A study of life in video games, part 1: The origin of life

The concept of life in videogames is one of those mechanics we take for granted. It just seems like it has been there from the beginning. When your life hits zero you die, and then you have to start the game over. It’s such a simple concept.

However, someone somewhere had to think of this idea, and if they didn’t, imagine how different the world of video games would be. Imagine if there were no health bars, hit-points or lives. So many popular genres would never have risen to popularity.

In this series we are going to take a look at the way life and health has been portrayed throughout video game history. We will look at why certain games use hit-points and certain games use life bars. We will examine why some games kill you in one hit and some make you invincible. We hope that by the end of this series, you will have a greater appreciation for life itself… as a game mechanic.

The Origin of the Hit-Point

It’s not entirely clear which game was the first to use the concept of health. If you want to be technical about it, primitive children’s games such as hangman had rudimentary health systems. Any game that allowed you to make a certain amount of mistakes before losing essentially had a health system. This was a concept baked into games earlier than we have recorded history for.

Even looking at just modern history we can see that “health” was an important concept in military simulations. When planning tactical maneuvers, the “health” of any given vehicle would have to be taken into account.

In fact, health as a concept in games owes quite a bit to the military, specifically military simulation games, and its offshoot, the roleplaying game.

Health in Pencil and Paper

Health in video games specifically represents the health of a character that you, the player, are controlling. For the origin of this specific concept, we have to look to pencil and paper roleplaying games, a medium that has lent a lot to video game design.

Early roleplaying games were based on war games, which had their own version of health tracking. Players would run massive armies into each other and as casualties were taken, their numbers would dwindle until only one player was remaining on the battlefield. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax sought to reduce the scale of these war games from massive army battles to small player on player conflicts.

This was the birth of the pencil and paper roleplaying game, but there was a problem. Players would become very attached to the characters they made in these games and losing them to a single die-roll was not fun. So once again, Gygax and Arneson took a page from the book of war games and tied health to a number. Instead of this number representing the amount of units an army had, however, it represents the number of hits a single character could take. Thus the term “hit-points” was created.

Despite the vastly different settings the mathematical systems behind managing the number of units in an army and the health of a single hero were remarkably similar. They both served the same purpose, to show how survivable a player controlled entity is. This concept would eventually be carried over to video games, but before that the video game had to become popular. So let’s take a trip back to the age of the arcade.

Arcade Games – The Early Days

Having a mechanic that controlled player survivability was important for arcade games because they tied failure to profit. As fun as they were, their eventual goal was to get the player to fail and spend more quarters. The earliest arcade games tied any failure to a loss of one quarter. Thus, one of the first examples of health was created: the one-hit kill.

To be fair, arcade games were not the first to implement the one-hit kill. During the experimental age of video games, most games had the same health system. This was because health wasn’t really being thought of as a mechanic. Instead, designers were thinking of games in terms of success and failure states. They were asking the question “what makes you lose the game?” If the answer was “getting touched by an enemy” this effectively created the one-hit kill system.

When the age of the arcade came, this system fit in perfectly with quarter crunching cabs. Games like Pac-Man would present you with a very simple puzzle with an explicit failure state. Get touched and you die. Pump in more quarters to play again.

However, arcade games also created a new dimension to the health system, the concept of “lives.” Lives were a pragmatic measure that could be used to adjust the difficulty of an arcade game. They were a measure of how many tries a quarter would give you, and they actually predate videogames themselves.

It could be argued that lives first originated in pinball cabinets, where one quarter would grant you a certain amount of balls. This would later be carried over into simple arcade games in which one quarter would give you a certain amount of one-touch deaths, colloquially becoming known as lives.

Platformers – The Leap to Console

Platformers were the go to video game genres as the medium moved outside of the arcade and onto home consoles. Despite the new setting, platformers still had a lot of design decisions held over from the old days of the arcade.

Many still worked on a one-touch death + lives system, although console platformers also came up with the idea of “continues.” Since gamers weren’t pumping quarters into arcade machines anymore, continues took the place of their quarter stash. Gamers would be able to run out of lives a certain amount of times before the game was over, simulating the player running out of money.

It was Super Mario Bros that really started to experiment with failure states, tying them to its power-up system. Pac-Man can arguably be said to be the first video game with power-ups, and several other games before Super Mario Bros. included power-ups that would increase your offensive capabilities or grant you invincibility. However, Super Mario Bros.’s iconic Super Mushroom not only made Mario grow and granted him new abilities, it allowed him to take another hit. This was the first collectible based health system in games.

This would become the norm for many platformers of the 8-bit and 16-bit era. Players would start at an effective health of one and by collecting something in the stages themselves, their health would increase. Different designers would put their own spins on the concept, such as Sonic’s ability to stay alive as long as he has one ring, but until the creation of actual life-bars, this is the formula that many games followed.

