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.