Living a Half-Life? – Murray Lorden

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Andrew Britton thinks entertainment is all about escaping from real life, but playing a game like Half-Life doesn’t mean just ‘tuning out’.

In reality, you quickly get used to the fact that there are physical and social limitations that have a very real influence on everyday life. However, narrative forms allow us to experience a world outside these limits: we can momentarily escape the restrictions and strains of everyday life by becoming mentally and emotionally involved in a fictional world. The closure, resolution and meaning of fictional narratives provides a frame that allows us to momentarily dismiss the real world outside. Even oral traditions of storytelling – which have no physical frame to separate the story-world from the real world – have this attribute of inclusion and exclusion because we are invited to direct our attention towards the fictional world and away from real life concerns.

However, computer games allow for a special type of escapism: when we turn on a computer game, a whole new world of possibilities suddenly opens before us, allowing us to virtually transcend the boundaries between real life and the fictional world of the game.  While a film or a book may ask us to block out the real world, computer games require the player to perform the fictional drama that unfolds through their participation.  One such computer game narrative that I became heavily involved in was Half Life by Valve Software.  Half Life is a first person shooter (FPS) that takes its themes from a wide variety of genres, such as horror, action and war films.

Escaping into a game, such as Half Life, is dependent upon the participation of the game player, which is an element that really sets computer games apart from other story-based entertainment forms. Rather than watching a narrative unfold in a linear, cause and effect manner, the game-player must trigger the next event themselves. Rather than just follow the plot, the player must navigate the performance space. In games, we become a force within the narrative – as a character involved in the narrative, usually the protagonist, or maybe even a god or overseer. In response to Andrew Britton’s thoughts on entertainment and escapism, I want to offer my own experience of escaping into Half Life, where, deeply engrossed in the challenges of the game-world, I could ‘tune out’ from my real-life concerns.

Andrew Britton has argued that “artefacts that tell us we are being entertained (the requisite feature of the kind of product I have in mind) also tell us that they are promoting ‘escape’, and this is the most significant thing about them.  They tell us that we are ‘off duty’, and that nothing is required of us but to sit back, relax and enjoy.”[1]  Although games require more engagement than to sit back and relax, they certainly do allow us to allocate our time as ‘off duty’. At the same time, however, when the player becomes involved in the game, they, in fact, make a contract about being on duty inside the game environment.  A deep sense of escape from real life is connected to the player’s sense of responsibility and connection to the events in the game-world. This kind of escape is very different from the escape provided by cinema or literature. Rather than becoming immersed in the meaning of a book or film (so that the frame of the narrative/screen allows us to block out the real world), our escape into a computer game involves engaging with the challenges set by the game, such as mastering the controls or puzzle solving. Games provide us with a specific set of rules against which you can test yourself, setting goals and gaining satisfaction from how well you performed within the game space. When we feel satisfyingly occupied within the game-world, this sense of reward and mastery promotes a special form of escapism because we must focus in on the challenges of the game and perform our duty as game-player.

Describing his experience of going to the opening of a film called Hell Night, Britton assumes that the escapism provided by entertainment is fundamentally tied to the predictability of their narratives.
 “It became obvious at a very early stage that every spectator knew exactly what the film was going to do at every point… The film’s total predictability did not create boredom or disappointment.  On the contrary, the predictability was clearly the main source of pleasure, and the only occasion for disappointment would have been a modulation of the formula, not the repetition of it.”[2] 
To promote a sense of escaping real life, entertainment must offer us a safety zone, apart from the everyday. Games do so, by providing a predictable environment that makes sense and remains consistent. Entities and inhabitants can be depended upon to behave in a set way and this consistency allows the game player to comprehend the ‘rules of the game’ completely. Just such an ability to pre-guess the events of the narrative is the joy of playing computer games, where it is often your ability to perform the formula that is the measure of your success in the game world. Computer game narratives are extremely ritualised and formulaic and the game-player is so familiar with the codes and conventions that we already know what is going to happen. This predictability provides a  level of control and sense of autonomy that distinguishes the escapism of computer games from other forms of narrative. In Half Life, for example, I became more and more familiar with the behaviour and movements of the enemy units and with my own arsenal of weaponry, and, after long enough, I became a veritable master at controlling my avatar and manipulating the environment according to the rules and conventions of the horror, action and war genres.

This predictability also extends to the type of role we can play, which  is usually determined by clearly defining the style of game-play in terms of existing genres, such as action films, adventure stories, or mysteries. For example, when playing Quake (Id Software, 1995), the player must show proficiency as an action hero, much like Rambo.  In Half Life, we must be proficient as a “thinking” action hero, like James Bond.  In a game like Powerslide (Ratbag, 1997) or TOCA Touring Cars (Codemasters, 1997), the player must have the skills of an accomplished racer, like those sportsmen we see at racing events or on television. Our competency in the game-world and, therefore, our sense of connection to events occurring in the game-world is measured by our familiarity with the narrative conventions and character types of a particular genre. Moreover, many contemporary games are emphasising a diverse range of game-play styles in the one game.  For example, the advertising slogan for Deus Ex was, “Your goal is to save the world.  How you do it is up to you!”  Still, you know it will not be by organising charity events.  Rather, how you save the world will be determined by your choice of the available generic conventions, such as being a cyber-punk hacker, an action man, or a stealth master, or a fluid combination of all types.

In Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993), Bill Murray’s character keeps repeating the same tasks over and over, trying to improve his performance through practice and repetition.  He is just a sarcastic, bitter news reporter, but wants to turn the story into a romantic narrative by altering his behaviour over recurring versions of the one day to fit the role of the romantic male lead. Whereas  a film or a book is generally experienced just for the length of time it takes from start to finish, games allow for the mind to be indefinitely distracted because, much like a card game, the ‘rules of the game’ keep us engaged and we can repeat the scenario over and over and over. Murray’s fantasy comes true in the computer-game world because we can ac
tually play (or replay) a game in a different way each time, or with different objectives. In Half Life,  the rules that govern the environment are so enthralling that I have begun the game several different times, just to “live” the same narrative events over again in a new way. Depending on the game-player’s desires, the contents of the game can change in proportions: for example, Half Life allows the player to befriend some non-player characters (NPC’s) and team up with them, cooperating in your battle against the invading aliens.  Alternatively, I can just kill them on sight, or use them for bait to shift the attention of the enemy away from myself. The fact that Half Life is rule-based creates the possibility for a unique outcome each time it is played, which means that I can engage with the game-world indefinitely.  Furthermore, playing Half Life in multi-player mode against other players online, accentuates my desire to engage with these recurring scenarios indefinitely. Games, therefore, promote a sense of escaping the restrictions of real life by allowing us to repeat our performance over and over until we perfect it.

Britton also argues that “Entertainment…defines itself in opposition to labour, or, more generally, to the large category, ‘the rest of life’, as inhabitants of which we work for others, do not, in the vast majority of cases, enjoy our labour, and are subject to tensions and pressures that the world of entertainment excludes.”[3] Curiously enough, the experience of playing a computer game  – of being “on duty” inside the game-world – could so often be seen as labour, rather than an escape from the drudgery of working life.  Computer games are full of problems to overcome, puzzles to solve, objectives to complete and tasks to manage.  In Half Life, your main goal is to navigate your way out of the Black Messa Research Facility and get to the surface.  You are constantly having to evade enemies, restock your supplies, maintain your equipment, and solve puzzles.  In adventure and mystery games, it can get to the point of wandering around, hopelessly stuck and lost, or getting frustrated with attempt after attempt at a puzzle you can’t solve.  However, it is this frustration – this labour – that satisfies our desire to escape into the game-world.  At least in computer games, you know there is an answer, it just needs to be found and once you solve a difficult problem, the feeling of reward is all the greater.  Also, unlike real life, there is always just the possibility of giving up completely without negative consequences.

While computer games certainly involve us in another story-world, they allow for a brand of escapism that is unlike previous narrative media. The hermetic entertainment world”[4] of the computer game may be built from the rules, codes and formulas that are familiar to us from film and other media but their use of these rules emphasises the game-player’s role in helping to perform the narrative. When the final narrative is a product of our performance, then we are no longer told a story that invites us to forget the world outside the frame. Rather, we forget our real lives because we are actively participating in the very creation of that story. One phenomenon that is starting to receive special attention in up and coming games – and that may blur the boundaries between real life and the story-world of the computer game – is the dynamic mission generator, which is basically a database of narrative nodes that employ formulae to administer the state of the narrative world.  Such systems will become more common in future online role-playing games such as Citizen Zero (MicroForte).  These games involve a different kind of storytelling, where the composition of the narrative is not so much a pre-written script, but rather a series of rules that determine narrative possibilities.  The mission generator would keep track of events in the game world and trigger appropriately dramatic events throughout the game world.  More like life itself, these systems allow for unpredictable and free-form combinations of events within an interconnected world.  When the stories are many, crossing over one another and engaging the player with a strong sense of purpose, identity and responsibility within the world of the game, will our computer generated half-lives become better than life?

Bibliography

Citizen Zero – Interview with the developers http://bigworldvault.ign.com/features/interviews/bigworld01.html, last accessed 12th October, 2000

Andrew Britton, “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment, Movie, Winter, 1986, pp.1-42

Notes

[1] Andrew Britton, “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment”, Movie, Winter, 1986, p. 4. [return to main text]
[2] ibid. p. 2-3. [return to main text]
[3] ibid. p. 4. [return to main text]

[4] ibid. [return to main text]

 

Murray Lorden is a game developer at Melbourne based Bluetongue Software. He has completed an Arts degree at Melbourne University with a major in Cinema Studies and New Media. He has been playing games since about 1983, when his family got their first home computer. His favourite games include: King’s Quest, Digger, Gravity Force, Speedball, Quake, Half-Life, Thief and TOCA