The Dreadful Gravity of Hit Points

Take Any One You Want

When we tell people we’re working on game inspired by the roguelike lineage of games, we usually end up making a number of qualifying statements. After all, LIBRARY isn’t set in a dungeon of geometrically ordered tiles, a map of corridors and chambers where you might stumble across a weak goblin or a terrifyingly powerful dragon, a magical sword to smite those enemies with or a healing potion to quaff when the fight is over. The inspiration we draw from roguelikes is primarily in the idea of exploring and attempting to master a procedurally generated space that’s different every time you play. We also love the rich, combinatorial grammar that’s been born out of the rougelike tradition: a wide array of items, potions, traps, equipment, enemies, spells, and more that can combine to produce unpredictable results, sometimes deadly and sometimes life-saving in the nick of time!

For a while I was telling people “it’s similar to a roguelike game, but in a setting inspired by Borges’ Infinite Library.” (In case you’re wondering, a lot of those conversations also ended up either explaining roguelikes, the tale of the Infinite Library, or both.) Later I started saying “it’s inspired by roguelikes, but in a procedurally generated space that’s made out of linguistic meaning.” In October, four of the Brooklyn Game Ensemble were at the Indiecade festival of independent games in Los Angeles. Since one of the most common questions there is “so what game are you working on?” I found myself starting to tell people that we were working on a different kind of roguelike that sought to avoid traditional systems of combat, hit points, and damage — instead using systems of words, letters and meaning.

I’m sure some of the people I talked to started picture a game where you fight giant, evil words by throwing wickedly pointy letters at them. Given the history of digital games, it’s a little difficult to imagine anything else in the context of exploration and especially conflict — and conflict is one of the central pivots that so games revolve around. Since early wargames introduced the idea that different kinds of units could take differing amounts of punishment, hit points have become more and more omnipresent in games. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax deserve most of the credit or blame for this, since they adapted the idea from a Civil War re-enactment game and put it into the heart of Dungeons & Dragons.

Arneson’s original reasoning for borrowing the idea of hit points still rings true today: they’re a way of allowing players to gradually drift closer and closer to losing, in a context where the player controls one piece, or avatar, rather than an army of chessmen whose attrition becomes clear through dwindling numbers alone. In the tropes of game combats that have become nigh-ubiquitous traditions, you and your opponent race to see who can reduce the other’s points fastest and first, an inversion of the longer legacy of sports scoring, where opponents race to score the most points in a time limit. Hit points allow for slow attrition; if my strategy and resources allow me to lose only 10% of my total for every minor enemy I face, one won’t pose much of a problem, but a dozen certainly will — unless I can find some way of restoring them.

I hardly need to describe this system, right? It’s familiar to almost anyone who’s played video games, from Legend of Zelda and Street Fighter to most modern first-person shooters, role-playing games, real-time strategy games, and the list goes on. There’s a comforting familiarity, and a wealth of tantalizing extensions, twists and tweaks on this core concept throughout the canon of games — like a text with generations of Talmudic commentary exploring it. The familiar contours of hit points and damage are reassuring not only to designers wrestling with our systems, but to all the players out there who savor the arc of a fight that ends in a close call with a sliver of health, who sink their strategic teeth into eyeballing damage-per-second and survivability of opposing forces.

As Eric mentioned in an earlier post, we’re grappling with how to add challenge and conflict into our emerging game structure. At times it feels like we’re paddling a little boat around a whirlpool that will suck us in if we don’t resist its pull: the familiar “make the enemy’s numbers go down to zero before the enemy makes my numbers go down to zero” format. Will we end up with a system that’s similar to hit-point-driven combat, but with a twist? Will we escape the event horizon of that kind of system and model the conflict in our game on something very different, like a game of tag or a sumo-wrestling match? There are many possibilities, but there’s always a seductive, obvious quality about the classic model, something that whispers “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” into your ear.

Last year, several of us attended the NYU Game Center’s annual game design conference, PRACTICE, to ask the designers assembled there some questions about the procedural design of LIBRARY. This year we returned to the same forum to ask about hit points: could the minds of PRACTICE think of some interesting alternatives? Can we break the mold of dwindling red bars of health and try something new? We asked these questions not simply because we wanted to be different, but because we think the semantically-driven space of LIBRARY will lose much of its magic if the game resolves into chasing through corridors whacking monsters to whittle down some variety of life point.

We got a number of interesting answers from PRACTICE attendees, some of which we’d considered before and some which shed new light on the problem. The ideas included thoughts about using information as a measure or effect of vitality, represented by concepts such as “fog of war” obscuring how much of the space the player can see; a suggestion that words being carried by the player could affect the player’s capabilities or survival; the notion of using properties of words like length or number of vowels as significant stats; and many more. One member of the audience hit upon the idea of including antagonists which actively disorganize the space — something we’re definitely planning on including and that we’re looking forward to getting into the game! I’m happy and grateful to say that some of the ideas suggested have already started finding their way into our thinking about how LIBRARY will evolve. Many thanks to our vibrant community of game design!

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