Ditch The Damage Bar

Written By mista sense on Thursday, March 20, 2008 | 7:21 AM

Lots of innovation in gaming these days has come out of taking a familiar genre or mechanic and changing, really, just one or two key things. Look what Portal added to FPS mechanics when the gun didn't shoot bullets, and how the platformer changed when you no longer had to jump. I love Braid because it makes something entirely different from the platforming mechanic simply by letting you rewind back whenever you want.

Many of the changes in gameplay mechanics in recent years have come from a gradual surrender of the habits of the arcade days, back when games were geared to make you keep putting quarters in. Though we've been surprisingly stubborn about it, clutching those relics of player penalty and punishment like an old baby blanket, in general most kinds of games have been more enjoyable since we stopped counting lives, segmenting up stages and putting time limits on everything.

I'm interested to see what would happen if we let go of one more -- the damage bar.

Even in modern games, if you're playing a person, that person can die. In fact, games have put life bars on just about everything perishable, from hostages to vehicles, and often your ranking and other factors depend on how much damage you take. Some games have innovated on the damage bar by measuring, for example, how much sound you make when silence is the objective, or by tying it in somehow with time limits. It's really a fundamental of gaming -- your present endeavor ends if you are hurt enough, period.

It's something we've accepted for a long time because it's lifelike -- if you were a soldier, a secret agent or a fighting champion in real life, you would, like any human body, have a threshold. Pass that threshold and it's game over for real; you're dead. The argument in favor of life bars says that players wouldn't want to take hits without eventually dying, wouldn't believe a character who could sustain endless injury and come away unscathed.

But while we're talking lifelike, let's talk about how, under the damage bar schema, a shotgun blast to the gut sometimes does as much damage as a punch in the face or a fall from a high platform. I wouldn't be the first to knock turn-based RPGs for featuring characters who can face a linear formation of heavily-armed soldiers with only a sword, taking wave after wave of machine gun fire and still managing to win by the blade. But no matter what the genre, when your life bar is depleted and you die, you start again in better shape, and not always from the spot where you hit the ground. Lifelike?

Not really. The damage bar depletion death is just another archaic way to measure failure, force the player to restart as a penalty. Just as some of the innovators I've mentioned have done, I'd like to see a new twist on taking damage in games -- instead of using the mechanic to penalize the player, could we use it to make play more interesting?

I'm certainly not proposing an invincible hero. But what if, instead of merely drilling down a bar from green to red, taking damage would actually affect the player's abilities and physicality? At full health, you can easily run, jump and climb. Take a few knocks and be forced to move a little more slowly, suffer some limitations on what you can do. At max damage, you're forced to drag on your belly and can no longer fight until you find some health supplies. Enemies can kick you when you're down and impede your progress, but your game won't end. You might have to crawl, bleeding, past a ladder or a ledge you couldn't negotiate unless you were in good health, but the concept that somehow death will just bump you back a while and send you, fully healed, to confront the same areas you've already tried would be a thing of the past.

Certainly, most modern games have let the player character respond and react based on the state of his health, looking wounded or limping. But I think we can go further with this -- where the consequences of injury are the inability to interact as thoroughly in the game world, rather than ultimately ending in an antiquated game over screen.

If the technology is up to it, this could get even more interesting, especially if you were playing a non-human who reacted in an interesting way to injury. Or if you were being pursued, and trailing blood made you more likely to be found. Or if you'd be doomed to slogging along feebly unless you spent hard-earned money for the help of an unscrupulous doctor, or used some kind of precious ability to heal yourself -- thereby leaving yourself with less magic or whatever to use against your enemies.

I once read somewhere (and I can't recall) an argument that games would never be as immersive as other kinds of media because of the repetitive save-die-reload functionality at the core of almost all of them. But there are many worse things than death, as the saying goes, and I'd like to see game mechanics explore what some of those might be. It could create a greater investment in the characters' lives than seeing them repeatedly killed and resurrected ever did.

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