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Shoot, Strafe, Soliloquy: A Crisis in Videogame Narratives

Narrative Integration in Half-Life 2

'The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world'

G-Man, (Half-Life 2)

For most of the 1980s and early 1990s, scholarly distinction between narrative and gameplay was attempted by simply dividing game segments into two categories: those in which the player has input and engages in the ludic activities and those in which the player is a passive observer. As previously mentioned, some diegetic techniques temporarily denied the player agency, thereby providing critics with a convenient dichotomy between states of action and passivity on which to model the divide between story and gameplay. The evolving nature of diegesis in games (leading to its current crisis) has since made these distinctions far harder to discern: more narrative elements are embedded in the game-engine itself, thereby drawing together ludic and diegetic components of player experience. How is it possible to discern 'play' from 'story' when both factors are occurring simultaneously? Frans Mäyrä, a keen proponent of multidisciplinary games studies observes that because 'both representational shell and core gameplay contribute to player's experience with the game, neither can be ignored while researching and analysing games. In a sense, games do not exist in separation from their players' (317).

Indeed, this is the case now more than ever. This mix of representative and configurative experience has become idiosyncratic to the gaming canon and the first game to be examined in detail, Half-Life 2 (2003)[i] exemplifies this unique synthesis. Undoubtedly a seminal game, Half-Life 2 is known for its integration of narrative and gameplay. The plot of the game is as follows: you are Gordon Freeman, an MIT trained physicist who is fighting an inter-dimensional regime known as 'The Combine' who have conquered Earth. Gordon arrives in City-17 (a former European metropolis), finds rebel allies (in the form of Eli Vance, another Black Mesa scientist, and his daughter, Alyx) and proceeds to destroy the Combine citadel at the heart of the city.

A primary innovation in the expression of this narrative, and key factor in the integration of diegetic and ludic elements of the game, is the coherence of player perspective. Half-Life 2 includes no FMVs, disorienting configuration screens (such as an inventory) or textual interludes. Although several cutscenes remain, the player is never displaced from the first-person perspective. [Please refer to V. B1] The first five minutes of gameplay in Half-Life 2 illustrate this continuity. The narrative is experienced in this manner from beginning to end, exclusively from the perspective of Gordon Freeman. The game subtly contextualises itself through Gordon's experience of the world around him: sinister public announcements, aggressive soldiers herding refugees, quarantined environments suggestive of a totalitarian regime. Central to the experience of this external world is the permanent embedding of the player's perspective in Gordon Freeman. [Please refer to Figures 4.1 and 4.2] Even in moments where the player is presented with hallucinatory visions, such as encounters with 'The G-Man' (a morally ambiguous being who is manipulating events), Gordon's presence is implied by the G-Man addressing him (and thereby the player) directly.

[V. B1] - Opening section of Half-Life 2 

Figure 4.1 - One of many visions from the G-Man in Half-Life 2

[Figure 4.1] One of many visions from the G-Man in Half-Life 2

Figure 4.2 - First-person combat in Half-Life 2

[Figure 4.2] First-person combat in Half-Life 2

This provides Half-Life 2 with a degree of perceptual uniformity not afforded to most other games. [Please refer to Figures 4.3 and 4.4] These screenshots taken from Fallout 3 (2008), an FPS-RPG with many configurative displays. Such interfaces are often required to allow the player access to complex gameplay functions. Diane Carr in her essay 'Games and Narrative' examines how this perceptual disparity affects the experience of player surrogacy in Baldur's Gate (1998), a narrative-driven RPG. She explains that 'when playing Baldur's Gate, 'you' sometimes means a fictional character while at other times (on other screens), 'you refers directly and solely to the player' (Carr 33). In Half-Life 2, this disparity is overcome through the coherent mode of perception within the virtual environments. Weapons are accessed through non-invasive on-screen menus which never displace the player's perspective. Whereas the separate 'story' and 'game' environments of other games are liable to create a state of cognitive dissonance regarding the narrative experience, Half-Life 2 creates a unifying representational system which brings together the diegetic and ludic elements of the game.

