Shoot her

[Continuing to look at how constructed environments, and the behavior cues that arise from them, I take a bit of a left turn from the last post in this loosely connected series. This time, I consider the paradigm shift that Valve managed in their game Half-Life.]

I stand before a woman. She is unarmed and I have a weapon. She has asked me to follow her and, after doing that, we stand before a wall. Although I don’t know her, she seems to know me. I consider my weapon.

The game I was playing is Half-Life 2. The woman is Alyx Vance. Why though am I considering killing her? Because I have been taught to do so.

Let’s consider again something I brought up in that previous post: Routinization provides interpretation consistency.

My first experience with the first-person shooter genre was the game Wolfenstein 3D. The narrative, as I understood it at the time, consisted solely of me shooting things in hallways that looked the same. Sometimes I found a key. Soldiers and dogs were also there. But, more than anything else, it was me shooting things. My verbs were these: shoot, move and open*. The subject is me**. The objects are soldiers, dogs and, although I never got that far, Robo-Hitler.

After that, the next game I played for a greater length of time was Doom. Since the game has such ubiquity, I will just settle for pointing out where id Software expanded the vocabulary. The number of objects was expanded. I still participated solely in the act of shooting anything that was not me. (The ‘space marine’, now even more of a cipher character than in the last game, is probably psychopathic. However, that argument is for another post.)

So, after playing those two single-player games and learning the dominant syntax of “[I] shoot [X]”, how was I to know not to shoot anyone else? I was taught it through the environment.

Context helps to define objects and behaviors.

You start on a train and are without a weapon. That’s the secret to both Half-Life and Half-Life 2. How do I know not to kill everyone I see immediately in the case of both games? I can’t. It’s that simple. In the case of Half-Life, you spend your first few minutes without any weapon. And you are on a train. The setting, a subset of the context, is that of waiting. The default social context for being on a train is to wait while the vehicle is in motion. In fact, since you cannot get out of the vehicle anyway in both games, you must wait till it stops before exiting.

This restriction of movement and rejection of “shooting first” was designed. This claustrophobic occasion is to teach you two things: other people exist in this world and the game is going to expand the verb set. The interpretation of the environment has been changed because the context of the interaction has been changed. Your ride on the train in Half-Life allows you to see other people working in Black Mesa. You get an overview of the objects and materials that you will be working with and around as you continue to play the game. These additions to the object set need additional verbs and you get that in what I think is a perfect example in Half-Life 2.

After getting off the train, you are exposed to ambient exposition about your new setting. One group of people, those in uniforms and with masks, seem to be in power over unmasked and ragged-clothes wearing group of people. After passing through the line of people, you come face to face with one of these masked people. His simple imperative statement is this: “Pick up the can.”

This interaction teaches, among other things like you will be fighting these people soon and that you should resent these people, that you can interact with the world. This encounter adds two additional verbs “[I] pick up [X]” and “[I] put down [X]”. Your context has changed your interpretation of the environment and its cues. By just expanding the verbs in any given situation, Valve gave the first-person genre some needed growth.

Let’s go back to how I started this post though. I was in the process of considering my weapon, as I had been taught through games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Yet, I was taught I could interact with the environment too just previous to this encounter with the masked individual and the picking up of the can. So, what did I do? Did I shoot her? Did you?

A context only helps to define behaviors. It cannot enforce them and a good designer knows this. Even if you do shoot Alyx, it does nothing. Bullets pass through her. This is Valve rather patiently pointing out to the player that Alyx is important. She is now part of your environmental context but is a separate entity in her own right. This is an extension of the earlier restriction of movement. It is a restriction of whom you can shoot, a necessary breaking of verisimilitude in order to facilitate the expanded verb set from their previous game. Not only can you interact with the environment (Half-Life), but so can she (Half-Life 2). So, go ahead and shoot her. Be warned though, she has the same verb set. She could shoot you back.

*I characterize ‘open’ in a rather vague way here. Since it could mean in two different ways both “opening a circuit” or even “opening a door”, it is in one case or another the process of “opening a new path.” I think that the simplification of just “open” works well in this set of possible verbs.

**Yes, true, it could be argued that William “B.J.” Blazkowicz is the true protagonist. However, without looking at the manual, would you know that? Does anyone talk to you? Do you talk to anyone? Does your name even come up at all? The answer to those three questions, as far as I know, is no. You are a cipher, a character in which the player pours in their own interpretations of actions taken in the game and to which such interpretations the game story ignores completely.