Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Heal Me!

One of the games I downloaded for free this week was Healer's Quest, the work of a one-man studio, the man in question being one Pablo Coma. He's something of a renaiassance man in gaming terms, responsible for everything from coding to graphics to gameplay. He even does the music.

If you're interested in finding out more about Pablo, don't bother looking at the official website for the game. It's one of the most minimal I've ever seen. It has a trailer and an amusing in-character description of what to expect when you play and that's it.

The company behind Healer's Quest also has a website. It seems to consist of Pablo and no-one else and it's called Rablo Games. Presumably Pablo Games was already taken, possibly by this guy

The Rablo Games website has rather more detail about the game and about Pablo, who talks about himself rather unsettlingly in the third person, assuming it was indeed he who wrote the text. "Pablo is also the official game developer & game supervisor of the Smurfs’ studio. You can play his Smurfs’ games here" he says, unnervingly. There's no hyperlink so where "here" might be is anyone's guess.

There is a hyperlink to "the best online casino" which we're encouraged to follow "to enter the real money casino competition" for which we'd need to "click on the competition button and log in with your username and password." 

I clicked on it, which was possibly unwise. It goes to a Canadian casino site at which point I declined to pursue things any further. What this has to do with the game I have not the slightest clue.

A much safer bet is to go look for the game on Steam, where it has a current price-tag of £11.39, a peculiar amount I can only assume must have been converted directly from some other currency. It also has a "Very Positive" rating and plenty of reviews explaining exactly what the game's about.

I could do that, too. I've played for long enough. I've healed my way through the first dungeon and some distance into the second. My character is level sixteen with the rest of the team a few levels lower. I've seen enough to put together a first impressions piece, if not a full review.

I'm not going to. I'll just say it's a slick, enjoyable game with compulsive gameplay and a sense of humor that manages to stay just the right side of self-satisfied. Graphically it has clean lines and clear colors that rest easily on the eye. The UI does a job of work and looks attractive doing it.

For a more in-depth impression that goes about as deep as I'd be likely to go after the time I've spent with the game you could try this review at Switchaboo, which matches my own experience fairly closely. The reviewer played the game on the Switch but it sounds functionally identical to the PC version.

It wasn't the game I wanted to talk about, anyway. I was more interested in the elevator pitch that underpins it. 

Healer's Quest is a nutshell parody of the experience of a kind of traditional mmorpg player once common, now all but extinct: the pure healer. For a couple of years I was one of those players. Even now I would say it was the zenith of my career in the genre. It was certainly the most satisfying, fulfilling, absorbing gameplay I ever enjoyed.

Over the course of several years I played a number of healing classes in a number of different mmorpgs. I did my first real group-work as a druid in EverQuest back in the Kunark and Velious eras. At launch, I started out as a Templar in EverQuest II then switched to a Defiler. I was a Disciple in Vanguard, still the best healing class I've ever played. As recently as my short run in Final Fantasy XIV I played one of those healers with the funny little pet. I forget what those are called.

I've played various shamanic healers, I've been the healing priest in any number of religions, I've channelled the primal spirits of beasts and the pure elemental forces of the planes to restore others to health. I've even reversed the flow of the dark powers of necromancy to bring life instead of undeath.

It was always enormous fun. The thrill of standing at the back, watching my party's health bars, topping them off when they dip, is something I've never known to get old. It's fun to be able to throw in the odd dot or debuff but the absolute apogee of the form is the pure healing role, when all you do is keep your colleagues standing and they do all the rest.


There's a little more to it than that, of course. There are the cures and the buffs and the wards. Curses need removing. All the little stuff. But it's the healing that counts.

Non-healers rarely see the point. They want to be healed, of course they do. They want to be healed so they can carry on with the real business at hand: dealing damage. Everything fun comes down to that, doesn't it? Hitting things with big hunks of metal and seeing them fall down. Setting things on fire and watching them burn.

Perhaps the only players who vaguely understand the healer's point of view are the tanks. The traditional ones, that is. The old school warriors who don't care how much damage they do just so long as they can take what's coming. The ones who want to be a wall no mob is ever going to tear down, who want to stand there and take it and make sure no-one else gets any at all.

Tanks like that are almost as out of fashion as pure healers, of course. It's been a while since just taking damage was a full role. You have to deal it out as well or you just aren't pulling your weight.

