oxm opin­ion

This month, Steve pon­ders the mer­its of re­gen­er­at­ing health

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - When Steve isn’t busy run­ning from de­monic swans, he writes for City A.M.

Let me tell you a true story. While walk­ing along a canal tow­path one day in late 1999 I felt, like so many of us at the time, em­bold­ened by the ap­proach­ing turn of the mil­len­nium. “Any­thing is pos­si­ble,” I said, march­ing right up to a swan who had made his home in a small pile of plas­tic car­rier bags and soggy bits of card­board. “The world be­longs to me and me alone.”

As I reached out to stroke the swan, it swung around fu­ri­ously and bit me, its ra­zor-sharp beak slic­ing cleanly through my thumb. Blood­ied and hum­bled by the attack, I re­treated be­hind a bush for ten min­utes to com­pose my­self. It was there that I no­ticed my in­jury had al­ready be­gun to scab over, cloddy red platelets cur­dling in the wound to pro­tect my in­side-meat.

My body was re­pair­ing it­self be­fore my very eyes. I was wit­ness­ing first-hand the bi­o­log­i­cal bal­let of re­gen­er­at­ing health.

While a num­ber of games have at­tempted to in­cor­po­rate self-heal­ing into their game­play, it wasn’t un­til Halo: Com­bat Evolved in 2001 that the me­chanic of wait­ing a short while for your health bar to re­fill be­gan to take hold. Hit-points and health bars soon went the way of the dodo, de­voured not by hun­gry Dutch id­iots, but by a new gen­er­a­tion of gamers’ in­nate fear of dy­ing.

The prob­lem

Re­gen­er­at­ing health was quickly dis­torted be­yond all rea­son. The Call Of Duty se­ries pop­u­larised the me­chanic, and now most games al­low you to crouch be­hind a wooden crate or an­cient Baby­lo­nian statue while your body ea­gerly pushes hot bul­lets back out of its smashed or­gans. In­juries that in re­al­ity would re­quire an ex­tended stay in an in­ten­sive care unit fol­lowed by years of painful re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion – such as ac­ci­den­tally for­ward-rolling into a grenade when you meant to do a cool back­flip away from it – are healed with a sim­ple ten-sec­ond sit down. Not only does this undermine the very se­ri­ous mat­ter of hav­ing your arms and legs blasted off by a gi­ant ex­plo­sion, but it makes mod­ern shoot­ers vastly less chal­leng­ing. At any given mo­ment in Gears Of War 4, for ex­am­ple, your tac­ti­cal sit­u­a­tion will be roughly iden­ti­cal to that of ev­ery other player who’s found them­selves where you’re stand­ing. You never have to con­sider that, be­cause you got all shot to rib­bons ear­lier in the level, you should adapt your strat­egy to sur­vive.

The so­lu­tions

Like so many prob­lems in games to­day, we can fix this sim­ply by go­ing back­wards in time to a point when ev­ery­thing was bet­ter. You need only look at the re­cent Wolfen­stein games, which use ar­mour and hit-points as part of their retro aes­thetic, to see how a dwin­dling health bar adds ten­sion and chal­lenge to a gun bat­tle. Games with lim­ited health force you to fully risk-as­sess your cur­rent sit­u­a­tion be­fore choos­ing to cart­wheel to­wards the most danger­ous-look­ing man in the room or crawl around in the shad­ows break­ing ev­ery­body’s necks.

Other games, such as Far Cry, have suc­cess­fully merged auto-heal­ing with perma-hurt­ing, giv­ing you smaller re­gen­er­at­ing health chunks within a larger health bar that can be whit­tled down by an an­gry emu or charg­ing rhino.

Look even fur­ther back in time, to when games came on vinyl records (or some­thing), and we can steal even stranger so­lu­tions. Ghosts ‘n Goblins had all of your clothes fall off when­ever you were hurt, an idea I’d like to see re-im­ple­mented now that graph­ics have im­proved to the point you can prop­erly make out a space ma­rine’s bion­i­cally en­hanced junk. Sonic The Hedge­hog could only take dam­age when he was jug­gling golden rings. And Mario would lit­er­ally halve in size at the slight­est provo­ca­tion. Pa­thetic.

Re­gen­er­at­ing health works, but it’s an unimag­i­na­tive, tired and lazy way to heal your­self. Ev­ery idea out­lined above sounds ridicu­lous, but they’re all in­ven­tive. Yet they’re left by the way­side for the least in­ter­est­ing idea of all.

We should all live like the swan, which lives in fear of be­ing touched, but rel­ishes life all the more be­cause of it.

“A dwin­dling health bar adds ten­sion and chal­lenge to a gun bat­tle”

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