EarthBound's Mortality Meter
The tree has the most pleasant expression on its face, smiling as if it were welcoming its new neighbor over for tea. It reminds me of some sort of muppet I might have seen on Nick Jr., educating children on how we should be nice and share our toys with each other. That would have been a totally normal thing to encounter for me at this point, back in the 1990s.
Too bad this particular pleasantly smiling tree is trying to kill me.
A denizen of the deceitfully named Peaceful Rest Valley, this mysteriously living and grinning tree is joined by a rather small flying saucer, which is eager to inflict me with the common cold. Why these things are sentient I have no clue, but you sort of stop asking such questions after erasing a pencil shaped statue with a pencil eraser — that is, "an eraser that erases pencils."
I know that the murderous tree would take longer to kill than the UFO, which meant it was stronger. By ten year old logic, that meant I needed to defeat it first. So I lifted my slingshot and struck it with whatever it was a slingshot used (it must shoot slings if it's called a slingshot, right?), until finally I dealt the death blow. A single pebble burst into the tree's bark and caused it to combust. Again, not exactly sure on the why, but when a tree bursts into flames and deals a lethal amount of damage, well, you don't try to figure out the why.
In another world, another universe, I might have died right there on my feet, but here in Peaceful Rest Valley I was in a pleasant state of dying.
I don't have much time left. I can feel the sands slipping through the hourglass of my life as the flames from the tree lick and bite at my charring flesh. Yet I still have that stupid flying saucer left buzzing about my head, striking me with that inconvenient beam that gives me the common cold. I know I could kill the UFO in one attack, but the slingshot is a rather inaccurate weapon. If I miss, that would be it. I'd be dead before I could try again. Normally I would save up my telekinetic energy, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Pressing my fingers to my head, I summon a psychic and psychedelic rain of brightly flashing death upon my foe, culminating in an explosive, rubbery snap! Or maybe it was a whomp! Perhaps swhomp. Regardless, the UFO melts before my eyes. Burning bits of space alloys join the flaming bark and timber of the wooden foe that had threatened to end my life. I sit, panting, my pulse beating from the depths of my chest to the tips of my fingers. A smile curls around my lips.
I am barely alive, but yet I live.
Characters in a turn-based role-playing game typically exist in a binary state: They are either alive or dead. As long as their hit points are above zero, they are capable of fighting, casting spells, using items, or even running away. A character at full health is no stronger than one with only one HP left.
But leaving a character's state as binary can set up players to respond to the character in a similarly limited way. Determine when a character is in danger based on how much damage the surrounding enemies are dealing. Heal them accordingly. If a monster manages to strike a surprisingly heavy blow that kills the character, the player may exhibit a level of surprise, but they'll return to pragmatic strategizing. It is a rather stoic response to death, and panic only sets in once multiple characters begin to fall.
Back in the mid-nineties, Nintendo released a little game called EarthBound to the world, introducing something called the "Rolling Hit Point Meter." At first it seems like a rather cosmetic way of displaying a character's health, fitting with the more modern aesthetic. As a character takes damage or is healed, the dials spin until the new value of health is reached.
What makes it so effective is that death is more than a brief inconvenience in EarthBound. While other RPGs fairly quickly grant items and spells capable of reviving a character, EarthBound gives very little. Life-reviving items are expensive, very uncommon to find, and it takes well over a dozen hours before unlocking the psychic power that allows the player to bring dead characters back to life. If a character dies mid-dungeon, then they typically remain dead until the player returns to a town with a hospital.
Enemies are stronger in EarthBound than in other games. The most unlikely insects will deal heavy damage to enemies while psychic saucers engulf the characters in flame. Plus, they're downright vindictive. Monsters such as a pleasant-looking tree to a smiling sphere in the desert will erupt into flames upon death, a last act to try and take the player with them.
In theory, the rolling HP meters give the player time before the last HP clicks off — it gives the player more options and a better chance at survival — but in practice, the rolling hit-point meter is the timer to one's mortality. Instead of existing between states of living or dead, the characters can now find themselves dying with only seconds to be saved. Calm, level-headed thinking suddenly takes the back seat. The player's heart flushes their system with adrenaline. The thumb constantly mashes the confirmation button, hurrying through any battle text in order to rush through commands, desperately hoping to keep all of the characters alive.
In most role-playing games, death is simply another status effect. It is an inconvenience, yet rarely is it something to fear. In EarthBound, a simple change in representing a player's health causes death to carry more emotional weight. You will experience the fear of dying multiple times and you will panic every moment in order to keep your characters alive. Death is a rare thing in EarthBound, but when it happens, you feel it, and it matters.