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Archive: December 2004

The illusion of free will

OK, Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2’s greatest strength is integration of gameplay and story, with the deceptively simple method of presenting story as part of gameplay instead of as more traditional cutscene movies (or their ancestor, the introduction text). Half-Life pioneered the now popular practice of taking story events out of noninteractive cutscenes and implementing them as scripted events within the game. The difference this can make is surprising: walking into the test-firing chamber in “Blast Pit” to see a huge tentacle smash through the window and grab a screaming scientist five feet from you is more viscerally intense than a third-person cutscene of the same thing could ever be. It’s simply more immediate. Lots of games use extensive interactive scripted events like Half-Life’s now, but most still also have cutscene movies—probably because few developers want to deal with the consequences of doing all story as in-game scripted events. The most obvious consequence of Valve’s decision seems pretty nasty at first glance: because the player remains in complete control of Gordon for the entire game, the player cannot participate substantively in any scripted event that must occur one way. That means Gordon can’t talk to any other characters. Half-Life 2, with a vastly more complex story than Half-Life, hedges the player’s freedom a little by generally locking Gordon in one room whenever another character has to tell him something important, and for two scenes restricting the player’s movement entirely. Still, Gordon can’t talk. There’s no diegetic justification for his silence, it’s simply an artificial device. He doesn’t even have implied dialogue—most of the other characters’ speech is structure subtly to acknowledge that Gordon doesn’t reply when they talk to him, and nobody ever says anything to him that would require a response. This seems superficially like it would necessarily make the game into a shallow shoot-em-up with a characterless bad-ass protagonist (albeit a bad-ass theoretical physicist protagonist), but Valve cleverly turns Gordon’s silence into one of the driving engines of the game’s narrative.

The behind-the-scenes book Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar suggests that earlier development versions of the game gave the player a lot more context information, like that it’s been ten years since the Black Mesa incident of the first Half-Life and that the mysterious alien Combine that’s conquered Earth arrived several years after Black Mesa. The published version of the game doesn’t give you even that meager information: at the beginning, the G-Man appears, informs you it’s time for your first assignment under his employ, and teleports you onto a moving train. You figure out Earth has been conquered by something called the Combine and that your former Black Mesa administrator is the head of a collaborator government a few minutes into the game, and after a few more minutes you meet up with some old friends from Black Mesa, now leaders of a resistence movement, who don’t seem to wonder where you’ve been for the last several years. You’re sort of appointed the new leader of the resistence movement, and you set off to overthrow the Combine, which seems to be the mission the G-Man sent you to complete.

By the end of the game, you have learned almost nothing more than that. Half-Life 2’s ending is even more audaciously anticlimatic than Half-Life’s—I expected a cliffhanger because I’d already heard Valve is working on Half-Life 3, but the game never gets around to explaining what’s up with the Combine or filling any of the mysterious Black Mesa backstory, and it doesn’t even hint at the biggest question, namely, what’s up with the G-Man?

There’s a scene late in the game in which the evil Admistrator jokes about Gordon’s mercenary employment status, which prompts one of Gordon’s allies to ask worriedly, “What’s he talking about, Gordon?” This scene comes a few minutes after a several-minute sequence in which Gordon, strapped into a restraining harness, is taken on a ride through the depths of the Combine Citadel. During the climactic scene in the Administrator’s office in which he reminds Gordon that he’s a mercenary employed by the G-Man, not a genuine resistence fighter like his friends, Gordon is also locked into a harness. This is the point at which I looked back and said, “In retrospect, I’ve been in a harness all along, haven’t I?” It’s true, Half-Life 2, is strictly linear—there’s one path through the game and you don’t to make any decisions that affect the narrative substantively (you have control over your strategy in battles and that’s about it)—although Valve have gone to great lengths to obfuscate the game’s linearity with some amazing map design, so you can easily forget how straight and narrow your path through game has really been until the harness ride and the Administrator’s sinister jokes remind you.

