Video games have always had a dubious relationship with realism; that is the point of the medium. But even while players flit around alien worlds and carve a bloody path through Hell itself, one of the most egregious breaks with reality has always been the existential inertia showcased by the protagonist blessed with regenerating health.
On a practical level, regenerating health is a convenience for the player; it is an aspect of game design intended to keep gameplay threatening, without making it a hassle. It is a conscious choice to have the player focus on what is happening in front of them – a simplification designed to both stop you scavenging for health pickups, and from entering fights pre-wounded. If the player can recover all of their injuries in a few moments of sitting down quietly, then it encourages bolder play and more daring moves during gameplay.
On a practical level, regenerating health is a convenience for the player; it is an aspect of game design intended to keep gameplay threatening, without making it a hassle.
Consequently, it is no wonder that regenerating health is found so frequently in the first person shooter genre, especially in Call of Duty and Halo. Part of the fun of these games is your ability to engage in dangerous, risky moves without sacrificing the ability to make more later, to flow from combat scene to combat scene without the need to hunt for hidden health packs or rely on a healer.
It seems that players like it, too. Cover-based games with regenerating health have become an industry standard nowadays, with the trope rolling around in so-called triple A products for decades now. Warriors from Chivalry to Gears of War have fought off bullet wounds and sword lacerations to the face with a comfy sit-down behind some cover. Any injury in Borderlands can be fixed simply by ending the life of another creature while you’re bleeding out on the floor. As a result of this, enemy design is also freed up: it becomes kosher to face foes who can knock out nine-tenths of your health bar when that only accounts for a 15 second time-out.
Some games try and explain away regenerating health as shields, armour or some other kind of ablative protection. This philosophy has resulted in a more nuanced application of regenerating health in some games, hybridising limited and replenishing health to add some permanent implications to damage.
It is an aspect of game design intended to keep gameplay threatening, without making it a hassle.
Mass Effect 3 did it quite well, with your armour’s shielding acting as a regenerating barrier while the meat it protects needs restoration through medi-gel. Your robot body in Deus Ex: Human Revolution will secrete nanomachines and heal itself over time in a non-obtrusive fashion. With the ability to recover from wounds present but not overpowering, the overwhelming flexibility of approach these two games offer becomes a rich tapestry of experimentation without punishment for your failures.
And, I admit, regenerating health is good for gameplay. Anybody who’s played Metal Gear Solid 3 has had the endless cycle of knife-styptic-disinfectant-bandage to cure bullet wounds burnt into their brain. It is going to remain a part of the industry for as long as first-person shooters remain popular.
But I cannot help but have my immersion irreparably shattered every time my character picks themselves up off the ground, sucks their blood back into their veins and carries on fighting like their entrails aren’t painting the pavement.