I was watching Tristan play the new Bloodborne DLC last night and was reminded of something that really impressed me about Dark Souls when I played it a year or so ago. His character is at full-swing by this point; I'm not sure of his hourly commitment but his toon had a wicked raven-feathered cloak and a man-sized runic claymore strapped to his back. Lots of levels and equipment. He wanted to show me this epic boss, the gigantic, gangly, smoldering First Vicar, Laurence. But on the way up the stairs to the bossroom, he had to scrap with this fat demon guarding the door. Tristan was explaining something to me as he played, got distracted for a moment, and this minor enemy promptly killed him in two or three blows. Tristan's character is like, raidboss level, and he still drops dead after one slipup. That's because Bloodborne and Dark Souls have this refreshingly sadistic take on how Hit Points ought to work in an action RPG -- no matter your equipment and levels, your health is still a rare and precious resource. No amount of grinding or farming will immortalize you against a few hits from a Level 1 Wandering Bald Man. This is a rare feature, but I think it's much, much better than what we're used to in RPGs.
Brace yourself. There’s a bit of a build-up to my point, here.
No matter what task a game sets you, a lot of the time, you’re also set with the task of trying not to die while you do it. The complexity of puzzles and battles wouldn’t be a problem in a lot of cases if death was not a potential outcome. Without death, there's no tension: You could just stand there and take gunshot after gunshot in the back of the brain as you calmly picked the lock or whatever. Dying in the game translates to kind of player-death too; the player's flow of experience and permission to play is briefly interrupted. So game designers’ve gotta measure out that incentive -- by giving you life. Life is this resource that comes between getting to play, and not getting to play anymore, not getting to maintain continuity. That is the main motivator to play well in many (most?) videogames -- to not be sitting idly between lives.
In primal forms of gaming, life is binary -- either you have it, or you don't. In Mario, one hit will kill you, unless you’re big. Being big equates +1 life in a way - just not one you hold in reserve, like a proper 1Up. But as gaming history has progressed, the life force concept has extrapolated. As a quantity, Life itself has been dragged out. Usually it’s a two- to four-digit number now, somewhere in the code, getting incrementally chipped away at by various hazards. The play experience doesn’t change as life total fluctuates - it’s like an awkward, irregular timer, counting down your remaining permission to live. You’re still fully alive, even at 1/100 life points. Most of the time the only difference between that and being at 99/100 life is a red wash over your perspective, or a hobbled walk animation. Tension is artificially created as the player approaches one slip-up from dying, kind of a slow-wave tension that accumulates as your healthbar declines.
This is like… this shit is your soul. You can suffer dragonbreath and liquid nitrogen and suppressive fire as long as this meter is non-empty. it’s the ghost in the machine, the umbilical cord between the tangible game-experience and the heavy-breathing gamer. For you the player, Life represents the arcade era's final precious quarter, the license to game.
So how do you get more of it? I mean, yeah, a game moves along and your character amasses life experience, they’re gonna get better at stuff. The only path to mastery in reality is through gaining new experiences and learning from mistakes. Swinging a +2 Bastard Bloodsword once might not make you any better at swinging it; but swinging at 100 times at different body parts of various creatures will probably qualify you to use the weapon more effectively (kudos to Skyrim for using a level-up system that actually depends on using the relevant skill). Or if you accumulate 200km mileage of jogging back and forth across a low-gravity space station, you’ll probably be able to run more steadily and quickly.
But how - HOW?? - does taking a bullet in the stomach make you better at doing that? To generalize, how does a video-game character “gain health”? Does their hide thicken? They have more blood somehow? Or like… weird tumours all over the place which absorb damage? I mean, sure, characters get better at dodging and blunting attacks, but that usually translates into a dodge skill or armour stat. We’ve been over why a healthpool certainly isn’t mere pain tolerance, because when it runs out, you die. No amount of experience-won pain tolerance is going to make a twin-kidney katana Delta-strike cause any less... death. It is something I’ve wondered about since I first played Dungeons & Dragons in the eighth grade. You can make up a story about how literally every other element of leveling up works out in an RPG; XP represents hard won respect from the elder wizards in town, who bestow you with new arcane spell knowledge, or with time, your bond with your steed improves and it is willing to push itself harder for you, or your hard work in the forge has caused your wrought-iron goods to come out sturdier and more valuable. But your life pool increasing? More arrows in the eyeball before dropping dead…? My DM told me once he’d dreamt the answer to the riddle of HP growth, but completely forgot upon waking up.
Maybe none of it is worth making a stink about. RPGs are all about numerics, and if the numbers didn’t get bigger and bigger over time, there’d be no rising stakes, no sense of growth nor accomplishment. But, as I belaboured above, the healthpool represents something fundamentally distinct from other stats. It is the line (sometimes a very thick sharpie-markered line, but still a boundary) between game and not-game. Maybe that should be respected and designed around more often. Even legendary heroes can die, historically, to a poisoned dart in the heel. What expertise really grants is the ability to outplay the threats to our life totals; experienced combatants move faster and more efficiently than amateurs. They extend their lifespan by evading and countering attacks, not by swallowing them. Most commonly, one extends the healthpool by straight up killing anyone who threatens it before they can deal their damage. I think adapting level-up systems around a static, monolithic health total could make the sense of achievement that accumulates in an RPG much more rewarding and holistic. Most leveling up should be forwarded to the player’s ability -- level ups should give you new tools that you must apply skilfully, in a way that effectively gives you an extra heart, rather than literally. Otherwise you have this giant meat mannequin that blunders its way through obstacles less and less delicately, disregarding painful mistakes because of the forgivenesses of a deepened healthpool. That’s hardly the symbol of mastery I think most RPGs really want to convey with their lategame. Life ought to remain precious throughout.