And what does Gordon think of all this? Does he know any more or less than you do about what’s going on or what it means that he’s working for the G-Man? He certainly can’t let you know what he knows. Can his friends really trust him as the leader of their resistence? Should they? Should you? Gordon’s silence is a distancing, ironic device that shines a spotlight on the central dilemma of the game. Gordon is alienated from the rest of the world as you are alienated from him, some mysterious force has usurped his free will—or was it ever more than an illusion in the first place?

Most artistically ambitious video games have, I think, focused on increasing the player’s decision-making power and adding moral weight to the player’s decisions. That’s an endeavor doomed to fail at some point, as any increase in thematic/moral entertainment value of a game based on increased decision-making power must be undermined by the necessity of placing some arbitrary limitations of the player’s decisions to keep the game’s size from exploding into infinitude. Valve wisely chose to focus on another trait of video games that distinguishes them from other art forms: the immediacy of the player’s role as actor in the game world. Valve CEO Gabe Newell suggests this when, in the foreword to Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar, he writes, “A single-player game is really a movie that you create in cooperation with the player, where the lead actor [i.e., the player] doesn’t have a copy of the script.” As I said above, watching something through your “own” (really the player-character’s) eyes in real time is fundamentally different from watching a third-person cutscene movie of the same event—and Half-Life 2 would be a fundamentally different experience if it were a movie. The game’s entire experience (in both aesthetic and gameplay contexts, which ought to be the same context in a video game) is built on the tension between the player’s role as lead actor (in all senses of the word) and the ironic devices of a silent player-character and a linear-path game world that seem superficially to make the game shallower.

Identity Crisis: Wrap-Up

Somehow I thought I’d write something meaningful before now, but somehow sleep and work and Christmas shopping and Christmas knitting and Christmasy giving got in the way. Odd. I do still have things to say about labelling and ratings, but for now go read about how the creators of Hotel Rwanda successfully fought for a PG-13 rating (New York Time subscription required, and the article may not be free by the time I get back, which is why I’m giving it now) and watch the director’s commentary to Saved and watch Whale Rider and think about its rating, and then you’ll be able to write that post for me and I won’t have to bother. Instead I can go out into almost-record snow to drive to Buffalo, New York, home of snow and winter weather, yet warmer than Kentucky last I checked. At least I hope I can, because it would be really depressing to be stuck in some motel in the middle of Ohio because the highways are closed or something like that.

Anyway, a week after reading Identity Crisis #7, I get to come back to it and remind everyone that I was Cassandra and that I’m unsurprised. Mostly for my own purposes, I’m going to just gather things I said leading up to the last issue here, just in case you really want to know what I thought.

After reading issue 4, I think the last I read before this final episode, I made threats about how angry I would be if Spectre was using singular “they” to avoid giving away the fact that the killer was one woman. And lo, this is a trick every bit as good as having Jean give herself away by knowing something she couldn’t have known. What a writer that guy is! Wow!

Here’s Steven’s post on misogyny where I talked a whole lot about reading and also about how the story could turn out to be good and subversive and probably wouldn’t. It didn’t. And I was right that the pregnancy subplot was a dead herring, but wrong that I would stick with the series.

And how did the sexual assault tie into this, since its inclusion is the reason I felt morally obligated to read the story at all? Not a lot, and I briefly touch on my thoughts about that in this comments thread. And by the way, it’s really driving me crazy to have see people implying they themselves are sensitive and pro-woman while constantly saying “assrape”, and I pick on ADD only because I’ve seen him use the term several times, but he’s not alone. (As an aside, why do so many men make rape jokes so much? Or do I just not hang out with the right women who are doing this too? There seems to be a gender divide and I know a lot of the theories, especially about the prevalence of prison rape jokes and homophobia in its most etymologically literalistic sense, but it still seems to me that they ought to be self-aware enough to be troubled by this. I’m troubled by it, but I don’t think that matters in a larger sense.) (As a second aside, I should probably check whether the text in Identity Crisis uses the term “rape,” because if this is the case there’s a good chance it could invalidate all the readers who want to argue this was a depiction of anal sex, but I can’t do it decisively because I don’t know the DC Universe legal code’s stance on defining sex crimes.)

