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The Guggenheim Effect on Gaming

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June 15th, 2011 at 6:29 pm

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During the grand Marvel comics crossover event of 2006 – Civil War – Wolverine, the clawed Canuckle-head, chased after the super villain who triggered the whole shebang, Nitro. Nitro is a guy whose power is to blow up, not in the “I ated too many pizzas” sense, but rather in the “Ladies and gentlemen, I am a human bomb” conceptualization. Now this was a match-up that made little sense for Wolverine as his capabilities consist of stabbing lots of things quickly; he just didn’t have the ability to contain Nitro or prevent him exploding like a Michael Bay movie.

Still, writer Marc Guggenheim had Wolvie go after him. Guess what happened?

Predictably, Nitro blew up. But rather than have our hero dodge out of the way or shield himself behind some cover, Wolverine took the full brunt of it, and ended up a bit, shall we say, disintegrated?

Right down to the furious fuzzball’s metal skeleton.

No, the outcome wasn’t that surprising. Nor was what followed – Wolverine got better – it was his book (and he has a super human healing ability) after all. But what was surprising was how damn fast it happened. It was just a few minutes later that claw boy had enough skin and muscle to attack Nitro full force.

This was the moment where Wolverine effectively became broken.

Thanks Mr. Guggenheim!

“That expression of gratitude is registering off the charts!”

Sure, Wolverine had been messed up and recovered before, that’s his schtick. But the level of destruction here was easily the most damage he’d ever received; there was nothing left to regenerate from (or at least nothing visible). Having him recover in a month or more might have been stretching it, but minutes? What then is a threat to the character? You can’t even delay him much if he can recover so quickly. As a result: how can there ever be any drama in a battle if there is no peril?

Sure, we all watch movies or read books and know that the “good guys” are more than likely to win the day. But usually there are costs. An injury is sustained that the hero will carry forever. Their friends may perish. They too, may die for the greater good. The point is, we have to see the struggle and it’s effects on them for anything to matter at all.

If an actor can’t show us the struggle WITH their face, then we better see it ON their face.

But how can you have a thrilling battle with a character who can recover so fully and so quickly? The answer is simple: you can’t. If that’s the case, what’s the point of following a character who has these traits? At least for myself the answer is simple: I don’t – they’re boring.

So how does this relate to video games?

If you read my review for L.A. Noire, you’ll notice that I had some issues with it, especially with the combat. Aside from the lack of novelty in the cover shooter mechanics used, probably the biggest problems are that the player both has unlimited ammunition on their pistol (which is both accurate and powerful) and has incredibly swift health regeneration. These two facts combine to make combat altogether too easy, which drains confrontations in the game of any actual danger to the player, even when the game is trying to be dangerous. Notice a trend here?

Now I don’t have too much problem with the gun that has an infinite amount of ammo. While in certain cases it is a bit much (and perhaps I should address it in the future), it’s not that bad. Heck, any “Shoot ‘Em Up” game comes with infinite ammo on the main gun, otherwise they’d probably be unwinnable. Besides, reloading is rarely a plot point in most action movies . . .

Unless it allows for the hero to say something really cool.

No, as with Guggenheim’s Wolverine folly, it’s the health regeneration that I’m focusing on for this session of the committee. It’s a “feature” that’s all too prevalent in gaming these days. I for one feel it’s just a lazy bit of game design, and ends up ruining many more games than it improves. So I call this session of the committee to order! It’s time to get into the nitty gritty of the primary Healthcare issue of gaming: redundant regeneration!

First let me state: this is not about difficulty.

Though I definitely come from an age long past, where games were “Nintendo Hard” because we were playing Nintendo games, and as a result I prefer a game to be more challenging, health regeneration by itself has nothing to do with difficulty. There are plenty of games out there that have HP regen that are still difficult, and games without it that are too easy. My preference for tougher games has just made me more aware of this as a problem, but that doesn’t mean my bias precludes it from being a problem.

So no, I am not just being a grumpy old man complaining about the “Kids today, and their new fangled game mechanics!”

