At the most primitive level; ‘not dying’ is the core of a video game’s entire function. It wouldn’t even be a game if there wasn’t some form of punishment for failure, ofcourse.
But the Health mechanic has had some deceptively diverse variations throughout gaming history, for better and for worse.
Just A Red Bar
It’s quite rare to find a standard Health Bar in games nowadays. Even I can find it archaic and crude at times, but the changes that have been made over the years just show how intense it can make the gaming experience.
Its simplicity is extremely engaging because it practically scars the player for their own mistakes, which then weighs down the player’s confidence, increases tension and gives a universal feeling of vulnerability. This is particularly true in the games like Dark Souls, where health is arguably the most important attribute since the enemies and situations are so difficult.
It also pushes players through a game because they can’t just wait and get healed over time, which is something I’ll get to soon.
Bandages Heal Everything?
There have been many variations of the Health Pack over the decades.
Whether they are fountains, stimulants, potions or playing pin-ball they all function as ways to give back lost Health. While it does directly restore what’s keeping you alive, their limited supply still keeps tension intact while adding a layer to the overall health mechanic in each game.
I find Health Packs that have to be manually used infinitely more effective than ones that just automatically heal you through your feet, simply because it involves the player more.
And ofcourse the ability to replenish your Health greatly changes the way you fight and endure combat situations.
Titan Quest’s Health Potions could make you literally invincible for a short time because you could just ‘click’ them over and over to replenish your health, allowing you to absorb attacks that would have normally killed you. A rather clever tactic to exploit, but it is ultimately tedious since you essentially become an invincible wall with an axe.
Compare that to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. There, restoring health was an animation that took up an entire turn during combat, which invited an Attack VS Defense strategy and risk to battles.
Now, most Health Bars have a twist on their behavior, such as the tedious Regenerating Health.
Don’t get me wrong, Regenerating Health can be a very necessary and dynamic part of a game. Halo and X-Men Origins: Wolverine utilized this, creating some intense yet comforting game play, since they had to rely on relentlessly tough enemies to keep the player on their toes.
In fact, Halo did a little more, and had a regenerating shield and ‘blocks’ of health that depleted as the character got hit while their shields were temporarily down. This gave the game an engaging sense of endurance and punishment because you had to carry your mistakes with you, instead of hiding and effortlessly getting everything back…like in Halo 2.
I do appreciate non-Regenerating Health but I prefer games that, in some minor way, automatically restore my health. Although I may just feel this way because I’m still furious at a particular moment in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, where I had a very small amount of health left and was locked in a room that required me to drop a dangerous height to complete…which killed me before I could.
Portal 1 and 2 are good examples of necessary Regenerating Health, because it doesn’t draw the player’s attention away from what is important; solving the puzzles.
Getting riddled with bullets by those stupidly structured turrets or getting stung by lasers is treated very similarly to just falling to your death. If you stay in a dangerous situation then you are just put down because you didn’t react to a problem. If you simply get away then you can start again with knowledge of where not to step, which, in a way, is solving a puzzle.
Regenerating Health, however, has the detrimental effect of buffering a player too much, which can result in you becoming overpowered and the game itself becoming monotonous.
Modern Warfare, Mass Effect 1 and 2, Halo 2, Uncharted and many others lack tension since the game rewards inactivity with restoration.
No game should allow you to heal yourself by not playing, for obvious reasons. Healing the player’s character while playing is something few modern games bother to do.
As an example of ‘healing while playing’, I shall be using the surprisingly well-crafted gem: Lost Planet. It too has Regenerating Health that refills almost instantly, but it also adds a constant sense of panic and pressure. Below the Health Bar is a heat counter that continuously drops down and can be increased slightly by collecting Thermal Energy, which is dropped by enemies. Not only that, but jumping, rolling and taking damage causes the heat counter to decrease quicker. Once this counter reaches zero, your health decreases instead. This simple mechanic instinctively makes the player progress through levels quickly to increase the counter, even if they have more than enough Health to last.
