Friday, April 26, 2013

Do you even realize how important life bars are?

at 4:38 PM
If you're the developers of Crimson Shroud, check here ___ for "no". If you've ever played a game before, check here ___ for "yes". It's especially frustrating because Shroud is the work of Yasumi "Fucking" Matsuno, one of the greatest minds in the gaming world (the creator of Ogre Battle, Vagrant Story, and the entire Tactics sub-genre), and Level-5, a long-acclaimed JRPG dev whose games I have not actually played (Dark Cloud, Rogue Galaxy, Ni No Kuni). With this pedigree, it's impossible to dismiss this as a case of inexperience - this is outright ignorance of interface, a "this doesn't matter". Interface is one of the few aspects of execution that really demands attention, as it is responsible for communicating ideas to the player.

Let me tell you a little story that goes a long way back. A long, long, long way back. Even longer than you can imagine. Yes, a time before time, a time before imagination, a time when I was like, I dunno, sixteen or seventeen. In these dark, prehistoric days, before light, laughter, literacy, or lazers, an enterprising young friend of mine got his hands on an enterprising young development tool called GameMaker, and put it to use to create a Wonder Boy III-inspired platforming romp known today far and wide as HomeVresion. Now, current fans may not realize that in its early days, HomeVresion was barely recognizable as the grandiose adventure we revere here in 2013. 'Twas a mere shadow of a game, a primitive wreck that could only be saved by one man. One play-tester with the necessary vision to turn lead into gold, water into wine, chickens into chicken salad. That man was me, the very author of this very blog you are reading this very day. I don't remember if I mentioned earlier: the other man (the developer of the game) was the other Greg, known in those days as Golem. Greg was reluctant to share his treasured work, but as we now know, it was the best decision he ever made. For, before it entered my hands, HomeVresion wielded only the simplest of Heads-Up Displays - the player's health displayed as a mere number! And the very first opinion I voiced, on the very first game on which I ever had any creative input, was "why the heck ain't there a damn life bar?"

Yes, I consider myself a born proponent of the life bar. As death haunts so many of our games, tying us to failure, the distance between our character and his/her ghastly demise is represented by the notion of health. This abstract idea is almost always maintained by the game engine as two numeric values: maximum and current "health points", or HP - a term I assume derives from traditional tabletop RPGs. Some games, particularly RPGs, choose to present one or both of these numbers directly; among them, Final Fantasy, Earthbound, and Gunstar Heroes
Earthbound shows current HP but expects the player to memorize each character's max...
...as does Final Fantasy VI
Gunstar Heroes makes the same mistake in an action game
While this gives the player the finest accuracy available, it is an inherently flawed approach: a number must be read and interpreted using basic math. It may seem a trivial task - especially in games riddled with numbers - but HP is so critical and so frequently checked that the player wants to have a continuous consciousness of their characters' health without needing to ask "what is 85 - 47?". Discrete HP 'checks', conscious glances over to the HUD, distract a player from the primary action, slowing down the rate of play or even causing risk in action titles. A game like Gunstar Heroes is the worst of offenders, wherein the fast-paced action is completely contradicted by the requirement that the player check their health to evaluate how much damage each hit deals. Think of it this way: every time you have to look at your health is a mini-pause, and the more abstract the health indicator, the longer that pause lasts. So any game designer with even the slightest common sense should ask "how can I reduce or eliminate that pause"?

That question has been answered in dozens of different ways in the past few decades, so much so that we shouldn't need to ask it anymore. Really, no game released later than 1985 has any excuse to have a standalone number HP display. It's primitive and moronic, and begs the question of developers like Treasure (possibly the worst offender, as one of the few action-devs to cling to this archaic interface): do you even play games? If you do, you'll have seen all kinds of different health indicators. Link has a depleting line of hearts and beeps loudly at the player (presumably using his mouth) when he is near death. Simon Belmont and Mega Man have a bar of pellets which represent their status.
Ninja Gaiden uses the most rudimentary (and functional) form of life bar
These HUD meters that sit at the side of the screen may seem no different from numbers, but can be interpreted much quicker through peripheral vision. Some life bars hover under or over their avatar, especially in games with many onscreen characters like StarCraft. They are a concrete translation of abstract life - being halfway dead translates to half a bar. There's so little interpretation that we forget health is a number at all. Even more elegant are character-relative displays: Mario shrinks when he takes damage, GnG's Arthur loses his armor, and Mortal Kombatants become bruised and bloodied. Many modern games, following the example of Call of Duty, use a reddening screen filter to indicate depleting health. These strategies don't require any change of focus or peripheral vision whatsoever.
Arthur is clothed when he has health, and (mostly naked) when he is about to die
The Modern Warfare games and many other FPSs use lens effects instead of health bars
But, okay, most of those examples are action games. Is it really THAT big a deal in a turn-based RPG like Pokemon or Skies of Arcadia? Of course it is, because these games are already lethargically paced - the last thing they need are MORE pauses for the player to figure out what the fuck the game is trying to say. That's where Crimson Shroud really drops the ball: sure, it has health bars, but they're not organized, not connected to the characters they represent, move between turns (!), and create so much clutter that they need direct attention to parse. And let's not forget that Shroud is a 3DS game, meaning that all of this HUD is not even on the screen you're looking at to make decisions. Evaluating health generalizes to evaluating the state of the battle, which must be done before any decisions are made. When it takes a noticeable amount of time (like 1 to 5 seconds) to figure out what is going on, battles are soon dragging on for twice as long as they should. 
God even this still makes my brain hurt. Why is the camera so zoomed in? Why are the life bars behind the text?  Why are both Skeleton B's and Archdemon A's names closer to Lippi than his own? Why is Frea's name on top of the skeleton with a long line pointing to her, when the space over her is completely free?
Crimson Shroud isn't a bad game. In fact, it may even be a great game - I've only yet played an hour. But it will be an experience that I can never fully enjoy, because it is so insistent on reminding me that I'm playing a video game (the dice we can talk about later).

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