Figure 4.3

[Figure 4.3] 'Pip Boy 3000' screen from Fallout 3

Figure 4.4 - On-screen dialogue options in Fallout 3

[Figure 4.4] On-screen dialogue options in Fallout 3

The synthesis of these two elements runs right to the core of play structures in Half-Life 2. Moments of narrative significance are embedded so heavily within those traditionally considered 'gameplay' that the two are often indistinguishable. Objects, characters and events which serve a utilitarian purpose in the gameplay are also central to the plot. [Please refer to V. B2] As the video shows, Alyx Vance assists Gordon through a room of Combine soldiers. She provides auxiliary combat support with her handgun, as well as helping Gordon unlock doors and find mission critical resources. But can we classify Alyx as merely a gameplay asset? As her running commentary and emotionally charged interactions with Gordon demonstrate, she also serves as a key factor in progressing the narrative. Her role shifts seamlessly from one of dynamic combat support to catalyser of scripted events. Is it possible to distinguish between 'Alyx the combatant' and 'Alyx the companion'? If we dissect her like a piece of code it may be possible to sort the algorithms that dictate her behaviour into separate compartments. This is, however, irrelevant to the user's experience of Alyx, who could at most see hints of the programming beneath the surface. For the user, she exists in a coherent state that fluidly negotiates any perceived boundaries between gameplay and experiencing diegesis.

[V. B2] Alyx Vance assissting Gordon in combat.

This sense of integration is compounded by the freedoms Half-Life 2 injects into the game's heavily diegetic moments. [Please refer to V. B3]. At the end of Half Life 2: Episode 2 Gordon, Eli, and Alyx are attacked by a pair of Combine 'advisors'. This emotional moment is one of heightened immersion for the player because they are not denied any freedom beyond that which is justified by the narrative. In many other games, player control is regularly removed in circumstances where the game wishes a player surrogate to undergo a complex action, or behave in a specific manner in order for the narrative to continue. V. B3, on the other hand, is typical of the technique Half-Life 2 employs in which any unusual or restricted player interaction is given narrative justification. Although Gordon is pinned to the wall by the Advisor's telekinesis, the player is still free to look around as they would in the normative game environment, thereby enhancing the feeling of player telepresence[ii]. In this manner, the game-engine (the means by which the player experiences the story) and the story itself, converge to create a complex synthesis of narrative and play.

[V. B3] Set piece confrontation in Half-Life 2 

'You're a man of few words, aren't you?'

Alyx Vance, (Half-Life 2)

The manner in which players of computer games experience telepresence has (much to the ire of ludologists) invited a legion of comparisons with film and television. Ken Perlin, Director of the Games For Learning Institute, draws parallels between gaming and televisual protagonists. Using the popular television programme The Sopranos as his example, he argues that 'we identify so much that we "become" Tony Soprano for a time.' This happens because we 'agree (when we start watching) to give over our choice-making power, and to passively allow the narrative to lead us where it will' (12). He continues that games are akin to an overt expression of this underlying dynamic because their very effectiveness relies upon the player 'becoming' their digital surrogate (14).

This analogy poses difficult problems for a gaming narratives such that of Half-Life 2. Tony Soprano, and many gaming protagonists for that matter, possess fully formed personalities that are expressed through diegesis. Gordon on the other hand is essentially a tabula rasa: he never utters a word. [Please refer to V. B4] When Gordon first meets the scientists Eli Vance and Judith Mossman, the conversation is constructed in such a manner that Gordon need never speak. Take for instance Eli's greeting, 'My god, you haven't changed one iota, how do you do it? Now let's see... ' (Half- Life 2); interrogatives in the dialogue are posed in such a way that Gordon's reaction is not consequential, or could be responded to non-verbally with a gesture or expression. This provides the player with the impression of naturally flowing conversation without requiring their input. This technique allows the designers to provide players with an implied notion of Gordon's character through the way in which the NPCs[iii] react to him.

[V. B4] Conversations in Half-Life 2

This method is central to the player's sensation of telepresence. A protagonist such as Tony Soprano is successful because, as Perlin suggests, we surrender agency, and thereby our own identity for a time. However, I would argue that a game such as Half-Life 2 involves the active implantation of the player's agency into a surrogate (in this case Gordon). All the diegetic techniques I have listed so far serve to present the player with a feeling of freedom. By this I do not mean freedom to change events, but rather, freedom within the limits of Gordon's selfhood. Players do not 'surrender agency' to Gordon, Gordon is the vessel for their agency. This is a smoothly orchestrated process in the case of Half-Life 2 (arguably due to Gordon's vacant selfhood), however, imagine the potential problems with this process were Gordon to possess his own will and desires? For instance, many who played the recent RPG Dragon Age II (2011), expressed a keen sense of dissonance regarding their experience of inhabiting the fully-formed protagonist - Hawke, who already possessed a detailed history and unique personality. Many felt unable to fully inhabit a surrogate who was, in a sense, already saturated with his own character. This demonstrates why Gordon Freeman is such an effective vessel for player through the narrative of Half-Life 2: the subtle diegetic occlusions in his engagement with the other NPCs allows for the concurrent progression of a pre-destined narrative and player telepresence within that narrative.