This shows how vital health is to the core of a game and the player’s experience. Lost Planet 2 improved on this by making the player manually refill their health, which involves the player more in the same way Health Packs do…which is a good thing by the way.
Regenerating Health needs to be treated very carefully so as to not completely revitalize the player quickly, making the game unchallenging and boring. Taking damage should still permanently hinder the player, at least in a small way.
But sometimes your Health isn’t a long red rectangle across the screen, sometimes it’s represented by your offensive power.
Many strategy games represent the players Health by the forces they control (kinda). As your monsters, tanks, soldiers, minions etc. are taken out, your ability to survive is reduced, as well as your capacity to fight back.
This is obviously the most strategic out of the group, and the most risky.
Some players may draw their forces back, attempting to withstand as much damage while whittling the enemy down through attrition. While others may throw everything forward and hope to destroy the target before they take damage themselves.
This kind of Health is not dissimilar to the standard Health bar since it causes permanent damage but can, most of the time, be replenished later on. The main difference is that here you actually fight with what’s keeping you alive, like maintaining the durability of a sword.
Unfortunately, conservative players (like me) may find this variation stagnant since you can sometimes get stuck in a loop of venturing out with your ‘offensive health’ only to quickly regroup and repeat the same tactic.
Easily my least favourite kind of Health is the collectible items that spray out of you when you get hit, like in Sonic or Croc: Legend of the Gobbos.
Hearing all the shiny things sprinkle across the ground sinks my soul.
I think it’s so despised because, no matter what, you lose everything in one hit. Sure, you can scramble to collect what’s left but you’ll hardly ever get half back. It’s like someone knocking an ice-cream out of your hand, and forcing you to lick up the remains that are spread across the pavement.
On a positive note, it is a deceptively interesting form of Health because it relies very heavily on chance and stockpiling. For example, if you play Croc and begin jumping across lava, you can keep yourself alive as long as you land on solid ground and keep collecting at least one gem after each bounce. The more you have collected, the easier it is to get at least one when you are hit.
A Quick Look At Super Smash Bros.
Super Smash Bros. has a very peculiar kind of Health, yet it is so integral to the game play that it’s almost unnoticeable.
The characters don’t necessarily have Health, rather a damage meter that increases as they get hit. The higher the meter, the further they fly the next time they are struck.
Most fighting games require players to crudely hit each other until one loses all their Health, but here, the aim is not to beat the enemy into submission but to gracefully launch them off the stage itself. This requires players to fight with precision, since dealing damage is second to simply getting the enemy off the level which can happen without even touching one another.
An avatar’s physical display of health is missing from too many games nowadays. It’s fairly common in RTSs such as Rise of Legends and Red Alert, where buildings and even vehicles would crack away or start smoking to give the player a clear idea of how weak their forces were. Supreme Commander even made their vehicles move slower if they were low on health.
Yet many games just have a block of red to show how close you are to destroying/killing something, such as Dragons in Skyrim, where fighting them is like hitting a brick wall that’s just shaped like a big winged lizard.
This destroys immersion since it’s incredibly unrealistic, boring and basic.
However, the Hydra in Dark Souls distributed its Health between its nine heads, which, excluding the fact that Hydras apparently don’t exist, makes perfect sense. Although this can’t be used on every enemy in every game, more games need to acknowledge the physical structure of enemies.
It’s very important to visually show how a target is getting weaker.
Limping, smoking, crawling or even fighting more ferociously gives enemies ‘life’ and tangibility, while rewarding the player with visual clues as to how well they are doing. Dead Space is a perfect example of this, with monstrous enemies that could only be ‘dismembered to death’.
I think I’ve actually taught myself something with all of this.
Until now, I didn’t realize what a core mechanic health is to a video game. It greatly influences, forces and controls how someone plays a game, as well as their experience of it.
Since Health is, ironically, such a VITAL part of virtually every game ever made it’s easy to disregard how it is affecting your behavior while playing. Sure, a horror game may have a scary monster in it, but it’s only scary because you think it threatens your precious health.