One of the most standard mechanics in most video games is the health bar, and connected to that, death. Thematically, death has presented several issues when discussing video games as a form of artistic expression. Many games do not, or more often than not, cannot treat death in a realistic and expressive manner either because nothing will stop the player from simply reloading an earlier save or because the game can simply be started over and that death will not leave any kind of impact and also that because a more permanent kind of death would not be necessarily fun for the players.
Mechanically though, the issue of health bars and death has never really been put into question. Some games like Monster Hunter and Bioshock have found ways to sidestep it, but not in any meaningful way (and in ways often not picked up by the masses). Monster Hunter for example has your character “faint” if his HP is depleted and it taken back to a camp or otherwise is booted out of the mission. Within the context of the game, it makes sense and since the character never dies, there is never that immediate shift back to reality from the game world. That works rhetorically, but mechanically it is the same exact function. Bioshock suffers from the same problem. While a nice little system was put into place to make it so that your character never actually “dies”, mechanically it introduced some problems. While in most games, dying and restarting at the checkpoint meant that you had to tackle the same problems over and over again, ideally learning from each experience. In Bioshock, the world stayed persistent which undermined a lot of the challenge of the game in the first place, almost to the point of asking why even bother to put a health system in the first place (especially since they picked a real lousy, even if it was more realistic, health replenishing system that you lost if you died).
For the last 3 months, Cameron and I were working on a game called “Do Heroes Exist?”, a super hero game where the player becomes a super-hero, somewhat inspired by the likes of InFamous, but used two systems to measure both the skill of the player and their morality. For example, some powers were classified as “lethal” which would kill the person it was used again while “non-lethal” powers were just knock them out. They actually didn’t function any differently than each other, as in they both had the same result of removing the enemy from the screen, but the game would keep track of it and your morality in the game would be measured at the end, ranging from calling you a “Paragon” all the way down a monster. Likewise, our game measured skill in a similar manner. Everytime you defeated an enemy, your skill would go up, but every time you got hit your skill would go down. While the morality scale was there to encourage players to try out different powers by being different kinds of heroes (from a Superman-esque boy scouts to crazed psychopath anti-hero), the skill system was there to set a goal for the player. Ending the game with a low skill rating had the game called you a blundering idiot while one who avoided every hit and mastered the game would be called something appropriate (depending on their morality it changed).
So one thing we experimented with was removing any kind of health system, for two reasons. The first was that we felt that it didn’t make any sense for a super-powered being to die against a bunch of common thugs, especially since that would hurt the player’s sense of immersion more than anything, and the second reason is that we already punished the player for being hit by lowering their skill. For someone like me, the game telling you that “you suck” is a pretty good motivator for me to keep playing. The idea was partially inspired by Kid Icarus: Uprising where everytime you died, the game would lower the difficulty, so you couldn’t just brute force your way through the hardest difficulty setting. This added some more meaning to completing a level at say, level 9, than level 8 since it would require actually beating the level without dying once. Likewise in our game, we wanted there to be something more rewarding to being good at the game other than “good job, you got from point A to point B”. Unlike Kid Icarus however, we wanted our game to not disrupt the flow of action by having the player worry about their health when they’re already, hopefully, having to worry about how many times they get hit. Unfortunately, testers didn’t like this idea and said that it took away their investment from the main character without having a health bar, so after much deliberation on how to fix it, we made a recharging health bar that would boot you out of the level if you took too much damage too quickly, and took a Monster Hunter approach in that your character “ran away” and you lost a lot of skill. It was a compromise, and once we finish out some of the bug we’re want to release it to public.
Still, from this experiment what got me thinking was whether or not health systems are just a natural part of a video game or an artifact of a decaying system that doesn’t necessarily need to be there but too many players would notice it if its is gone, complain about something without thinking, and is ultimately standing in the way of more creative ways to tell provide a challenge and tell a more fluid narrative. It pains me to say it, but this must have been something that David Cage and Peter Molyneux were thinking about when designing their games. In Heavy Rain, the narrative obviously takes precedence over gameplay, and so a health system would just be too disconnecting. Granted that replacing everything with quick-time events isn’t how I would go about it. I actually like how Molyneux designed death in Fable II, leaving scars on your character as a reminder of that defeat. For some players, the sense of immersion is ruined when they can’t play as their “ideal self” because of playing poorly and thus extra investment is taken in not letting this happen.
