Danger, Romance, Adventure and the Health Bar, or How I Learned to Love the HUD

Tony Stark's HUD in Iron Man (2008)

In the game world, we can't feel the pain of taking a bullet or check our wallet to see what's in it. There just isn't a button for that.

The various elements of the head-up display (HUD) tell us how we feel, what we know about ourselves and about the world that we inhabit as a character in a video game. All of these overlays of the main screen (which features the “real” action of the game), from overlaid mini-maps to a counter that shows how much money we are carrying to that health bar that hangs suspended in mid-air at the top of the screen, all of these exist as abstractions, ways of representing data that we should be aware of as a participant in a world but that we can't account for as we play because we can't feel the pain of taking a bullet or check our wallet to see what's in it. There isn't a button for that.

The HUD has caused game developers and game fans much chagrin over the years. While these elements, like a handy way to check where you are in the world in the bottom right hand corner of your screen and that lets you essentially know where you should take your next left in Liberty City are awfully handy things, they also seem to be on some level intrusive and to break one's immersion in a world. It is very useful to know when I'm about to die in Gauntlet, so I can scurry off in search of food (before that damn elf shoots it). Again, after all, I can't feel the pain of the many wounds inflicted by the denizens of Gauntlet's dungeon. I should be able to, though -- if I were actually participating in a real dungeon crawl.

I “am” the Warrior, after all, at least at this moment. But I have no access to the tactile sensations of my avatar in a game, so that handy counter that tells me that I have “67 Health” seems awfully useful, as that definitely sounds really bad in game terms. Nevertheless, all of these overlays seem like mere abstractions rather than the concrete ways that we usually come to understand or experience a thing through our own senses and thus they also seem “unrealistic” at least in their representation as floating counters and maps.

Pain merely becomes a number. Knowledge of a familiar city becomes a mini-map. Access to your own wallet becomes an overlaid counter that only obscures a tiny portion of “my” vision. But those “things” are there on the screen, and in a sense, they “really” shouldn't be.

In a recent post concerning The Walking Dead video game developed by Telltale Games, Nick Dinicola praised the game for featuring “no morality system, no friendship system, no meters of any kind, and no metadata of any kind that tells us how we’re playing. It’s just us and the other characters.“ (”I Can't Break the Walking Dead”, PopMatters, 14 June 2013). As he says without these systems and these overlays that seem like “metadata,” this game at least, with its lack of a heads up display, seems to suggest that a game world can exist in which “there are no distractions from the story.”

Of course, The Walking Dead is a game that is extremely story-driven. As such, it has a great deal more acting (in terms of getting to view directly the pain or sorrow or joy on a character's face in order to know how that character feels) and scripting that makes us aware of how the world operates on its characters. We know how they feel and what they know because they actually display it -- and not through the displays of a HUD.

Wolfenstein 3D (Apogee Software, 1992)

This may speak to the design of the rather unusual presentation of the health bar of the original Wolfenstein 3D, a more typical video game in which play often matters more than narrative premise. As a first-person shooter, the player doesn't view their own avatar, the soldier B.J. Blazkowicz, directly on the main portion of the screen. The player can see Blaskowicz's hands holding weapons, but that player is seeing from behind Blaskowicz's eyes as Blaskowicz blasts away at Nazis and guard dogs.

At the bottom of the screen is the HUD, which provides information like how much ammo Blaskowicz still has in his gun and the percentage of the health that he has left, represented numerically (something like “32%”, for example). Beside that “health bar” is a portrait of Blaskowicz's face that looks directly back at the player. As Blaskowicz is hurt, his face becomes bruised and his nose bleeds. His head begins to dip downwards as he nears death. When he regains health, he once again looks straight at the player with a look of defiance and confidence. His face is now unsullied by battle.

It's as if the developers of Wolfenstein 3D were aware of the relationship between the numeric value of health and a need to represent to the player how that feels. We see both at a glance, though “looking at yourself” still seems jarring in a game world in which I am supposed to be occupying this individual and who wouldn't be literally seeing “health data” and, of course, his own face. Awareness of such information would be based on how he actually felt after being wounded. He would know to retreat because he felt like hell, not because he could see his bruised face or associate a number with his pain.

Both the need for drama (“Oh my God! B.J. is about to die!”) and the need for data to better strategize your next move (“Oops! I better find a place to get health soon, or I won't last much longer against these types of enemies”) are addressed by the HUD and yet in some sense where drama and game meet at this moment seems possibly unsatisfying in its abstraction and seeming lack of realism.

That said, the HUD actually lends itself to realistic representations of characters in some way, too. After all, shouldn't the character be aware of what they feel and what they know about the world that they inhabit?

In the 2002 open world action game The Getaway, developer Team Soho attempted to remove these intrusive elements from a game world. In a game aping much of the conventions of the Grand Theft Auto series, in which a player would take on the role of a former criminal (at least in the first half of the game) that could steal cars and drive all around London, Team Soho removed the normal mini-map that would show up in this sort of game, one that could orient a character in a small area of the London streets.

For anyone who has played the game, the results are disastrous on a narrative and gameplay level. As noted, you play as a former gangster from London. The fact that you are frequently lost because you can't “look ahead” at the web of streets that stem from your location on a mini-map makes no sense at all. If I grew up here, the mini-map is a pretty good surrogate for knowledge I would have, like that I should take the next left to get to the museum, rather than drive around unfamiliar streets for 20 minutes looking for it. Of course, all of this also intruded on gameplay, too, as you couldn't plan an approach to a destination or have a sense of where enemies are, limited as you are by the narrow ability to “see” and “hear” in the world (the limited view of the camera and a sound system presented essentially in mono).

If many games are interested in part in presenting a world that I can believe in the experience of, the presence of a HUD can be jarring and intrusive (“Why are numbers and health bars floating before my eyes?”) and the lack of a HUD can also be jarring and intrusive (“Why don't I know how hurt I am?”).

In some weird sense, the problem of the HUD is the problem of melodrama. In part what makes something obviously melodramatic is the fact that information is being presented too clearly to you. Pain, sorrow, and joy are communicated far too loudly to be believed and viewing melodramatic acting acting becomes an exercise in being bludgeoned over the head with information that the play or movie or television show feels that you need to know and might not get if it were more subtly conveyed.

Watching William Shatner convey pain and anguish is not like realizing someone is troubled. It's a moment in which you think about how much Shatner wants you to know that the character is suffering and is trying his damndest to let you know in the most unsubtle ways possible. One is taken out of the universe of the movie or television episode into a didactic communication of what suffering can be quantified as when represented by a twisted, teeth grinding facial expression.

That said, the more “subtle” ways of cluing a player in on their pain in recent games, like that flash of hazy red that obscures your vision when you are in the worst shape possible in lieu of a health bar or health counter, is only nominally more helpful from a gameplay perspective and a realistic perspective. I know when I am seconds from dying at those moments, but I can't know if I am moderately hurt before then.

The didactic qualities of the HUD are often useful dramatically and in terms of gameplay. The melodrama of the HUD and its own form of the didactic is also extremely disruptive to the experience of a game world and play in it. For the sake of game and narrative, the melodrama has to go. However, I still need the means to know how I feel and how I know the world. So, for now or until something better eventually comes along, I'll continue to love the HUD.

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