Design By Example: Health based player training in Halo: Combat Evolved

Your current survivability in Halo: Combat Evolved is determined by a dual mode indicator made up of two separate but related meters: the continuous shield bar, and the discrete segments of the health bar. These two systems have an impact on all aspects of the design of Halo: Combat Evolved, however it is the way they interact with each other to allow for partial failure and, in so doing, serve as a means of subtle player training, that I wish to examine.

A screenshot of Halo: Combat Evolved showing a depleted shield bar.

When the shield meter reaches the wider portion at the end of the bar the border changes colour from blue to red and your suit will emit an audible beeping noise.

Indicated by a solid blue bar your shield is your primary means of protection, only once it has been fully depleted is damage inflicted directly upon your health. Able to take 75 hit points of damage and recharge when out of combat, your shield gives each encounter in Halo: Combat Evolved an advance-and-retreat rhythm; you push forward while the shield is active and pull back to disengage once it starts to become depleted. Initiated after a 5 second delay, and only when you are not taking damage, your shield will take 4 seconds to recharge completely; if you take additional damage during that 5 second period when your shields are depleted, that damage is taken from your health.

Displayed underneath the body of the shield indicator, your current health is signified by eight individual segments. Like your shield this is initially displayed in blue and damage to your health causes removal of segments with their colour changing from yellow to red as their number decreases. Unlike your shield your health will not recharge on its own and can only be fully restored by locating a Health Pack within the level, or upon transitioning to a new level. Health Packs are for single and immediate use; they will restore you to full health there and then and cannot be carried with you. Playing carefully, with good timing and an understanding of how your shield functions, it is possible to fight through any given encounter without taking any health damage.

Discrete and non-regenerating health allows for a greater gradation of success and failure. Overextend and you may still be able to retreat and allow your shield to recharge before you are killed but not without taking health damage. With health that persists, your actions in one encounter have an impact on your future behaviour. Your willingness to risk being caught with your shields down is dependent not simply on the current combat situation but on any damage you received to your health in this or previous encounters.

With these two systems working in concert, success and failure is not defined on a binary scale; you can come out of an encounter in multiple different states. When your shield recharges at the end of an encounter you might have a full eight segments of health or you could have as few as one. This introduces the possibility of partial failure, of success achieved at a measurable cost. This is a loss that you will have to carry forward with you into subsequent encounters as Health Packs are rare.

A screenshot of Halo: Combat Evolved showing an encounter with two Hunters while the player has only three bars of health remaining.

Entering combat with only three segments of health remaining encourages a more cautious approach, one that if followed previously might have allowed you to avoid the situation you are now in.

By having health damage persist between encounters Halo: Combat Evolved is able to provide direct feedback on how well you have understood the interaction of its recharging shield and the behaviour and weaponry of the Covenant. Your current health is an indication of how successfully you responded to the changing state of your shield and can be used to visually determine how well you did in each encounter. Surviving an encounter with two bars of health remaining serves to show you that you overextended and left yourself exposed for too long. On the other hand, if you are getting through encounters with little or no health damage then you are showing an understanding of the operation of the recharging shield and there is no disincentive to modify your future behaviour. Leaving each encounter in the same state you entered does not provide such clear feedback on your behaviour; each mistake you made is forgotten because you ultimately succeeded.

The dual mode system for the player’s survivability Halo: Combat Evolved allows for occurrences of partial failure whereby instead of dying players are able succeed in an encounter at a cost that will have future consequences. This constantly visible and easily readable health indicator reminds players of the consequences of their previous actions and serves as a subtle means of influencing future behaviour away from situations that will cause more damage to their health. Halo: Combat Evolved makes players own their mistakes, at least for a time, and therefore allows them to learn from them.

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About Justin Keverne

Having snuck onto his older brother's computer to play Wolfenstein when he was ten Justin finally graduated to an Atari ST a few years later, before getting his own PC. Soul Calibur lead to a Dreamcast, and then there was no looking back. Formally educated as a programmer Justin is also a designer and frequent level design critic, his work can be found at GropingTheElephant.com.