Or at the very least, I’m not being OLD. Yet.

So what’s wrong with regeneration? Inherently, nothing. It’s a design decision based on choice or preference like any other, just as using a system of lives is, or having bosses. When implemented well it can definitely work.Specifically, it’s a technique used to manage player health, which is already a rather nebulous concept that generally only works as metaphor anyway.

Actually, in order to properly get into the heart of this, understanding the conventions of health in games might be useful. The quick rundown is as follows: early games often ran on an on/off in regards to player health. You were either alive or dead, resulting in a plethora of games that essentially ran off the “one hit and you’re dead” motif. . .

. . . which as The Silver Surfer knows, can be quite frustrating.

So in order to give players more of a chance, as it’s pretty easy to fill games with hazards and overwhelm the “One Hit Point Wonders”, developers started to include multiple gradations of damage until death, which are commonly known as “Hit Points” (or HP for short). It’s a rather odd concept as it rarely makes actual sense – a tiny bunny bite and a battle-axe blow might both hurt equally – but it does give the player more room for error before they have to restart from a checkpoint. Really, that’s all any game’s health system is about: how many errors can the player make before they have to try again?

As time went on, the idea of how hit points were represented and how they could be recovered evolved into a myriad number of ways. There are games where you can’t get life back until you beat a level, games where you’re protected by magic greasy rings, any RPG Inn has beds featuring magic fingers (of health!), and of course there are just plain old magic spells and potions available in every fantasy adventure. The variations on healing are as endless as they are insane.

Here in Metro City, we find that eating any food you happen to find on our streets does wonders for your immune system!

Regenerating health has been around for about as long too. In the early days it was rather slow, often taking several real time minutes to recover even half your HP. Often, this was supplemented by another system for more immediate healing. But then in 2001, Halo was released.

In an effort to further reduce the time a player wasn’t fighting, Halo: Combat Evolved had regenerating health in the form of energy shields that were built into the protagonist’s armor. When your shields were brought down due to damage, you could find a safe spot to hide and they would recharge within a few seconds. It was a dual-layered health system though, as you still had traditional hit points once your shields were down, and this damage could only be recovered through the ubiquitous med-kit recovery item that was the traditional form of recovery in previous FPS games.

Well, Halo proved to be VERY popular, and soon everyone was adding health regeneration to their games, especially in other First-Person Shooters. When Call of Duty 2 released in 2005 – also ditching med-kits in favor of regeneration – it solidified the popularity of the concept, and soon everyone was doing it. Nowadays regenerating health is pretty much the norm for most action games, all but guaranteed in a FPS, and has even bled into a the occasional RPG or three.

The big wave of games that cemented regeneration came out around 2005-2006. This is both when people started to implement the concept poorly, and also when Guggenheim’s run on Wolverine pretty much did the same, hence the titular “Guggenheim effect”. Of course that’s probably just a coincidence.

It’s not like Lost‘s Jacob can touch EVERYONE. Right?

And though I know that Mr. Guggenheim only ruined one comic character and has no causation over what’s happened to gaming, I still think the effect of overpowered health regeneration is best represented by his short stint on Wolverine. Mostly because it’s a well known example of someone missing the point entirely with a concept that isn’t fundamentally bad, which is what has happened in video games when it’s applied poorly.

So how is it that the concept can be done poorly? Why is Halo‘s implementation good and other versions bad? Are we finally at the main point of the article?

Yes, we sure are. So let’s delve into it my lovelies!

When a game has simple HP regeneration as the core health mechanic it fails the user in four unique and distinct fashions:

1) It prevents certain types of danger from actually being dangerous.

This is my biggest issue with the concept by far. Normally, you’d think walking through say, a room of flaming napalm wouldn’t be a good thing for a guy’s longevity right? Well, in a game that has health regeneration, often you can walk through such a hazard with few ill effects. Sure, you’ll take damage, but cross through it quickly enough and wait twenty seconds, now you’re completely better and non burned.

