Sunday, 19 January 2014

Healing, Injury and Death in Video Games

There is/was an interesting discussion at AWTR1 about the healing mechanic in games and their ability to break verisimilitude in games “in a way that magic, dragons and sword-fighting don’t.” Personally, I find just dying breaks verisimilitude in games. Every death reminds me that I am just playing a game after all, and not living through an immersive experience along with the character I am controlling.
The discussion focuses intensely on RPGs because the author is “less interested in [FPS-type games] in general” but I would like to look at two games outside of RPGs as ways of exploring the idea of realistic healing, or injury, mechanics.
The first is Dead Space. One of the aspects of losing health in Dead Space is that Isaac Clarke’s body slows down and at it’s lowest starts staggering with heavy breaths. It’s a great mechanic that adds intensity to the game when you are also low on ammo and you know that the last batch of necromorphs were a struggle to dispatch and if you don’t find health soon, those next lot of necromorphs down that dingy looking corridor are going to be the ones dispatching you. It’s intense and at least semi-realistic. That is, until Isaac finds health and all of a sudden he’s back to his old boot-stomping, leg and arm decapitating self again. It’s amazing what Med-Packs can do in the future!2 Could Med-Packs actually work that quickly in the future? Well, I guess it’s possible. With a little adrenalin mixed into the concoction, I’m sure a standard Med-Pack could get you back into tip-top condition almost immediately.
I would like to propose a way of getting around that in a more contemporary scenario without the mechanic causing frustration for the player. Imagine being injured; you struggle, you limp, but you can still shoot – that’s important of course, and no programmer would be daft enough to take that away from the player. But what about after finding your health pack? Do you just spring back into action like you have just been injected directly with heroin? Perhaps. If the health pack had heroin in it … So let’s assume that it doesn’t. Maybe it takes time to heal properly. Not an overly long period of time, but just enough for the player to still be cautious about what they do with themselves, where they tread, how often they recklessly poke their heads out from behind cover, knowing full well that they need to nurse that wound like their life depended on it. Because after all, that’s exactly what an in-game injury should simulate.
There is also the scenario of being able to mix different concoctions. Say a Med-Pack is slow working but heals you fully when the healing is complete, and an adrenalin pack gives you that much needed stamina boost. Mixing those two together would literally cause you to spring back into action allowing the healing pack to still do it’s work in the background3.
I like the idea of healing having a real-time consequence, especially in games like Dead Space, where your injury causes tension in high-strung scenarios. It seems to have a lot less consequence in Fantasy-based RPGs when magic is flying all over the place and healing happens as quickly as inflicting damage. In fact I want a game where being injured is a huge factor, and where injuring an NPC is just as consequential for them – they stagger, they limp, you get an easier target, but at the risk of being hit by the stray bullets that the NPC is now recklessly firing at you to try to keep themselves covered. Although I may not be a huge stealth game fanatic, Dark Souls definitely tested my patience (I passed!), while Deus Ex: Human Revolution gave me the enjoyment of choosing stealth if I desired it. Maybe it’s a case of programming, where the logistics of dividing pixel bodies up into parts that are affected accordingly might end up taking up all your programming resources. However, if Fallout 3 could do a minor simulation of it in an open-world, I don’t see why a linear shooter couldn’t do it to an even greater extent.

The healing mechanic is perhaps small fry in relation to the overall issue of integrating storytelling and gameplay. […] 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.”(sic)

I would argue that the healing mechanic is only ‘small fry’ because no one has found a way to integrate it with a story that continues to move forward. This is where every environmental object has weight and is able to be used as cover, something to lean up against, something to rest and inject yourself with a health pack, or drink water and allow for the time to heal; a chance also to check directions, clues and inventory items. Like in Dark Souls and Dead Space where inventory checking does not pause the game, it would seem logical not to be doing this out in the open but in a secluded or safe area – the bonfires as an example in Dark Souls. Waiting for your leg to heal might be a good time to check some details with that sidekick of yours that hangs around also. I just like the idea of an injury that takes real-time to heal, creating a cautionary play-style for the player. It’s something that could do wonders for the stealth game, or the tactical horror game.
Down on page 3 of the fifteen (!) pages of comments, CultureGeekGirl says:

I feel that the idea of death and respawning in a video game is more immersion-breaking to me than any other mechanic possibly could be. The death mechanic is deeply engrained in the way games have worked from the very start, so you have to have that to some extent, but dying always kind of jolts me out of any reality I may have invested myself in - even in really game-y games

But no mention was made of that much maligned game Prince of Persia (2008) where death was skipped altogether and whenever you screwed up you were saved by the comforting hand of Elika. While many saw this as making the game too easy by not dying therefore not learning a lesson, few realised that it was the gameplay that didn’t make the game challenging enough, i.e. ‘teach the player anything’. Dark Souls has one of the most integrated versions of respawning to story and setting that I know of,4 but despite the ‘YOU DIED’ in red fading into my screen, I never actually felt like I died in Dark Souls. Sure, my humanity was stolen from me, but respawning is respawning; it’s still not dying and the game loading to a previous checkpoint as though nothing happened. Instead, it’s like being killed figuratively but still being able to keep all your memories and inventory of collectibles and losing only your souls (‘money’) and humanity (‘human spirit’), and then restarting from a previous checkpoint.
With Prince of Persia (2008) I had finally found a game that made internal sense in relation to the story that it was telling. If the character is going to win, because that’s the role of the hero in the story, then he literally can’t die. In Prince of Persia (2008) the Prince doesn’t die, he is saved each time by the hand of Elika. “Where is the fear of dying to create the challenge for the player?” asks the detractors. Admittedly, in this game, there was little challenge. But that had nothing to do with the ‘no-death’ mechanic I would argue. That had everything to do with the environmental challenges, the boss battles and the general fighting mechanics themselves being too one-button easy to traverse.
What the ‘no-death’ mechanic did was not only eliminate the loading screen, but also keep the player’s story immersion intact. Very rarely did I ever feel like I wasn’t a part of the game.5 Also, just as a minor note, PoP (2008) had an injury mechanic, though very basic and pretty ignorable. If the Prince was hit while in battle, he would clutch at one arm.
The death mechanic is deeply engrained in the way games have worked from the very start.” We know, as discussed in a number of other online critiques, that win states are a simple part of gaming that drives player accomplishments, and dying seems to be tied up in the failure state. But that certainly doesn’t mean it has to be. It’s just there because so many games are combat based and death seems the logical failure of playing these games - “you’re supposed to stay alive, idiot!! But why can’t it be “You’re supposed to traverse that area without the walls collapsing around you and setting you back at the start and needing to find a new way, idiot!! Sounds like too much thinking would be involved. But I do like the idea of being injured setting you back as a failure because now you have to work harder to achieve the goal that you could have achieved easier if you weren’t injured. See, now that’s an injury that makes sense and would become a challenge to overcome: “Don’t get shot! No, you’re not going to die, but you are going to have to work a whole lot bloody harder at this section now that your injury is slowing you down, idiot!


1‘Physician, Heal Thyself’ (
3But maybe – maybe – to the detriment of the healing. Because using adrenalin to get you going again would surely require that the injured body part be in use, therefore slowing down the healing process even more.
4Let me make it absolutely clear that I am not wealth of knowledge on game mechanics, and I have probably played far less games than the average gamer. However, my love for interactive entertainment has got me reading and thinking about all the aspects that make up video games, so much of this rant is coming from a purely ideas basis. Let it be that.
5There is a loading screen during play time when you are fast travelling from one healed fertile ground to another. This surely could have been overlaid with a simple scene of Elika inciting the powers of Ormazd to transfer them both and whisking them away. Surely.

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