Skyrim however is the exact opposite of this, using a traditional health system that really hurts the narrative and action flow of the game. You die, you reload, you keep trying or leave. What has been bothering me so lately in video games is exactly this, that the game rather pretends that this didn’t happen rather than make it part of the narrative. I remember one instance, during my first playthrough, where I was on my way to meet the Greybeards when a frost troll in my way killed me probably over twenty times. By the fifth time I had saved right in front of the troll and for 15 more times just beat away at it, trying out various strategies and eventually overcoming it by using up all my health and magicka potions to burn it to death while hiding in a corner where it couldn’t reach me. Now some might add this to their personal narrative as overcoming a great obstacle as a result of multiple failures, except as far as the game world is concerned, this was the first frost troll I ever encountered. I can say that I learned how to defeat them, but only when I disconnect myself from my character and the immersive world that he inhabited…which is not the point of an RPG like Skyrim
But, using Skyrim, as an example again, what other ways could a reward/punish system be implemented without using the standard health or death system. Of course, I think in a game that focuses primarily on combat you can never really remove some sort of health system without removing the sense of challenge player’s want from it. This is actually a shame since it feels contradictory that the mighty Dragonborn, bane of all dragons, could even die to something like a mudcrab. Still, one possible solution is actually the same system Bethesda used in their Fallout games: crippling.
In Fallout, excessive damage to a body part would cripple it. In Fallout:New Vegas, the limbs that could be crippled were the arms, legs, head, and torso. Each area affected hurt a related skill such as damage to your arms reducing melee damage and accuracy, while damaged heads would blur your vision and you would hear ringing. This was coupled with a health system but while in New Vegas, you were just a regular guy, in Skyrim, you could potentially remove the health system so that the Dragonborn could get through every dungeon and every fight no problem (would at least come together as one fluid narrative), but would have a harder and harder time with each untreated injury. Armor could be there to reduce the damage each limb would take and restoration magic and potions would be used to heal them. Even if Bethesada, or the players, wanted a more traditional looking health system, it could be that too many injuries caused you to pass out and teleports you the nearest town the next day, and maybe, just to really make it so no one would want to die, have guards and bandits laugh at you for being so “weak”. It would do a better job at conveying a more fluid narrative, and create a more immersive world where every action, success, and failure influences the world around you at the cost of some realism, but really, the health bar detracts from the realism more than helps it. Additionally, the more punishment you take, the more chances armor could break, having to spend money to repair it or lose it forever. While the latter might seem too harsh, especially on harder to acquire armor, it would give another incentive for players to be more wary about their surrounding and abilities than a normal health bar.
Ultimately, I’m fairly certain the health bar will never go away, but at least I have now gained a better appreciation for systems like the regenerating health bar. It really sucks to see a bad ass get taken down especially if the game is just going to ignore it. If a game developer wants to tell a story, then they should consider removing an archaic mechanic like the health bar, and reserve it for games that want to challenge a players reflex or ability to get a high score. As I see it right now, a health bar is something that stands in the way of more immersive ways to experience games, taking players out of the action and forever ruining the experience of something like a surprise ambush or overwhelming odds because it needs to accommodate for the player’s health and the player’s skill.
I feel like the best solution is to better incorporate death and injury into the game’s story. One of my favorites is the Fire Emblem series, which is usually never played right, but when it is, death has a serious impact and health management has a lot more meaning. ZombiU for the upcoming Wii U also seems to be doing an excellent job incorporating health and death in a meaningful way, with making you wake-up as a different person everytime you die and even having to kill the zombie version of the former you. If more games can integrate more meaningful life and death in video games, then games can develop a lot deeper meaning and themes.