[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time - a discussion of careful health management in two recent high-profile games.]

Live forever or die until you do. Nobody wants to die, but death is inevitable.

Death is when you drop the controller and sigh—or fling it across the room. Frustration is the consequence of loss. It means starting over, acknowledging failure, and trying to learn from your mistakes.

Most games that have you take on someone's life also have a way to measure it, a short space between life and death often called a health bar. In whatever form it takes, it is a measure of how many mistakes the player can make before having to start over. It’s a simple concept, but it can lead to some rather complex player choices and is often fundamental to the pacing of an entire game.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 and Half Life 2 are different games in many respects but one thing they have in common is tightly controlled pacing centered around the loss and recovery of health. While Ninja Gaiden uses a regenerative health system and Half Life 2 uses a more traditional system of scattered health items, the different systems create a surprisingly similar feeling of tension and require similar feats of endurance from the player. Both use health to determine how skillful a player has to be at staying alive and both force split-second critical thinking.

No More Quarters

Health is seeing some of the same sorts of changes that lives and continues did when videogames moved from arcades to home systems and designers had to rethink the utility of that system now that players no longer needed to exchange money for life. As regenerating health becomes more widespread, it is offering new possibilities for designing how health is handled, and what system best serves the pacing needs of a particular game.

Regenerating health is most commonly associated with the run and hide cover system common to first and third person console shooters, but it has other applications as well. Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 may have regenerating health, but it because this regeneration doesn't occur during combat, it doesn’t encourage this sort of behavior. NGS2 actually plays more like a game with static health for these reasons.

The static model of scattered health packs at determined intervals, popular in games such as HL2, requires the player to survive a specifically determined amount of combat before getting the opportunity to heal. It’s an informal checkpoint system, in contrast to NGS2’s formal health system that heals the player after every fight but retains permanent damage that is only healed at save points.

A Life or Death Tempo

In practice the different systems create similar pacing, with differences shaped to the unique nature of each particular experience. In HL2, medkits are there to give players a reason to explore and investigate their environment. HL2 makes physically picking up the health items part of the gameplay. This makes the world more interactive, a natural progression for game that had so much care placed in its physics engine. Tangible health helps bring the world around the player to life.

NGS2, on the other hand, is almost exclusively action based, even more so than the Xbox 360 original. There is so little exploration in the game that it would be a pointless task for the player to pick up health after combat. NGS2 does have some health items hidden in nooks and crannies, but they aren’t really required and of course are not the only way of restoring health. NGS2 is less a living world and more an action movie. It comes to life through cinematic camera angles and fast paced action, both of which play poorly with exploration.

Tension

HL2, or any other game based around a static health system, is really only regeneration by a different name. It’s simply that regeneration only occurs when the designers want the player to. In HL2 it creates a tension of endurance. You know that as long as you press forward, there will be more health, but you don’t know when or where it will be. You don’t have to stop and wait, but you do have to be careful. HL2 wants players to constantly move forward, but it doesn’t let them get overconfident.

NGS2 has a combination of permanent and temporary damage that allows the player some leeway in damage taken but still penalizing sloppy behavior on an individual fight. Each encounter with enemies is treated as a discrete fight, at the end of which the character is healed. However, each attack does a small amount of permanent damage that you have to live with until the next save point.

Without this system, it would be possible for a player to do very well or very poorly against a wave of enemies and still end with the same result. In NGS2 you can’t do anything but move forward (because of the way health is designed) but you still must be proficient at blocking and dodging.

The Psychology of Danger

The point of showing the health bar to the player is to provide information about how much danger you are in. It’s an important tool for making judgments and weighing risks. A single, massive health bar would make the first fights boring and the last ones exhausting. The system as it stands provides a more varied experience of ups and downs, reliving tension while still keeping the player on their toes.

Forcing the players to deal with low amounts of health is part of the beauty of the system. Players act differently when they’re close to death. It forces more careful behavior. For example, in HL2 low health might force you to explore new areas looking for health because you messed up and took too much damage. In NGS2, low health will encourage defensive play and might force the player to use items to get out of trouble.

Encouraging critical thinking out of players is part of the reason to have health in the first place. With the combination of permanent and temporary damage, you experience it nearly every fight, and as your permanent health decreases, you experience it more often. It also forces the player to be able to perform well against sustained challenges. Screw up too much on the first fight, and you won’t be able to survive the next.

Who Wants to Live Forever, Anyway?

There’s a lot of leeway here, but also a fair amount of strictness. It’s not enough to just survive. This pacing, these demands made on the player, the minimum requirement of performance, all of this is a direct consequence of the health bar. A huge amount of gameplay is defined by a deceptively simple system. In fact, I often found from my own personal experience that I took drastically less damage at low health than at full. At full health, it’s easy to get lazy, but when it’s life or death you simply play better.

Enemy design, and the damage of their attacks, the number of waves between an end of combat heal, and the number of encounters that lie between one save point and the next all have to be carefully paced to make this system worth anything at all. So in this sense, the bar itself is rather simple, and works effectively because of the design around it. This design is not really any different from a health pack model. It’s simply an automatic restoration rather than a manual one.

This design is based on emotional feedback. The serenity of landing a constant stream of hits. The satisfaction of eliminating an enemy. Wariness over surrounding foes. Frustration over being hit and having a combo interrupted, which a block could have avoided. Confidence at high health, fear at low health. Tension during battle, relief afterwards. All this, through a little blue bar.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames and how he couldn’t eat for a week after playing Saya no Uta, and can be reached at [email protected]]