On Health, Life and Death in Video Games

Health Systems… Many games follow a very simple “HP” system. You lose a few points, you find a Med Kit, you get back the lost Hit Points. Or you just hide in the corner while you genetically modified DNA grows back your limbs after suffering a direct hit from an RPG. Maybe it’s a mix of both, a shield that regenerates and health that does not. These are the most brutal basics. Even RPGs follow a very, very similar rule. There might be status effects, but they are very rarely “permanent”. When you are blind it’s because somebody cast a Blindness spell on you, and not because a Goblin poked your eyes out with a rusty dagger. Even if a Giant pummels you into a bloody pulp, leaving you at one “HP” a health potion will fix you right up! Internal Damage? What is that? Fractures? Disease? Don’t make me laugh! Health is not a complex addition to most games, not because the Developers are lazy, but because most games would become overly complicated because of it. Can you imagine just how short a lot of Zombie games would be over in the first few minutes if there was a realistic disease/damage system? What of Modern Shooters, where you can take countless direct hits without bleeding out on the side walk? If such mechanics were implemented most games would simply be too hard. That is not to say there are no games without such mechanics…


I hope you brought a lot of Ointment… Dragons tend to breathe an awful lot of fire.

Being “Human” – Video Games where Health is an Issue

I enjoy a good survival game. Especially the sort that grabs me by the hair, screams in my face, and then continues kicking me when I am down. The unforgiving settings, challenging enemies and deadly scenarios. A lot of Survival games do not focus on health that much, but let’s bring up the examples of games that do (at least to an extent).

Project Zomboid is a “light” example of a health system. You have bleeding, disease (zombie and natural), poisoning, blood loss. You have to tend to those limbs that get damaged during your fights, or when you fall off a tall building. You need to take Painkillers to ease the pain, and get yourself back to full health! Which is not as easy as it sounds, especially during a Zombie Apocalypse. Resources tend to be scarce, and if you are forced out of your hiding spot all your medicine is left behind. Keeping yourself alive is one thing. Keeping yourself healthy is something entirely different.

UnReal World is one of the most recent GREAT examples that I stumbled upon (thank you PC Gamer). It is a Survival Game about living in the Wilds during the Iron Age. You can get burned, frozen, stabbed, bashed, kicked, ripped to shreds, mauled, punctured and also dehydrated and malnourished. There are different Scenarios with which you can begin the game (some easier than others) and what you do after that is up to you! That is, if you survive the first winter. In this game everything is against you. The people, nature, the weather, even your own instincts. Surviving in this game is an art, and from the point of view of the health system a lot of things can kill you, in more than one way. Combat here is surprisingly complex. You do not have Health Points, you are very much a living being. You can get stabbed in the leg, but if it did not puncture a major artery you are mildly safe (or safer, depends how bad the wound is overall). You will have an extremely hard time destroying an entire village with just your fists, and forget about wrestling bears. You need different tools to keep yourself healthy, be it after battle, or during the night. You have to build a shelter and fire to keep yourself dry and warm. Hunt, grow, fish or trade for (quality) food. It sounds simple, but once you start playing the game you realise it is not.

Space Station 13 will be a Love-Hate relationship with a lot of people. The graphics and controls are difficult, there are a lot of trolls and really nasty people determined to ruin your day. I did stumble on some servers that shocked me with their innovation, and this time around I am thinking about the Apollo Server (EDIT: TG-Station Servers as well). What made the Apollo Server stand out is its Health system. Your body is divided into sections (hands, arms, head, eyes, mouth, chest, abdomen, legs and feet), and you have three different “damage” types (Brute, Burn and Toxins). This is what is available on any Space Station 13 server. You can beat a man over the head, thus causing him Brute Damage (and making him pass out) . When somebody walks through radiation they will suffer random genetic mutations (99% of them being very bad). You can suffocate, from lack of oxygen, or be incinerated when somebody sets the station alight. Wonderful, no? Apollo went a leap further to make your experience even more dramatic. Limbs can be lost, you can bleed out, your eyes can be poked out, sudden changed in room pressure can suck you out into space, or make you smash into objects. Of course, just like on any Space Station 13 server you could clone somebody who is deceased, but during my playthroughs I had some very dramatic situations. One time just as I entered the server I found myself stuck in Arrivals with another fellow. We decided to open up the Emergency Airlock that was blocking our way deeper into the station. The radios did not work so we really did not know what to expect. He decided to use a Crowbar he found and as he opened the airlock the pressure change was so much that both of his arms were ripped off, at the same time. Incidentally I was a Medical Doctor, but getting a man with heavy blood loss, through a station filled with vacuum, without working Radios would be a bit of a challenge. Another time (once again, playing a Doctor) I was sitting in the Reception, drinking some coffee (RP Server, go figure) when suddenly Security rushes in with a crew member who was a victim of a psychotic attack that resulted in him losing all of his limbs. Since it’s the future we made him some fancy mechanical prosthetics, but that does not change the fact just how dramatic things can be, when you play as a Doctor. This translates into other areas, such as firefights when your face could melt off from lasers, or close combat, where your arm, leg or ribs could be broken, making you suffer extreme pain, and thus unable to act properly. Even your mechanical limbs if exposed to EMP explosions might malfunction and explode. I do not know if the Server still uses such a health system, but it was one of the most intriguing ones available.

Dwarf Fortress is also one of the best Health systems I have found. I mean, your dwarves can die from an infection to their pinkie toe… That might be going a bit far, but there are other cases when the Health System is not as abstract. Your Dwarves may be impaled, chopped to pieces, trampled, kicked, punched… well, just like in the case of Unreal World and Space Station 13 a lot of things can happen to them. One of my somewhat morbid hobbies was to look, post battle, at what wounds my Dwarves sustained and how they were later treated by my Medical Personnel. I would trace down the causes of different wounds, and how the Dwarf continued to fight despite them. One such example was my Commander of the Guard who got impaled by a Minotaur but continued to fight. Another time, during a heated battle against goblins one of my Dwarfs lost his arm, yet he continued to use his shield as a weapon. Or how a Marksdwarf would fire a bolt in such a flawless manner that it would kill a Giant with a single headshot. Of course, there were the post-battle problems. Keeping a Dwarf alive with numerous injuries, or letting him eventually return to service was a huge challenge. The sturdiness of the Dwarves always impressed me. They would often continue fighting even when they would have spinal damage, or suffered heavy blood loss. In turn when you play with other races the situation changes somewhat. Humans are much less tough, as are goblins. I would also keep my fingers crossed for the wounded Dwarves, that they would eventually recover fully. Some of the most heroic Dwarves were those who suffered grievous wounds, time and time again, staring death in the eyes yet returning the next year. And for those who did not make it I would always have an impressive “Hall of the Elders” where they would be buried and their achievements noted down.


About The Author

Aleksander "WriterX" Bielski
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Student of Psychology, he was identified as a Nut-Job even before he started the course. Having done some small work as a Modder for a number of titles, and worked as a Game Designer part-time, Alex now writes in third person. As Co-Owner and Editor of AlterGamer.com he aims high, while being armed only with a sling. In the future, he hopes to become a fully qualified Newspaper Editor, and purchase Google.

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