It’s an issue of attrition really. With HP regen, you cannot be worn down from enough small mistakes. Some see this as a benefit (as it’s very forgiving obviously) but it means you eventually learn to stop fearing any “small” danger that won’t kill you outright. Stuff like fire, or poison gas, or in the case of L.A. Noire, handgun bullets.

Soon enough, facing a mook with a pistol isn’t dramatic or interesting because you know he poses no threat. When this is used to make your character seem the badass, in a universe that stretches credulity anyways, then this macho, gung-ho, “I don’t have time to bleed” mentality can work as a benefit. But when a game plays it straight and treats these non-threats as seriously as they should be, especially if it’s in an otherwise realistic or mundane setting, it leads to a weird tonal disparity.

Pictured: Weird tonal disparity, the definition of.

Considering that the core drama in the action moments in any given games is “Trying not to die”, making certain things less dangerous and therefore less dramatic by removing danger is just bad storytelling. Didn’t game designers learn that you should always raise the stakes?

Besides, there is the other major corollary to this. The lack of minor (let’s call it “scratch damage”) wounds over time removes some player agency in a theoretically interactive experience. If you avoid all of the scratch damage on the way to the boss, you’re in no better shape than the guy who didn’t.

It’s also bad for player training, since how you perform in fights actually less meaningful if you know there is no consequence. Just barely getting by with a bunch of wounds is as good as excelling with none. There is no real reason to learn how to become good at the game as a result!

How did Halo avoid this? By having the hero’s regenerating “health” only being half the system. Once Master Chief’s shields go down, he can be injured normally, and that level of “actual” health is recovered via traditional means (again with the med-kits!).

2) It’s just as silly as med-kits and potions, but involves more boredom and/or hindrance.

One of the main reasons that this method of recovery was initially applauded was that it was deemed “more realistic” as the player didn’t need to find a magical healing item that worked instantaneously, such as a potion. However, the main way you recover your health with a regeneration mechanic is by waiting in a safe location. Just plain waiting. As in doing nothing.

Heck, it even removes actions you would be doing in a game that uses a recovery item, such as searching (or running in panic) for a med-kit, or going into your inventory to inject the nano-gel. How is that an improvement? Not only is this just as unbelievable as applying a band-aid to a dragon bite, it’s boring.

Canada level boring.

Seriously, if the point is “realism”, then it should be brought up that few games explain how their health systems work, and fewer make any sense whatsoever. Crawling behind a rock to let your constitution kick in is just as silly as anything else.

Not only is it boring to wait behind rocks every couple of minutes, but it’s aggravating. Why? Because usually games with regeneration have figured that since your HP no longer needs to be quantified it doesn’t need to be shown, so they got rid of the health bar. Instead you get the weird bloody screen that obscures your vision, and the heavy breathing that dominates your audio.

So I really hope you enjoy looking at the beautiful landscapes and models the developers spent ages on through a used maxi-pad and listening to the boom mic in a porno that’s too close to the dude. Oh you don’t like those things? Well too bad. Apparently, that’s what happens when your HP regenerates.

What’s going on here? Where am I? Why does blood get in my eyes when my foot got shot? Why is it OK to remove the health bar, but not the ammo counter or radar?! It’s a bloody mess!

How did Halo avoid this? First off, they explain the regeneration as a working defense shield, which makes at least some sense in their science-fiction setting. Especially since real damage can still be dealt to your body requiring more traditional health items. Also, the screen doesn’t get stupidly red because you still have a health bar, which is consistent with all the other HUD info on screen.

3) If handled poorly, it promotes cowardice.

EDIT: Hereafter called the Duke Nukem Corollary, since this problem plagues his less than triumphant return.

Simple to explain really. You recover health by running away and hiding. Unless you’re playing as a coward, this probably isn’t what you want, as it can be pretty antithetical to making awesome action.

You have to figure out a way to hide this fact in a game if you do use health regeneration. Otherwise you’ll just end up looking like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

The silly version of King Arthur, I mean.

How did Halo avoid this? With the techno-babble explanation that the regeneration was for something as cool as a personal energy shield. Plus by making a point of having every character in the game refer to your bravery constantly in order to make up for it.

