Relive the horror of World War II, boasted one game ad in dubious taste”
Games are not like reality. More than any other art form, their principle purpose is escapism. But, perhaps in the quest to be taken more seriously, some videogames pride themselves on their authenticity.
The Fifa games, for example, recreate the sights and sounds of all the major international football sides, the commentators, even the sounds of the crowds. War games are especially concerned with authenticity: “Relive the horror of World War II,” boasted one game ad in dubious taste.
But where does this urge to realism leave the powerup and health bar? You know: those little hidden bonuses that prolong your life, with the little indicator representing health? They’re far from authentic, but in the middle of gameplay, they’re very convenient in the heel of the hunt.
In search for the holy grail of authenticity, developers have had to be inventive. The protagonists in the Grand Theft Auto games gain bulletproof vests, and when they can’t stand any more punishment, are sent to the hospital. However, in a notably inaccurate portrait of the US healthcare system, that character is back robbing cars again in no time.
Military games have bandages and band-aids, and frequently you can heal yourself simply by avoiding gunfire for a spell. That gives strength to the adage that time heals all wounds.
Also motivated by realism, the traditional “health bar” indicator is (perhaps ironically) dying out. Now, pioneered by the likes or Resident Evil, diminishing health is manifested in a noticeable decline in characters’ faculties.
Instead of a simple indicator, they hold their wounds, sometimes lean against walls and their injuries are clearly visible.
But Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater has surely the most elaborate, authentic and inconvenient representatives of health. Like other games, injuries sustained by your avatar begin to manifest in gameplay, but this time you develop limps; you walk slower until you heal yourself.
You can even use medical packs, stitch up your own wounds and apply splints. Your character is also affected by the weight of the equipment he carries.
In other games, sustained injuries are also shown in your eyesight. In the Call of Duty series, for example, your screen flashes red when you’re badly injured, and your sight is impaired. I dare say it’s slightly churlish for the game designers to impede an avatar’s sight at this crucial stage.
These nods to verisimilitude are all very clever until you discover the fatal flaw in this plan – they make the gaming experience less fun. Time spent working a thread meticulously through a wound (no kidding) is time that could be spent stalking, hunting and (if you insist) evading enemies.
Videogame sequels routinely outdo their predecessors, but previous Metal Gear Solid games made do with a simple “life bar”, which worked just fine from a gaming point of view.
If gamers want to learn about the frailties of the human body, how to suture a wound and treat damaged limbs with splints, they can buy a Trauma Centre, or maybe SimHealth or (if you’re feeling more adventurous) Rex Reed: Experimental Surgeon. Whether the Grey’s Anatomy videogame deals with coronary bypasses or less literal matters of the heart, I can’t be sure.
If any developers of action-based games are reading this: leave the amateur surgery to medical games. For shoot-’em-ups, I imagine most players would rather be infantry than medic.