Several days ago, Jeffrey Matulef discussed this mechanic on Gamasutra, to decent effect (mild spoiler alert in there, by the way).
More interesting than the article itself perhaps, is a reply by Craig Adams, aka Superbrothers, which I reprint below. Do be aware that there are absolutely some spoilers in here, so if you’ve not finished the game, you may not want to read through to the full page. Otherwise, look on:
“Super glad you dug our decisions re: The Scythian’s deteriorating condition in Sword & Sworcery.
S:S&S EP isn’t a mechanics-focused videogame, it’s closer to an audiovisual storybook… and as you point out in your article (with the Indiana Jones reference), dramatic stories in film or in books often end up with a broken & battered protagonist limping to the finish line… I would say this is a normal flow of an adventure story, and it’s only videogame stories that choose to do the inverse.
As you discussed, our implementation of this idea was dead simple: the player character loses one max health (starting with five) after each climactic boss fight, and then we added a few idle behaviours (coughing, vomiting) plus a flickering/darkening effect on the sprite, very basic, but it was super interesting playing it through once we got it all working: it really seemed to deepen the sense of a narrative progression; it suggested a tragic outcome and even kinda tugged on the ol’ heartstrings; Jim Guthrie’s music became even more evocative & heartbreaking.
On the mechanics side, the player had to pay more attention to survive, so the challenge in combat encounters naturally intensified & the dramatic tension ratcheted up a few notches without the need for all-new enemies or new enemy behaviors (which might’ve been nice but actually wouldn’t have added much to the story concept).
Of course this ‘weakening heroes’ thing isn’t a new concept in videogames by any stretch, I can think of a few survival horror experiences, notably Eternal Darkness, that explored some of this stuff… but I think there’s a whole lot of other, deeper ideas in this general direction… I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for other instances.
On a sort of personal tip:
So we were putting these degrading health features in last fall, at a time when the project itself was in a challenging state from my perspective. We had been slogging through months of hard work, and at least in my case (separately from Capy & Jim Guthrie), my mental & physical condition had been deteriorating for some time… there were financial pressures on my side, budget & schedule pressures more generally, profound uncertainty about the outcome, exhaustion, sleeplessness… this was my very first time as a videogame project co-lead (and sole artist, amateur sound designer, writer… etc) and I had gone ‘all in’… so while I was surrounded by amazing & supportive people on all sides, it was an occasionally spooky ordeal for me personally.
Myself & Kris Piotrowski, Capy’s creative director and a co-creator on Sword & Sworcery, went out for some beers around this time. Among other things, we were talking about these health ideas and we were joking around about how the mental & physical effort of making this project (or, well, any project) matched The Scythian’s troubled trajectory. We had set out to climb a mountain & slay a beast (finish a videogame project that, while small, was experimental and ambitious for a tiny team) and while we were making good progress towards the finish line, in my case the effort was grinding me down into something less than healthy.
With this in mind, you can imagine how strange it might’ve felt to paint The Scythian’s funeral pyre… getting the ending of the story in place was a significant milestone on the creative side so it felt really good to be finally getting it done, but it was also weirdly kind of heartbreaking and meta.
I’ve no doubt everyone has stories about the blood, sweat & tears that go into a project you care about, and I’ve not doubt other folks have had it much much harder than we ever did. I guess the only thing that’s unusual about Sword & Sworcery is that our ordeal is metaphorically echoed in the storyline in a pretty intentional way, and maybe there’s some aspect of this that comes across somehow.
So yeah, we set out on this adventure to make something kinda worthwhile with a bit of soul, and as Kris often says, making something worthwhile is almost always super tough, and if you want to make something with soul… well… that soul has to come from somewhere… sometimes it has to be semi-painfully extracted from the creators.
All’s well that ends well, more or less. The project eventually got done & it found an appreciative audience, plus everyone involved is feeling positive about the experience of making it… so in retrospect it was worthwhile.
ok & kindest wishes”