Anyway, there’s probably more of it than that, but I feel sufficiently vindicated, or something. I thought it was poorly written and not well-drawn throughout and the story was ridiculously bad. And maybe I’ll find the missing issues and write about the ethics of mindwiping (which I learned last night also happened in the Marvel Mangaverse, although I accidentally dropped the book in the bathtub before learning the full consequences, and the pages seem amazingly porous) and bad portrayals of sexual assault, or maybe I’ll never write about Identity Crisis again, which would also be fun.

And speaking of fun, if your idea of it is digging out a car and then setting out on a car trip that could take twice the time it ought to and maybe involve closed interstates, you’re going to be awfully jealous of me for the next many hours! Steven has burned some cds and there’s good conversation to be had, and if it comes right down to it I’m willing to make the sacrifice of eating the cookies I’ve made to pass the time. So we’ll be back after the weekend, cold and exhausted and probably still happy, and maybe even blogging. Enjoy the break.

Half-Life 2

Half-Life 2 breaks with some popular trends in video gaming. Now, the last new game I played before Half-Life 2 was Grand Theft Auto 3 a couple years ago, but I think the popular trends in action gaming have remained pretty much the same: open-endedness and stealth. Since Thief, practically every first-person shooter game has included a stealth component. (OK, that’s a slight exaggeration.) Unfortunately, most of them didn’t have nearly as well-developed stealth gameplay as Thief. With the exception of a few annoying levels that require stealth, it’s generally easier to run through games like No One Lives Forever without worrying too much about sneaking. Still, especially considering the recent popularity of ‘realistic’ tactical shooters, a stealth gameplay component, however half-assed, has been the cool thing to do in shooter games for several years. The recent popularity of ‘realistic’ tactical shooters is important, because much of the stealth play in recent action games is related to attempts to increase realism, meaning the classic full-frontal-assault style of play in games like Doom is a good way to get killed fast in a lot of recent shooters.

Then there’s open-endedness. First of all, you’ve got games like the Dungeons & Dragons CRPG Baldur’s Gate 2, which has something crazy like 150 hours worth of quests, many of which are available based on your character-creation and gameplay decisions so you have to play the game many times even to hope to see everything. Each play-through is different from the rest. In action games, Grand Theft Auto 3 lacks the overwhelming number of choices of Baldur’s Gate, but it gives the player even more freedom to choose what to do at any given moment during gameplay. There’s a series of missions forming the narrative core of the game, which must be played in order, but at any time you can choose to complete them, take on one of dozens of optional missions, or simply cruise around town committing the titular crime and causing other criminal mayhem. The other paradigm for open-endedness in action gaming is represented most famously by the Thief games and Deus Ex: these games have a linear series of missions for the player to complete, but present several options for completing each task in the game. E.g., in Deus Ex, the player, infiltrating a terrorist headquarters or something, might come to an electronically locked door that can be blown open with a grenade, ‘picked’ with an electronic lockpick, unlocked with a key found on a guard (whom the player could have killed or knocked out, using stealth, a full-frontal assault, or some clever indirect means), or opened with a hacked security computer. And Deus Ex’s narrative, although very similar in each play-through, has a lot of nuances based on the player’s decisions. Indiscriminately kill all the terrorists in your first mission as a police agent of the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition, and you’ll earn praise from your more hotheaded colleagues and disapproval from your colleagues who believe in following rules of engagement. Go stealthy and incapacitate terrorists with nonlethal methods so they can be arrested, and you’ll get opposite reactions. You never get a game-over based on your decision (unless it results in the player-character’s death)—even if you, say, totally bungle your mission objectives by killing a target you’re supposed to be bringing in for questioning, you can keep playing and discover the consequences of your actions. (There is a limit to your freedom, obviously—you can’t wander away from the determined narrative and become a real-estate agent in Hoboken.)

