The corpse-strewn medieval countryside of The Witcher’s Northern Realms is a violent and desolate place. Every bend in the road conceals a lurking gang of cutthroat bandits, every thicket a pack of wolves, every craggy outcropping a flock of shrieking harpies. Wander beyond the safety of a village’s meagre log walls and you’ll find fairy tale monsters just waiting to rend you limb from limb, unless you’re ready to take steel in hand and beat back the things that go bump in the night.
Staying alive requires combat, and combat requires button-mashing and managing priorities under fire. Do you hang back where it’s safe or hound your enemy before he has a chance to recover? Do you focus on the ring leader or his underlings? The axman who’s approaching or the archer who’s hanging back? Potions and magic abilities add an element of resource management to the twitch-based frenzy. Do you try to trap the ghoul in a magic prison or mind control the drowner into submission? Prepare a health potion to keep you alive longer or a burst of adrenaline to end the fight sooner? Weighing these options carefully means the difference between feeding the corpse-eaters and walking away with a mere flesh-wound.
Geralt must heal these wounds, or die and lose his progress, a tradition as ancient in video games as any tomb on Skellige. It’s a way for the developer to add consequence to the battles. Without damage, there are no stakes, and without stakes, you’re just watching Medieval Times dinner theatre. On higher difficulties, this requires finding, preparing, and carrying food wherever you go. Flagons of ale and crusts of bread litter the wilds and flood your inventory. Staying alive means always planning for your next battle, and packing a light snack. It’s contrived, but a welcome bit of additional resource management to keep you in the mindset of a roving Witcher.
On easier difficulties, this system needlessly hamstrings the rhythm of the game. A conceit is introduced that meditation completely heals you, so a quick catnap beside the hacked-off limbs of the those who stood in your way is all that’s needed to get back in working order. This creates a routine of meditating after every battle that quickly becomes a chore, forcing the player to toggle to a menu to recuperate health at no cost beyond their annoyance. If the game is going to let the player recuperate health for free, it shouldn’t force them to navigate layers of menus to do so. The life of a Witcher is one of questing, fighting, and loneliness, not repeatedly phoning the concierge to schedule a wake-up service. It sticks out awkwardly from an otherwise meticulously seamless game. If the player can be given free health on easy difficulties, do it automatically, and save the player the headache of constantly remembering to schedule their daily sukahsana.
Mirror’s Edge tackles the problem in both its incarnations by giving Faith a glass jaw. The focus of the game is more on racing than combat, so the developers want Faith’s health to reinforce that approach. Faith can always run away from a battle in perfect health, but if she digs in and takes too many hits, she’s toast.The recent Doom reboot uses health as an incentive to pull players deeper into the demonic fray. The marine can heal himself instantly if he’s willing to charge headfirst into the maw, where the heart of the game pounds to an electro-metal beat. Plenty of more casual point and click games eschew dying entirely, because the game focuses on puzzle solving and story over resource management. Health as a resource and the system by which it’s limited and replenished should complement the focus of the game, the theme and mood the developer is trying to set. Reusing familiar but jury-rigged systems like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt does only creates a system that periodically bores the player and does nothing to enhance the game.