Welcome to what is probably going to become an ever ongoing series for this blog. This isn't a theme week per ce, more like something that I can post about whenever something crosses my mind and I feel that I can put in a good word or two or sixty thousand about it.
Basically, in entries like this one I'm going to look at game mechanics: what they are, what they have been, what works, what doesn't and so on. So, to inaugurate this series I believe the issue of health is as good a place as any to start.
I know a lot of games rely on health bars: from platformers that have long since moved away from the one hit one life equation, to fighting games where that's really the entire bloody point of the thing. I'm going to focus on a particular genre's usage of healthbars though: the first person shooter.
There's been a lot of division recently over the two different schools of how healthbars work in FPS's. In the beginning you had a set amount of health and when you took a fireball or Nazi round to the face your health dropped. If you got into bad enough straits it was time to find a health kit which could heal you anywhere from 5 health back to full depending on the size. These games also usually Incorporated armor, which basically doubled your health but of course needed to be found first and was a decent bit harder to come by than just regular health. Still, fairly straightforward: run out of health and you died, end of story.
The more recent trend though, especially with so called cover shooters like "Gears of War" and the endless amounts of titles that have aped it, is to have health that regenerates. In cases like these you might not even know the number of your hit points; you still have indications like how beat up the character looks or perhaps how red your screen is, but there's no distinct amount for you to glance at and say "Ah, I'm this far away from being a meaty pile of crap." Likewise, when you take damage you're not going to be scrambling for a health kit, no sir; instead you just ride it out: wait until your dude looks better or your screen is a little (or a lot) less red, and then you continue on. Essentially, as long as you can find somewhere to catch your breath, you'll be fine and can continue on after a short respite.
Now, before I continue let's get one thing out of the way here, right off the cusp: neither of these methods are at all realistic, and nor will they ever be. Ever. There are some proponents of the fixed, non-regenerating health camp that like to foist this kind of bullshit argument at the regenerating health, saying "Oh man it's so unrealistic!" well, guess what, so is being able to run, jump, shoot, punch, and do whatever else it is that your character does all without penalty at all even at one health out of one hundred. There's no realism between being a fully functioning human being at one health and being a meat pile at zero, so get over it. Besides, in half these games you're fighting shit like Nazi zombie aliens or whatever. If you want realism, that's fine, but don't get all haughty over it when it's really not even close to the point that you're actually mad about.
With that little annoyance out of the way, let's carry on, shall we?
Both systems have their pros and their cons, otherwise there wouldn't be any arguments over which is better -- well, in a perfect world at least, but I digress. On the one hand, the fixed point, no regeneration system rewards smart, tactical gameplay and enforces a sense of danger, especially when you can't carry a health kit with you and don't know when or where the next one might be. Regenerating health is a bit more lenient and allows players to take bigger risks while still punishing them for stupid ones; it also means that you don't have to worry about finding health as long as you don't mind a slight interruption in the gameplay in order to top yourself off.
The downside of fixed health is that sometimes if you take an unlucky hit (and don't tell me it doesn't happen because it does) you might find yourself suddenly having entered an unwinnable situation, not to mention that if you desperately need the health you might end up backtracking to the last place you actually saw a pack -- something which can be more disrupting to the game flow than sitting and waiting to regenerate -- and that ever present number can cause players to second guess themselves, always wondering if they have enough health to survive the encounter ahead or if they need to find a kit to get that little extra boost. It's not a horrible downside, but it's there.
With regenerating health though, sometimes it really can feel like you're getting your hand held throughout the gameplay experience. Sitting and waiting -- especially if it takes a long amount of time to go from gravely injured to full -- is boring and something that games shouldn't be encouraging if they want to tout themselves as fast paced action-oriented shooters. Likewise, sometimes in the heat of things cues as to your current condition might be missed, and without an absolute number to fall back on you can never be sure if the next hit is going to be the last one you can take. More realistic, actually, but at the same time somewhat disheartening when you thought that you were maybe moderately damaged only to keel over at the next bullet.
So, is there a solution, something that incorporates the best of both worlds? Well, sort of. Games like the first Halo, the original Resistance, and a handful of others use both regenerating and fixed health. Halo had regenerating health in the form of a shield, but you also had health that you'd need to medkit back up if you lost it. Resistance took a different approach with a segmented health bar: four segments could each regenerate if given a short rest, but once you lost an entire one then you had to pick up a health kit to restore it. It's not a perfect solution, but it's a compromise that I believe ultimately benefited both games. It was indicative without leading to too many unwinnable scenarios, and helped keep the pacing right on track. There's a fine line between making something arbitrarily difficult and making it laughably easy. The different iterations of health are getting closer, but we aren't quite there yet. It will be interesting to see just what new tricks developers and designers come up with in the future when dealing with this subject.