In which Mr. Jutla is more eloquent.

Amandeep: Half-life 2 has a pretty tenuous fucking scenario. And it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you stop and think about it. Though somehow it’s the more compelling of the two games, and the more together. Despite everything.

eric-jon: The scenario is kind of strange. The first half of the game is basically making up for that failed teleport. Basically, you SHOULD be getting the gravity gun right near the start. Instead, shit happens and you have to run around and take the long way. And then you mean to go straight back to the start — except you get sidetracked again, this time because that woman betrays everyone.

Basically, if everything had gone as planned, you’d leave the train station, find the lab, teleport to the other lab, get the gravity gun, then probably either teleport back or use some other speedy route back there. Then you’d head right in to the big tower thing where Breen is.

Amandeep: I think it all kind of hammers home the lack of agency you have. And the irony that Gordon “Freeman,” whom everyone considers a savior and a hero, really has no control whatsoever of what happens.

Hell, right when you kill Breen — that’s it. the G-Man just pauses everything and pulls you out of there. You can’t even say goodbye to Alyx.

eric-jon: Which, yeah, is commentary on the difference between liberty and freedom in game design. You’ve complete autonomy, within some really limited options. It’s pretty overt.

Amandeep: An interesting point of contrast is that in Half-Life 1, Gordon HAS agency. I mean, you, the player, don’t, really, since everything’s scripted, etc. But the idea is that Gordon, on his own initiative, and using his own intelligence and skill, managed to escape Black Mesa. And he went to Xen, and he fucking kicked some ass, all of his own volition.

And the G-Man was watching the whole time — so at the end he says, hey. Come with me. And if you decline — you know. He basically kills you. You have to say yes. So then he locks you away.

And in Half-Life 2, everything’s completely different. The Barneys and scientists in HL1 treat Gordon like just one of them — even though he really IS the savior and he really IS the hero there. In HL2, everyone thinks he’s a hero but he has no free will anymore.

eric-jon: He’s become trapped by his own legend, in a way. The player is meant to succeed, ultimately will succeed if he keeps playing. So the player is only inserted where he’s needed.

HL2 is one big experiment with and commentary on player agency. Between the scenario, narrative, level design, and flow — funneling the player as this detached entity who basically serves to do what the game wants done — and the gravity gun, and all it suggests.

The gravity gun is sort of the counterargument. No grand freedom, but hell if you can’t make something with what you’ve got. One of the first times in a videogame you can really reach out and screw with stuff at will like that.

Physically pick stuff up — through the concept of shooting stuff. Translating that primordial ping into an actual touch. More or less.

It’s, uh, kind of like what Gandalf says. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

HL2 is one of the first really sharp sketches of the relationship between game and player, and what that relationship might mean — both for the form and for the audience. This is the form of dialog, and these are the kinds of subjects that can be explored.

It’s kind of a tutorial. Just a starting place, really. But with the current sophistication of the tools we’ve got, this is maybe about as nuanced a discussion as we can hope for. This is where videogames are, artistically. This is the level of dialog we can expect.

I’m not thinking of any other games since SMB that really make that kind of a statement. Doom, maybe. For its part. Though not in the same way, exactly. Certainly nothing else in the 8 or 16-bit eras. Some people might say Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time. But, er.

Amandeep: Hell yeah man. Ocarina of Time. Best damn game ever.

Though actually. Ocarina of Time makes the same statement, just in a totally inverse way. It’s a game that stands there proudly and says: check this out! this is what videogames are! this is what they can do!

eric-jon: It does. That’s true. So does Mario 64. Just not, you know… um. It doesn’t pertain to anything else, I guess I should say.

Amandeep: I mean like. Mario 64 is basically a tech demo. Half-Life 2 is a “tech demo”, but not in the same sense. It is a tech demo in the sense that it’s a demonstration of technology. Whereas Mario 64 is a tech demo in the sense that it’s a tech demo.

eric-jon: Mario 64 is both a tech demo and a brainstorm of new tropes. For use in making more videogames. Here are a bunch of random ideas for you to scotch tape together and make stuff. Have fun!