4) When the sole means of recovery, it makes balancing difficulty more challenging and developers lazier.

Ever play Halo 2 on Legendary? Call of Duty on Veteran? They both have health regeneration, and they’re plenty hard. This is the main reason I claim that regeneration has little to do with difficulty.

That being said, unlike in the old days where it was too easy to make a game too hard, when you have regen on it becomes just the opposite. Without careful attention, many challenges from older games just aren’t threatening, and I’d posit that L.A. Noire is an example of this.

Since there is no scratch damage to factor in developers usually try to compensate for your regeneration so enemies deal far more damage than they would before the Guggenheim Effect began. But it’s not that simple either. If an enemy can kill in two hits, he must be able of doing them in succession as running and hiding nullifies the damage completely.

Trying to find that “sweet spot” where enemies are threatening but the difficulty isn’t frustrating is a challenge under any circumstance, but now the dev has try to make something threatening without one of the tools (scratch damage) for it. It’s another X factor that wasn’t there before.

Countering this, theoretically having the player’s health be a known quantity (since it isn’t player dependent) would make balancing easier, and it does if the developers are good. But good devs would have made a well balanced game regardless of regen or not. Where it really matters are in the decent to mediocre developers.

Enter Call of Duty: Black Ops.

In “BlOps”, there were several scripted sequences where you can’t move or take cover when enemies were still shooting at you. On normal difficulty, these were used to give you some “barely survived” moments. However, on the highest difficulty the higher damage would often kill you before the sequence ended so you’d die through no fault of your own. The only way to proceed was to hope that the AI spawned in poorly upon loading the checkpoint – it was like playing Russian Roulette with only one chamber empty!

Because if there’s a game that looks like fun for the players, you should turn to Russian Roulette!

It was an unwinnable scenario except for pure luck and random chance, one that seems due to an oversight in their health mechanic. They probably forgot to tune the damage for these sequences because they figured the regeneration would be enough to carry the player through. This is especially ironic considering one of the main reasons developers liked health regeneration in the first place was that it theoretically allowed them to avoid “unwinnable due to low health” states.

Much as players themselves get lulled into complacency with regenerating health, so do developers. Why spend time worrying about whether an action sequence works well on multiple difficulties? Just add regenerating health! Why spend time thinking about where to place health items? Just add regen! Why worry about this unfair AI? Regen!

It solves everything!

If there’s one thing about developers, it’s that they love single solutions to multiple “problems”. Soon enough they’re just going to solve the “problem” of level design too!

Oh wait. Some devs already do that and claim it’s a feature. I forgot.

*sigh*

So how did Halo avoid this? Well, again, they didn’t rely on regeneration solely, and they were one of the first to implement it, so they actually did have to think about how it worked. Besides, Bungie is a good developer.

Caveat emptor – all these “Halo avoided this” counters were immediately thrown out in Halo 2 since it had simple regeneration in it. Awesome right? (again with the sarcasm!)

So there you have it folks! The primary problems with regeneration. But I’m not quite done with this topic, there are a lot of questions till left unanswered.

Are there solutions? What alternatives exist already? Will health in gaming ever make sense? Can it? Will I ever write a short article?

Valid queries all. Queries I intend to answer next time we meet. That’s right, this one’s a two-parter folks! Until then, I declare this session of the Committee is on recess!

See You next time! (I promise it’ll be shorter.)

  • Max

    Good points. However, if you select the right difficulty in any Halo game surviving most encounters will be challenging, so it most certainly IS about difficulty level. You die quickly if you make mistakes. In fact having to stay in out of fire while “waiting” can be unnerving, exciting, and hard. There are rarely bosses. But for instance; it would be easier to kill elites with the rocket launcher, but you might have a hard time with an enemy tank later on if you have used your rockets on elites. Also, using one of your two weapon slots for carrying a power-weapon makes you less versatile if you are not prepared to use it on most enemies.

