Physician, Heal Thyself

by osbornep, last updated 20 Aug 2012 13:59


An ever-present mechanic in video games, healing in all of its forms has been a little bit of a pet peeve for me; I've been both amused and annoyed at all the ways it's been implemented. The clear motivation for healing in games is that it's a convenient way to avoid player frustration; who wants to play a crippled character for however long? Yet I'd like to suggest that we start searching either for alternative ways of implementing healing, or abandon the mechanic altogether in favor of some other way to avoid the frustrations of playing with an injured character.

There is no suggestion here that we should not play games which feature the healing mechanics I object to: I play these games myself quite often, as they frequently have so much to recommend them as to outweigh whatever minor annoyances I have with some of their gameplay features. It's a pet peeve, not a devastating criticism, but it is a pet peeve that touches on the intersection between gameplay and storytelling, so I hope you'll indulge my rantings for a bit. Worse, I lack the inspiration to present a solution to this putative problem, but I hope to at least give you reason to think, within this short space, that the putative problem is a genuine one.

I

Consider healing in RPGs.1 Your HP gets to below a certain point, and you either drink a potion or cast a healing spell on yourself (or have someone else do it for you) so you can continue fighting without being near death. It's trivial to point out that this is unrealistic, but my annoyance goes further than that. It just seems to break verisimilitude in a way that things like magic, dragons and sword-fighting don't. Imagine you're watching a sword and sorcery movie where a pitched sword battle is taking place. At one occasion, the hero is critically injured, at which point, he pulls a potion out of his pocket (in the middle of fighting), drinks the potion and his wounds disappear. Or, some powerful wizard casts a spell on him, rejuvenating him. Now imagine that this happens three or four times during the same battle. I think this would break a lot of people out of the experience, including those who are willing to accept dragons, magic, or whatever. Dudes breaking out a healing potion in the the middle of a fight, or being near-death several times during the course of one battle, only to use the exact same solution to save themselves each time, doesn't play well in books, movies or anywhere, however, fantastical the setting.

Standard RPG healing mechanisms make seemingly fatal wounds become a minor inconvenience, as opposed to a reason for the audience to experience fear for the character's life. Think of times where you have finished a battle with more health than you started with—that battle was so tough, I'm feeling better now than when I started it! It also calls attention to the meta-level fact which makes it possible for the PCs to beat creatures much more powerful than them; the monsters, for whatever reason, can't or won't take advantage of healing mechanics. But most significantly in my estimation, healing mechanics mesh poorly with storytelling. Imagine someone is narrating the story of the main character's deeds, including events that happen in game play. If this narration would sound really hokey (Then our mighty hero almost died, but drank a potion real fast and healed himself. Then he almost died again, but drank another potion; this went on for another five times, then he killed the monster), this seems to suggest less than perfect integration of story-telling and gameplay.2

II

One of the few games I can think of that handled healing in a relatively realistic way was the Jagged Alliance series. They were turn-based strategy games similar to X-Com; you had a couple squad members each of whom were allocated a certain number of actions points that determined the amount and nature of the actions they could take. When squad members got shot, they would be crippled; they'd have fewer action points, their effectiveness (accuracy, stealth, etc.) would suffer, and they'd continue bleeding until someone applied first aid. First aid wouldn't recover health; it would simply stop the bleeding and allow them to recover some of their effectiveness in combat. To actually recover hitpoints, you'd have to assign one squad member to perform surgery on the injured squad member during between-combat sequences. In other words, there was no healing at all during combat.

As unforgiving as it was, I actually quite liked this system. It made planning, strategy and execution extremely important. For me, anyway, it increased immersion, because it meant that your successes and failures had a cumulative effect. Wasting time recovering from injuries could compromise your position further down the road. Your squad members would react to how effective you are as a leader, particularly if you got some of your soldiers killed. Some might criticize you or outright leave. I don't know if a scheme of this sort could be transferred wholesale to other games, though. Part of the frustration inherent in the system is mitigated by the fact that you have multiple squad members; if one is injured, you're likely to have other, more effective ones available to you. That option isn't available in more conventional single-player games.

The other set of examples relevant in this connection are surprising: Flight simulators. We can imagine the frustration of having to play a character who had his arms and/or legs blown off in a previous fight, but I can think of few examples of games that actually make the player do anything like this other than flight simulators (especially space flight simulators like Wing Commander, Privateer). When your ship gets damaged, you lose various systems; shields become non-functional, you'll lose a gun or two, speed will decrease, and some of the displays in your cockpit might explode and become non-functional. Some of these games feature auto-repair systems that allow you to recover, but they tend to be quite slow—you can't rely on them in the middle of a pitched battle. So these flight simulators are games which actually force the player to deal with 'injury' in a serious way.

Once again, however, there are mitigating factors. Typically, most of these games will feature an ejection system to escape if your ship gets too badly damaged, although this usually results in auto-failure of the mission. Secondly, you generally have a different plane to fly from mission to mission, so damage you take in a previous mission doesn't carry over into the next.3 Neither of these mechanics translates into RPGs or FPS-type games: You can't 'eject' from your own body, and you can't 'replace' your body between combat sequences either.

III

Allow me to close, then, on a note of uncertainty. It seems to me that superior integration of story and gameplay should be a goal of any developer, and healing mechanics strike me as an area where this integration could be improved. But I do not know how this concern can be addressed without risking severe frustration on the part of the player—I know of very few examples of games which have been willing to risk frustration in order to implement a more realistic healing system. From a cost-benefit point of view, it makes little sense for developers to rework healing mechanics in games in order to address the concerns adduced above: Most players don't seem too bothered by them, and removing or dramatically re-working healing could risk testing the patience of players to an unreasonable degree.

And perhaps they are right. The healing mechanic is perhaps small fry in relation to the overall issue of integrating storytelling and gameplay. Nothing written here will even prevent me from playing games that prominently feature healing as a gameplay mechanic; in fact, my objections have rarely even prevented me from abusing that mechanic mercilessly. But when I look at such actions from a distance, they do affect the degree to which I'm immersed in the story, and looking ways to increase immersion is never a bad thing.


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