HL2 is hugely existential. It’s all about the nature and purpose of a videogame as a tool for discussion. In that sense, it is artistically practical. It’s all about — okay, how are we using this medium? What’s it for?

Whereas Mario 64 is, you know. Whee! It’s-a me! I can-a do this! It’s just brainstorming about what you could possibly do in 3D space, with a limited array of buttons.

Amandeep: So, thought process behind Mario 64: “Shit, we can make games in 3d now. Hell, what can we do with that? Let’s make some rooms and shit. It’ll be great.”

Thought process behind HL2 is more like: “So we know how videogames work — what can we do with that? How can we make something interesting out of that?”

eric-jon: What’s kind of hilarious, sort of, is that within two tries id made something pretty damned virtuosic in (effectively) 3D space. Which borrowed heavily from Miyamoto’s earlier ideas, then, you know, used them to do something of a sophistication that no one else really matched until Valve came along. In terms of the use of space.

Amandeep: And Half-Life 1 is kind of a remake of Doom. Almost overtly. Though it expands on Doom and does all the stuff with it that wasn’t possible four years before. I think the difference is that Valve, in cribbing from id, didn’t literally take Doom and graft more shit on top of it, which is the way EAD works.

eric-jon: Something else fun: Half-Life came out the same time as Ocarina. Which is kind of artistically ridiculous, put side by side. Especially since most of what Ocarina had to contribute was more convoluted brainstorming.

Amandeep: Yeah, the philosophy of z-targeting is: “We can’t figure out how to get this combat stuff, that worked out so well in Link to the Past, to work here. Let’s find some way to fuck with the camera such that it’s always facing the right way instead of rethink the way combat works.”

Like, Doom, probably one of the most stereotypically “boneheaded” games in history, is fucking light-years more intelligent than like, Ocarina of Time is. First-person shooters are boneheaded in the sense that literally every single one of them save Half-Life 2 comes down to killing shit with your gun. That’s a valid form of expression. It’s just got limited range.

I mean, if you could reach out and touch things with something other than a gun — speaking metaphorically here — that’d be great. If the interaction was a little more nuanced than KILLING SHIT. We have the technology to move a little past that. To figure out some new verbs.

eric-jon: Right. Thus, Portal. A bit of Mirror’s Edge, maybe. Though it has guns in it… hum.

Amandeep: Yeah. Yeah, Portal, exactly. Portal is a natural extension of this.

eric-jon: Hell, even the concept of a portal gun is a natural next step from a gravity gun. Well. It’s not a logical progression or anything. It’s a lateral jump. But, well.

Okay, Step one: How about a gun that, instead of just killing shit, lets the player pick stuff up. Send out a SONAR ping, that lets you actually physically touch what you ping.

Step two: Well, how about we just cut out the space between you and whatever you’re reaching for.

HL2 is having a remote control for your TV. Great! Portal is not needing the remote control. Albeit… through a slightly byzantine process. Like, you reach into the couch beside you and your arm comes out across the room to turn the knob on the TV.

Amandeep: The gravity gun is great, symbolically. Like, it’s the gravity… GUN. It lets you touch things and pick them up and shit, but, you know… Valve’s still admitting that… still the only real end to that means is using that shit you picked up to kill shit.

It’s a hell of a start, though. I mean, there are those physics puzzles, which are nice, but they’re… you know. They’re just kind of there. They’re cute.

eric-jon: But yeah, as you say. HL2 is a start to something. What’s dumb is that it’s still basically not been followed up on. Aside from Portal, which is tentative itself, and maybe Mirror’s Edge to some extent.

What Mirror’s Edge does is it gives the player a body sense. A sense of actual being. Whereas HL2 and Portal are very much about the floating intelligence of the player.

Amandeep: Yeah, what kind of bothers me is that even though I have more faith in Valve than probably any other game developer out there right now, they’re not… really doing anything. Like, they hired the kids who made Portal and gave them a budget, but the fact that they’re doing those Half-Life 2 episodes kind of disappoints me.

eric-jon: Yeah, their whole job is basically to analyze what’s been done so far, and then make a statement. But… I guess since no one else has done anything since their last summary…

Amandeep: It kind of says something about how dire the industry is.

