Nerve Endings and New Beginnings: Pain in Video Games

Violence and injury is a near ubiquitous threat in video games and indeed, most mediums and forms of fiction.

However, video games in particular, being such an action packed form of entertainment, seem to put their characters in harm’s way more often than other mediums. As such, many video game characters come across Die Hard-esque John McClane type characters. Hell, in one cutscene in The Last of Us, the protagonist, Joel, gets impaled on a piece of glass- later making a full recovery. Outside of cutscenes, it is part of everyday life for game characters to get shot, stabbed, eaten and exploded.

As a result, modelling injury has become one of the most well explored and fleshed out parts of game design. Injury systems in games like Metal Gear Solid 3, Deus Ex, Red Orchestra 2, Halo, and even Mario Bros. add depth and complexity to the base game mechanics. Furthermore, they do loads for mechanically expressing tone and setting. In Metal Gear Solid 3, for example, bones have to be splinted and bullets have to be removed. The fact that Snake has to scrounge for things like splints and bandages on top of looking for food reinforces the themes of jungle survival in the game. Even a game popularly seen as “casual” and lacking artifice such as Call of Duty has a rationale behind its health system. In most Call of Duty games getting shot smears your screen with red jelly; hiding or otherwise avoiding damage causes the jelly to dissipate. For better or for worse, this system accomplishes something. It encourages sticking to cover whilst popping out and taking popshots. Really, this health system is perfect for the series’ action movie ethos.

MGS3 Snake

That being said, after all of this time, I think there is one aspect to these types of injury systems that has been long overlooked: pain. Physical pain has been all but ignored or trivialized in game mechanics. If we’re lucky, pain is represented with sound effects or with throbbing red or grey lines. In a similar vein, we will be privy to cries of agony and the pained faces of game characters. Pain in gaming is always shown but never felt, it is seen as the window dressing of injury. Worse, in many video games, pain is sometimes conflated with injury. For example, in Battlefield 1 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2: Vietnam, using a morphine syringe will heal and revive teammates. In these games, injury effectively is pain. To a large degree, I think that this blurring of injury and pain originates from D&D’s Gary Gygax’s characterization of hit points, he used to say that: “Hit points are a combination of actual physical constitution, skill at the avoidance of taking real physical damage, luck and/or magical or divine factors.” Health systems, in many games, have gotten more granular than that, but pain remains abstracted out of the process.

In our day to day lives, it’s obvious that pain is different from injury. A paper cut can hurt pretty badly, but it is not an injury in the same sense that a broken finger is. Additionally, pain is managed differently from injury. A cast on that same broken finger treats the injury whilst a prescription of oxycontin manages the pain. Sometimes the pain that accompanies an injury is just as gnawing as the pain itself.

Dr. Drew Leder examines pain in his book, The Absent Body. According to Leder, when we are in pain: “a region of the body that may have previously given forth little in the way of sensory stimuli suddenly speaks up… This is typical of the inner body, often silent except at times of discomfort. Even body regions that are ordinarily perceptible still present a heightened call when in pain.” In short, when in pain, our body reveals itself in a way it usually doesn’t. Conversely, when we aren’t in pain, our body (in a sense) disappears from our perception.

Okay, enough philosophy, what does this mean for video games? I think there is the potential for video games to explore pain in a way that adds mechanical depth. Video games (and fiction in general, really) are in a large part about struggle. Likewise, pain is a struggle. Pain enriches and complicates our experience just as much as any other struggle does. Imagine, perhaps, a game where a character drinks and takes pills to manage pain from old injuries. He or she maybe would have to balance pain and addiction, walking a fine line between both. Or maybe a third person game wherein being in pain brought the character character closer to the camera. This would, as per Leder, bring the body to the forefront and color the perceptions of the player in a way more meaningful than a red or grey overlay on the screen.

There are some games, however, that I think should be applauded for their use of pain. One series, Valve’s Left 4 Dead, differentiates the effects of medical kits from painkillers. In Left 4 Dead, painkillers are more plentiful than medical kits and offer an alternative form of temporary health. Another series that employs pain in a meaningful way is the Far Cry series. In the Far Cry games, when your character is critically low on health, he looks either at his hand or his arm or his leg and goes through a very vivid animation wherein he wretches shrapnel or glass from his body. Additionally, in Far Cry 2, companions are sometimes mortally wounded. For them, you can sacrifice valuable morphine syrettes in order to ease their pain. This gesture, while not totally divorcing injury from pain, introduces depth and conveys the danger of the setting while expanding the game’s use of “health items.”

Games in the future will most likely continue to explore and develop their injury systems as a way of exploring and expressing setting. Pain as a game mechanic, however, ought to be tapped and utilized just the same. Pain is its own challenge and could add that much more depth to the games that we all love and enjoy.

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