Trope Spotlight - Health Bars

Hemmy Ogilvie explores the ups and downs of tracking damage in gaming history, and wonders which is really the most effective.

19th October 2015

Have you ever had a paper cut and wondered how many more it would take to kill you? Well if you were a video game character you wouldn’t have to! Simply see how much damage you took from that cut and then divide your total health by that number and you would get the total number of cuts it would take to take you back to your respawn point.

Luckily for us however, we don’t have to worry about our inevitable doom whenever we damage our bodies slightly. Our beloved health bar has been used in gaming for decades but it wasn’t always so. In the early days of video games, players would have to depend on lives instead of health, once you lost all your lives it was game over (although this system is still used today, it was far more common in the past). It wasn’t until 1985 with the release of Dragon Buster that brought health bars to life.

“Sometimes game designers use the health bar as an integral part of the story, one such example being the synchronization bar in Assassin’s Creed”

Nowadays game designers have moved on from simple bars and have implemented lots of creative ways to show health to the player. Lots of modern shooters, such as Call of Duty, have opted for the blood splat on screen method to show that the character is hurt and must get to cover to regenerate vitality. Other shooters like Halo have a regenerative shield along with a health bar, the bar regenerating over time but the shield will. Different Halo games have variants on this but the idea stays the same.
Some fighting games such as Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 have a similar mechanic whereby a second health bar is overlaid on top of the first one, effectively giving the player multiple lives. This not only extends the gameplay but allows each attack to take out more of each player’s health, indicating their relative power.

Sometimes game designers use the health bar as an integral part of the story, one such example being the synchronization bar in Assassin’s Creed; if the assassin takes “damage” it will desynchronize the player (Desmond) from the animus and the assassin that the player is controlling. The 3rd person game survival horror game Dead Space had a similar feature with the Resource Integration Gear (RIG), a suit the protagonist wore with an onboard health indicator. Other designers use health to directly impact the mechanics of the game. Games such as World of Warcraft often have raid bosses that change moves, patterns and tactics when their health is depleted, and games such as Amnesia have the sanity system where the less sane you are the harder (and scarier) the game becomes.

So I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would want a constant reminder of how much life I have and have it tick away every time I have cider or artery-clogging fast food. But hey, the warlock Gul’dan in Hearthstone uses his own life as a resource to gain a card advantage. So maybe some risks are worth taking.

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