And I mean… I don’t think they’re BAD or anything. It’s just kind of disappointing that they caved to all the fans saying MORE HALF LIFE 2 ALSO WTF WAS THAT ENDING ABOUT

eric-jon: It’s kind of End of Evangelion, yes.

Amandeep: And I feel like they’re kind of dangerously close to that American developer billions of expansion packs and incremental sequels mode.

eric-jon: It would be nice if there were more interesting things to do in a videogame than break shit. HL2 does a great job of elevating the significance of breaking shit. And breaking the boundary between player and game in the breaking of shit.

But as you say, you’re still just throwing plates against the wall. A mute man, even, doing this.

Amandeep: Valve’s summary of videogames circa 2004: “A mute man throwing plates against the wall.”

Postscript: Meanwhile, the role of the game is to steer the player to new walls and dole out new kinds of plates, at a satisfying pace and as invisibly as possible. Too slowly and the player starts to look down and ask “Wait, what am I doing?”; too quickly, and the player feels overwhelmed and asks the same question. Make your presence too obvious, and the player feels manipulated and again asks. This is why game design demands so much psychology; it’s all a big con.

subjective level design

Aderack:  I’d love to see a game with completely subjective level design. We sometimes get this in cases where, say, the inside of a building — after a transition — is way bigger than the outside, or where the Metroid 2 map winds around and over itself (though that can be interpreted as “flattened” 3D movement around the planet).

What I mean, though, is that the reality of anything not directly in the player’s line of sight is up for grabs. Ideally, this would be executed in such a manner that the player does not necessarily notice things shifting around.

Toups:  I’m not sure I get it. you mean like it’s different every time you play?

Aderack:  No, I mean the only basis for reality you have is what you’re seeing at that absolute moment. If you try to retrace your steps, you may well find yourself someplace alien. Perhaps the player would be guided by there being one thread of consistent reality to follow.

Toups:  kind of like silent hill but not scripted?

Aderack:  Sort of.

Toups:  have you played LSD d00d?

Aderack:  No.

Toups:  that’s… apparently what it’s like? I haven’t played it myself, either

Aderack:  I mean, simple example: You walk down a corridor and turn the corner. There’s something you don’t want to deal with around the corner, so you turn back — except when you do so, the corridor no longer leads back exactly where you expect it to. Everything you do is moving “forward” in some way.

Toups:  yeah. I feel like there’s a game that at least has a segment like that…

Aderack:  And it would all be in real-time like that.

Toups: but I can’t think of it

Aderack:  There are lots of games that have parts similar to this. Lost Woods. Though I’m thinking of it being rather more subtle and surreal.

Toups:  yeah

Aderack:  The idea being to create anxiety. You never know where you’re going. The way that dreamspace makes no logical sense.

Toups:  right. it would be kind of difficult to uh make that work in a way that’s not frustrating

Aderack:  Not really all that difficult.

Aderack:  I’m thinking in particular of it being sort of a FPS format. Since that would be idea, camera-wise.

Toups:  you know I think there’s a DOOM level like that. maybe it was fanmade. but basically like you’re in this maze. but the paths keep changing as you cross certain lines. so when you turn around you have to go a different way. which isn’t quite the same but it’s an approximation. I have distinct memories of that sort of thing…

Aderack:  Sort of, yeah. I’m really thinking about an urban setting. Streets and landmarks that keep shifting.

Toups:  that’d be pretty awesome, yeah

Aderack:  You can stop and ask for directions, and they’re always random.

Toups:  hmmmm. sort of like… this?

Aderack:  There are maps you can stop and look at, at bus terminals or whatever, and they’re always just abstract enough that you can’t quite figure out where you are, yet they seem plausible. There’s never a “you are here” dot. Or maybe there is, right toward the beginning. Or if there’s an ocean walling in one side of the city. If you get on a subway or bus or whatever, none of the stops have exactly the right name. And it keeps making turns and stuff. Until you’re completely lost.

Or alternatively: level design that is set, yet which doesn’t conform to any rational design. It only makes sense in the moment.

