Beyond Health Bars

A professor recently brought to my attention something about the amazing game Ico for the PS2 that I hadn't consciously considered before. One of the game's most unique mechanics is its health system. Whoa! Don't leave. This gets more interesting, I promise...
Any game with combat has some sort of health system that tracks the player's nearness to death. Typically, you'll see this manifest in a few different ways:

  • Health Bar: a bar in the HUD that shrinks as you take damage. No bar left, you dead.
  • Lives: the number of times you can die before you... well, before you're REALLY dead... until you select "Continue"
  • Imposing Red Doom: as you take damage, a red tint spreads in towards the center of the screen.
  • Ouch, My Colors: as you take damage, the screen gets less and less saturated until it is black and white
Ico does things differently, and essentially makes Ico's companion Yorda his health indicator. You see, enemies in Ico want Yorda. They want to take her from you and suck her into a black abyss from which they spawn. If Yorda gets sucked all the way in, Ico loses the game. So what does this mean for you? I'll tell you! It means she's you're health bar! The further she's taken, the more in danger of "dying" you are. Anyhoo, I thought that to be an brilliantly innovative idea that you don't see too often. So, just for giggles, here are a few ideas for new health systems. These are all completely serious. Completely.
  • Health Hat: you've gotten a rotten haircut, and the baddies are out to reveal your hideousness. Fortunately for you, you have a hat. Beware though, your enemies will attack your hat. If they destroy it, you die... of embarrassment.
  • Sunrise/Sunset: Much like Superman and Birdman before you, you are powered by the sun. When it is high in the sky, you are nigh invulnerable. At dawn and dusk, however, you are weak and can be felled with the weakest of blows. Your health fluctuates beyond your control!
  • Wounds: Like real life, bad wounds don't just heal themselves, or even stay static. No sir, they get worse. They get infected. Get hit, and your health starts dropping. Better get that looked at before its too late!
  • My Town: You draw power from the citizens of your hometown. Keep them safe, and you will grow more durable as they grow and prosper. However, if your city struggles or is attacked, you are weakened!
  • Neat Freak For Your Life!: Boy, do you HATE dirt. Fight bad guys to rid the world of scum like them, but beware real scum! The dirtier you get, the weaker you get. Just like in real life. Kind of.


The Name in the Game

Have you ever noticed how frequently characters in video games have completely absurd names? Of course you have, unless you yourself have a name like Wednesday or Apple. At some point early on, game makers must have gotten together and decided to secretly vow to make up as many names as possible. If you think about it, it's a wise PR move. They get first dibs on iconicizing names before the competing media. For every Han Solo in the movies, there are a dozen Clouds, Jaks, Ashes, Links, and Master Chiefs (which, by the way, is less of a name than it is a hyperbolic title). In an effort to document game name convention history and aid future game-makers, I give you my basic tenets for naming a character in your video game...

The Letters 'V', 'Z' and 'X' Are Sorely Under-Utilized
It's a shame, really, and you should seek to remedy this. If you're having trouble, try just replacing an 'S' with a 'Z', a 'CKS' with a 'Z', or, if you're feeling really adventurous, replace an opening 'Z' with an 'X'!
Ex: Daxter, Zelda, Vaan, Jenova

Don't Be Afraid of the Dictionary
The book is full of names for things! Gravitate towards using objects that either sound cool (Edge, Jazz, Rock) or are cool (Steel, Razor, Warp).
Ex: Cloud Strife, Lightning, Toad

Many Cultures Have a Rich History of Mythology. Make it Your Own!
Don't just restrict yourself to names of gods. There are demigods, fairies, heroes, and more! Hey, you could even just use old Latin words that mean something pretty cool.
Ex: Cait Sith, Chrono, Sephiroth

All Your Favorite Words Overused? Combine Them for a Fresh Approach
This makes it look like you put a little more effort into your names. Say you considered naming your heroine Love, but then decided it was too blatant. How about Lovela or Lovehug?
Ex: Squall Leonhart, Rinoa Heartilly

When All Else Fails, Add Some Originality by Mixing up Your Spelling
Those same old names are boring. Spruce them up with nontraditional spellings!
Marcus Fenix, Lara Croft, Jak

Disclaimer: Though I poke fun, I am quite a fan of unusual names. I don't want Larry the hero and Sue the love interest.

