Home Editorial Dumbfounding Design: Regenerative Health

Like many topics I’ll cover in Dumbfounding Design, this one isn’t a new idea.  Used in RPGs in the 1980s, the idea of regenerating health goes back to the early days of gaming. Not really popularized until the first person shooter era of the 2000’s and onward, the concept is a venerable one. Oft-maligned for its use in games like Call of Duty and Gears of War, it shows no signs of disappearing.


When bullet holes close themselves

As a design choice, regenerating health is something of a double edged sword. On the one hand, it eliminates the need for health recovery items. Deciding where to place such packs of life saving mana is something of an art in itself, and I can’t imagine how complicated Left4Dead’s director system code must be. Having the AI analyse player progression and place support accordingly is a monumental feat of programming, but I digress.

On the other hand, there’s a balance to be struck between a system that makes a game too forgiving or not forgiving enough. High-weapon-damage models need special care taken as to when the regeneration starts and where it stops. A badly designed system leads only to too quick death, player frustration, and then a game’s demise.

A third option, and what I consider the best of the three, appears in many RPGs nowadays, notably Skyrim. While your health and magicka regenerate, they do so at a rate dependent on your situation. In combat, the process is painfully slow even with the best equipment, so potions are essential to survival, at least against boss-level monsters. While I’m aware that this approach is vastly more work for the developer, both in level design and programming, if a team has the luxury of time, I strongly advise following Bethesda’s example. Don’t cut and paste their model, since it only works in the context of their game. Instead, take stock of how health works in your game and adapt accordingly.


Failure to close the wound

The prime offender of both poorly executed and perfectly placed regenerating health is in one of the best series of recent memory. I’m sure you’ve all heard of it: Portal. Before you scream at me for slamming Portal in any way, let me frame my argument for you. I’ll even explain why Valve did so well in the next section, but for now let’s look at the downside.

In the game, you’re then put through a series of tests that stretch the limits of physics and pitted against an evil, sentient AI. But before that, you realize that a fall from any distance does no damage, that you can take ten bullets from a mechanized, also-sentient gun turret, and that everything else around you wants to see another corpse on the list. All of it is extraordinary, even by the standards set in 2007.

Then you use a corner and two portals to look at yourself. There are set of springs on your feet and a weird gun in your hands, but otherwise you are completely human. And as a player, you know this isn’t the everyday shoot ’em up where hiding behind a box fixes everything. Yet there you are, taking horrendous amounts of punishment from everything and its grandma, brushing it off like so many motes of dust. There isn’t even really a recovery time. You take damage and not an instant after you stop taking it, everything’s set to go through the whole rigamarole again. The only thing that can kill you, bullet wise, is if you’re dumb enough to stand in a turret’s path for longer than your regeneration can handle.

I’d hazard to say that Portal’s health system is both rushed and rather shoddy. You can take a gut full of bullets and chuckle, but your hit your head going heaven knows how fast and there’s no consequence. On that same token, a twenty pound box falling from three feet kills you. Companion cube indeed. That box’ll murder you the second you drop beneath its gaze. Then there’s the fact you can’t swim, and that rocket explosions a few feet away leave nary a scratch.


Aperture (and/or Valve) thought of everything

I’m not forgetting that this is a Valve game, and that there is a very good reason for absolutely everything. Even if those reasons are gameplay related, balance related, or plot related doesn’t matter. Everything is accounted for. And the health system is no exception. In order to “redeem” myself for the previous section, I want to explain why their regenerative health mechanic is the best the industry has to offer, at least in Portal’s case. And in doing so, I need to discuss gameplay, balance, and plot.

The gameplay of Portal is exceedingly fast. Those times when you spend an hour on a single puzzle notwithstanding, once you properly place the portals and start solving the puzzle, everything happens in a matter of moments. Your time in the test chamber ends as quickly as it began, so long as you excise all the thinking time you did. If there were a numerical health system, or a slow regeneration, the slightest error would lead to a slowdown of the solution. In a game where you already spend enough time just looking around to figure out the answers, it would be criminal to make you wait once you have the answer.

From a balance standpoint, a point based or slow regen mechanic would create other problems. There are many other ways to die in Portal, not just via direct damage. Acid pools, bottomless pits, disintegration orbs, evil AI, the occasional marshChello* roasting, you know the drill. If every little thing killed you, the actual mistakes would be devalued and even more frustrating. Some of the maps even encourage hitting walls at high speeds to test things out, and if the player feared such things, some of the puzzles might never be solved, and some of the jokes might never get told.

Finally, plot. I mentioned that Chell appears completely human, but as we all know, in Portal 2, she awakens after a millenium long stasis and actually gained some weight. Valve is all about setting driven story telling, where what you see in the world does the exposition, rather than some high class narration. This one little detail, coupled with the Long Fall Boots, the portal gun itself and Chell’s overall physical ability tells me she isn’t normal in any sense of the word. If she isn’t already superhuman, she’s on just this side of it. And who’s to say Aperture didn’t do a little experimenting while you aren’t in control? For better testing purposes, of course. It’s not in the cannon, but like I say, much of the plot of Valve’s story comes from the environments and your interactions with the world.

And boy did that fall to the bottom of Aperture let you see just how deep the world of Portal really is.


I couldn’t help it.

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