Toups:  uhh

Aderack:  And it does make perfect sense when playing; it’s only when trying to think of it in broader terms that it doesn’t add up.

Toups:  kind of like Half Life 2?

Aderack: Does the geometry there not add up?

Toups: not… really?

Aderack: Metroid 2 is a good example.

Toups: yeah it is

Aderack:  Except, imagine it in 3D. And it being… more. Rather than some bits simply overlapping, have the entire thing irrational. Distances between things, transitions… The entire concept of space is fucked-up, though it doesn’t seem that way.

Toups:  yeah

Aderack:  All the better if the whole aesthetic is continually, albeit subtly, changing. And maybe if people refer to you by name, the name keeps changing. The nature of your mission is always in flux, though your immediate goal is usually clear enough. And the transitions seem natural.

It’s only when looking back that you realize how insane it all is. “How did I get on a powerboat with a leopard?” Thing is, the game would have to take itself completely seriously. Not let on that there’s anything odd happening.

Toups:  haha have you played indigo prophecy

Aderack:  You know. No, I’ve not.

Toups:  you should

The Nose Before Your Face

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part eight of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “The Value of Simplicity”.

So lately we’ve been swinging back toward thinking about games as a medium of expression. It’s not a new concept; way back in the early ’80s, companies like Activision and EA put all their energy behind publicizing game designers like rock stars – or better yet, like book authors – and their games as unique works by your favorite authors. This all happened just after figures like Ed Logg and Toshihiro Nishikado started to extrapolate Pong and SpaceWar!, incorporating more overt narrative frameworks and exploring more elaborate ways of interacting with the gameworld. From this initial explosion of creativity came Steve Wozniak and the Apple II, providing an easy platform for all of the early Richard Garriotts and Roberta Williamses and Dan Buntens to come.

Then stuff happened, particularly though not specifically the crash; the industry changed in focus. On the one hand we had ultra-secretive Japanese companies that – like Atari before them – usually didn’t credit their staff for fear of sniping and for the benefit of greater brand identity; on the other, what US companies remained tended to inflate beyond the point where small, expressive, intimate games were economically feasible. And then there’s just the issue that, as technology grew more complex, design teams grew larger and larger, making it harder for any one voice to stand out, leading to more of a committee-driven approach. Continue reading “The Nose Before Your Face”

The Crying Game

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part six of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation under the title “Can Videogames Make You Cry?”.

A few weeks ago, Bowen Research published the results of a survey, on the role of emotion in videogames. Hugh Bowen polled 535 gamers on their own views and history, with the end goal to rough some kind of an objective analysis out of their subjective experiences, and thereby maybe to shed some light on what emotional effect videogames have had in the past. The paper is well, and humbly, written; its conclusions, though, are less than revelatory: the only genre that tends to elicit reasonably complex emotion is RPGs (presumably Japanese ones), while other genres all inspire at least some basic kind of motivational urge in the player – be it rage or fear or what have you. Meanwhile, the paper is full of comments about Aeris, and the profound affect of her death on people who had never played Phantasy Star II.

The problem, I suppose, is in the question being asked: “Can videogames make you cry?”. It’s a binary question about a complex issue, much like asking whether Americans are happy and then concluding “sometimes!” And indeed, Bowen’s answer seems to be “well, yes… probably. In theory.” A second issue is the way Bowen approached the issue as a matter of statistics – and then based his analysis on the subjective responses of a skewed sample. “Gamers”, as with any obsessives, have by nature a peculiar perspective of their medium – a medium which, furthermore, is not yet refined as an expressive platform.

The question should not be whether videogames are capable of eliciting complex emotion – as, given the complex analog weave of our brains, anything can result in an emotional response of any depth and sophistication. Rather, what Bowen might have asked is how innately bound any emotion is to the current fabric of videogames (that is, whether it has anything to do with what the medium is trying to accomplish), how much emotional potential videogames might ideally hold, and – assuming some degree of innate potential – how best to insinuate emotion into the framework or theory of a videogame. Or rather perhaps, how best to cull emotion from that same framework. Continue reading “The Crying Game”