HL Interlude: High-Tech Shuffleboard

by Tom Ingram


We have reached the big break in the game, so this is as logical a place as any to present this special message. The remainder of Half-Life takes place on Xen and, unfortunately, is not as good as what preceded it. We will examine how and why in the next entry, but for now I would like to say a few words on the subject of Half-Life 2: Episode Three.

We are perhaps past the era of “Web 2.0”. While Web 2.0 had its fair share of buzzwords, it did refer to something coherent: a certain minimalist aesthetic, a movement toward well-written markup, expanded use of client-side scripts to communicate with a server, removing the need to constantly reload pages, and perhaps most importantly the greater participation of the end-user. The internet as it stands today is something different, perhaps best summed up as what Web 2.0 becomes once our parents learn about it.

The upshot is that the world is a much more buzzword-heavy place than it was even three years ago. Old-world news outlets have tried to jump on the bandwagon without fully understanding where it’s going and why, and thus we have Twitter and Facebook being shoehorned into places they’re not needed or wanted simply because that’s what the kids today like, isn’t it? Facebook even got a movie (in a cruel twist of fate, it seems that shortly after The Social Network failed to win Best Picture at the Oscars, Facebook itself has begun its decline). Every new service wants to link with your Facebook account, and your local newspaper probably wants you to tweet links to their stories and the whole situation is just revolting–not because there’s anything inherently wrong with Facebook or Twitter, but because they just don’t get what these services are about. If, every time someone said the words “social media”, you were to dragon-kick them in the stomach, you would have very little innocent blood on your conscience.

Eat it, Sorkin

Half-Life 2: Episode 2, the last game in the series, was released in 2007 in a very different world. It ended on a cliffhanger, and there’s no indication that Episode 3 is even being developed at the moment. Very little information about it has surfaced, limited to a smattering of concept art and a couple of offhand statements. Valve is known for quality releases with almost comical wait times between them, so this in itself is not that worrying. But some of the more recent offhand statements have made me wonder if a dragon-kick in the direction of Bellvue, WA is not in order.

According to this article at The Escapist, Valve is done with conventional single-player games, and is planning to develop “single-player plus”:

Gabe Newell clears up the situation by saying: “What we’re trying to talk about is the fact that, not that we’re not doing single-player games … It’s more that we think we have to work harder in the future, that entertainment is inherently increased in value by having it be social, by letting you play with your friends and recognizing that you’re connected with other people. That’s the thing we’re trying to say.”

“Single-player is great, but we also have to recognize that you have friends and want to have that connected as well,” Newell added. “It’s not about giving up on single-player at all, we actually think that there are a bunch of features and capabilities that we need to add into our single-player games to recognize the socially-connected gamer. Every gamer is instant messaging, every gamer has a Facebook account. If you pretend this doesn’t exist you’re ignoring the problems you ought to be taking on, so it’s ‘single-player plus’, not ‘no more single-player’.”

Valve has created almost two dozen top-notch games. They have consistently rebutted the cynics who say it’s all going to hell, that you can’t make something that’s fun, honest, and popular. A few years back, they took an enormous risk in creating Portal. In an age where everything is becoming big, connected, expensive, and insipid, they released an extremely vivid, short, and simple single-player game that sold cheaply. The focus was on tight writing and entertaining gameplay. And it was one of the best games ever made. More importantly, it sold in ridiculous quantities–more than four million sales from retail, not counting Steam downloads. If its memorable lines have been turned into catchphrases by simpering morons, that’s hardly Valve’s fault.

The Half-Life series itself has been a storytelling tour de force in a medium whose mainstream is quickly becoming more trendy and shallow. While it has kept abreast of new technology, delivering consistently impressive visuals (which, unlike those of many high-tech games, have lasting appeal), the series has never mistaken form for substance. The low points–Blue Shift and Episode 1–are still a step above just about anything on the PS3 or Xbox. So I really did not expect such buzzwordy, patently stupid remarks from somebody at Valve.

I suppose what’s so infuriating about the “social media” craze is that nobody seems to recognize it for what it is. Facebook and company are simply new ways of doing what we’d be doing anyway. Of course, the new technology allows us to connect with people all over the world, but we’re saying things to them that we would say even if we didn’t have Facebook, and Dunbar’s number has remained constant no matter how many “friends” we claim. Twitter allows short messages to reach a new audience instantly, but they are the kinds of messages that have always been getting around. All the website does is speed them on their way.

