Monday, May 01, 2006

An Unhealthy Attachment

Few elements of gaming have become more cliche and standardized than the health bar. You get shot, you lose health. Get shot again, and you lose health again. When the health is all gone, you lose a life and the health resets. It's a simple system, and it works. Unfortunately, it isn't very realistic.

In real life, the type of bullet isn't the only thing that determines whether you live or die. Other factors include where you got hit, how far the bullet went, whether or not you're bleeding (and how much and from where), how fast your body can heal, and physical and mental strength. The health bar fails to take any of these factors into account, and for many of them, it simply can't implement these features. A radical change needs to be adhered to, and the health bar should be abandoned forever.

What are some alternatives? One is a multi-bar system. In this system, each major body part has a seperate health bar. This version of the health bar is used by the MechWarrior series, as well as some smaller free games, such as IVAN, an RPG. However, this implementation isn't completely lacking in faults either. Let's continue looking at other examples.


The MechWarrior series implemented a limb-based damage system.

A simpler implementation that fulfills some of the "bleeding" aspects that are required by a realistic health system is the bleed bar. This is a seperate bar that measures bleeding; it goes up as the player takes damage, and the level of the bleed bar decides how quickly the health bar gets lower and lower. Medipacs can both increase the health bar and decrease the bleed bar to help heal the player, but multiple medipacs are necessary to completely heal him. This works well in many cases, but it still fails to take many other elements into account.

Why the big deal, you might say? Why isn't the health bar good enough? After all, there are many things about games that aren't realistic: lasers, for example. The answer is simple: at a time when "realism" is all game developers ever talk about, gameplay realism should come before graphic realism (I've talked about this before in my article about RPG level systems; look there for more information regarding this argument).


IVAN, an RPG, uses a limb-based damage system.

Can you think of other aspects the health bar fails to account for? How about different alternatives to the health bar? Or maybe you think the health bar should stay? No matter what you think, we want to hear from you; your opinion counts! Click the "comments so far" link below and let us know what you think!

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