Nothing is sacred: Hit Points and damage

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If you prick us, do we not take 528 initial damage and an additional 406 damage over the next 30 seconds?” 

That’s not how that quote goes obviously, but that’s about what the concept of “bleeding” amounts to when you look at games. Game characters don’t have actual blood, or a systematic need for a circulatory system.

By and large, the ability to live, the life force of a game character relies on the the filling and emptying of a meter, containing the totality of that character’s will to live: HP, Hit Points, Life Bars, Stamina, Hearts. At worst, arguably, its a number that the player stays keenly aware of, watching and recalculating like a hawk to maintain one’s grasp on this virtually mortal coil. At best, its an abstract and finite limit that responds to damage and healing in contextually appropriate ways. But even then, its still this linear, quantitative meter that rules our decision making at any given moment.

What if we did away with the numbers, in favor of a generally more practical system?

I walked through fire and didn’t get burned…but by the fifth walk in, the elemental damage was way past my fire resistance threshold!” 

Hit Points are everywhere, so it a little tricky to cut them out cold turkey, as a cut and dry order of progress. However, there’s a certain effect that comes about for games that do not work under a Hit Point system. Consider the fighting genre and two games in particular: SoulCalibur IV and Bushido Blade 2.

Consider all the stuff built around SoulCalibur as a game. By the fourth iteration, there are potentially dozens of item based buffs to augment how your life bar works, from draining energy, regenerating energy, and everything in between. Death is 0, and your objective is protection or creation of that scenario. Numbers.

*Fun Fact: There are no good pictures of Bushido Blade on the internet

Look then to the Bushido Blade series. Hudless, bar-less, devoid of numbers and stat management. You have a sword. Swords cut people. Good cuts kill you. Blocked cuts won’t. Life and death is based on this practical situation that keeps you focused on the action proper. Above all else, you need to manage the pure situation, rather than a numerical construct. The result is profoundly different from the fighter standard, and provides, if nothing else, a unique fighting experience.

“That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Unless you’re a ghost. Then you’re dead.”

A significant obstacle to ditching the hit point system, however, will be implementing some logical consequence into the game world, which has the very real potential of not being fun. While I appreciate that Far Cry 2 forces you to do something gruesome and practical to bring yourself back from the brink of death, the act of doing so doesn’t necessarily make the experience more fun. But, it doesn’t have to wash out that way.

Take the Final Fantasy series. While still making prominent use of number stats in just about everything that happens, there are logical rules at play in the universe the supercede the digits. In general, curing items will have a damaging affect on the undead. Taken to a further logical step, an item that is made to resurrect, will instantly “kill” the undead! Your task of reducing that HP meter becomes a puzzle to be figured, and a thought process that starts to become more important than raw data being rattled out.

inFamous does a great job with these ideas in an HP world. Electricity and water sometimes mix in ways that you’d expect, allowing you to subtly fry a persuing enemy by running through a puddle, for example. What if inFamous worked directly on a principle of electric effects, regardless of a hitpoint/damage concept? Do I really need to increase the “damage” of a lightening effect? Shouldn’t a headshot cause major neural breakdown, all the time? Perhaps in a world of powers, the nature of your attack will mean everything, and the raw level value of your unmysterious “Magic Attack Power” will mean nothing.

Admittedly, HP is a tough trope to bust. But going down that road has lead to some of the more memorable concepts and experiences in gaming history. What are you favorite games without HP? Do you think most games could benefit from shifting focus away from giving players that discreet life limit or damage attribute?

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