'Rather than offer you the illusion of free choice, I will take the liberty of choosing for you... if and when your time comes round again.'

G-Man (Half Life-2)

Ludologists would argue that such notions of narrative immersion are irrelevant because the ontological structure of videogames is predicated on play. The ludologist Gonzalo Frasca attempts to establish that games are incompatible with other forms because 'traditional media are representational, not simulational ... video games are just a particular way of structuring simulation, just like narrative is a form of structuring representation' (223). Can we classify Half-Life 2 as a simulation on this basis? The linear[iv] nature of narrative in Half Life 2 would constitute a conspicuously restrictive form of simulation: the player has no choice in deciding how the narrative events unfold. Half-Life 2 registers this linear structure through the framing of its narrative. In the opening sequence the G-Man delivers Gordon to City-17, telling him that his 'hour has come again' (Half Life 2) and the game finishes similarly, with the G-Man plucking Gordon from the exploding Citadel and uttering the speech above. The G-Man functions like an omniscient narrator, directing the narrative where he chooses, and thereby explicitly indicating to the player that they are subject to a narrative trajectory outside of their control.

Figure  4.5 - Diagram of narrative and gameplay dynamic in Half-Life 2

[Figure 4.5] Diagram of narrative and gameplay dynamic in Half-Life 2

The only way in which the player makes 'significant' choices are within the sphere of combat. Are these more congruent with the notion of simulation? To explain, Half-Life 2 is a linear FPS in which the objective of play is to overcome enemies through ranged weapons. Success can be achieved via whichever method the player chooses within the scope of the tools provided, but, the player must traverse the series of environments in a non-negotiable order. [Please refer to V. B5]. In this series of videos, the player attempts to negotiate the same room of combine soldiers three times. In the first clip, the player succeeds by using a conservative mixture of the gravity gun and Ant-Lion soldiers, in the second they embrace a much more aggressive, gun-dependent approach and in the third the player attempts the same with a crowbar, fails, and must reload. This dynamic largely conforms with the notion of simulation because the game provides the player with differing options that affect the way each scenario plays out. However, because Half-Life 2 is a game, this simulation must ultimately adhere to the binary system of 'play' in which there are two outcomes: win, or lose. Notice, the result is the same in the first two clips, in spite of their seemingly disparate play-styles the action can be summarised as almost identical in both: the player clears the room of enemies and reaches the other side. Similarly, in the third clip the ultimate result is a 'lose' scenario. There is no real 'choice' for the player but to succeed and continue or fail.

[V. B5] Differing play styles in Half-Life 2 and their consequences

Upon being killed, the player will of course reload their game from a previous point and try again, creating a reiterative cycle until the game is completed. Much of the critical debate as to whether games tell narratives asks whether the narrative occurs concurrently or separately to this process of choosing, action, death and reloading. One ludologist objection to the notion that games tell stories states that narratives are not produced by an interactive process and are, in themselves, inflexible. Eskelinen explains the differences between forms as follows: 'A sequence of events enacted constitutes a drama, a sequence of events taking place a performance, a sequence of events recounted a narrative, and perhaps a sequence of events produced by manipulating equipment and following formal rules constitutes a game' (37). However, as the diagram illustrates, the narrative events in Half-Life 2 are not produced by following the formal rules (playing the game) but rather, are allowed to progress. Half-Life 2 produces the illusion of interactive drama through this dynamic.

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[i] For the purposes of this dissertation Half Life 2 refers to the original release as well as the further episodic content added in 2005 and 2007, each titled HL2: Episode One and HL2: Episode Two respectively.

[ii] 'Telepresence' - The sensation of being present in another location or world. This may be fictional or real: a phone may give someone the impression that they are near a loved one, whereas a television show transmit them to a fantasy locale.

[iii] 'NPC' (Non Player Character) - These comprise of any character within a game who is not controlled by the player. These characters vary from constant companions to more localised creations that populate the environments of a game. In order to be considered an NPC, it is generally agreed that the character in question must interact with the player in some significant manner other than opposing them in combat, whether this be conversations with the player or assisting him somehow. Most 'grunt' enemies, such as goblins that attack in large numbers, are not considered NPCs as they possess no notion of character.

[iv] Linear and non-linear have several contexts in the gaming lexicon. Linear often refers to level-design which carefully guides the player forward through environments, often being described as having 'forward momentum'. However, linear can also refer to a temporally fixed plot, and it is therefore possible to produce a game with linear level design and a non-linear plot.