  • Jeff

    In Transformers: War for Cybertron, you have health bars. Each bar will regenerate after a period of time as long as is isn’t completely depleted. Once you get down to your last bar, you have to play much more carefully until you find a some health. It leaves room for error, but doesn’t allow you to be careless. In multiplayer, certain classes have more bars, allowing them to soak up more damage, but everyone has some level of flexibility when it comes to staying alive.

    This may not be the best solution, but I like it despite (or because of) my compulsion to always be at full health/ammo.

  • Adam Thomas

    To Jeff –

    Yeah actually I enjoy the War for Cybertron mechanic myself, it’s in a few other games too and I’m going to use it as an example of how to do regen right in the next article.

  • Kai Hohiro

    This was a nice read, but one a few points too one-sided so I’ll try to make some counter-points.

    First off LA Noire is not a particular good example, something like Gears would’ve been much fairer. LA Noire‘s shooting sections are overall mediocre and it wasn’t easy just because of the regenerating health, it simply was easy because it’s not designed as a particularly challenging action game. It even has a function to skip action sequences altogether after all. I’ll still argue though that regenerating health is what makes most sense in that game anyway, since it doesn’t feature any level design where finding random packs of health, arms and ammo (aside of the last level the game which is also arguably the weakest) would make sense.

    You bring up that health based regeneration involves boredom and waiting around doing nothing. But HP based action games had that too, namely in the form of the reload screen. Fact is due to simple screw ups players would reload on a more frequent basis. Didn’t make a jump and lost half your health due to the fall? Just reload instead of climbing back up the ladder. Or you finished an encounter, but very poorly and you know you could have easily done a lot better? Reload, you want some more resources for whatever is waiting in the next room. Tossed that grenade too close to your feet and blew off all your armor? Reload. Tripped off a bomb that took away 90% of your health? Just reload, you now know where it is.
    In HP based games the player wants to keep his HP topped off as well as possible since he is operating with a finite resource. But screw ups just happen eventually, but instead of dealing with the consequences you can just easily fix them with a quick hit of the F9 button, which is what many people do.
    Having a regenerative resource actually enables the player, both in game and also psychologically, to be more experimental maybe do things “his” way, instead of just playing it safe.

    You somewhat touch upon how this is a “fix” for level design, but I think there is more to say. HP based gaming makes you very dependant on the whims of the level designer to strategically place health and armor where you will need them. A good example are the boss preparation rooms in which you will usually find tons of health, armor and ammo to prepare you for the upcoming fight.
    But not every game is equal in design and in very bad cases the player could play himself into a corner. I remember seeing people asking for help about encounters, because they entered the room with only 11 health left, their last save is the autosave, there is no healthpack in sight and any other save is two hours back. Now they have to beat the encounter without getting hit once, good luck with that.

    Regenerative health allows easier balance for encounters since the designers can operate under the assumption that the player will enter a new encounter at full health. There are of course examples of bad level design where this may backfire like you mentioned above, but overall it allows developers to go more often all-out on the player, without having to worry if he found the secret room with health packs a little while back, or if he even has a chance to survive the next encounter with the health he has left after this one.

    Now I don’t argue that regenerative health should supplant HP entirely. For example HP systems make absolutely sense in games with some exploration elements like Bioshock and Half-Life, since here it’s part of the gameplay that the players explore some nooks and crannies in order to build up and maintain his combat capabilities.
    But in games like Gears or Bulletstorm, where the well designed encounters and action is in the forefront and there is little to no exploration, I believe health regeneration makes perfect sense. You want to keep the action going and not interrupt it by making the players look in random corners in order to keep his health topped off.

    So what is the perfect system in my eyes? There is none.
    The simple trick is to use the right system for the right game. A game like CoD wouldn’t profit the slightest from forcing the player to look for health packs because it’s a game about driven non stop action sequences and set-pieces.
    And on the flip-side a game like Bioshock which has many environmental hazards and corners to explore, would lose a lot of its charme with a regenerative system.
    There are also several games that employ hybrid systems like Halo and Transformers, but still the question is less “what is the overall perfect system” and more “what is the best system for a particular game”.

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