And then there’s story. Every video game arguably has a narrative—although, in the case of a game like Tetris, not necessarily a gripping one. Some genres are better known for their stories than others, particularly adventure and interactive-fiction games, and to a slightly lesser extent, RPGs, especially monster-huge games like Baldur’s Gate 2. Stories in action games have ranged from Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, whose narratives exist primarily as meager organizational structures for gameplay only mildly more engaging than Tetris, to Deus Ex, which attempts to grapple weighty (and ever more relevant as the War on Terror(ism) drags on) political and philosophical problems and is arguably as important a part of the game’s experience as is the gameplay itself. Of course, story/game is a false dichotomy, because, as I noted earlier, at least some aspects of the story are based on player decisions during gameplay. Part of what Deus Ex attempts is tight integration of narrative and gameplay.

With all that in mind, let’s talk about Half-Life. One of Half-Life 2’s goals is the same as Deus Ex: tight integration of narrative and gameplay. The Half-Life games have always gone a step farther than most games in accomplishing this integration, though—where a lot of games advance their stories with cutscene movies between game sections, the revolutionary Half-Life implemented scripted events that happened in real time in the game. E.g., the entire introductory scene, with player-character Gordon Freeman arriving at work on an automated tram, going through security, donning his hazardous-environment protection suit, and participating in the experiment that ends up teleporting in all the nasty aliens Gordon has to shoot in the rest of the game, is a series of in-game areas you have to traverse. (Lots of games have sections like this now—even the decidedly old-school Doom 3—but Half-Life was one of the first.) When characters talk to Gordon, they walk up to him and start talking, and you retain complete control over Gordon—a consequence of which is that Gordon doesn’t get any speaking lines of his own, since it would look pretty goofy if the player decided to run away or shoot the other speaking character in the middle of dialogue. It’s somewhat less goofy, although equally artificial, to have Gordon remain mute. (The modeling of scripted events isn’t so sophisticated that characters notice and complain about your rudeness if you run away from them, although I think they usually shut up if you start shooting at them. Half-Life 2 sort of resolves this problem by locking Gordon into one room whenever another character is talking to him.) Gordon’s muteness may be a necessary consequence—or maybe the designers at Valve wanted him to be mute in the first place, I don’t know—but at any rate, they’ve turned this artificial device of a mute protagonist (and to be clear, Gordon’s muteness doesn’t have any justification for verisimilitude, it really is an entirely artificial device) into one of the most brilliant aesthetic conceits I’ve seen in any game, certainly in any first-person shooter.

And that’s a brilliant aesthetic conceit I’m afraid I won’t be writing about tonight, as I’m losing steam. (And, bad me, I might not get around to writing about it till Sunday, since Rose and I are leaving for Christmas visits to relatives tomorrow.) (But the great thing about not being a professional writer is that I don’t have to act professional!) I’ll say only, as you’ve presumably guessed by now if you haven’t played Half-Life 2 yourself, that Half-Life 2 is a game with not a whit of open-endedness in gameplay or narrative, and with no stealthiness required or even much allowed. In fact, much of the gameplay consists of running through restricted paths executing full-frontal assaults on dozens of highly trained soldiers who, if realism were any concern, could instantly destroy rogue physicist Gordon Freeman. Is Half-Life 2 tragically old-fashioned, or were those brilliant folks at Valve too busy designing the worthy heir to Half-Life’s Best Game Ever throne to bother acquiescing to the dominant trends in what makes a good modern shooter? (Not that my answer to that question is hard to guess, right?)

Good Thor Title

This Fanboy Rampage post is about a bad Thor book, but it gave me an idea for a good title for a Thor book:

Pieces of Asgard!

Return(ish) from Hiatus

Well, Rose and I got married, as you know, which took up a little of my blogging time. (Most of it was taken up with laziness, though.) We used wedding money to get new computer stuff: a cute iBook G4 for Rose, a Radeon x800 Pro for me. I’ve been spending the several days taking advantage of my new awesome video card to play Half-Life 2 and Doom 3, which has definitely taken up all my blogging time. My first blog post after my unannounced hiatus isn’t going to be such a great post, but I have some thoughts on Half-Life 2 which I’ll probably blog about at some point just in case there are some gamers reading Peiratikos who will actually care.

