Thought: Alternatives to HP

Thought: Alternatives to HP

So following on from my previous thoughts on healers (there was some interesting discussion in reblogs from that which are worth reading on different perspectives on the issue), I want to record a few thoughts on health itself as a concept in video games.

Hit Points are a funny abstraction we all take for granted because they work. They’re a happy medium between “you get hit once and you die” like a simple game like Pacman or a cinematic one like Ico, and a hightly complex “multiple bodyparts with individual damage levels” like say…umm… Dwarf Fortress (or I guess Fallout 2).

It’s not very heroic to go down like a chump if you get so much as grazed by a bullet, and in a game, it’s a lot harder to clearly place and react to a threat due to your limited peripheral vision, limited depth perception, simplified stereo hearing and lack of a sense of touch or smell, as well as having to run commands through a middle party- the controller and processor. So getting hit once and dying, particularly in a 3D game (The Last of Us has Clickers as a one hit kill enemy, but gives the player listening mode to make up for the less effective senses you have in a game environment, and doesn’t make them intelligent enough or placed appropriately to sneak up on you in places you’re not on alert). HP play a pretty necessary role as a sort of buffer or frustration-negator.

Personally, I’ve never thought of HP as being strictly “wounds”. Rather I think of them as a combination of wounds or pain, mental fortitude, stamina and luck or heroic fate the player character has or has lost. After all, in many games, losing HP doesn’t lead to a drop in a character’s performance. It’s really like “how many hits can I take, or how many times can I parry or dodge before I am too exhausted, frightened or in pain to function effectively as a hero, or just before my luck plain runs out?” If the hero gets to a point where they couldn’t continue in their role, we have diverged from the “alpha timeline” to use a Homestuck term. The hero is not capable of fulfilling their role, so we have to wipe that timeline and try again, even if they’re not strictly dead, for the player’s sake. You can’t keep playing in a doomed timeline in which the hero broke their leg and needed to stay in bed for a week so they missed the opportunity to save the mysterious amulet girl and the apocalypse happened.

So what are some alternatives to HP?

-Status Effects: Instead of taking numerical damage, you incur statuses based on where you get hit, which temporarily put certain abilities out of commission and/or incur penalties, ie. slowed movement, impeded vision, inability to use a key tool or weapon. Presumably this would either last a set time, or until you could drag yourself to a safe place of rest or healing or use a consumable item etc. Upside: Immersive and you’ll feel amazing if you take down an enemy or complete the hard platforming in spite of being half-blinded and limping. Downside: Could be annoying. Nobody likes to backtrack or to wait for a status to go off if a section is impossible to complete while it’s in effect. I feel like this could be extra interesting if maybe certain statuses were necessary to invoke deliberately in certain portions rather than just being a punishment; kind of like the spirit realm in Soul Reaver being more than just a low health punishment.

-No HP. only obstruction. Enemies don’t attack you directly to hurt you, but rather they obstruct your path, try to drag you back, and maybe push you into deathtraps  that are one hit kills. If you think about it, an antagonist does not necessarily have to be violent to oppose the protagonist, only to oppose and/or try to impede or corrupt their quest.

-You lose something else. Enemies don’t hurt you, but they take money from you, and dammit, you want that money to buy stuff! Shovel Knight makes a great case for using currency as a life system to encourage a player to try not to die too much while not being overly punitive. Or perhaps enemies keep taking your macguffin or the person you have to escort or even the player character themselves and putting it/them somewhere else. In a sense, this is how Planescape Torment dealt with its immortal protagonist- he always awoke in the morgue if he died, which was inconvenient so you wanted to avoid it. The key here is that the thing you lose should be something that you don’t want to lose, but not something that’s worse to lose than a 1-up would be, or else players will just want to quicksave and reload. Super Mario of course had a system where getting hit means you lose your powerups, like your super-status or the ability to glide or shoot fireballs, and while these powerups were only rarely needed to complete a level, of course you wanted to hang onto them because they were fun and cool and made it easier.

These kinds of systems are not uncommon in games in general, but they are in RPGS, and I think it’d be interesting to explore the idea of RPGs that not only don’t have a healer, but don’t have HP.

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