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My girlfriend, Catherine, adores crows. Every few months, I’ll get an update from her about how intelligent crows are, how they form communities, how they remember interactions with humans, how they communicate amongst themselves and trade stories of human kindness or cruelty. In literature, crows and ravens are signifiers of death and portents of doom. In the last couple of years, however, I’ve found it hard to take such associations seriously.
I was never good at piano, but I had lessons for ten years anyway. I rarely practiced, and I didn’t have the space in my brain to absorb any musical theory. Reading notation was my biggest weak point: especially in bass clef, I couldn’t tell you where I was meant to put my fingers to save my life. What I was really in it for was that point after months of practice and scrawling notes on sheet music when I could perform a piece almost-rote, when performance became effortless.
So it’s been two years since I made my first game, Connecting, with my friend Sandy Gardner. That doesn’t seem right to me – it feels like maybe a year at best – but it’s true. It’s not an anniversary I think anybody other than the pair of us would really want to commemorate, but I thought it would be nice to write something short about what the game tried to achieve, what my intentions and grander designs were with that prototype.
‘O the crossbones of Galway,
The hollow grey houses,
The rubbish and sewage,
The grass-grown pier,
And the dredger grumbling
All night in the harbour:
The war came down on us here.’ – Louis MacNeice, ‘The Coming of War, Section VII’
Driving along the coast in Half-Life 2 is my favourite part of the game. For me, it reinforces the biggest change between the game and its predecessor, which is scope. Half-Life takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single underground research facility, whereas the second spans a vast stretch of the world in which it’s set; going from City 17 to Eli’s bunker, through Ravenholm, along the coastal road to Nova Prospekt, then back to City 17 again. Half-Life is structured like an anabasis from Hell, whereas Half-Life 2 is more like the Odyssey, and it is during this driving section* that I feel this sense of voyage reaches the height of its power as the bombast of the section’s action set-pieces is punctuated by the quietude and solace of driving alone on the open road, waves crashing on the cliffsides below you.
The threat in this section comes from the outposts that Combine forces have established in houses along the coastal road, and this ties into what I think is the other big change between the two games. The spaces in Half-Life are largely industrial: you navigate elevators, air ducts, offices, processing plants, silos. These are present in parts of Half-Life 2 as well, but there are a lot of chapters where the setting is more domestic. There are the apartment blocks of City 17, the clustered houses of Ravenholm, and, along the coastal road of the driving section, a small handful of seaside cottages. Here, I want to focus on these latter houses, how they function in the coastal road section, and how they reflect the themes of the game spatially.
The first thing worth pointing out about these houses is that a good number of them can be skipped. I count fourteen houses, or clusters of houses on the road during the vehicle section. Of these, half required the player to get out of the buggy and interact with them (either as the setting of a fight with a small contingent of Combine forces or as a puzzle that has to be solved to let your buggy through) in order for the player to proceed along the critical path. The other half all contain enemies, loot, or both, but can easily be driven past without affecting the progress of the game in any appreciable way. Instead, these houses have a thematic relevance that grounds the narrative of the Half-Life world in these incidental architectures. Take, for instance, the second house you encounter in “Highway 17”.
If Fallout 3 is a game about spaces, then Fallout: New Vegas is a game about people.
This can be seen in the way that it informs the world design of both games. The Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3 is a vast, sprawling space with huge distances in between points of interest. The game wants the player to forge a relationship to the Capital Wasteland itself as they navigates its reaches. The Mojave Wasteland of New Vegas, on the other hand, is a lot smaller. There are several points of civilization in the wastes that are (almost) all connected by a singular road that loops around the map. In fact, this is how the game structures the first act of its main questline: you start in Goodsprings, head south to Primm, then the NCR outpost, then loop round and up to Novac, and finally New Vegas itself, all following the I-15/I-95. The distances between these pit-stops is shorter than the distance between any two locations in Fallout 3, especially without any train tunnel mazes to meander through, and there’s not much scenery in these interludes. It’s all wide, indistinct expanses of desert and the occasional valley. The Capital Wasteland always has the Washington Monument visible in the distance, drawing the player continually back to that frame of reference and forging a relationship between player and space. Not so in the Mojave.
What this does mean is that greater emphasis is put on the interactions that the player has with those pockets of civilization when they do reach them. The player is encouraged to stick around for a while and seek out all the Stuff that the developers have packed in. This is achieved through the quest design itself, which makes connections between settlements for the player to tap into. There are lots of side quests in New Vegas that simply entail bouncing between settlements to talk to different people.
Ranger Ghost in the NCR Mojave Outpost asks the player to go to Nipton to check out smoke coming from the town. When they get there, they find it has been sacked by the Legion, and Vulpes Inculta gives the player a separate quest to spread word of the Legion’s actions to strike fear into the NCR. Back at the Mojave Outpost, the player tells Ranger Ghost about Nipton, and in return get some dialogue explaining the significance of this event in terms of the conflict between the NCR and the Legion. They can also talk to Sergeant Kilborn in the Outpost to complete the quest given by Inculta.
These are quests that overlap, establish relationships between individuals, factions and locations, and also involve only travelling, observation and conversation in terms of gameplay. Rather than emphasising the movement of the player through the space of the Mojave itself, these quests ground the player in the geopolitics of the Mojave that they then become a part of. There are shades of this in Fallout 3, especially in the Broken Steel DLC, but they aren’t as well realised, nor are they as integral to the way that the game is structured as a whole.