I feel sorry for Wally West. He’s one of an apparently dying breed of superhero who doesn’t think forced mystical brain surgery is a good way of “fixing” people’s psychological problems. It’s a tough decision, but I think my favorite part of Identity Crisis #7 is when Oliver Queen suggests Batman would have been OK with having his own memory wiped, and that Batman’s traumatic past makes him best-equipped to understand the heroic sacrifices people are willing to make for the ones they love. Not that Batman isn’t the poster child for not being able to deal with trauma, but I suspect Batman wouldn’t include lobotomizing your wife so she doesn’t have to be sad about her rape in a list of things “someone will do for the people they love.” My second-favorite part is that when Jean Loring went to “scare” Sue Dibny, she brought a flamethrower “just in case.” My third-favorite part is that murdering somebody gets you locked up and doped up in Arkham without a trial or anything (Jean seems shockingly unremorseful, but hardly insane), but forcibly lobotomizing dozens of people in a desperate and failed effort to maintain the illusion of a superheroic world of innocence gets you sympathy as a tragic hero. My fourth-favorite part is the random Arthur Miller quote: “An era can said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” Thanks, Brad Meltzer, the world of superhero comics really needed another lame attempt to shatter the Silver Age’s ‘illusion of innocence.’ My fifth-favorite part is that, according to Oliver Queen, it takes the brutal murder of a superhero’s wife to remind the superheroes that their choice of career puts their loved ones at risk. My sixth-favorite part is “Atom’s Wife Tortured by Inmates.” What the fuck?

“your pictures will protect me”

I always enjoy seeing what other internetty folks look like, so I’m finally going to return the favor (?) by posting a few of our wedding pictures. Actually part of the reason we’ve never shown up here before is that it’s been almost impossible for both Steven and me to look sane and human in any given photo, but the sheer prevalence of cameras managed to break that streak a bit. This isn’t something I want showing up on Fanboy Rampage but is just something our readers can look at for educational/entertainment purposes. Results may vary, or something like that.

Read the rest of this entry »

… has gone before

I know I said I’d be writing something substantive soon, but indulge me for another post (or maybe a few). Steven and I watched Trekkies last night, and it got me thinking about community and connectedness. And yes, this has a lot to do with seeing things through my currrent lens, but I understood the interviewees talking about how they’d met each other through Star Trek and the kinship they share in being fans and all that stuff. Right now I’m getting over being totally impressed by the kind, supportive comments off all sorts of people I’ve never talked to away from this screen as well as all the live people who’ve been part of my life or Steven’s and who wanted to be with us as kind, supportive witnesses to our public commitment, which is really the only thing making it different from the private relationship we’d had previously (and, I suppose, still).

Anyway, that was me apologizing for getting a bit misty-eyed about Trekkies and about the comics blogosphere. It’s really an exciting feeling to belong in just about any situation. In college, I ran a support group for survivors of sexual assault, and I think for most of us involved the most helpful, important thing we got from group discussions was the real understanding that we had shared emotional experiences, that I could talk about something that made me feel alienated and have someone say, “Oh, yeah, I understand and for me it’s like this…” I don’t think comics bloggers are a support group, but they serve that particular function of creating a kind of connectedness or re-norming.

