On Health Bars (Day 2)

Just to preface a bit, I’ve decided to scrap the original name (“Quotidian Contemplation”) entirely until I can think of something simpler and catchier. I was never happy with it, but after some feedback I think I’m better off just losing it entirely for now. It’s still the same series, and will have a catchy name soon (I hope)! 

I wanted to keep writing after yesterdays post on Health Bars, but felt like it had run long enough already. After some feedback from friends and wonderful internet strangers, I think it’s definitely worth revisiting today.

It’s still the same idea – I’m basically just going to write, with little to no editing done afterwards (except for a quick proofread). This isn’t because I don’t care or can’t be bothered, but because the idea is to express and document my feelings on certain ideas in game design. These feelings are going to evolve, so I don’t want to go back and edit the earliest parts of my post if I no longer agree with it at the end – a huge part of this is seeing how thinking about an idea can change how I percieve it.

Long story short, I may contradict myself a bit. Don’t take my word as gospel, but I’m hoping that what I say can give you some insight into certain systems and help you come to your own conclusions. Anyway, long little intro here, so I’ll get right to it. Today, again, is about…

Health Bars

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So my last post (read it here) basically amounted to me complaining that health bars are often an afterthought, not thematically tied to the game but used solely because they’re traditionally functional. To reiterate, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – they are functional, and they’re common enough that most people can identify their purpose immediately.

They also fit neatly into some games, such as Diablo 3 (pictured above). Diablo is a game about numbers and character stats, so having HP as a cumulative number (to be affected by gear, levels and character skills) makes sense – as your character grows stronger, their health increases. Displaying it as a blood-like substance in a creepy orb is in keeping with the aesthetic of the series, and numbers can be toggled for a more detailed view of your HP.

One of my favourite games of all time (tied with two others for first place!) uses a very traditional system that I’m not convinced is the most thematically accurate fit – Metal Gear Solid 3, a game about betrayal, survival, how loyalty and relationships are affected by an individual’s view of the world, and enormous ladders.

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For a bit of background, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (or MGS3) did a couple of interesting things with the damage system. Most famously, it had a “cure” system, in which players had protagonist Snake perform surgery on himself to remove heavy damage, such as by digging a bullet out with his knife or applying ointment and bandages to a burn.

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Or by burning leeches off with a cigar.

The maximum length of the health bar would be reduced while an injury remained unattended, and was also affected drastically by the difficulty system, being much, much smaller at the highest “European Extreme” difficulty.

Still, it’s clear that the health bar itself isn’t especially creative. It’s a white bar located on the HUD that reduces when the character takes damage from any source. When it hits zero, Snake is dead and the game is over. I don’t think this is necessarily bad – it’s simple to understand, allows for some mistakes and still discourages detection – but I do think it could designed to be more in keeping with the themes of the game.

MGS3 contains clear themes of survival – the protagonist is dropped into a jungle behind enemy lines and sent on a dangerous mission. Players have to hunt to eat, utilise camouflage to avoid detection and keep a supply of curatives (such as bandages and sutures) to keep themselves healthy.

Throughout the story, Snake takes a couple of hard hits – he loses an eye, has several bones broken and is even tortured. All of these have a massive impact on the story – he loses his eye in a scene that establishes his relationship with a major character, and it’s shown to reduce his confidence while shaping his signature look from the later games (MGS3 being a prequel). His bones are broken by a major betrayal that sets the stage for the bulk of the story and so on.

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At one point, the villain’s dialogue will actually change depending on how many major injuries the player has sustained throughout the game.

Injuries are generally important to the story, is what I’m getting at. In-game, being shot with a poison arrow meant digging out the bolt, using an antidote, using antiseptic to clean the wound and then bandaging it. Unfortunately, all of this could mostly be ignored in gameplay because all injuries amounted to was a reduced health bar, in a game that was very generous with how much damage the protagonist could suffer.

For a game with such a major focus on survival elsewhere – in the story, in the camouflage system, with hunting, exploring and so on – this feels a bit jarring. The cure system was widely criticised for feeling like pointless busywork, partly because it meant a lot of sifting through menus, but also partly because the drawback just wasn’t there. Keeping yourself healthy was an afterthought in a game that was otherwise all about survival.

While these issues aren’t solely to do with the health bar- the game really does contain far too much menu management either way, for example – I feel that it’s a major point. Having such a traditional health system (and display) in an otherwise tight and creative game jumps out as being out of place. It’s also easy to ignore your health entirely, despite the game’s insistence that curing yourself is essential.

