Video Game Health Mechanics: Suspending Disbelief

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Video game protagonists often have to experience tremendous amounts of physical trauma for our entertainment. In a medium where violence is often the primary tool for player interaction, it is necessary for the player character to be extremely resilient.

All video game protagonists have their limits, however, and this is frequently displayed to the Player through the use of health mechanics. Be it the implementation of a health gauge or regenerative healing, these systems allow the player, using suspension of disbelief, to explain how the likes of Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series can survive the onslaught of bullets fired his way.

However, a recent tweet by an animator at Naughty Dog, Jonathan Cooper, explains how Drake never actually takes damage. Instead, he has a ‘luck’ metre and “eventually enemies will get a clear shot and kill him if he takes enough near-misses”, he said.

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With Drake’s death-defying antics now having a somewhat more plausible explanation other than just him having a ‘hardy disposition’, it raises the question: what other titles have in-game justifiable reasons for the health mechanics they employ?

Halo: Combat Evolved

The release of Halo in 2001 helped revolutionise the first-person-shooter genre. One of the most influential ideas that it helped popularise was the use of regenerative health.

The game created an engaging gameplay loop reliant on taking advantage of the player’s regenerating health. Soon, other popular franchises took inspiration from Halo’s success and included similar health mechanics in their games. Even if its presence didn’t make sense based on in-game justifications.

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This is because, using the trappings of its sci-fi genre, the existence of the regeneration mechanic is justified in-game. It is based on an advanced technology unique to the lore of the Halo universe, called energy shielding. Once activated, it protects the user by deflecting all incoming objects impacting its surface.

Only after it has taken too much damage is the user able to sustain life-threatening injuries. This helps to allow the player to reasonably suspend their disbelief in a manner that is consistent within the lore established by Halo’s narrative.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Metal Gear Solid 3 employs a more traditional health gauge in order to illustrate the amount of damage protagonist Naked Snake has endured. Unlike previous entries in the franchise, however, the player is forced to take into consideration the risk of permanent damage and injury caused by carelessness or prolonged harm.

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Depending on the situation, Snake can suffer from gunshot wounds, broken bones, cuts and burns. He can even become sick from food poisoning, stomach illness and colds. If left untreated by the player, these afflictions will negatively impact the gameplay, affecting your aim or being unable to regain full health.

Players aren’t just allowed to simply use rations or other curable items to regain their health. The player has to contend with the consequences that frequent firefights with enemies and living off of the land would actually entail.

This allows the player to more readily suspend their disbelief in accepting that Naked Snake could survive the damage inflicted on him, due to them having to treat his injuries personally and seeing the effects it has on his abilities.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption

The Vampire: The Masquerade series lends itself to being able to justify its use of seemingly unrealistic health mechanics to convey player damage.

Health can only be managed through the intake of blood. You do this by feeding on innocent civilians, using blood containers or even your own party members. Unless you are willing to tread the morally ambiguous ground that is inherent to the role of a vampire, you are unable to regain health.

Rather than just allowing its health mechanics to serve as an arbitrary measurement of HP, Vampire: The Masquerade uses it as a means to organically link it to the recurring gameplay loop in a way that can be justified in-game.

Instead of regaining health using miscellaneous items or by the ability to inexplicably regenerate health, the game incorporates the trait most commonly associated with vampires to benefit its gameplay and player immersion.

Ultimately, the use of arbitrary health mechanics is not something that is so intrusive as to make it completely impossible for players to suspend their disbelief. But, with thought and attention, they can be used to further immerse us into and enhance the experience the game is trying to facilitate. By incorporating it into the gameplay in ways that seem believable within the scope and context of the game, developers can take advantage of the players need to suspend their disbelief.

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