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The Time I Was a Madman in Half-Life 2

Ed Smith | 18 Apr 2013 21:00
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I'm not Gordon Freeman. I don't know anything about science, I'm rubbish with guns and I haven't got a robot dog. When the game insists I am him it just feels incongruous. I'm a chubby kid from Derbyshire who can't do maths. Give me an assault rifle and I'll end up shooting it into the ground until I lift off like Yosemite Sam.

Isn't escapism about taking your mind out of something, not putting it in?

I know it's supposed to be escapism. You're supposed to forget about your chubbiness, your crapness at maths, the fact you shoot like a cartoon character. But, I don't know, isn't escapism about taking your mind out of something, not putting it in? And what exactly am I escaping into? The silent CoD soldiers are there for me to lose myself in but when I think of escapism, I think of a warm holiday with a book and a big thing of beer - I don't think of me, in a war.

I suppose it comes down to me getting games wrong to some extent. My background's mainly in film so I tend to judge games' value as passive rather than impassive media. I like being told a story, basically; I like being fed something.

I think this is what it boils down to, actually. Whenever I'm given one of these silent nutters to perform, I can't help but feel like I'm constantly doing the role a disservice. I like having dialogue there because it keeps the artist's vision somewhat intact. I like being told, I like being shown. I like artists to effectuate and do their thing and to sit and watch it.

I don't want to help write the game. As I said, I'm not an author, I don't write fiction. I don't trust myself to be able to honor someone else's ideas. It's the reason why, when I open A Farewell to Arms I don't scribble out the first page and put my own opening in. I'm quite happy with "In the late summer of that year, we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains." I think Hemingway did alright there. I wouldn't dream of crossing it out and putting, I dunno, "There was a war and it was baaaaaad." I have respect for the literature.

But actually, it's not even that players don't necessarily have respect for the literature: I don't think the writers do, either. There seems to be a kind of low self-esteem inherent in these silent protagonists, whereby, game writers don't trust themselves enough to be able to have a story that can stand by itself. They don't want to take a top down approach; they don't want to express themselves too much because they're not certain anyone cares enough to listen.

That, of course, comes from years of videogame writing being secondary, or, in a lot of cases, simply not present. I think these mute madmen come from the historical notion that story, writing and creative intent is something you can opt into if you like in videogames, as opposed to in cinema or books where you pay deference to the creators by watching or reading. I think that's it. I think game writers create mute heroes out of anxiety, so they know players will have something to fall back on if they don't like the story.

Well I say fuck that noise. I say we should all be more like Gordon Freeman and just shut up and listen to what we're being told. It might be "doing games wrong," it might be ignoring the interactivity that makes them games in the first place, but when I'm indulging myself in fiction it's because I want to hear what someone else has to say.

If game writers believe having a mute hero there improves their work, then great, I'll go along with that, I'll throw myself in. But if it's because of some frightened sycophancy to the player - some timid attitude than in games the player is always right, the player is most important - then, no, sod that. You, the person or people that sat down and made the videogame, you're the artists. I want to hear what you have to say.

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