaks or high scores was a ton of fun.
I know where my personal comfort lies in terms of death penalties, and rates of death. The more I think about it, the more it has an impact on my overall enjoyment of a game.