How Much Health Bar is Too Much Health Bar? Representations of Health in Video Games

*Note – I will be on vacation until the second of January. Updates will resume then. Happy New Year, Internet.

Since Mario picked up that first magic mushroom, developers have been having to deal with characters that don’t die in a single hit. Over generations, and genres, the measure of health or relative safety has been consistently evolving. However, it is this generation in particular that has become obsessed with the HUD (Heads up display), and the immersion that an uncluttered HUD can bring. Different genres have needed a health bar more than others. Of course, RPGs are the games that need them the most, as we can’t expect a few volleys from a machine gun to finish off our team can we? Other genres, however, rely on health bars just as much, as health must be measured and attacks must be counted in relation to how damaging they were. Gaming is consistent in this regard. A bullet may not kill or even wound you, but an explosion is certainly a bigger threat. So today, we are going to be looking at different measures of health in video games and I’m going to be going with the non-unique ones in order to get a more general look at the industry. Also, many of these are mixed and matched, and I will not be going over all combinations of them.

Definitely enough HP for an arrow to the knee.

The first thing we’re going to look at is the power up or “state”  health bar as exemplified by Mario and many other platformers. The reason I call this a state power up is that you can tell the amount of health you have based on the state of your character. For example: if you’re down to your underwear in Ghosts and Goblins, it’s a one hit kill, but if you’re in armour, you know that you have a buffer that is represented by your character’s clothing and not by any health bar. Mario too is perhaps a more universal example. A player knows that when they’re big or have a different power up, they can be hit by an enemy without dying. It is a very effective way of measuring health as it is direct and unambiguous. Nothing is more intuitive than a one-hit-kill system with a state buffer. Of course this doesn’t work for most genres. Anything first person is out as you can’t directly see your character, so the visual queues fall flat and any game that doesn’t want to limit hits to a handful at max really can’t use this system except potentially as a queue for how much damage you’ve sustained in a more inaccurate way.

Not doing so great here.

The traditional RPG mechanic is to use math and by that I mean to have a health bar represented by a numerical figure. This is a great mechanic for the use of strategy and planning. If you know exactly how much damage an enemy is doing then you can plan for the next heal or decide to press the attack with more certainty. This is a major upside to many RPGs where said certainty is at a premium due to the vast amount of options generally available to the player, and the split second decisions that need to be made based on real and accurate data. The downside is that it isn’t very immersive. It can be weird when a wolf does 2000 damage but a rocket launcher from earlier in the game only did 50. Still, it is necessary, as RPGs generally don’t want the game to end when an enemy lands a single blow, and, as mentioned, precision is more important in this genre than most others.

Don’t worry, being set on fire isn’t too damaging especially if you’re a stuffed toy.

Then there is the basic, no numbers health bar. Often a health bar will have a numerical representation, but I’m lumping that in with the previous entry. Some games, especially newer games, keen to get rid of random numbers, will just give you a health bar. This often red bar, is a bit of a combination between the purely visual “state” health bar and the more intelligent number health bar, as it requires you to be aware of your ever dwindling resource, but you are limited to visual queues. Some games, like Diablo, allow you to see the exact numerical representation of your health by hovering over the bar, but others keep that part secret. This form of health bar tries to keep immersion, by limiting the information given to players, but concedes the point that an actual representation of health must be given to the player in order for them to venture risk versus reward.

My fist will deal some unknown proportion of the health bar in damage to you.

More recently there has been a push to lower the amount of information displayed in the HUD, and because of this, the traditional health bar has been hidden or replaced by new mechanics. One way of doing this is to become clever with health bar placement or representation. As mentioned before, this can be done visually, like the shredding of clothes or the degradation of armour such as in The 3rd Birthday. Or it can be done by carefully hiding the health bar such as in Dead Space. I want to highlight this game, as an excellent example of keeping an accurate health bar in play while simultaneously clearing the HUD of all non-immersive information. When health bars are hidden, but still present then they possess the same advantages of a normal health bar. Turning them into visual queues trades a significant amount of accuracy for a minor amount of HUD decluttering.

Maybe there was another reason for measuring health through clothes damage?

Finally, there are some newer style HUD clearing mechanics by utilizing the screen. Games can represent damage by having the colour drain from the screen such as in Uncharted or by having the screen get increasingly bloody. Of all the ways of representing health, I can’t get behind this one. The bloody screen, used often in first person games, is supposed to be immersive, but it is incredibly inaccurate and it interferes with actual gaming. However, the colour draining mechanic is the worst. By draining the colour from the screen, you sabotage the game’s visuals as well as hinder the player’s ability to assess the situation. Is it realistic that your ability to fight is hindered when you take damage? Sure, but games aren’t real life and hindering the gamer by nearly blinding them sucks quite a bit of fun out of the situation.

This isn’t irritating at all.

So what’s the ideal representation of health in video games? As in all things in life, it depends on the situation. RPGs are still better off with heavily populated HUD feeding in as much information as possible, while action games and shooters can benefit from any number of health mechanics. The decluttering of the HUD is a great movement and I fully endorse it, but I wish more developers would be smart like Visceral with Dead Space instead of just relying on a bloody screen or a vibrating controller to deliver an incredibly inaccurate portrayal of health.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer


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