I miss pure healing a lot. Playing Healer's Quest has been a bittersweet experience for me. It's a decent simulation of the playstyle I enjoyed back in those glory years although it could do with being slowed down a good deal for the full effect. I always had time to think, back then, and the thinking was the meat of it.

I was mostly lucky with my groupmates, too. I didn't always get taken for granted. Sometimes people even said thank-you when they didn't die, although only when they'd imagined they were going to. Like the Lone Ranger, though, a true healer doesn't do it for the thanks. They do it because it needs to be done.


Around the time I drifted away from trinity grouping towards an alpha-omega of solo and gang fights the expectations were shifting in a way I didn't find pleasant. When I was a cleric in EverQuest I prided myself on doing the absolute minimum. Mana was precious. Only a fool would burn it for the sake of looking busy. 

The game was to be always ready. Maybe the fights were easy right now. Maybe I hadn't had to cast a heal for a while. Maybe I could pass the time smiting. Every little helps. Yes, until a roamer walks around the corner and adds or the ranger misses a runner. Then we're knee-deep in goblins and we'd all be wishing I'd sat on my hands instead of wiggling them like a bargain-basement wizard.

Even before I'd given up the game those arguments weren't flying with everyone. A lot of people played healers for less than noble reasons. Healers get groups. But healing is boring, some say. They said it loud and often and eventually someone listened. 

I remember the patches that kept adding damage spells to my cleric's book. I remember every new mmorpg, every new healing class, all adding new ways for healers to put monsters in their place. And that was fine. As I said, my favorite healing class of all time is the disciple, who keeps a party on its feet by kicking monsters in the head. 

Those classes and those games were designed to have dynamic, forceful, aggressive healers. I didn't have a problem with that but I did take issue with the changing expectations it brought for those of us who still followed the old ways. I did not take kindly to being told, or even asked politely, to stand up and smite instead of sitting at the back doing nothing.


I wasn't doing nothing. I was watching. Watching for approaching adds or respawns. Watching for anything that might mean a change in the situation. Watching for for anything unforeseen. You could say it wasn't my job to do that. Maybe the ranger ought to be the one, or the tank. But they had enough to do already, the tank keeping all the monsters interested, the ranger figuring out how not to die. Again.

Increasingly, people didn't want to hear it. My regular groupmates never said anything but pick-ups did. Not to me, not often. I didn't heal much in pugs. I took my magician for those. No-one ever expects much of a mage. But I heard plenty.

By the time I finally took a run at World of Warcraft the writing was on the wall. I was about to leave when the Dungeon Finder dropped. I stayed to see what this novel new concept was like. I did a couple of dungeons on my priest. It was eye-opening. Even then, when the whole thing was brand new, everyone was impatient. A priest who only healed was a drag anchor.

In my final healing role, that first month I spent in FFXIV, even though the game and everyone playing it was brand new, there were expectations I didn't want to meet. I was able to meet them, sure. I just didn't want to. That's not what playing a healer means to me. Or it wasn't, then.

Now, I'm not sure what playing a healer means, if it means anything. I play a lot of classes in a lot of games and nearly all of them heal at least a little. In solo play they heal themselves. In groups they chip in with everybody else because the kind of groups I find myself in these days are huge, amorphous, unstructured and above all forgiving. Everyone chucks something into the healing pot and somehow we all survive. 

I was interested to see that the upcoming Swords of Legends uses the holy trinity. I'm curious whether that means genuine, dedicated healing roles or just some damage dealers who heal better than others. Ashes of Creation, the game I still half expect to be my next long-term engagement, also follows the trinity but again I have no clear understanding of what that might mean in practice.

Would I want to be a pure healer again? That's a question. Until yesterday I most likely would have said not. I've thought about it a few times in latter years and I thought I'd come to the conclusion I was over it, until Healer's Quest, simple as it is, gave me a jolt of how healing a group used to feel.

It felt good. Until it went wrong. Then it was hell.

On balance I'm not sure I could take the stress. If I do end up grouping regularly again in Ashes or Pantheon or some other game with structured roles, most likely I'll go for a utility class, someone who can patch heal and off tank and generally make themselves useful without everything falling apart if I get it wrong once in while.

Pure healing is a thankless task. It's all responsibility and no grandstanding. It's making people feel so safe they forget they need you at all. It's being the desgnated driver, every time.

The appeal is limited. I can see why it died out. 

But I'm glad I was able to do it when it counted, all the same.

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