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Category: Video Games

Last Week’s Entertainments

What I Watched

La Dolce vita, Federico Fellini et al.: The irony of 8 ½ is that even after Guido’s revelation that he loves everybody and can’t live without the people in his life, the movie remains trapped in his fantasy. Guido has successfully alienated everybody, but he imagines that they all forgive him and join him in a circus-like celebration of his new happiness; he imagines that everybody else’s happiness is congruous with his own. The movie remains claustrophobically solipsistic to the end. La Dolce vita, on the other hand, remains outside its protagonist Marcello’s mind. (Guido is a film director and Marcello is a gossip journalist, but they are almost variations of the same character. Guido is more playful, less seemingly defeated by decadence than Marcello; but who knows how Marcello really thinks of himself? The gauche Marcello at the end of La Dolce vita might be how the rest of the world sees Guido.) It turns out the whole doomed culture is solipsist. If Marcello ever has an inspiration like Guido’s, it remains hidden; we see only the stark reality: a sordid orgy, an encounter with a big dead fish, a moment of failed communication. La Dolce vita and 8 ½ both begin their finales with characters half-walking and half-dancing onto a beach; I recall that the characters moved left to right in 8 ½, but in La Dolce vita they move right to left. (Rose reminds me the girl whom Marcello cannot hear and fails to recognize moves from left to right, which is certainly important.) Basic film technique: because right is good (and because Western written languages read left to right, time progresses in a left-to-right circle on a clock, &c.), movement from left to right suggests progress; although the association of left and badness has largely disappeared, movement from right to left still seems backwards. In 8 ½, of course, the characters move clockwise in a circle—the progress is as illusory as the fantasy in which it occurs.

La Dolce vita reminds me of Bright Young Things (which I saw first), and I imagine Stephen Fry was influenced by Fellini in making his own movie. The oppressive sordidness of the upper-class and its hangers-on and the obsession with celebrity are straight out of Evelyn Waugh’s book—I suppose Fellini was influenced by Waugh. But Fry’s swarms of photographers and party scenes mixing sexy young people and batty old aristocrats are straight from Fellini. There an interesting connection I just noticed between Vile Bodies/Bright Young Things and La Dolce vita, viz. the protagonists are both writers who’ve written books that are never published (Marcello’s supposed book is only mentioned, Adam’s is a finished manuscript but is confiscated as smut by Customs). Both are journalists who write celebrity gossip whose books seem to represent a failed communication of something more important and genuine—it’s easy to idealize a book that exists only hypothetically. (Adam’s book exists more than hypothetically but only to him, never to the viewer.)

What I Read

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler: An indispensable guide to using English with good taste. Provides ceaseless entertainment to the well-educated and pedantic. The dictionary was published in 1926, so interested readers can judge the accuracy of Fowler’s speculations on future developments of usage.

Shining Knight #3, Grant Morrison, Simone Bianchi et al.: Lots of exposition, as Jog notes, but it’s pretty fun. The Seven Soldiers stories all have storytelling and the unresolved dialectic of story and reality—in Shining Knight #3, a certain character’s relation of the original Arthurian myth becomes even more interesting on a second reading, after her true identity is revealed. Elsewhere, narrative captions comment on the narrative with excerpts from an Arthurian protomyth; at the end of issue #2, in fact, Sir Justin responds directly in dialogue to the narration. Morrison infuses Shining Knight with myth but avoids tiresomely literal adherence to the monomyth and overwrought quotation from The Apocalypse of John.

What I Played

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Rockstar Games: It’s by far the largest and most complex of the Grand Theft Auto games, but it introduces the new concepts gradually as part of gameplay—in fact, most of the new concepts seem to be unavailable until the game introduces them, so there’s little chance of confusion. Each new GTA game invites new controversy; I haven’t heard of any controversy yet surrounding San Andreas, but its portrayal of gang banging in the poorest neighborhoods of a fictionalized Los Angeles is unlikely to get a pass. (In fact, Rose informs me, San Andreas is already in trouble.) I was skeptical of the decision to give the player-character in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City a name, personality and voice: too much emphasis on the story, which is superfluous and necessary only to give the gameplay a sensible context. San Andreas’s story has become even more, um, serious (relative only to Grand Theft Auto 3), and player-character Carl Johnson’s sad backstory (he returns to Los Santos at the beginning of the game because his mother has been murdered) is annoyingly incongruous with the hilariously frenetic gameplay. I haven’t decided yet if San Andreas is too big and too realistic, too focused on character and story, but it’s been fun for the fifteen or so hours I’ve played.

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.

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?)