May 11, 2011

Civil Resistance

I’m currently re-playing Half-life. At the moment, I’m heading into the mysterious Lambda lab, where I’m told the last hope of resistance lies.

It’s a game worth re-playing, and it holds up remarkably well. But there’s another reason why I decided to fire Half-life back up. And it’s sort of embarrassing.

Here it is: the first time I played it, I cheated my way through Half-life. Back when Half-life first came out thirteen (!) years ago, there were two sections of the game that consistently twisted my nipples and made me cry uncle: the underground rail-train chapters, and the Xen chapters. The former is because the soldier enemies are soul-crushingly brutal, and the latter is because I’m terrible at jumping puzzles.

But now, I’m playing it honest. No more cheat codes, none of that monkey business. I’m enjoying it immensely; I guess somewhere in the past several years I picked up how to not play terribly. And in spite of inspiring a new wave of single-player first-person shooters in the intervening years, Half-life still impresses with its clever scenarios and puzzle-solving elements, not to mention having a deft hand at sprinkling its story bits.

I love the world that Half-life creates. I love the variety of obstacles and the mysteries it raises. What’s the deal with the G-man? Was the resonance cascade intended to happen? Who sent the military? What was the extent of Black Mesa’s dabbling in teleportation experiments? Why is Gordon Freeman preternaturally inclined to bludgeon everything that moves?

Facetious as it is, that last bit got me thinking. During the introductory tram ride, we’re informed Gordon Freeman is an MIT Ph.D graduate, and is now a research associate in New Mexico’s Black Mesa Research Facility. After the lab disaster, Gordon Freeman proceeds to spend the next several hours shooting rifles, throwing grenades, and firing rockets into hundreds of military personnel and extraterrestrial wildlife.

So, as a thought experiment: what if Half-life was designed with zero combat? I’m not talking about a “remove bad guys” hack, I’m talking about if the game was designed from the ground up in such a way that Gordon Freeman never holds a gun. In fact, take any game with great worlds – Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Pathways into Darkness, Deus Ex.  In these games, there are many things you can do that don’t involve guns – could a full-length game be built around those things? Is run’n’gun combat a necessary part of this game genre? Is killing things needed in order to be commercially viable?

The Portal games do just that. They’re first person shooters in that they’re played from the first-person perspective, but they eschew conventions of guns, ammo, reloading, and monsters running around. Players concentrate solely on puzzle-solving; Valve makes this even more frictionless by setting Portal in a test lab, creating a convenient mechanism for shuffling players from one puzzle arena to the next puzzle arena. It should be noted Portal is considered a relatively short game, as compared to its Half-life brethren; would Portal’s puzzley gameplay have worked if it was 11 hours long?

I made a snack-sized game some years ago, Gravity Bone, that had this goal in mind. I wanted to make a game with a rich, colorful world of espionage and mystery, but arm the player with very un-gun-like “weapons”: a tray of wine, a ball-peen hammer, a Nikon camera. It was an experiment, and I was surprised to hear from a lot of people that they wanted more of this. Gravity Bone takes maybe 10 minutes to complete; I’d love to see how this type of game would stand up in a longer format.

One full-length game that has taken and run with the no-guns approach is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In most games, you shoot bullets into monsters, and the monsters drop dead. Not so in Amnesia. Basically, Amnesia is a thriller in which monsters can (and will) eat you, so your best weapon is to run and hide in a cupboard like a scaredy-cat. And boy is it effective. Every several minutes I have to pause the game and take a break, because I get way too wound up by all the spookiness.

In closing: less guns; try it, you might like it.


  1. DIckieDIckie  
    May 11th, 2011

  2. I love this blog, seriously <3


  3. DIckieDIckie  
    May 11th, 2011

  4. Also, AZS is a great game, I played it for 3 or 4 days straight alomst when it released on Steam. Looking forward to more great, addictive titles 🙂


  5. Simon WindmillSimon Windmill  
    May 11th, 2011

  6. Lovely post. It’s definitely hard to pull off a combatless FPS because of, well, that S, but as you say Portal does it perfectly. It *feels* like an FPS.

    Another quite different game that I have always described as feeling like an FPS is 21-6 Productions’ Orbz. You need many of the same skills as old-school deathmatch, but you’re competing for stars and powerups, not kills and weapons. Again though the key is that this isn’t a long single player story-based game.

    Do I think you could do an authentic Half-Life-type game without shooting? Yes, especially if you have something like the gravity gun, but even without it I think you could craft a series of set pieces where the aim is avoiding detection or manipulating the environment to shield yourself from enemies instead of just obliterating them. I just think you’d have to have Valve’s world-crafting ability to pull it off.


