Change: Health

As mentioned yesterday, I want to continue talking about game mechanics and the ways they have been treated during my time as a gamer. Today I start my “series” on change – focusing on features and mechanics of games that have significantly altered over the years. It will use examples from main stream titles, hopefully won’t make me look too foolish when naming the “firsts” and (with a little luck) won’t come across too negative. My first topic is health systems.

Remember when you had to cheat to be invulnerable? I do, iddqd, ~ -> god, all that. Things have changed a bit though eh? New-fangled pixel-kids these days (and all that) get to ignore their health levels – my, some don’t even have it on their UIs. The important questions are: “why?” and “is this a good thing?”. To answer both it’s only proper to explore the origins of regenerating health and the steps it has gone through; the forms it has taken; the advantages and disadvantages of the system for both the player and the developer and finally what it could be used for in the future.

So, where did it all start? Well, for me at least, with a little game you may have heard of:

It's about killing aliens and wanting to get it on with Artificial Intelligences

Yes, that marmite of the mainstream, Halo. The original game, purchased by a friend of mine who discovered to his horror he could not run it on his PC and hastened to my house all those years ago, featured the dual survivability mechanic of a regenerating shield and eight bars of health. Once your shield was gone you either found cover and waited for it to refresh or attempted to take out your enemies while being much more highly vulnerable to fire. At the time I enjoyed the system immensely – it instantly provided tense moments where I found myself on a solitary bar of health, endlessly searching for a health pack and constantly attempting to judge when to retreat and wait for the suddenly vital shield. The zzzzzeeeeeewap sound became a source of comfort in a hostile universe. The greatest difference being that there was all the stress and excitement of teetering on the edge of death without the inevitable single lucky shot from random enemy x ruining the moment.

This also made sense – you were a super-soldier, the last surviving member of a program to create Men+ to defeat a hostile alien race. Damn right you’d have some kind of health-regeneration. Okay, so you still needed the odd medpack (a feature which, let’s be honest, makes about as much sense as the standard RTS view point), but it made it all seem a bit more real.

Jump forward a few years to Call of Duty 2 and we have my next experience with differing health systems. My copy of PC Gamer UK provides me with a lovely little demo, which I hastily install and begin to play.

“Where’s my health bar?”

I was mightily confused. Far from CoD’s bottom right bar of green, or even Halo’s identifiable limitations, there is naught. I charge a machine gun post. The screen flashes red, an visual siren blaring: YOU ARE HURT, GET TO COVER. “Say wha-” I die.

“Er. Well okay then.”

I relearned how to treat health, relatively quickly. After all, it’s a simple concept – just imagine you have a health pack with you. But it was strange. On one level, it allowed me to enjoy each of the famously brilliant set-pieces that much more: I always went in with full health, always had the upper hand. But I loved the devastatingly hard Veteran difficulty in the original; spending an entire day clearing a house and then defending it against tanks and infantry. When two shots kill you and your health regenerates, it’s an awful lot less exhilarating than if two shots kill you and health packs are existant, but few and far between.

And so the trend began – regenerating health, sometimes utterly invisible, sometimes with a bar. All the Call of Duties since have had it, Wolfenstein uses it, Crysis had a version, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky had some, Far Cry 2 and Resistance having variations on the theme and so on (for a full, probably inaccurate, list, check here). To pick from that, Crysis was another game where it made a kind of sense – again, you were a super soldier in a futuristic mega-suit and surprisingly fragile to boot.

So – why? Why did this mechanic take off so? Well, one reason is it’s easier for developers. Not only do you now not have to worry about health pack distribution, you can always design set pieces around the player being on “full health”. More over, you can code the player getting hurt without ever possibly killing him or causing his death – they will feel under threat, constantly, if you keep their screen flashing with the YOU ARE HURT symbol, but it won’t screw them over for the next fight.

The player gains benefits too: better games for the reasons above but also a higher chance of a continual play experience, ideally without a drop in difficulty. One could say it’s more realistic, although it requires a stretch of the imagination almost as big as picking up medkits curing bullet wounds – that bullets that “hit” you in these systems simply represent your luck in dodging running out.

Sadly there are downsides – pure regen systems will never have that feeling of OH GOD I COULD DIE ANY SECOND that I described in my Halo section, neither will they ever be truly as hard as Call of Duty’s Veteren mode. It can make a game seem lazy and repetitive too; every fight becoming “hide behind box, pop out, shoot 5 guys, repeat” in the hands of less skilled development teams. It also (and this is very much only in my opinion) does not seem right for less realistic simulations – Doom for example, just wouldn’t work with regenerating health. If I’m gunning down thousands of zombie-alien-hellbeast-things, I’ve got magic health packs, okay? Equally, however, there are places anything else seems stupid; Portal being a primary example. The minimilisitic (read: lack of a) UI makes a health counter utterly foolish to include.

Something I would be very keen to see is an expansion into other genres. RPGs have already had their taste (though, as I mentioned yesterday, that’s hardly a genre of its own anymore), how about the RTS? No, hear me out here. Take the Dawn of War II style single player, cut the units down even more and take away their health bars (as well as everyone elses). Perhaps some sort of five man squad that must be intensely micro’d? It may already have been done and I simply missed the trick, but I’d like to see something designed around the concept. It would certainly work for one of the 12,000 World War 2 games released each year.

On the whole … I’m not sure if I approve of the mechanic. It’s an odd one, there are so many different factors as to whether it works or not. It may have acquired a “best of a bad bunch” status, with health packs being hardly better, as described above. I would like to see more games use Halo’s original combination system, just to see if it is as good as I remember.


This was a bit more my brain on a page than yesterday’s entry. I hope you enjoyed it, I have another one lined up, but I might leave it a bit as I have some other stuff I want to talk about (warning: tomorrows entry may be a little meta).

EDIT: Thanks to those on Twitter who helped me come up with examples of games with regenning :D.

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