Regenerating Health: The Conflict Between Game Design and Narrative Consistency

Ever since Halo revolutionized the console shooter scene, many of its mechanics have become mainstays in the majority of first and third person shooters, and even crossed into other genres as well. The two weapon limit and regenerating health are the two most prominent mechanics from Halo, and have been used in countless games since. Regenerating health is the one I want to focus on here, as it’s a very divisive mechanic. Many consider regenerating health to be a blight on gaming and feel it shouldn’t ever be used, but I am of a different mind. There is a lot that a regenerating health system can offer in the right context, but there are also many issues that can crop up as well.

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One thing most people seem to forget is that the original Halo didn’t actually have regenerating health. The game has a typical health meter that is replenished by collecting health packs, but your health isn’t touched unless your shields, which do regenerate, are depleted. The concept of regenerating health came about when other games wanted to use the recharging shield mechanic but didn’t take place in a setting where energy shields would be appropriate. Interestingly, one of the biggest issues that accompanies the concept of regenerating health, a disconnect with the setting and internal logic of the game world, wasn’t actually present in Halo and only became an issue after the mechanic was altered to fit into games that weren’t science fiction.

This conflict with the narrative and world logic is probably the biggest issue I have the regenerating health mechanic. The issue arises because, to this point, few games even attempt to reconcile the mechanic within the rules of game world. The only games that really provide an in-game explanation for regenerating health are science fiction games that use energy shields, but even then some games still have regenerating health underneath the shields, which sort of negates consistency the shield conceit provides entirely. Outside of science fiction games, there are scarce few games that even attempt to make the mechanic fit within the game world. Now, you may say that game mechanics can exist outside of the narrative and don’t need to be explained, but my counter to that argument is that the best games blend their gameplay mechanics and narrative elements to create a cohesive and immersive overall experience.

As an illustration of how this disconnect between story and mechanics can negatively impact a game, let’s look at an example. The most egregious example of the presence of regenerating health undermining the internal logic of a game is Uncharted 2. The game uses a straight up regenerating health system, complete with blood on the screen and the character reacting to being shot. All visual and auditory indications are that Nathan Drake is actually being shot, and over the course the game’s many combat encounters he takes hundreds, if not thousands of bullets and appears fine. Right around the midway point of the game, Drake is shot in a cutscene, and despite being pumped full of bullets in a boss fight just moments before, the single shot to his abdomen leaves him in a dire situation. He struggles along for a bit before collapsing and spending several days unconscious while being tended to by the man who found him. Based on what the game presents, it’s hard to reconcile this turn of events with the amount of times Drake is shot during combat with no adverse effects.

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That’s a very specific example of a single moment within a game that brings the disconnect to the forefront, but this is an issue that exists in pretty much every game that implements regenerating health with no in-game explanation. The issue almost always illustrates a change in rules between gameplay sequences and story sequences, which makes the gameplay and story feel like two entirely separate entities. Any time during a story sequence a character points a gun at someone to threaten them into compliance or appears weakened by comparatively trivial injuries, the disconnect becomes apparent. The interesting thing about this whole issue is that there is a very easy solution that has, to my knowledge, never been implemented in any game.

That solution would simply be to implement a “luck” or “close call” mechanic instead of regenerating health. Absolutely nothing about the design or behavior of the mechanic would have to change at all and the integrity of the game’s internal logic could now be maintained. What this would amount to would basically be the same regenerating health mechanic, but instead of being hit the bullets that do damage are simply “close calls” that come very close to hitting the character. Instead of smearing strawberry jam on the screen, a vignetting effect (similar to being suppressed in Battlefield) could be used. Every “hit” would simply be an animation of a bullet buzzing close to the character instead of hitting them, and the killing hit would be the only one that actually makes contact. It would basically be the same mechanic with different animations, but that would be all it would take maintain the internal logic and consistency of the game. To go back to the Uncharted example, instead of having been shot hundreds of times, Nathan Drake would have had many near misses, which would be consistent with the character’s lucky nature and make the shot that he takes during a cutscene much more meaningful.

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Now I’m sure some people would much rather regenerating health be retired entirely instead of revamped to improve world consistency, but I think the mechanic has its merits. I don’t think regenerating health works for every game, and there have certainly been games where it feels out of place, but there are games where it makes a lot of sense. The biggest benefit the use of regenerating health provides is that it allows the developers to design every encounter to be challenging, because they know the player will always enter every situation at full strength. In very combat focused games, this works great, and allows every encounter to be engaging and challenging without the fear that the player will get stuck in an impossible situation. Of course, there are some games that are better without regenerating health.

The Last of Us is a prime example of a game that would have suffered if it included regenerating health. A major theme of the game is survival, so having to manage your health and supplies from encounter to encounter plays right into that. If your health refilled after every fight the impact and intensity of the survival elements would be severely lessened. The other side are games that would be far worse without regenerating health, such as the Halo games. Every fight is almost like a puzzle, with the various types of enemies and weapons taking different strategies to defeat. On higher difficulties the games can be very challenging, so having the ability to poke and prod the enemies with different strategies without the fear of weakening yourself for later encounters is vitally important. One of the most frustrating situations in any shooter is completing an encounter by the skin of your teeth, only to be forced to load a save anyway because you stand no chance at continuing any further due to your low health, and the regenerating health mechanic eliminates the need to do that.

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Regenerating health will likely remain a divisive mechanic for as long it continues to be used, but it has its merits. Despite my continued confusion as to why a “close call” mechanic hasn’t even been tried in games that don’t have a narrative conceit for the presence of regenerating health, I am still in favor of the mechanic when it makes sense for the game. If only more games attempted to ground the mechanic in the game world, there would be almost no downside to having regenerating health in most games.