These services are new chronologically, but not new in the sense of bringing something new to the table–i.e., not actually new. While they’ve been hailed as game-changers, the game has remained largely the same. So if single-player was relevant in 1998, there is no reason it shouldn’t be relevant in 2008, or 2018. The fact that I have a Facebook account has no more bearing on it than the fact that I live near a Tim Horton’s and my city contains more than one shopping mall (or, for that matter, the fact that I live in a city and not a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe).

Newell’s claim that “entertainment is inherently increased in value by having it be social, by letting you play with your friends and recognizing that you’re connected with other people” is simply not true. When you last went to a movie and one of your fellow theatre-goers loudly informed the audience that the hero was, in fact, “Steve Rogers: Captain America”, did you consider this a futuristic sign of the onset of “social media”? No, you probably told him to shut up and, if you have any decency in you, dragged him out back and dragon-kicked him in the stomach. When you’re in bed reading War and Peace, do you want your best friend lying there next to you, reading over your shoulder and commenting on the plot?

There's a very special level of Hell, reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre.

There are certain kinds of entertainment that we don’t want to be social, and any attempts to make it social usually come off as gimmicky and unpleasant. These include movies–remember the “interactive movies” that Siskel and Ebert were panning in the 80s? What ever came of those? And plays–except of course for improv, which you’ll notice doesn’t do nearly as well as conventional theatre (I saw an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway once. Just once). Books and comics, too, and roughly half of all video games.

Several times, Yahtzee has said that he has trouble reviewing multiplayer games because it’s not really a review of the game, it’s a review of your friends. Some video games really do improve with the addition of more people. For instance, Guitar Hero, which is one of the few games that is as fun to watch as it is to play. Guitar Hero and its ilk amount to high-tech shuffleboard. They’re mildly entertaining amusements that are more about the people playing them than anything else–no one plays shuffleboard or Guitar Hero alone, and it would be equally pathetic in either case.

There’s nothing wrong with these games, but there’s a difference in kind between them and story-driven experiences like Half-Life 2, despite their shared history. They are meant to achieve different ends, and are built with different principles in mind. If you pushed hard enough, you could make one into the other, but the result would be unrecognizable. You might as well make something entirely new and spare yourself the hatemail.

Multiplayer (which, let’s not mince words, it is–single-player-plus means more than one player, which is multiplayer) is well-suited to HTS-type games, but it does not play nicely with storytelling. Before you even get into the other issues it raises, it’s a logistical nightmare. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles for the Gamecube was a fun game, even in its multiplayer mode. My brothers and I each had separate files for it, in addition to a multiplayer file. We each beat the game several times in single-player, but to this day our multiplayer is still in the second area of the world map. Getting three kids to want to play at the same time is very difficult. The Half-Life games are all rated M, so in theory only people older than 17 can buy them–imagine trying to coordinate adults to play it. You’d never get past the first level!

Moreover, to make this system work every player but one would have to take on a character other than Gordon Freeman. This means playing a peripheral role in the story, and whose idea of fun includes being peripheral? The vast majority of gameplay in the series involves Freeman alone. In fact, this was the whole point. Essential to the fun of Half-Life and its sequels is the sense of isolation and otherness–it’s also probably essential to the overarching plot. People bought it because of the single-player, not in spite of it. Either this will have to change, giving us lonely treks through the countryside with a troupe of loud, garishly-dressed companions (which would make the gameplay unrecognizable), or these already second-banana players will have to take frequent furloughs.

Can you imagine any way that would be fun? That’s what this amounts to: a failure of imagination. The idea is flawed on the conceptual level, but it sounds good (or at least coherent) as a short description–so long as you don’t have to imagine what it would actually look like.

This interlude is a plea to the good people of Valve: please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t do this. Or at least don’t do it until you have an answer to these objections. You are one of the last bastions of creativity in this shit-lined, godforsaken money trench. It would profit you nothing to throw it all away for the whole world. But for Facebook? That would be a real tragedy.

Next: Interview.