Industry Insights – Made out of Meat: Health Systems in Video Games [GDC 2016]


In this first article from my new Industry Insights series I will be looking at a 2016 talk from Catacomb Kids creator Tyriq Plummer. Keeping with the spirit of this series, I will do my best to be as brief and concise as possible, hard as that may be for me.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full picture, always refer to the sources, listed at the end.


The concept of the talk is to have a frank discussion about health systems in video games. One of the first points raised is that if your character can be replaced by a ball, then you’re probably working with a very high level of abstraction.

People are sacks of meat, after all – the author states in a very HK-47-esque twist.

This statement echoes throughout the talk as developers are urged to think of reinforcing a more authentic and engaging player experience – not just with narrative and aesthetic conceits but also through gameplay and mechanics.

Dwarf Fortress is cited as an interesting example – it’s stupidly in depth damage and affliction mechanics making it possible for people to get sick or get crippled and a hundred other cases that enhance its emergent gameplay. This is of course a very extreme example, that while great in that particular case for enhancing player engagement, is obviously not exactly well suited for wide scale application.

A potential middle ground is to have a sectional damage system – splitting the player into “chunks” as to better simulate a living being. An overall health total can result in a death state past a certain margin but getting to that point can happen through multiple different afflictions. Perhaps these could also change gameplay – could you still use a shield if your left arm was lobbed off?

Thing to keep in mind when designing a more engaging or authentic (not realistic!!) health system is to consider how real human beings work. We can recover from small and large ailments but it takes us time (and resources).

Simulation – defines as employing the rules of the game to work with the representation accurately. A balancing act between Abstraction, Simplification and Simulation.

Aftermath – once the damage is done and time has passed, how do you recover from it? Play around with this. Doesn’t have to be as boring or as linear as most “one solution solves all” implementations currently out there

Active healing – do thing, get better. Besides small animations there is rarely waiting in games – especially meaningfully done. Think of resting in D&D or Banner Saga. Try and tie multiple mechanics to it, to transform it into a unique action, rather than an annoying chore.

In summary – be mindful of your character, how they work and how they might hurt. We are but meat, after all.



GDC Vault

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