  7. RobertRobert  
    May 11th, 2011

  8. 4F

  9. DavidDavid  
    May 11th, 2011

  10. I was also in the cheater camp for a very long time with respect to half life. Even though I eventually went back and beat it fair and square, I relish the memories I have of ‘playing with the game’ as opposed to ‘playing the game’. My favorite example of this in HL was using the crowbar to stab the final boss’ testicle brain to death (spoiler: it totally works). Gun-less FPS’s make me happy because when you don’t have to focus on combat, the game can become a toy or even a medium. I think my fondest memories of ‘toying with the game’ took place in the tribes renegades mod, in that game you could build structures with walls and platforms on the unique terrain. Because it was multiplayer, groups of us would dial-up and build structures like the bridge to nowhere, a structure extending beyond the boundaries of the map.


  11. PhiltronPhiltron  
    May 12th, 2011

  12. Half-life was pretty swell. I remember after going to Xen I had to go through training because I never learned about the long-jump. If I were to remake Half-life without combat the player would play Gordon Freeman as he double checks his math before the resonance test.

    Gravity Bone was great (although I hated the piston-Thwomps and jumping-on-flagpoles) and it made me chuckle when you said you’d love to see its type in a longer format when who better to do that than then the gentleman who made the snack sized version.


  13. Jeff S.Jeff S.  
    May 12th, 2011

  14. Making it through HL is something I consider a life achievement, like graduation and getting married. I very clearly recall running out of ammo in every weapon and having 30 shots left in the submachinegun. I miraculously managed to land inside the boss’s skull and emptied my last clip into its decidedly low-poly brain. Pretty close to the last bullet did the thing in. That just totally fired up my imagination: standing shin deep in meninges, gobs of things sloughing off of the alien brain in an unholy fountain of gore as each bullet penetrated slimy head-pudding, deprogramming the boss and bringing Gordon ever closer to home.

    And then there was the ending. The only videogame ending in the world more anticlimactic than HL would be [SPOILER ALERT] the bouncing cards at the end of Windows Solitaire.

    HL2 never quite grabbed my imagination the way HL1 did. Maybe it was because there were a lot of things to my mind that got explained in HL2 that could have been left unanswered. Or maybe because HL2 made me (and still makes me) very seasick. Even the name is enough to make my stomach churn.


  15. Rich WilsonRich Wilson  
    May 12th, 2011

  16. You should check out the Research and Development mod for Half Life 2:
    It’s all about puzzle solving and non-combat gameplay.


  17. BrendonBrendon  
    May 12th, 2011

  18. @Philtron – I will be very happy the day I play a FPS in which I double-check a math problem.

    @Rich – Research & Development is an AMAZING piece of work. Incredibly impressive stuff.


  19. AnonymousAnonymous  
    May 13th, 2011

  20. Brendon.
    I, and everybody I have showed it to loves Gravity Bone. I mean, there’s a huge list of things wrong with it, but the core style and the core idea behind what you were trying to do with the gameplay is brilliant and I would love (and potentially pay) to see more.
    And yeah, I’d love to see more engineer’em ups and the like in the world, or games where improvised weapons really do mean improvised, poorly perfoming, don’t stick with, unlike the super-powerful “improvised” weapons of Dead Space and Dead Rising. Hell, imagine how much more scarier Dead Space would have been if it was actually about Issac hurrying to seal door, patch up vents, open new routes before the monsters could get through, slicing off a few limbs with a welder in panic when he was too slow, rather than easily dismembering all the necromorphs with precision shooting.


  21. CMasterCMaster  
    May 13th, 2011

  22. @Anonymous
    Opps, forgot the name.


  23. BrendonBrendon  
    May 13th, 2011

  24. @CMaster – that’s actually a good description for what Amnesia goes for! I’d be interested to see how a mash-up between the two would play like.


  25. somniasomnia  
    May 16th, 2011

  26. Mirror’s Edge, to an extent, is this.


  27. RanRan  
    May 16th, 2011

  28. Why the constant talk of Amnesia?

    It’s the spiritual successor to the Penumbra series, which is frankly a lot better. In fact, it’s one of the best game series ever.

    Don’t miss out on it! The full Penumbra pack is often found at steam sales.


    […] It was also a fun experiment in making a first-person game without any shooting. Many of the Barista 3 comments I received were some variation of “there’s no shooting, wtf.” I think the intimate nature of the first-person perspective is wonderful for storytelling and exploration, especially when you remove all that extra noise from gunplay. […]


    […] – I’ve written before about games that downplay combat and blowing things up, and was really delighted to get to see […]