Disclaimer: Sorry, Larry's and Sue's. I'm sure you're all nice people.


Words are for the Weak

It is a common practice in narrative games to make the protagonist (the player's avatar) customizable in appearance, name, and traits. Doing so lets the player feel connected to the world and express him or herself. Ironically, though, in order to propagate this feeling of connection to one's character, the developer must keep the protagonist entirely silent throughout the game. After all, nothing says "you have no control" to the player than his avatar spouting whatever it pleases without his consent. A totally silent hero would be comical in film, TV, or real life... or would it? Think of all the benefits of absolute silence! ...can't think of any? Fair enough. Presented for your approval (or disregard), are some examples of the heroics of silence.
Our hero packs up his trusty pack and leaves home and family behind for his daily money fetch quest to pay the bills. He flings the front door open with a mighty shove and ventures forth, when suddenly, a blazing homeless beast stumbles into his path...
Beast: "*hic* Watch where you're goin, buddy!" *hic* "What are you, styupid?"
Hero: "..."
Beast: "Damn right! I oughtta knock you out. Fool." [walks away]

Our hero continues onward into the cold tundra of the sidewalk. He feels his knees begin to buckle from exhaustion, but realizes this is just the vibration of his cellular communication item. He answers...
Hero's Beloved: "Gabe, you didn't take out the trash, did you?"
Hero: "..."
Hero's Beloved: "You know, I wish you would be more on top of this."
Hero: "..."
Hero's Beloved: "Just do better, okay?
Hero: "..."
Hero's Beloved: "Love you. Bye!" [hangs up]

Our hero safely stows the device and enters the Great Hall of his Job. His communication item vibrates yet again! What manner of magic could this be...
Woman: "Good morning, sir! I'd like to tell you about an exclusive offer today from Quest Wireless!"
Hero: "..."
Woman: "Sir? Hello?"
Hero: "..."
[woman hangs up]

Will our hero prevail? What WILL happen next? Please insert Disk 2...


"I Play Videogame..."

I went to an event the other night that you may have seen at a bar or party near you -- a Guitar Hero tournament -- and was SHOCKED. The growing success of the Guitar Hero franchise has created a huge fan base of people who play socially at parties or bars. As I mingled, I quickly realized that many of these people had never touched a console game before GH. They're gaming every week, but only with the same one game over and over! Ladies and gentlemen, out there, just beyond your computer screen, is an ocean of videogame players just waiting to be forced encouraged to try new games!

Guitar Hero isn't the only cultivator of these one-game ponies. You have your Dance Dance Revolution nuts, your online Snood/Tetris addicts, and even your Wii Sports enthusiasts. "Now, hold on," you might be thinking. "People play those games because they're easy. Those same people would find normal games too hard." I say to you, "nay!" Take a harder look at a Guitar Hero controller or Wiimote. Those things get pretty complicated once you advance beyond novice play. Despite the perhaps daunting appearance of the glut of buttons on, say, an Xbox 360 controller, one rarely needs every single one in order to get started with a game. Think of it, gamers! All those people who destroy you at a Guitar Hero round of Sweet Child of Mine on Expert difficulty may seem like jerks at the moment, but you may have just found yourself some new Halo buddies or Team Fortress 2, well, teammates.

I, for one, am going to try to convert some of these people. My conversations may often end up like an awkward date rejection...
"No...sorry. I can't play Mario Party with you this weekend. I'm shopping for...cereal for my...sick...aunt...Have fun though!"
...but that's no reason to get discouraged! Don't leave potential new gamers to fall back on their party movies like Old School and Zoolander once the Guitar Hero excitement fades. You know it's going to happen sooner or later. Do whatever you need to do to recruit: bring fliers to the next Guitar Hero happy hour; infiltrate the DDR club at your school; wean your spouse off of Minesweeper and onto a wide range of Xbox Live Arcade games; even dare to suggest that someone take the Wii Sports disk out of the Wii and put in a shiny, new game.

Now is a great time to convert the videogame (singular) players. So get out there! Show them that there's more to our hobby than pretending to be a rock star or athlete. You may just discover that your wife loves Shadow of the Colossus...