Agency and Narrative: Half-Life

All of this was originally an illustrative example within the earlier post Agency and Narrative. However, at one point this example ended up taking up about half the essay, so I decided to post it up later as supplemental material. THIS IS THAT LATER.

Another particularly interesting case study when it comes to granting and restricting player agency is the Half-Life series. At a time when most games favored either elaborate cut-scenes to deliver story content or bare-bones ‘excuse’ plots, Half-Life took a principled approach that determined that the player would always be in control– or, at least, as in control as the player character was. Story elements were conveyed by way of environmental cues, eavesdropped dialogue, and having characters talk at the player. This model broke apart in a few places in the first game, and in the sequel a few more as it played with these ideas.

Example 1: In both games, there are characters who serve both as exposition and as gatekeepers– mostly random scientists in the first game and Alyx in the second. However, in the first game the scientists are in constant danger, and the player must remain vigilant lest one of them die and render the game impossible to complete– conversely, Alyx is basically invincible, and the sections of the game where she’s interacting with the player there is no real gameplay to speak of. The game is put on hold to allow the designers to continue telling their story.

Example 2: In both games, there are segments where the player is disempowered and disarmed. In Half-Life, this happened when the player is ambushed in a dark room by a couple of random soldiers. The player has no opportunity to react to the lights going out by, say, swinging around in a circle holding the trigger of an assault rifle down and laughing maniacally. This was, let’s face it, a lousy solution to the problem. Valve could have easily come up with some sort of scenario where the ground collapses underneath the player and they fall into their captors hands, or where the player gets gassed and passes out, or whatever. Having the player defeated by a dark room is a clear undermining of player agency, one without any basis in the game world itself (the tutorial teaches you how to use the flashlight for a reason).

Half-Life 2 tries to get around this specific problem by forcing the player to, in order to progress the plot, submit themselves to a device which renders them helpless and allows their equipment to be stolen. This is actually an interesting idea, putting the player into a position where they have to intentionally disempower themselves to progress. Yet, in the end, the overall effect is if anything even more off-putting. Why, in a world which has hitherto given the player every opportunity to bypass obstacles, to climb over pipes and through vents and into sewers, is the player now forced to jam themselves into a pod rather than, say, climbing onto the pod, or running across the beams supporting the system, or causing a ruckus so that guards come to shoot him and he can overrun them like a salmon swimming upstream?

The thing about Half-Life is, though the design is extremely competent, it is anything but elegant. It’s the nexus of a million semi-conflicting ‘best practices’ of game design, which are held together by its strong unified approach to narrative delivery. However, because of that, anything which threatens that unity, that intuitive narrative experience, threatens to completely unhinge the game’s design– and, because of the disparate design influences, creating actual synchronicity between the game’s design and narrative is even more tricky than usual.

In a more inherently constrained game, a game where the player constantly has to make decisions about what he can effectively carry, one could easily enforce the removal of the character’s equipment simply by forcing a situation where it’s not possible for that character to carry all of his equipment– for instance, a flimsy bridge or a cumbersome object the player has to carry. However, since in Half-Life and the traditional FPS genre whose conventions it inherited there isn’t even an interface constructed for dropping items in the first place, any methodology for depowering the player is by necessity contrived.

Because the overall design is so un-constrained, because the player expects to be able to carry enough weaponry to level several tanks (as turns out to be necessary), because the design of the game appears to offer the player so much freedom, whenever that freedom is taken away in a contrived manner by the requirements of the plot the player feels that much less free.


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