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In Defense of Regenerating Health

Posted on the 28 March 2013 by Findthebluekey @FindTheBlueKey
In Defense of Regenerating HealthIf there's one game mechanic that is practically guaranteed to split the room down the middle, it's health systems. That's assuming you're in a room full of people willing to have this debate in the first place...but I digress. The argument generally boils down to two opposing sides: Regenerating Health vs. Health Bars. The regeneration system, where a short time of hiding in cover will allow your solider/adventurer/space marine to recover to full health, is most often criticized for being unrealistic and removing the threat and challenge from action sequences. I won't deny, regenerating health certainly has its fair share of faults and issues as a mechanic.
But for all its faults, I actually believe it's the more elegant of the two systems.
The realism argument is one that has never held much water with me, as there's truthfully no way to implement any health or damage mechanic and approach realism. Realism would be taking a single shot, awaiting a medic, and then spending time in an aid station or field hospital. Only a few games, such as America's Army, have attempted to take an ultra-realistic approach. But such games don't exactly appeal to everyone.
In Defense of Regenerating HealthSo we have to operate under the the constraints of what a video game needs. So your player-character likely needs to be able to soak up about ten times as many bullets as is survivable, and there needs to be a way for a player to recover health in order to continue their forward progress. So it seems like at least one of the two systems is necessary, but where do they fall on the realism spectrum? In my mind, healing a dozen bullet wounds with a first-aid kit is only marginally more realistic then regenerating health.
So if realism isn't the question, that just leaves us looking at the costs and benefits of each system.
Another of the most common arguments against regenerating health is that it's too easy, that it removes the challenge and the fear of making a mistake. To a degree, that is true. You are certainly less afraid to move from cover, or to make that risky run across the field. But when we discuss the notion of challenge, we need to look at how all the mechanics of the game fit together, and how the designers can use those mechanics.
Yes, your health does come back. But the key part is, the designers know that. They know precisely how much health you have at any given point in a mission, and can always craft each encounter to that specific level. With a standard health bar, the variability is wild. Depending on if you have 10 health or 100, the same encounter can be punishingly difficult or laughably easy. Without this consistency, crafting a steadily increasing difficulty curve can be rocky at best.
But for me, there is nothing more important in an action scene than a sense of flow. That sense of rhythm you get when the pieces of a game begin to come together. Pick off an enemy, run ahead, get into cover, throw a grenade to clear a room, push forward. Forward, that's the key. A regenerating health system will never force you to move opposite to your objective.
In Defense of Regenerating HealthAny shooter or action game worth its salt is built on crests of high action, and valleys of low-intensity, tension building inactivity. These crests and valleys need to be carefully set up and timed. Too much action, and the fighting gets bland and tedious. Too much inactivity, and we move from tension building to boredom. This flow, if done properly, can create some of the most engaging experiences in gaming. And there are few things that break this delicate flow than backtracking over a level for healthpacks.
I will add the caveat that the system of health that you use has to match the style and tone of your game. For example, a game with a high stealth focus doesn't lend itself nearly as well to regenerating health, as you need clear and tangible consequences for being caught up in a fight you could have avoided. That, and with the much slower pace of stealth focused games, you find yourself less concerned with these crests and valleys of flow. And yes, I know the latest Assassin's Creed had regenerating health. But lets be honest, Assassin's Creed hasn't been particularly stealthy for a good long while...

In Defense of Regenerating Health

Very Sneaky...

There is no perfect system of health, one that can carefully walk the tightrope of realism, challenge, immersion and pacing. All that a system can do is find a balance such that none of these elements are left completely out in the cold(except realism, because, you know...bullets). Regenerating health is by no means perfect, and like all mechanics it has the possibility to be poorly implemented and abused, but if done right, it manages to do a great job walking the tightrope.

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