Quotidian Contemplation: Day 1

Hey everyone,

So, 2017 is here, and this is my new series: Quotidian Contemplation. I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of the name, but I couldn’t think of a better one in time (sorry!). It may change later on.

Basically, it’s going to be a stream-of-consciousness post, once a day, about any specific facet of game design. These can be broad – like levelling mechanics – or much more specific, like elements of the HUD or neck-ties throughout gaming. Today, it’s all about…

Health Bars

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Health bars are, as you surely know, a way to denote the remaining health (often “HP”) of the player character. When this reaches zero, the player is dead – as long as it’s 1 or more, you’re totally fine.

My first thought is that health bars are extremely outdated and not iterated upon nearly enough. The “modern” example is usually using the entirety of screen real estate as the health bar – like in Call of Duty, many games now use a system in which the screen desaturates as it fills with red while the player is being shot in the face.

For my money, this is a massive step backwards from even the earliest examples of health bars. The “classic” version (pictured above) doesn’t take up too much screen space and clearly denotes how far away the player is from failure. The “modern” version looks horrible (if you can think of a nice looking example, please comment!) and is very, very distracting. Most damningly, it’s vague; I have absolutely no idea how much HP I have left, other than a rough estimate based on how awful it is to look at my screen.

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Zelda’s ancient (in gaming terms) system is still one of the cleanest and easiest to understand.

It’s something I feel many designers take for granted – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. And to a degree, I think this is totally true. Health bars are a neat and quick way of showing players how well they’re performing. On the other hand, they’re largely unintuitive – most games don’t give you any kind of number to go along with the bar, which means you’re still largely estimating. You may have a fifth of your bar left, but does that mean you’ll survive the next attack? It’s unlikely that you’ve been paying so much attention that you can tell exactly how much damage you’re taking.

This isn’t true of other games – Zelda games give you a number of hearts that serve as your health, and it’s easy to keep track of damage (ie, a particular enemy may remove one whole heart per attack). Others, such as Final Fantasy, will give you a number as well as the bar, in order to provide both a quick and detailed view of incoming damage. That’s a lot better!

However, I’d like to see some clever iteration on player damage and how it’s denoted. It surprises me how non-diegetic most of it still is, existing solely on the HUD when it’s something that should be denoted quite physically.

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Some games meet us halfway – Dead Space has the health bar built into the protagonist’s suit, and uses notches along the bar to help clarify incoming damage.

Still, it stands that having your character take a sword through the face only to have a bar on their HUD drop is wildly unintuitive. Some games have taken to making physical changes to the character model based on damage, with a few examples below:

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The 3rd Birthday features protagonist Aya Brea’s clothes being torn as she’s damaged. While overtly exploitive, it’s an example of a kind of “diegetic health bar”.

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The Budokai Tenkaichi series has your characters suffering physical damage as they’re injured in battle. Also, Trunks looks remarkably like Aya Brea.

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The Mortal Kombat series features an extreme amount of character model damage, though it is at least in keeping with the series themes (overt, ridiculous levels of gore).

Unfortunately, the above examples only use this damage as a kind of secondary detail – all three games use traditional health bars as their primary source of informing the player.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I mentioned earlier. Players broadly understand the concept of a health bar, and it doesn’t need to be explained at length. Realism is also far removed from what makes a good game, so there’s no need to have “realistic” damage systems.

However, it’s something I’d be very interesting in seeing designers work with on a deeper level. One that really sticks with me is the Smash Bros. system:

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As you’re hit by enemies, your character’s percentile value increases, from 0% to 999%. In Smash Bros., characters can only be defeated by being knocked off the screen, but the more “damage” they’ve taken, the higher and further each attack with will knock them. Get hit at 10% and you’ll barely move, but get hit again at 130% and you’ll be sent flying. It’s an interesting system – it simultaneously dampens the likelihood of overly long matches and fits with the insane and over-the-top combat of the series. It’s great!

I think that brings me to my Ultimate Beef™ – designers broadly don’t develop a health system that is in keeping with the themes of their game. Health and death are too often very traditional seemingly because there was no thought put into those systems, likely because they’re simple and broadly recognised.

Dead SpaceDevil May Cry and Dishonored couldn’t be more different games, but they all utilise identical health systems (and also begin with D, which I swear was a weird coincidence). It’s like how older games all utilised identical “Lives” systems – a holdover from the arcade days.

Are we going to drift away from these kinds of traditional ideas and start promoting systems that are in keeping with the games’ themes? Should we? Is it not better to keep what works? Or is iteration worth the risk? That’s really up to you!

For my money (and it’s my blog, so I get to give my opinion), I do wish more developers would iterate on something that’s taken for granted like this, but understand why they don’t. Traditional health bars require little design work (relatively speaking) and are widely recognised. Having said that, I believe that they’re rarely optimal.

That’s my two cents, anyway! I’m quickly realizing that it’s going to be easy to type for hours on just about any subject, so I need to limit myself a bit. I may do a “part 2”, but I’m very interested in hearing your ideas (no matter how fully formed) on the portrayal of health in gaming. Let me know in the comments!

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