So, let’s look at some other ways it could work. I need to re-reiterate that these won’t necessarily be better, and that the “traditional” health bar isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that it’s a system rarely touched by developers, for better and worse, and I’d like to see what else would work. Firstly, we have…

A Diegetic Display

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A diegetic display is one that’s shown entirely in-game, without relying on HUD elements. This means that the display fits into the world, like how it does in real life; you know you’re injured because half your face is missing, or whatever, rather than having a bar that tells you this.

In this case, MGS3 largely utilises this already. After applying a bandage, Snake will be wearing it (though it’s invisible unless you take his uniform off, which of course you do, because he’s like an even manlier Kurt Russel). Leeches can be seen and heard, and arrows will be sticking right out of the character model.

Animations are largely missing, however. Snake will run and sneak confidently whether or not his legs is full of bullets and arrows, he’ll maneouver with ease while standing at death’s door and so on. A diegetic system, in this case, would largely be animation work – Snake would limp and hold his leg if it was injured, burns would be visible and so on. It’s not without issues or upsides, so I’ll break this idea down somewhat.

It’s Immersive

Firstly, the obvious one – this system is more immersive, purely by virtue of being diegetic. Seeing Snake respond to his injuries is, for my money, more interesting than having a bar on the HUD that explains how injured he is.

It’s Vague

In my last post, I complained that the traditional health bar is often vague, but failed to mention that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It adds a risk and reward system to healing, for example – are you injured enough to use a healing item, or can you risk taking another attack first to get more out of it? In turn-based RPGs (such as Final Fantasy), you often know the answer to this question exactly, and the game has made the decision for you – you either heal now, or you die.

With a vaguer system, things are potentially more interesting. However, they also run the risk of being a useless metric. If there’s no clear difference between being at 50% health and being at 20%, players won’t be making informed decisions – they’ll be making largely random ones and hoping for the best, which reduces a lot of the strategic depth of decision making.

It’s A Big Change

Say Snake begins to limp when he’s injured – surely this means he’d have to move more slowly, right? Or will he limp at his normal running speed?

My point here is that a diegetic change, in this example, would likely lead to large gameplay changes as well. It’s important to be wary of these “knock-on” effects, where one change leads to many others.

Changing a functional system for one that will alter so many other parts of the game is rarely a good idea, especially as development continues. In this case, it’s hard to see how the change would be worthwhile – a functional, traditional health bar, or a diegetic system with large knock-on effects?

So, I’m going to wrap it up here for the day. This post is way overlong and I’m nowhere near done, so I’ll definitely do a Part 3 tomorrow (and potentially a Part 4, 5 and so on until I’m happy).

While I didn’t really settle on anything (or, admittedly, create a useful alternative) I do hope you’re at least thinking about this stuff in a new light on some level. I often feel that action games begin with the assumption that a traditional health system will be utilised and are developed from there, and I’d love to see how that could be challenged.

Tomorrow, I’ll focus more on alternatives, rather than explaining my stance on tradition.

Thanks for reading!

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6 responses to “On Health Bars (Day 2)”

  1. Sue says :

    Sorry, have nothing to comment on the game design aspect of the post (and not being a gamer I thought you were referring to actual health bars like muesli bars ;), but on your blog name – Yeah it’s difficult! I had the same problem hence the very generic title on mine. Looking at your name though (it’s really unique), perhaps an anagram of sorts…? But then again, it spat out some dubious names like Conman And Wand Lordly so maybe not.

    • rowan2010 says :

      Yeah, I had trouble finding images of in-game health bars because muesli bars kept showing up, haha. There’s not really another appropriate term to use, though – maybe life bar?

      I’d like something nice and simple for the name – one of my favourites is a column that does a kind of deep dive into game mechanics called “The Mechanic”. I’ll come up with something soon, anyway!

  2. Robert McPherson says :

    Might I suggest for a start taking a look at locational damage games? Fallout 4 would be the recent choice. But perhaps earlier in the series might find ones that managed it a bit better (New Vegas for example required Doctor’s Bags to heal injured limbs rather than just a Stimpack)

    While most locational damage games still have health bars, injuries to limbs do effect the character.

    Another one to look at may be Pillars of Eternity which used a 2 stage Endurance/Health system.

    • rowan2010 says :

      Thanks!

      I considered it, but at the moment I’m looking more at the display of health than the health system itself. There’s obviously some inevitable overlap, but I find that those games are still using fairly conventional visuals.

      I definitely thought about bringing up PoE (and FF:XV, which uses the same system), but decided it against it because it’s still basically 2 HP bars overlapped (though I think it’s a great system anyway).

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  1. On Health Bars (Day 3) | Rowan McDonald-Nyland - January 4, 2017

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