This seems a very fundamental fact of games with any manner of fighting against which it is hard to argue or find an alternate system. In the course of discussing Oblivion and its combat system with Cap’n Perkins he mentioned something that caught my attention and has had me ruminating these past few days.
Now, the manner of implementation of a health system changes from game to game (and most notably, from one genre to the next certain trends become apparent). To start we have Gary Gygax and David Arneson implementing a hit point system for their tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons. From there we have progressed in various manners including, as we see above, Link’s iconic heart system. Mario and Sonic were two whose health systems were slightly different to begin. Sonic had his rings, which essentially gave him two ‘hit points,’ with a quick manner of ‘healing’ himself. Mario had his size. Small Mario could take one hit before the game would end, large Mario two, and so the game goes. Notably, Mario has changed to a health system in his later games, but with a very different premise than Link.
From percentages, shields, heart system, the traditional hit points, red globes, et cetera we’ve created some dynamism within the framework of this seeming requirement, including on how to restore said health.
In college I played a fair amount of Dungeons and Dragons and in one play session I realized it was rather odd that my character was getting so healthy so as to survive a sword cut multiple times. Really, it made little sense (though quibbling about realism in a game that involves magic is perhaps one among many definitions of futile) until one friend offered an alternate way of thinking on this system: with each level my character has more experience. This experience means that he or she knows how to better dodge an attack or take the brunt of it in a less painful situation. Therefore, hit points represent the accumulated experience my character has in this manner of avoiding and mitigating damage.
This works on many levels, but Dungeons and Dragons is not a very visual game. While one can play with miniatures (and is most certainly requested to do so in the Fourth Edition), one does not see combat happen real time, leaving things such as being hit to a player or a particularly loquacious and/or creative DM’s imagination.
Videogames do not afford this luxury. When Link gains enough pieces of heart or defeats a boss to find the coveted full heart to add to his life meter, he literally can take more hits. Hit points in video games do mean your character just becomes more ‘healthy’ than those surrounding him or her.
Is this a system that works?
Quick answer: Yes, it allows for a scaling of difficulty through progress of the game and gives a visual indicator of progress.
But on further contemplation, there are games that succeed without it.
Some games, such as the later Mario series, do not have a mechanic by which you gain more health (unless temporarily). Then there are games such as the Metroid series, or most FPS games, where your basic level of health is a percentage and you have a shield which you can increase.
It is the fantasy games with any elements indicative of an RPG that refuse to budge from their Dungeons and Dragons roots, however. Which will lead into part two of my discussion, the three ways of implementing a world in which health factors as proposed by Cap’n Perkins with an examination on what rewards and difficulties it offers the player.