To the Editor: While one must agree with Tom Rhodes that the cultural significance of Half-Life 2, like that of all videogames is “woefully under-examined.” Unfortunately, his misreading of the work and inappropriate pairing with Yeats sublime and unrelated poem, The Second Coming demonstrates once more that the reason cultural significance of videogames is not frequently elucidated may be that the medium simply lacks critics of sufficient perspicacity.
Yeats’ imagery is obscure enough to apply to any moment of crisis expectant of an emerging revelation, as Mr. Rhodes has done, though even he has to admit that he has had to shoehorn Half-Life 2‘s plotline into Yeats poem upside down. The implication that the poem served as inspiration for the developers of the game as it recently more accurately did for, at least, the final season of The Sopranos is extremely dubious. Further, Mr. Rhodes’ prospecting for literary influence is not the same as examining “cultural significance,” as his opening suggested he was about to do. Half-Life 2 is a game with cultural reference and significance. Like all science fiction, and like the other two towering first-person shooters of the year: Bioshock and Halo 3, it reflects the present.
Interestingly, all three of these games, games designed as games always are, by technophiles, present dystopian visions of the future with the root cause of hubris, of over-reaching. It is the primal forbidden fruit myth in technological guise; human knowledge outstripping wisdom, juvenile atavism grasping at discovered power and possibility, blind and ignorant of the prick of the thorns hiding in the vines attached to the fruit.
The Half-Life saga opened with that story, and for now, at the end of Episode 2, closes with this same threat of humankind’s “wonderful” technological inventions coming back to ass bite with unforeseen consequences. It is the story of nuclear weapons, of ozone depletion, of fossil fuels and climate change, of nano and bio-technology; it is the story of Prometheus, and of Icarus. It is a story of the human condition. It is a story of cultural significance.
Unfortunately, the videogame imperative of instant gratification leaves no space for development of character and setting, driving game developers in general, and Valve software specifically, to simple stereotypes. With no time to develop sympathies with characters and complex motivations, alien invasion quickly rallies human concord and justifies ultra-violent game mechanics. The mad scientist and princess to be rescued make their appearances. The big boss, Dr. Breen, who had the potential to be a complex character, whom we first meet through his broadcasts explaining the logic of capitulation and collaboration to a people conquered in a seven day war, degenerates into a simple Bond villain in his lair (far short of the dark Bethlehem Mr. Rhodes suggests), when we finally encounter him in NPC-person. Literary aplomb, however much suggested by Mr. Rhodes through his allusions to great poetry, is woefully absent (It is infinitely more likely for the story of Half-Life 2 to have been inspired by America’s own victory-prematurely-declared two-week war and ongoing attempts to quell insurgency, than by Yates poetry, and as your own editor, Mr. Pitts correctly pointed out, the developers did better in previous (the original Half-Life) and current (Portal) games to think of themselves more as game and experience creators than as story tellers. Half-Life 2 is culturally, not literarily interesting. The longer the Half-Life series seems to go, the more dialogue and story-telling the developers seem compelled to insert, and the less outstanding the games have become. The most recent Episode 2 is actually embarrassing in its sycophancy towards the player, and has seemingly slipped to the level of rescue, or more precisely impress, the princess (Alex) who constantly lauds the player with embarrassing and annoying praise, actually hindering the player experience and breaking player presence out of the game.
Much more interesting than the storytelling of games, which is not where their art lies, is their play. Cultural relevance is not to be found in the hackneyed space opera and undeveloped characters of Half-Life 2, but in the game theme and mechanics. Remembering that the theme is that age-old question of just how much knowledge and power humans can and ought to seek to wield, the gravity gun in its normal and enhanced forms is an extension and artful exploration. Where does too much power cease to be fun and interesting? The game levels in the citadel with the enhanced gravity gun are fun climax and surprising extension of Breakout/Arkanoid game mechanics, but the developers correctly identify that the thrill of this power comes at a cost, and take it away before we can damage our enjoyment and ruin our environment with its power. Knowledge and power that might be miraculously employed in the right hands in just the right circumstances, players of Half-Life 2 half to conclude, may be sometimes better left alone. The wrong hands and circumstances are too many.
Critics of videogames would do better to explore the cultural significance of the play of videogames than their literary influences and value as Mr. Rhodes has done. Fortunately some such as Clive Thompson, J.C. Herz, and Kieron Gillen are pointing the way.
– Jules Grant, Vancouver, BC
In response to “You Can’t Kill Batman” from The Escapist Forum: Speaking as a writer and game writer the comments are spot on.
When you sit down to write a story, it could be anything — historical fiction, fantasy, space opera, romance, hard-boiled detective fiction, etc. Even if the genre is fixed, a game engine can still do pretty much anything. The scope and opportunity are enormous, but so is the time it takes in iterations with the design teams to narrow it down to something that everyone can agree on.
When working with established IP it is much simpler. The characters, world, relationships, and often talents/abilities are largely fixed; the job of the writer is more focused. The writer gets to play around with the characters, cause trouble, trip up the good guys, sneak in a reversal or betrayal or two, and generally have fun. They can concentrate on the detail of the motion and rhythm and plot of the story.
From the developer point of view, when working with established IP a few big chunks of the upstream creative work are done — world bibles and character designs can take a lot of artist and writer time. If the writer comes in where there is really only story / synopsis as a first step, it makes for a more streamlined (if less creatively exciting) project.
In response to “Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?” from The Escapist Forum: The way I see it, players should indeed have free reign over their character’s actions and personalities–that is, after all, one of the main reasons why people enjoy playing RPGs, to create a hero that fits their own unique idea of what a hero should be like (or just whatever is most fun for them to play). Where the writer can have freedom to create strong characters of their own is among the NPCs, and as Bioware games like Baldur’s Gate have shown, well-crafted NPCs that interact with the PC in interesting ways can be incredibly appealing to players, as they help them craft their own characters in the way they like by bouncing them off the other personalities. I always feel disappointed playing an RPG where I’ve imagined a great personality for my character, but few opportunities to express that personality through interaction.