Health Bars a Thing of the Past?

My vision of a health bar

“Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune” (2007) and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009) are two prime examples of an increasing trend of portraying ‘health’, or the amount of time until your onscreen character decides to die. Health bars are disappearing from our screens to be replaced with visual changes such as desaturation when our character is nearing death. But when is this method best used? Is it a good one?

The conventional health bar takes the form of a red or white bar at one side of the screen, or Head Up Display (HUD). Shooting an enemy in the head will often end his life immediately. One bullet in your character’s head, however, will often cause a moderate loss of ‘health’, allowing the player to pick up a ‘medipack’ to remarkably resolve all injuries. This system has been in play for so long due to its simplicity and ease of use. “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” (2004) proved this point, with many people finding rifling through menus to manually remove bullets from the skin, soothe burns and bandage wounds a chore. Metal Gear Solid’s director, Hideo Kojima, has often said that he would like to take this realism further, making a disc unplayable if the player were to die in-game.

Some games are trying to hide from a health bar or the deterioration of health altogether. “LittleBIGPlanet” (2008) and “Portal” (2007) are two examples of instant deaths. Apart from fire, any hazards will instantly kill the player, causing them to restart a level. However, falling from great heights is often allowed, with no damage taken. In others, falling from cliffs are not even an option, with invisible barriers disallowing your cruel thirst to see innocent game characters commit acts of suicide. These often help lower the age classification from national boards, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) being the UK’s jury on what can be shown to the little ones. Removal of blood or horrific deaths can lower the age classification to reach a wider audience, increasing the developer’s potential profit.

It’s clear to see that there have been many types of implementation of the deterioration of health in videogames since the industry first began. However, it’s interesting to note that in the ongoing search for realism over eight-bit cartoon graphics, the intrusive HUD is slowly disappearing from top-end action/thriller games.

The most common technique is to fade the HUD to nothing when no violent action is taking place. This will then return to the screen when the player needs to know ammunition, health or length stretched by their Noby Noby Boy. As we move into the second half of this generation of games consoles, and some already begin speculating the next, how far away are we from playing games from start to end without the need for any on-screen health bars or text?

With advancements in technology, we should be able to see real-time damage on our characters and understand their remaining ability to live in terms of their motion and facial expression. While a limp may currently define a weak character, how about a man scarred from head to toe, crawling across the ground with a grimace on his face? Real-time physics to judge the weight of what body parts are left?

It’s slowly becoming a reality. But are you willing to say goodbye to the trusty health bar?