Part of the reason I’m thinking about this, though, is that connectedness isn’t absolute, and it has its limits. In watching, I said to Steven of one Trekkie, “The cross-dressing doesn’t bother me at all, but I can’t handle the filk,” and I was being entirely honest. Some things are just beyond the pale, and while I can appreciate that people I like enjoy them, they seem laughably bad to me. I know others think the same of me, and I still appreciate not being lynched for being unimpressed and annoyed by Eightball #23. I’ve always been interested in metablogging issues, and so it’s really fascinating to me to follow the different styles and approaches of the various comics bloggers, sometimes more than the blogs themselves. While it’s definitely fun that there are other bloggers writing analytically about mostly superhero comics — and more of them than when we began blogging here — I also read and enjoy reading writers whose aesthetic preferences have almost no overlap with mine. So while I feel a certain kind of kinship with other like-type bloggers and don’t always feel I quite fit in within the larger blogosphere (whatever that means) I get something out of all of it. And while I think I have more overlap with Steven than with anyone else probably ever, both of us appreciate having ppeople other than each other to talk to about these things we find intriguing.

But what I was really trying to get at in all that inanity is that I appreciate both the largely supportive culture and the lack of Geek Pride, which is way above filk in the list of things I dislike most. While plenty of the Trekkies seemed extreme in their dedication, they were all honest and at least a bit self-aware about their placement on the outskirts of the larger culture, whether they thought this was acceptable or not, versus their acceptance among other fans. What they largely avoided was the strange martyr complex I’ve found elsewhere, and which I haven’t noticed in comics blogging. There are geeks, and in my experience they’ve all been white men who publicly claim to be straight, and they make a lot of claims about being oppressed minorities. They say that geeks are the last acceptable stereotype (and “x is the last taboo” is also high on my hate list) and that they’re outcasts in society and that they need to reclaim the power that is rightfully theirs by somehow overturning the jocks, who will somehow recognize the error of their cruel ways. Or something like that. Since I’m a woman, I also get to hear the corollary that geek-friendly women have some kind of moral obligation to have sex with these men, since part of the curse of being a geek is that it’s hard to get a date by more standard routes. And all of this manifests itself in a whole lot of whining, not to mention complaining about other groups who supposedly benefit from affirmative action or feminism (or, uh, laws banning them from marrying their chosen partners, which is probably not the sort of thing that gets facttored in) and how it’s ok to be different in those ways, but that being a geek is both a choice and a calling and thus somehow nobler than more standard, intrinsic disenfranchisement. Yes, I’m whining about whiners, but I’m getting it out of my system so you won’t have to hear about it again.

And the point, as I keep claiming I’ll tell you, is that I really, really appreciate not having to hear that much if at all anymore. I like this current life in which I’m not supposed to be a judge at a Losers Contest. I’m glad to watch a show about people who idolize a show I’ve never seen, and it makes me think of me and of you poor readers, and all of us who are making tenuous connections and finding ways to make them stick and managing to build places for ourselves. I didn’t start blogging looking for affirmation, but because I’d been so depressed and troubled that I was almost physically unable to write, and so it waas painful practice, and also because Steven and I were far apart and wanted to be together and talking. And while it’s still really about us and what we find interesting and the ways our conversations with each other can be translated onto a bigger scale, I’m now very much in conversation with other bloggers and with non-bloggers who comment and even with a few brave friends of mine who don’t even read comics and yet have probably read every word of the post to this point because they care about me. And while in some sense I don’t care who cares about me, I care that I care and that there are these connections being forged and that in a year or so of blogging I’ve become someone who can write more easily, if not yet with total comfort, and can sometimes even be proud of what I’ve written. But I’m also proud that those who respond find meaning (or problems) in what I say, just as I’m proud of bloggers I read who are saying good, smart things even if they have no idea who I am or that I read their words. And I’m pretty sure this is my most self-indulgent post ever, so I appreciate that I expect to be forgiven my temporary lapse, which can be blamed in part on long-term lack of sleep I’m going to try to rectify a bit now. Thanksgiving seems to be coming to me late this year, but I assure you it’s entirely heartfelt. Now live long and prosper.

Peiratikos Gamos

As a quick update-cum-apology for my lack of recent content, I give you this:

wedding welcome sign

On Saturday at noon, Steven and I took care of his health insurance needs and made two families happy in a lovely wedding. We’ll try to post some pictures once they arrive, and hope to get back to much more regular blogging soon now that this is all out of the way at last. We are two very, very happy bloggers right now.