There are times in my life where I can let fear get the best of me, where I don’t feel very capable of doing much more than retreating into my room to try and recover. Other times, its not outright fear but a deep sense of uncertainty that stops me from doing things that I feel are risky, like standing up to people who hurt others. But in spite of my battle with fear, there are times I win out, and take on struggles that may hurt me, and risk those blows that may wound my heart in order to save those I care about from those same troubles. Life is full of moments that ask of us to put ourselves out there, knowing we may get hurt in the process, but it is our courage that keeps us going, especially through the pain.
Courage is an abstraction most videogames struggle to handle, but if there is one series that has done an incredible job representing it, it would be the Legend of Zelda games, specifically through the health bar. Everybody should be pretty aware of what they’re like; just about every Zelda game has had heart containers and several individual hearts onscreen to represent your overall ‘health’. Whenever you take a hit, a little sliver of one of your hearts goes away. It’s a pretty clever visual design, because hearts are a nearly universal symbol of health and vitality.
But, hearts are also representative of other things, especially something very close to the Zelda series and especially Link himself, and that’s courage. Now, I don’t think it’s a perfect analogy of courage, and in some games it may not have represented that, but there’s certainly an argument for it. First of all, think about the mythology of the series. The triforce is representative of three great virtues: power, wisdom, and courage, to which Link himself is often assigned the piece that symbolizes courage, which he has to travel all over Hyrule to collect.
But in a more practical manner, Link must also go around collecting heart pieces to gain the fortitude to withstand his inevitable fight with Gannondorf. If Link had to face him with the same amount of heart that he had at the beginning, Gannondorf would make short work of him. Now, if you look at what has made Link grow to withstand his enemy’s attacks, there isn’t much to explain it. Maybe he gained more strength, making his body and muscles tougher, but then why would they use hearts to represent this? Certainly there is no practical explanation for his body to suddenly jumped to be able to take four sword hits instead of five. No, what I suggest is that he gains an expanded determination, and a mental fortitude to overcome the damage done to him.
Think about what he has to do in order to gain these hearts, Link must enter the darkness of dungeons, face trials and traps, and then fight an evil monster, that when defeated leaves behind a heart. Biologically it doesn’t make much sense as to why he suddenly got ‘healthier‘, but what he has done is go through nothing less than the very definition of a test that proves your courage, and this new heart is a wonderful and practical symbol of his newly proven bravery.
And when he clashes against enemies or is hurt by the environment, he is hurt physically yes, but I would say that those hearts onscreen are more directly representing Link’s ability to shrug off the pain he feels, to have the will to keep on fighting even when he is in mortal peril. It more or less is an active approximation of Links' determination to reach his goals and overcome obstacles.
Sure, there are other examples that you could make to say the LoZ health bar is simply that, a health bar, and maybe I am reading too much into the symbolism of the game. But I beg you not to forget that themes of the series are built upon the value of discovery, and the courage to explore. So what if Miyamoto really meant those hearts to represent health, I know in my heart Link gets more courageous with every beast he slays, and that it has taught me that growing braver takes the strength to use and test your courage each day.