This was an effective design because it gave the player a goal outside of getting to the end of a level. By exploring in easier sections players could give themselves a buffer in harder sections. This kept them engaged with their environments, constantly searching around for hidden secrets and power ups. This also kept them playing the game longer, which gave primitive platformers a sense of depth and value.

These days, platformer design has come full circle and re-implemented one-touch death specifically for its difficulty. Games that focus on platforming mastery such as Celeste or Super Meat Boy won’t hesitate to kill you at the slightest touch; however they exist in much different environment.

With infinite tries and quick respawns, these games ask you to complete very short and difficult platforming challenges rather than to traverse long worlds without dying once. They may kill you at a single touch, but since they give you infinite lives and infinite tries, they are far less frustrating than traditional one-touch death arcade games.

The Life Bar – A Fix for Difficulty

The origin of the “life bar” actually has its roots in early action games. These platformer offshoots took the focus off jumping and maneuverability and put it on combat. The issue was that it was far too easy to get hit. Many gamers from the NES generation remember how difficult Contra was with its one-touch death system.

It’s not entirely clear which game was the first to include a life bar. Many games would include visual representations of multiple hit-points but in the early and mid-80s these were kind of vague. Dragon Buster was a 1985 game whose health indicator would change color as you neared death, and a 1983 ZX Spectrum game, Atic Atac portrayed its health as a slowly depleting roast chicken. Going back even further, Flash Boy was a 1981 game by Data East that portrayed its main character’s health as a bar on the bottom of the screen.

Mega Man was one of the first games of its generation to modernize the health bar. Its bar was made up of several different white ticks, each representing a single hit-point. Depending on what the player was hit by, they could lose anything form a single hit point from a bullet or all their hit-points from falling on to spikes.

Oddly enough, this health system was implemented partially because of Mega Man’s boss weakness gimmick. Giving bosses a life-bar made it clear when the player was using a weapon that did extra damage. It just so happened that this very same system also made it easy for the player to manage their own life as well.

Fighting Games – Putting that Bar to Good Use

Another genre that was growing in popularity around the same time as the platformer was the fighting game, however early fighting games looked nothing current ones. The earliest fighting games didn’t even have a health system as we might think of it. Games such as Warrior and Karate Champ were played to “touches” like a fencing or martial arts competition. It was Yie Ar Kung Fu which introduced the world of fighting games to the health bar, a convention that would stick throughout the genre’s history.

Fighting game life-bars were much different from platformer and action game life-bars. These life bars were broken up into pips so that it was clear how many hits you could take before you died. Fighting game life-bars, on the other hand, were solid.

While this made it harder to tell how much exact damage you were taking, it made it easier to tell how close you were to death at a glance and this was important. The player always needed to have their eyes on the action in fighting games. They didn’t have time to take their eyes off their character and count pips.

Fighting games also experimented in where life bars were placed. Platformers and action games would routinely place their life-bars at the bottom of the screen, however this felt awkward in the context of a fighting game. When focusing on a life-bar in this position, much of the action of the game was forced to the player’s peripheral vision.

Once again it was Yie Ar Kung Fu which first standardized the modern day fighting game life-bar. Both opponents would have life-bars at the top of the screen which slowly depleted inward. This allowed the player to keep their eyes on the action and on their life at the same time. The player’s score was situated above their life bars, another convention that would stick with fighting games until the very mechanic would become obsolete.

Many credit Street Fighter for codifying fighting game design, but on the contrary, the original Street Fighter actually broke from Yie Ar’s original layout. Street Fighter situated its life bars one over another and had them drain in the same direction. This actually made it difficult to tell which bar belonged to which character. It also put its timer in the lower left corner. This caused the player’s eyes to dart around the screen in order to take in important information. It wouldn’t be until Street Fighter II that we would see the familiar layout we are used to, with a timer in between Yie Ar’s center depleting health bars.

This is how life has been handled in fighting games ever since with the important exception of Smash Bros. and its own unique “platform fighter” genre. Here, players did not have traditional health. Instead, they lost lives whenever they fell off the stage and taking hits made allowed the opponent to knock them farther away. This was represented by a percentage which was put at the bottom of the screen.

This decision was made because Smash involves a lot of aerial combat, unlike many other fighters. If life totals were put at the top of the screen, they would obscure most of aerial action. Unfortunately, putting health at the bottom of the screen presents the same problems encountered early-on in fighting game design. That’s why Nintendo added a lot of extra ways to tell how damaged your fighter is. Not only does their percentage change color as they near death, individual hits cause different visual and audio effects as a character increases in damage. Perfect? Maybe not, but it’s certainly something that has served the genre well for almost 20 years.

Moving Out of the Arcade

Though video game life may have started in the arcade, it evolved on the home console and PC, and that’s where we are going next. In part two of our look at life in games, we will examine genres like RPGs, that converted health to numbers, shooters, which introduced regenerating health, horror games, which hid health from the player, and modern action-adventure games, which covers everything from Zelda’s hearts to Kratos’ life-bar in God of War.