Death, Character and Storytelling - Shooting Things Part I

The day Half Life 2 was released my hard drive died. I never discovered what happened to cause the passing of my precious repository and at the time I never even questioned the why, simply the how. How could my drive cease to function on this most special of days? What terrible events could be inflicted upon Gordon Freeman without me watching over him? How, in short, could this happen to me? I played Half Life 2 shortly after these events. Sometime after the terrible circumstances surrounding the game I must have grown up somewhat as I stopped asking myself the whiney how’s and simply got on with playing games. Somewhere during this time Half Life 2 suffered the same fate as my juvenile sense of entitlement and slipped to the back of my mind; the excitement for the original game was simply not present when it came to the subsequent episodes. I bought them a few years later when steam launched for mac out a sense of guilt but didn’t give them much though. A few more years have rolled by and things, I, have changed yet again; the apathy which leached away the youthful excitement has in turn been replaced by scholarly curiosity. It seems Half Life 2 has been there throughout all of my formative years, waiting patiently for me to yet again be ready.

Both of the episodes prove to be fascinating time capsules in some respects and in others examples of superior design decisions which to this day remain curiously underused. The storytelling technique of maintaining a strict first person perspective which is employed in all of Valve’s single player releases has been heavily praised since 1998 yet is still largely ignored in favour of the more ‘cinematic’ use of cutscenes. Though Valve’s games are probably the best suited to this device through their casting of the player as a silent protagonist, thereby allowing them to completely inhabit the game world and indirectly interact with characters, other developers have attempted implementation with varying degrees of success. The Call of Duty series has used the technique throughout, though it is the Modern Warfare trilogy where this can be seen most prevalently. Unlike Half Life, however, these games dilute the powerful connection between player and supporting characters by jumping between protagonists in rapid succession, showing the hollow shell of the player-character to be just that. Gordon Freeman works as a host because we consistently use his eyes to see. The consecutive nature of all of the Half Life 2 games fosters an acute connection between the player and the world by way of Gordon, thus making him a tangible character unto himself, regardless of his personality being exclusively a projection of the player’s own. In breaking up continuity and changing protagonists the Modern Warfare games, barring a couple of effective moments in the first, impede our ability to suspend disbelief and accept our host as a complete character. This often reverses the relevance of one of the most important rules of narrative, that of ‘show don’t tell’. In wanting to show the player everything the Call of Duty games destroy any sense of identity the player characters could possess. It is for gameplay reasons, then, that the player is transported back in time to Pripyat and into the body of yet another character and only tertiarily connected to any narrative or character progression. The events of this flashback could be summed up in a short paragraph yet the game dedicates far more time to it. While the Half Life games similarly show rather than tell the player about many of the important plot points the fact we inhabit a single character following a defined and temporally linear chain of events is crucial. This elevates the narrative concessions made for gameplay from mere contrivances to understandable compromises.

One such gameplay compromise is that of player mortality. I had practically forgotten the time before recharging health existed in shooters before I endeavoured to see Episodes One and Two out. Neither Half Life’s health pack mechanic nor the modern shooter’s penchant for regenerating health prove to be narratively sound solutions when it comes to governing a player’s ability to sustain damage. I am not, however, going to attempt to suggest a more fitting replacement to either, I’ll save that for another day.

In my absentmindedness I hadn’t only forgotten health packs but also the way they define how we play these games on the whole. Jumping back into Episode One it had been some time since I had felt the levels of tension I was experiencing from finite health. Ordinarily one would just duck out of the action for a few seconds and then get back to the job of killing things, here I was forced to endure a number of reloads before my mind once again became used to the concept of being careful.

My ability to stay alive was more directly connected to my understanding and implementation of the games systems as a whole rather than relying upon them one at a time. For instance; close to the end of Episode 1 I was tasked with escorting a number of groups of soldiers and medics across a train yard, leading to a back and forth where enemies and obstacles would change every time I returned across the yard. During these trips I was using all of my movement options (run, duck, jump, strafe, cower, sprint, strut) along with the different interactions I could perform with the world (shoot, throw, gravity gun things, re-supply limited stocks of resources, cower). All of these actions were being performed in a beautiful sequence, fluidly linking into one another with grace and at my own free will. Much like the best sequences in Halo, i.e. anything outside, the stage was set and it was up to me to devise a way through. The cowering, then, was not a simple couple of seconds which broke my combat flow in favour of health regeneration, no, it was an intrinsic part of the dance which allowed me to avoid danger itself, not simply the percentage of health it would deprive me of for a short period of time. In forcing me to think carefully about how I took damage, in making the health system a participative one rather than the more passive ‘recharging duck’, the combat scenarios within the Half Life games proved to be much more organically flowing and divergent. Enemies were scripted to enter stage left, yes, but when they got there they had the entirety of the stage with which to make a scene, not simply one corner. With finite health the player is encouraged to lead and be led in this merry dance rather than the singular task of skulking around and occasionally peaking out from behind something to watch the show.

While this difference in gameplay is rarely as dramatic as I am describing, I feel it highlights the changes shooters have undergone in a very short period of time, a change which would not have occurred so dramatically without the popularisation of recharging health. If a player has a finite amount of health within a certain section of the game the developer can control their experience with much lighter brushstrokes than if a player can theoretically heal most of the time. The ballet of the train yard and its varied, defined progression would be transformed into an assault course of infinite waves of enemies, a challenge to be traversed quickly rather than thoughtfully engaged with had Gordon Freeman recharging health. The APC he faces would not pose anywhere near the same challenge if he could duck in and out of buildings to replenish health. How would this problem be addressed? More APCs. More soldiers. More bullets. More rockets. More everything. This, however, rarely increases the difficulty, instead simply prolonging encounters to the point where challenge is now borne out of longevity, the gameplay of attrition if you will, rather than any increased test of tangible skills.

Half Life 2, I feel, presents a game where the lineage of shooters butts heads with the modernising of a genre. The game is the zenith of the corridor crawler, giving the player a clearly defined trajectory with just enough lea-way to mask the straight line we follow. This creates a world where combat situations are diverse, player-driven and divergent, pacing is (mostly) tight and character interactions timely. Modern Warfare seemingly promised to do all of this and take us out of the corridor, setting us free with pistol whipping, silencers and abseiling and all we had to do was turn the corner and follow the light at the other end. It’s just a shame that after only a couple of years our eyes adjusted to this light of modern excitement and we found ourselves trapped in the shooting gallery, firing an ever increasing array of munitions at the same paper targets.