perfectly spherical

Game Design In Theory

To Your Health

☰ Table of Content

I behold an endless void.

I have fought long and hard to reach this place, piloting a Concept through many dimensions.

Before my Concept, an entity appears. An inverted pyramid, with its four sides adorned with a ghastly, distorted mask.

There is a chime, and a beam of spatial distortion flies out of the jewel on the mask’s forehead. I tap a key, and my Concept blinks away, into a pocket-universe. The void is tinted with shimmering rainbow as this pocket-universe expands and collapses in an instant.

The entity is delighted. It rotates exactly 90 degrees, presenting another mask. “AGAIN!” it says, its voice echoing into infinity.

Another chime. I tap the key once more. Once more, the pocket-universe expands and collapses, infinite possibility unfolding just far enough to reach the place where my Concept is not struck.


Yet another chime. I tap the key again, but my rhythm is off; I fail to dodge in time. My Concept sails through the air, as a booming voice intones: “PUNISHMENT.”

Projections is a fucking TRIP.

It’s an absolutely wild game, and I love it to bits. The soundtrack is a delight, veering between 80s-infused synths and philosophical musings; the story is arthouse in a way that I can only dream of; and the gameplay is like a character-action game distilled to the most basic elements and then mixed into a shot of LSD. Despite being amazingly busy visually, I rarely find myself wondering what just happened; despite the way the action races ahead of itself, outrunning time as my actions queue up a backlog of slow-motion shots, I rarely feel like I’m not in control.

But there’s one specific part of Projections I want to talk about–a line from the tutorial (which, by the way, has many of my favorite lines in it).

In the tutorial, a disembodied voice explains that Projections has no health system. “Health is an outdated concept,” it explains, “which did not survive the transition to this universe.” Instead, when you take a hit, you lose your combo multiplier, and also half your score (except during bossfights).

“Health is an outdated concept”. That’s one hell of a spicy take.

Why is Health a thing in games?

Well, mostly because we expect it to be. Like it or not, the vast majority of games we create are about some form of combat, and when dealing with combat, we sort of expect one side to fall over and die at some point. We also expect there to be some consequence for not reacting quickly or correctly to an incoming threat; even rhythm games have “health”, in the form of a meter that goes down when you miss notes.

You can trace this back to the arcade era–more specifically, to the unfavorable quarter-munchers. It’s tempting to blame these for the entire concept of “health” and “game over”, but that’s not strictly true.

If you go even further back, to the very first computerized games, you reach a point where there’s not a concept of “health” so much as there is a concept of “keeping score”. Pong is the one people think of when they go this far back, but there’s one other that’s just a bit older–an ancient game called Computer Space, released in 1971, a year before Pong. Computer Space was, in turn, based on Spacewar–a game initially developed on the PDP-1 mainframe, and arguably the first video game as we know it.

Spacewar was a PvP game–you and your opponent engage in a dogfight in the gravity well of a star, firing missiles at each other. The wikipedia article doesn’t say whether being hit ended the game or simply tallied up points for your opponent, but I think it’s safe to say that Spacewar (and its coin-operated release, Galaxy Game) had something resembling a health system.

Computer Space had an interesting system–getting hit wasn’t game-over for you, but it did give the computer a point. Hitting one of the computer’s flying saucers scored you a point. When the clock ran down, if you had more points than the computer, you got to keep playing.

In this way, Computer Space is oddly similar to a more recent game–one which has quietly put a new twist on the health system.

Inscryption is also a trip, but for different reasons.

I’m not gonna go over what Inscryption does, since it’s one of those games where everything past the first minute is spoilers. However, I am going to talk about its health system.

Inscryption is a deck-builder. You have a deck full of critters, your opponent has critters of his own, and you do battle in the tradition of collectible card games the world over. Where it gets interesting is in the fact that there’s no life points to lose. Instead, there is a set of scales.

Do a point of damage to your opponent, and a tooth is placed on his end of the scale. Take a point of damage, and a tooth is placed on your end. When the scale tips all the way to one side–a difference of five teeth–the battle is over.

This has a couple of very interesting effects on the game. For instance, doing damage to your opponent in Inscryption is equivalent to healing; if your opponent does 3 damage to you, and you do 3 damage to him, you are effectively in the same state that you were in at the start of the game.

Another interesting side-effect is the way this affects the game’s economy. Damage that exceeds the amount needed to tip the scales puts teeth in a bowl, which you can later use to acquire valuables. Because of this, the optimal play for the long game is to do 4 damage on turn 1, then get as much damage onto the board as you can in turn 2. However, the damage your opponent does on his first turn affects this–and makes playing for economy a risky move, unless you plan carefully and block his moves on turn 1.

And, even more interesting–if you do 5 damage in turn 1, the game is over, but if you do 5 damage in turn 2, it’s a different story. A decisive victory is a quick one, but if you play slowly, the game can be dragged out into a long, awkward slog. I have a deep appreciation for mechanics that reward mastery of a combat system with a quicker win, and this is very much one of those.

If, as Projections argues, Health is an outdated concept–then Inscryption is updating it.

What if we didn’t need Health, though?

Inscryption’s health system works perfectly for what it is, because it plays into the game’s roguelike nature–game over is a natural part of play, and in fact Inscryption has countermeasures in place to ensure that you do get at least one game-over, so that you can see the content that unlocks as you die.

But, Projections’ “health” system is not only workable, it fits Projections perfectly. The point of Projections is not to unlock content by ‘dying’, but to iteratively improve on your skills–and it uses its scoring system as a way to measure your progress. The lack of game-overs is a message–encouraging you to keep playing, even when you start taking hits, because while imperfections are measured, you can always try to earn those points back (and it’s easier to earn back an early mistake). At the same time, the heights that your score can reach when you start hitting high-end play are insane. I’ve been lucky to reach 10 million points, but there’s footage on the developer’s Youtube channel of gameplay at nearly a billion points.

Which is why I stole it. Sort of.

A Hybrid System

In my latest Doom modding adventure, Laser Justice, you do have a health counter. However, you cannot die. Instead, your health affects how fast your points multiplier goes up. Like with Projections, you also lose half your score on taking a hit, although you only lose half your multiplier, not all of it.

There’s also multiple ways to mitigate this. I’ve included the dodge, as well as a perfect-dodge mechanic–but also, I’ve included shmup-style bombs that wipe out enemy projectiles, and armor pickups will block a certain number of hits. Further, because of the way that I handle the multiplier, it’s possible to gain multiple multiplier ranks off of a single enemy–particularly the larger ones.

I like to think I’ve done a good job with this one. Maybe I can get a foot in the door on this whole “Health is an outdated concept” thing.

Update: 2022-01-18

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