Friday, June 16, 2006

HL2 was a very unique experience for me.

You may read this if you are so inclined, as to why someone didn't like HL2. My response is more or less something I've been meaning to put into words for a long time about that game, so I decided to post it here as well. It's too late at night for me to be doing copy-editing, so the raw response-form follows.

The word "cinematic" gets thrown around a lot, but for HL2 and its Episode 1 expansion, I think it is more appropriate than for any other game I've ever played. Though it lacks cutscenes and doesn't play out like an interactive movie, the general style of story-telling is so much like that of a film that I never became embodied as Gordon Freeman; that's just where the camera happened to be.

In a typical 3rd-person game - let's say a platformer - the character's attitudes and motivations for the story's development are more or less independent of what the player would choose. The expectation for a first-person shooter is usually different, because seeing out of the character's eyes makes it immmediately unlike what one usually experiences in a book or a theater, and instead what they experience as their own selves.

In HL2, however, I see it as more of a device to hide the plot from the player. To hide details of a plot just beyond the reach of the audience has time and again proven itself a powerful and engaging storytelling mechanic, and HL2's camera achieves it in a way that a film cannot without getting a little nauseating. By putting the camera on Gordon's nose and keeping him silent, there's no telling what he's thinking in any given situation. The end result is that - aside from his credentials as an MIT gradutate, what he's accomplished as a scientist, and what has happened to him in the course of the games - we don't have any clue about Gordan Freeman as a person.

I think Valve is brilliant to make a "genre king" out of a story whose main character is someone we still know basically nothing about. No one has ever mentioned that Gordon regularly drinks coffee, or is prone to changing his hairstyle, or has a bad relationship with his father, or any other such detail. Alyx has mentioned in HL2, "You don't talk much, do you?", but this is as obvious after an hour or so of gameplay as his goatee. The character defies development.

The critical difference is that other FPS games with silent player-characters, like DOOM 3, F.E.A.R., QUAKE 4, etc., give the player a premise and a generalized template upon which they may go out and blast things as appropriate to the genre. The story plays out much like it would in a hollywood blockbuster, and the player-character himself is more of an observer on the narrative. In HL2, because the surrounding cast makes so few assumptions, the player-character no longer necessarily shares the player's status as an observer, but we can't tell if he is or not. The typical gameplay is there, seperately, but the single greatest tenet in the FPS - so great as to make up the first two letters in the genre's initials - is used as a mechanic to turn the storytelling on its head.

The most critical details of the story are that which we least have the capacity to observe, while the supporting roles are more visible (and thus more important to plot development) than the protagonist. I wasn't told how to feel; I was told how the surrounding actors feel, and expected Gordan (not me, Gordan) should also feel. The lack of confirmation in Gordan's feelings is what really kept me spellbound. For all we know, Gordan is an asshole; he could be a racist who secretly hates Alyx and her father; we have no idea.

Other shooters are married to the idea that the player-character is a roleplay of the player himself. I'm inclined to believe that HL2 was intended in much the same way, but for me, Gordon remains as much a uniquely non-self character as Mario or Solid Snake.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hah, thats what makes HL wonderful. Tho' I havent played HL2. But w/e.

The main point to pick up on is the fact that the narrative is unbroken. Everything happens, with respect to the player, not the character. I.e No cutscenes, only cinematic set pieces you get to run away from. One wonderful sign of how immersive it gets is when you start experimenting with the game on the second/third play.

You are getting attacked by some horrific evil badass monster. The battle could have been interesting, the terrain could have helped you. The area was detailed, yet you spent little time in it. Why, why does this happen? Surely its a flaw? NO. Its like real life. You see the thing, you fucking run. Heh, the modellers/skinners might have wasted their time, but when the effect is that good, who cares? It was worth it.

So you feel alot more satisfied with the end result.

Oh, and, how are you, JJ10DMAN?

6/16/2006 11:24 AM  
Blogger Mr. Wallet said...

How am I? What an odd question to ask.

I have a toe infection which might require surgery with topical anesthetic lasting 30-45 minutes. Aside from that I'm pretty good. I just got a new bed delivered this morning, which is both higher waulity and smaller, leaving more floor space.

So, I'm fine. Thanks for asking silly anonymous person. =D

6/17/2006 1:46 PM  

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