I’m not sure what to think of those rare moments of quietude when the game’s music and visuals work in tandem to create a rich atmosphere of loneliness, the background threat of the wasteland intermingles with the strange beauty of the desolate landscape, and the imaginary ruins of Washington D.C. become a solemn, dignified capriccio. Whilst these moments are all constituted from Bethesda’s deliberate design, they feel at odds with the main storyline of killing successive Bad Army Men and the traditional RPG (capitalist) narrative of player progression as detailed in Stephen Beirne’s essay here.
They could be accidents, or maybe I’m not giving Bethesda nearly enough credit and it’s all meant to add to the experience of occupying the space of the Capital Wasteland, alternating the adrenaline heights of combat with the nadir of exploration.
I know that this is something that everybody else realised upon or shortly after release, but it’s just coming to me now so bear with me.
The problem with morality in Fallout 3 isn’t so much that it’s built around this dichotomy of good and evil, but the way that this dichotomy is expressed through violence. In Fallout 3, an evil act is the killing of a good person, and a good act is the killing of an evil person. As a result, killing itself has no inherent moral property. What makes an act of good or evil is to whom the otherwise inert act of killing is directed. To put it another way, the game treats good and evil like opposing teams. One dead Evil Person is a point for Team Good, and vice versa.
I found the secret energy tank in Kraid’s room in Metroid by using two maps: one shows where every suit upgrade, missile upgrade, energy tank and boss room is, and the other is a complete detailed map of the Planet Zebes, including the location of every destructible block. Getting the energy tank is kind of a difficult maneuver in itself. Instinct tells you to fall into the acid, shoot the destructible block that hides the item with your beam weapon, then jump back onto the main platform, enter morph ball mode and roll into the newly-exposed crevice. But the angle you leave the platform at means you just miss the mark. The solution is to jump to the right once you have exposed the block, to the ledge of the room’s entrance, then enter morph ball mode, fall down and hold to the right so that you can slot in. All of this I discovered through Google, which directed me to a GameFAQs thread where other people have agonised over precisely the same problem.
This wasn’t possible back in 1986 when the game was released. You couldn’t outsource your problems like that, pulling solutions from the web’s vast pool of information. You had to consult vague strategy guides in magazines, ask for tips from friends and relatives, keep notebooks filled with passwords, encyclopedic notes, make crude maps with your own reference points. Back when I first got Metroid from the eShop I had planned to play the game this way, rejecting the easy answers from the internet and exploring the game entirely by myself, edging forward piece by piece, feeling my way through the darkness. Zebes is a bewildering, open-ended labyrinth, and demands to be treated as such.
Kent Sheely’s Exquisite Corpses reminds me of driving through Death Valley with my family a few years ago: for miles, the endless desert stretching far away, dotted only occasionally with a lone caravan, or shack, or signpost. It was a ruined place, and I felt like we were trespassing there.
In Exquisite Corpses there are no shacks, but instead there are colossal glitched models from Team Fortress 2 that form the game’s scenery. They come from a previous piece by Sheely that goes by the same name:
“When the player’s character dies, the camera jumps to a freeze-frame of the killer. Sometimes the “killcam” glitches and ends up inside other players or objects, creating strange abstractions. I cut some of these images apart and reassembled them.”
They are images of frozen collapse, of the (cartoon) body at the moment of death, with the glitched angles emphasising this static liminality; between life and death, they are ersatz, uncanny. In the game, their place in the background and foreground transform them into monuments to entropy, reflecting the breakup that plays throughout the long drive.
A breakup is an attempt to move, both through the initial, awful moment of failure and then pastthe relationship and onto the next stage of your life. Here, we get the car driving through the landscape of failure, signifying movement as the two people in the relationship communicate their way through the end of their time as a couple. Except, all of this – the scenery, the communication, the driving – seems inadequate.
The dialogue itself is auto-generated, which means that the conversation never feels like a conversation. The language itself is distant in tone: lines like “I hope we’ll be able to talk through it” and “thank you for communicating how you felt” veer into an overly polite register that rings utterly false. Each line is disconnected from the wider dialogue, always reaching out to the others but never quite touching them in a way that feels authentic. It feels like an exquisite corpse.
An exquisite corpse is a piece of writing or art that has been composed by several contributors in sequence; one person starts writing or drawing, covers up a portion of their composition, then passes it on to another person to continue it. The result is surreal, discontinuous, pushing the boundaries of intelligibility even if it comes out technically sound. It is a challenge to coherency and narrative, a deliberate failure of communication between its participants.
So each breakup you drive through is a failure to communicate. And I say “each” because as the car comes to the end of the road it seamlessly goes back to the beginning of the same environment, with the same glitched models in the same places, but this time with a different autogenerated non-conversation. The player is – for as long as they choose to remain playing – trapped in the moment of this relationship’s failure, just as they are trapped in the road between the background and foreground scenery, just as the models of that scenery are trapped between life and death. The scenery and the dialogues are both liminalities, which is why they are both unrecognisable bastardizations of the things that come before and after them, moments that resemble neither life nor death.