Sunday, June 04, 2006

HL2: It's Not You, It's Me.

I've just completed Half Life 2, and it is another game which has left me pretty cold. Read on to find out why:

I have a personal sort of tradition, or unconscious habit, in that I am frequently the last to arrive at the ball. While everybody else is off sunning themselves in new consoles and graphics cards, latest releases and so on, I plod along behind somewhere, just sort of pootling along, playing games in particular as and when I get around to them. So, to Half Life 2, a mere 18 months after its release. My excuse? I didn't have reliable broadband for a long time and I think my then-PC would have fainted at the prospect.

Anyway, something that I find interesting about playing games after the hype cloud has passed is that I often come away from the playing experience with a pretty different take on events than the zeitgeist had frothed about back then. This works both ways, in that sometimes I find I like a game a lot more than the powers that be decreed, and sometimes I find that it's the opposite.

Half Life 2 is very definitely a case of the latter, and I feel ugly for saying it. Lush, good gameplay scenarios, lots of colour and thought, very few bugs. And I just couldn't get down with it at all. In fact, it reminds me in this of my reaction to Resident Evil 4. I found both games very very impressive as technical achievements, but could not connect with them on an emotional level whatsoever. There's just something.. missing for me.

What is it that's missing?
Fiction in a word. Both games fall down on the fiction front.

As I've noted before, one of the bad trends in game writing and fiction in general is that of excessive appeals to the heroic nature of the player. The general theory goes that the player, being as he is the main character in the story, occupies the role of hero. This is usually taken to mean hero as in narrative hero, and so much of the Hero's Journey style thinking goes into the writing. As I've noted before, this is an incorrect context from which to operate because the player is always an unreliable hero at best. Video game narrative is at its best when it doesn't try to emotionalise direct to the player.

Emotionalise? What I'm basically talking about here are the parts when characters like Alyx talk to you, confide their feelings in you, say Go Gordon Go, and Thank You So Much and so on. This is the equivalent of exposition in screenwriting, and exposition is a terrible sin. Exposition is when two characters have a conversation that is clearly designed to tell the audience the plot. Or worse, straight-to-camera talking that is direct about the plot and nothing of the character. Videogame emotionalising really really hacks me off, because it is so obviously fake that the moment it is uttered I am blown right out of a scene.

And I hate that about single-player games. HL2 and Resi 4 fall firmly into the Type 2 game, the adventure that the player plays through because he is interested in seeing what happens next. Narrative thread is very important in Type 2 games, and part of the genre contract of these games is that the spell should not be broken. Ok, of course it can't be bent a bit - especially for games where an in-joke is appropriate, but only so far. The contract of the Type 2 game is one where the player gets to open the magic door.

Emotionalising breaks the contract because it robs the player of their power. Like watching bad comedy and being told when to clap, the purpose of playing the game becomes null and void when other characters start trying to make you feel things. It feels falsetto.

So, looking at the title of this piece, the point is that HL2 breaks the fiction of its own world by far too much emotionalising, mistaking the fact that Gordon Freeman is not some hero, some person on screen full of derring do. Gordon Freeman is not some objective You. Gordon Freeman is Me.

The emotionalising just becomes irritating, and you know that something is wrong in a game when in its penultimate scenes you find yourself wishing you could get out of the trap you're in to punch Alyx in the face, or you wish there was some 'Drop that Girl Down a Well' option in Resi 4 so you could go and kill everything that needs to be killed and then, you know, rescue her or something.

So what does work?

God of War works. It saves the heroic talk for segments between large areas of game play, and when it does go into the character of Kratos, the way it does it is, as the writers would say, mostly Show rather than Tell. Grim Fandango works, because in the moments when we are reflecting on Mannie's problems in life they are done so in an understated, wise-cracking sort of way. Max Payne 2 works very well because it deflects most of its exposition and emotionalising behind a very stylised mode of telling, and an almost self-effacing voice (such as the part where you discover the tape of yourself calling call girls - genius). Ico works by telling you almost nothing at all. Deus Ex works. None of these game turns to you the player with a signpost that says "Feel Bad Now".

Aesthetically, both HL2 and Resi 4 are very very strong. I really liked a lot of the touches like the organic helicopter things in Half Life 2, and some of the levels were inspired. The villages and villagers in Resi 4 are really creepy and deserve some sort of award. The gameplay in both games is varied, interesting and well paced (well, the vehicle control isn't great, to be fair, but it does ok).

And yet because the fiction breaks down, the whole premise of the games break down. I just don't CARE between levels what the overall tone of my actions will entail. I have no sense of discovery in either game because between the emotionalising and the structure, I know that it'll all tediously play out in one way or another. There is no sense of emotive surpise, of discovery on a gut level, and so the ultimate question is What's The Point?

The point, in all Type 2 games, is discovery. The essence of adventure is not being able to predict what comes next, not seeing the plot turns and not realising until you figure it out for yourself that something more is going on. Discovery is a hard act to keep going and is best done subtly rather than openly. Don't have an NPC tell me everything that's going on and handing me my mission objectives like a laundry list. Leave things for the player to find, to draw their own opinions so that when the laundry list does come, it feel believable.

A sense of game writing is what's missing here, as opposed to applying the principles of screenwriting to games. It's an evolving artform, to be sure, but there are pitfalls, and emotionalising is a big one. Let us banish it from our presence, never to be seen again!

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