A few days ago I got into a discussion with a friend of mine about some mechanics that get glossed over / forgotten due to their ubiquity. While this was happening we happened to be bouncing back some videos to one another where a fighting game showed up and I noticed how much my eye was drawn to the health bars at the top. How fast my heart began to beat the lower they were and the sudden excitement and/or disappointment when they disappeared.
Health bars have an unintended consequence in their design, I would guess, most of the time. They create an air of suspense, excitement, and adrenaline in how they are used.
The first context I thought this in was eSports. Many fighting games have an amazing amount of suspense in them, due in great part to the players, but also due to the use of a health bar. The first few moments of a match might get exciting if one player lands an amazing combo, but we are all on the edge of our seats when just centimeters remain on a health bar, regardless of what is happening on screen. The player could land the simplest move in the game’s existence, but the fact that it caused the bar to go to zero would be exciting.
However, the feeling of the viewer pales in comparison to that of the player. Think of the player with the centimeters of health bar left. Suddenly, he/she has to be perfect, as even the smallest mistake could mean a loss. No longer can risks or chances be taken as the player’s strategy is completely changed. Adrenaline flows through their veins as they sit there just trying to survive at that moment, thinking on the possibility of victory. Nobody in the room or viewing has a higher heart rate than that player in those moments.
Imagine then that the player does not take a hit, but comes back playing perfectly to take the game. The viewer, and that player, of course would go crazy with excitement – and rightly so. See an example here.
Now imagine that in the course of a match a player executes the perfect play to win the match. That would be exciting of course, but can you say it compares to the player that did the exact same set of movements, just with lower health? In most cases, probably not. The fact that the health bar is so low increases the excitement in the room exponentially.
That is why health bars are so great.
It doesn’t just apply to competition or multiplayer either. We have all experienced in our gaming careers some moment where we sit their in euphoria, and probably some small bit of disbelief, as we kill a boss with just the smallest bit of life left, make it to the end of a level, or live from a jump/fall we had no business making in the first place.
Many of us have heard the familiar low health beeping sound as we run around in a Zelda game, hoping that this pot or that patch of grass contains a heart for us. Many more of us have experienced the relief that comes in finding that heart, health pack, or any other kind of item to increase our health bar even just a bit more.
In a full health bar is safety and confidence. In a low health bar is panic and adrenaline. The presence of something like that, which seems so insignificant and in many cases just a given to a type of game, and can have such a big effect on our experience with a game at any one moment is what makes health bars great.
Are people saying that they want to see health bars disappear? No, not really. This just came about as a way to point out something that may go underappreciated by some. I’m not saying that some sort of health bar is always the answer either, but celebrating what they can do to a game. In many cases some games have benefited from the lack of a health bar – it all depends on the type of game.
With that said, health bars are still great.