Because games are about more than headshots

Narrative Narcissism; Half Life

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Below is the first in what will be an ongoing series of posts in which I analyse the storytelling techniques of various games told through the first person. Because I know I could ramble on forever and be extremely verbose about this topic, I’m going to impose a limit of three points per game in order to keep the articles concise and relevant. Also, it will force me to cherry pick my points about each game, as I highlight what it does uniquely from the rest of the industry or how it spins a certain technique. Also, the series is a critique of narrative techniques and not the tales themselves, so I shall show no hesitation in praising Far Cry 2’s narrative techniques (where deserved) above that of say… Bioshock. For the first week I though I’d have a crack at the techniques of Half Life (as a series, as the series has stuck to the same techniques pretty tightly since 1999, although some have become more/less prominent) which is famous for it’s ‘never lose control’ style of storytelling, which I’ll be talking about in a minute, along with a few other points which aren’t quite as in your face, but just as important. So, without further ado, I present you with my 3 bullet points 😛

Free download place, Eh?

HL2 has some psychadelic menus...

A.) Continuous control, or how to let players ruin your lovely story

While never losing control  may seem like a great idea for immersion, it works only in theory. With few exceptions in the series, plot elements consist largely of a few people talking in a room and the reality of gating players into a small arena such as this comes over as more transparent than letterboxing in cut scenes. While players may become annoyed with the overt loss of control in cut scenes, they become infinitely more frustrated when the established rules of the world are compromised by the necessity of gating. All thoughout Half Life 2, as soon as you enter a room which has a plot element in it, expect every door to be locked. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were not for the fact that one of these doors is going to need to open in order to let the player out of the room. So the doors must become inexplicably locked,  while appearing open able in order to maintain the illusions of realism later in the scene. This same problem is displayed in the interactive elements of the scenes which are placed into the narrative either to force the player to pay attention to what’s going on (shouldn’t be necessary) or just as a tip of the hat to the fact we’re playing a video game here. Whatever the reason, many scenes in the Half Life series contain switches, which must be pushed for a rocket to launch or activate a teleport. Something of the like.  These objects are inexplicably inert to player interaction until their moment’s appear in the narrative and they’re suddenly needed. The arbitrary nature of their binary states breaks immersion and frustrates players, and to what end? So that the narrative can be awkwardly held up by all the NPC’s waiting for the player to perform some gratuitous task? This is a systematic problem in the Half Life games, where the protagonists Gordon Freeman never speaks and this the player/Gordon cannot take any initiative in the plot, resulting in a number of situations where arbitrary civilians must explain to the PHD bearing Doctor Freeman that he must press the button. I’m all for player interaction in narrative scenes, however situations where everything has to wait upon player action should be avoided, NPC actions as well as dialog should be prepared as backup to keep the narrative flowing if the player does not progress it,  in order to maintain the illusion of intelligence among the denizens of a virtual world.

Both the HEV suit and this energy recharge are examples of gratuitous interactivity, although the latter does serve as a tutorial at least

Both the HEV suit and this energy recharge are examples of gratuitous interactivity, although the latter does serve as a tutorial at least

B.) The Trueman show, Dr. Freeman edition

(props if you get the title ^^)

What Half Life did does very well however, is create continuous narratives. While the ability to pass time appears in the most sophisticated of narratives and should be lauded when accomplished, Half Life revolutionized the first person genre with continuous narrative in 1999 and to this date, nothing has done it better. From the moment Gordon stepped into work in the first chapter of Half Life to the launching of the rocket in Episode Two, there has not been a single piece of plot ellipsis, not a moment Gordon has experienced without the players control.  This technique is incredibly effective in creating player empathy and association with Dr. Freeman, who we might not otherwise associate with, being an emotionless mute (or the player, depending on how you interpret the series) the continuous narrative does wonders in  the genre, where there is no reason that the player should ever be removed from the narrative of the protagonist.  Of course, many stories do not have the benefit of just being able to stick the player in a time capsule for 20 years without shattering the illusion of reality, so they are forced to adopt the old black screen fade out. While this is in itself an awful detriment to immersion it can be done in ways which lessen the problems associated with it, however that’ll be discussed when I showcase a game like COD. For the moment all you need to know is that continuous narrative is the best thing to happen for first person narrative since Duke Nukem, revolutionising a previously level based system.

Before Half Life, every FPS ended levels with this sort of screen. Broke immersion in whatever narrative Doom had (it was there, I swear it)

Before Half Life, every FPS ended levels with this sort of screen. Broke immersion in whatever narrative Doom had (it was there, I swear it)

C.) Foreshadowing, I love it

Another element that half life accomplished very well was foreshadowing and attracting player attention, where a game such as Crysis might feels the need to remove the players control in order to foreshadow, Half-Life merely attempts to direct the players eyes to the event they’re supposed to be witnessing adding an almost skill based element to the narrative. In a way it’s like a good theme in a book or play, it can be hinted at and implied but as soon as you say it out aloud, the magic is gone. (An example might be Hedda’s pregnancy in Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler). Half life utilises a variety of techniques to accomplish this, from the hallmark ‘flight of crows’ technique to more subtle techniques involving lines and geometry.

The crows fly in such a way as to guide the players eyes to the Hunter, as foreshadowing

Light is another commonly used tool in any game designer’s repertoire, utilising the base human instinct to not only look towards but to head towards sources of light. Although this is used in half life, this technique is better documented in valve’s co-op shooter Left 4 Dead with the headlights at the end of the alley in No Mercy being a memorable example. Attracting the player’s attention with techniques such as these is one of the half life series’s many accomplishments in regards to cinematic narrative, as  it’s common sense that a player who discovers such an plot element himself would associate more with it than could ever be true if he were shown it fulfilling one of the core pillars of interactive narrative, player attachment.

Players eyes are drawn towards the end of the alley with the light. A rather over example of this technique

Players eyes are drawn towards the end of the alley with the light. A rather over example of this technique

And there we have it! Now the clear omission in this article is the nature of Gordon Freeman as a mute, however I intend to devote an entire article that particular issue, so look forward to that. I’m going to attempt to update the blog 3 or so times a week and maybe launch some new features (when I think of them), so please come back and take a look, if  analysis of video games and verbosity in general takes your fancy at all.


Written by Aonshix

June 14, 2009 at 12:51 pm

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