Thoughts on Regenerating Health

Written by Joe Martin

June 22, 2010 // 10:01 a.m.

Tags: #fallout #game-design #half-life #health #our-thoughts #thoughts-on

My first thought on the concept of health regeneration in games was something along the lines of “it’s rubbish”, though with more swearing and waving of fists. With a bit more consideration though, I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps there just isn’t a good way of presenting a character's health to players.

The matter of presenting player health has been one of shifting standards, with each new format being initially unpopular before it became the convention. Back in the good old days (TM) of the Spectrum pretty much every title employed a system of Lives or Sudden Death, where suffering one hit would kill your character or avatar, and you had three or five strikes. Then along came the likes of Wolfenstein which presented health as a percentage and, for a while, people hated it. Then it became the standard.

Now regenerating health is starting to supplant that format and people hate that too, claiming that it takes the fun and challenge out of a game as you can just hide behind a rock to recover from a headshot. Regardless, it’s already become a standard for many styles of games – though there are exceptions to every rule, especially at such a general level.
Thoughts on Regenerating Health
It's just a flesh wound!

The thing is, while it’s easy to rant and rave about how stupid regenerating health is in games, the fact of the matter is that presenting health as a percentage is equally stupid. To paraphrase Kevin Smith, it’s like going to a sci-fi convention to see the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans picking on the Twilight followers for not being nerdy enough. Everyone who complains about regenerating health just seems to skip over why percentage-health is equally stupid; not all wounds are the same, headshots nearly always kill and even healed injuries can be consistently debilitating to name just a few issues.

That’s not to say that the ideal solution is a full on simulation though – Mil-Sim style health is, more often than not, a barrier rather than a benefit and a game with regenerating health can still be just as good as one with percentage health. I’m just rambling here and pointing out that, just because you think A is silly, doesn’t mean B makes sense.

To me, the format which works best is the one seen in the first two Fallout games – though I’m under no illusions that it is perfect. Simply, Fallout divided all characters in the game (enemies, allies and the player) into different hitzones – legs, arms, groin, torso, head and eyes. It then married this with an overall HP counter that functions the same as most other RPGs, so if you run out of Hit Points then you’re dead and have to reload a game.

There were two types of attacks – default and targeted, with default attacks having a low chance of causing a critical outcome but costing fewer action points to execute. Default attacks always aimed for the torso too and were primarily useful depleting enemy HP. Targeted attacks cost more action points to perform, but you could choose which areas to aim for and could therefore get special outcomes. Get a critical shot against the legs and you’d stop your enemy from being able to chase you as well, while hitting the eyes would stop them retaliating as effectively.

Brilliantly, these rules also worked against the player too. If you got a crippled leg then you’d be unable to run or move in combat, while a shot in the arm might render you unable to use two-handed weapons. Restoring limbs from these effects would require the use of specific items and skills that were kept separate from other healing devices.

Fallout’s health system isn’t perfect. There were several inconsistencies in the implementation and it wouldn’t work for other genres at all. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is an FPS which uses a roughly similar system which utterly fails to impress, though it does increase the sense of vulnerability which that game thrives on.

The point is: all systems for presenting health to players in computer games are equally flawed and, just because Fallout is my personal favourite or Half-Life integrated it into the story through the HEV suit, doesn’t change that.