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A Case for Regenerating Health

When Six Days in Fallujah was announced a few weeks ago, it received considerable backlash for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons were valid (“It’s too soon for a war game in Iraq,” “It could be disrespectful to soldiers”), others were not (“Games are only for escapism”), but what surprised me the most was the amount of backlash from gamers for the regenerating health system.

I admit that regenerating health is out of place in a game that’s supposed to be realistic, but also I think the word “realistic” has been unfairly applied to Six Days in Fallujah. The word “realistic” creates (ironically) unrealistic expectations for a mass-market war game. Gamers now expect their avatar to die easily; after all, it often doesn’t take more than one bullet to kill someone in real life so it shouldn’t take more than one bullet to kill our avatar. However, this kind of one-hit kill system would make the game dangerously difficult, and because of its broad intended audience, Six Days in Fallujah has to be accessible to all gamers. The subject matter itself is guaranteed to limit sales, so why further that with punishing gameplay? Concessions to reality must be made for playability. At least that’s the argument the developer made, but I believe the case for regenerating health goes beyond mere accessibility.

A common argument against this kind of health system is that making the game harder adds to the experience. One of the more clever alternatives I’ve read about was a system with one-hit kills that would swap the player into another soldier’s body after being shot. This would keep the intended realism since our avatar would take damage like a real person, but also allow the player to continue playing, keeping it accessible. It sounds like a good idea, but this is essentially a “lives” system. Is equating your squad mates to an “extra life” more or less disrespectful than regenerating health? And once you get down to your last “life,” you’ll have to fight on as a one-man army just like every other shooter game.

The main problem with any health system that uses one-hit kills or anything similar, is that it forces the player to fear death above all else. That this is a negative may seem counter-intuitive for a war game, but I believe making death the central focus for the player detracts from other, more important, aspects of the game.

Any sense of camaraderie the game might want to build between us and our squad is lost because we start to see them as nothing more than tools for our own survival. A one-hit kill health system encourages players to be overly cautious to the point of selfishness. For example, if we can issue commands we’ll send our squad ahead in case there’s an ambush while we hang back where it’s safe. And if a squad mate gets wounded and is lying in the open, the decision to rescue him becomes “Do I want to risk all the progress I’ve made since the last checkpoint?” instead of “Do I want to save my teammate?”

One-hit kills, or any other kind of health system that allows a player to die just as easily, encourages gamers to play the game as they would an old-school arcade game. Memorization of levels and enemy spawn points becomes a valid tactic, as does sacrificing squad mates for our own survival. At this point, no matter how realistic Six Days in Fallujah is, we’ll still only see it as a game. A regenerating health system may be unrealistic, but by removing the overwhelming fear of death it actually adds to the experience, subtly changing the way we think about the game, its obstacles, and our relationship with our squad.

Of course, all this assumes that, other than the regenerating health, Six Days in Fallujah will be an accurate portrayal of the battle. If it’s not then my argument is moot. Regenerating health will not, by itself, shatter the authenticity of a war game, but combining it will the pacing and action of a standard shooter will. If the combat, the crux of the game, is unreal, then regenerating health will only underscore how unreal the rest of the game is. Based on the showing at Konami's Gamers' Night, there are plenty of reasons to criticize Six Days in Fallujah, but I firmly believe that regenerating health is not one of them.

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