Epic Games vs The World at Large

Hey; I just got a job (at school) and have been settling into it (plus it’s triage time at the schoool), while Thursday last week saw me spending 8-10 hours out of town due to a doctor’s visit. Busy busy busy… but also, money money money. Now I’m all ready to start school next week, and I’m settled into my job, so regular posting has been interrupted, but should resume in a few weeks. I’ll be posting when I can, but it definitely won’t be a set Monday/Wednesday schedule like I’d hoped. Yesterday, I began writing this post, but I got stuck when I decided to check out some elements of Bulletstorm/Gears 1 and found that I’d gotten lost in them, just because they’re so fun. To be completely honest, I’d rather be playing Bulletstorm right now than writing this, but I need to stick to my guns and do this thing. Also, this post is going to have quite a few links in it. I highly recommend checking them out.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was this post on Kotaku, specifically, the statement that “The Destructoid folks, playing an early part of the campaign as the loudmouth hero Cole, were impressed by that thing that Gears of War games aren’t known for: Gears of War 3’s quality writing,” as if the franchise hasn’t got quality writing. Earlier today, another article on Kotaku had a commenter defending the absurd protagonist of Lollipop Chainsaw by pointing out Kratos and Marcus Fenix. This certainly isn’t a problem endemic to Kotaku–after all, I have a friend who, despite never having played Bulletstorm nor having allowed me to talk to him about it, insists that it’s the worst game of all time, purely because of the ads and the unsatisfying demo.

It’s not hard to see why people might feel this way, of course. Just look at any picture of the Gears.

If this were a 90s Marvel comic, his name would be like BLUDGORE or RAGESTRIKE, but it isn't, and that's the point.

That picture doesn’t scream “serious war drama,” does it? No, not really. Likewise, this Bulletstorm vid does not exactly scream “this game is an exciting, hyper-intelligent romp through a pulp universe.” In fact, Bulletstorm’s advertising was so over-the-top that it drew the ire of Fox News, who usually reserve their attention for crass, vulgar, and artless games like Manhunt 2, Postal 2, and Mass Effect.* The thing is, Epic tells smart stories. They make smart games. In fact, they’re some of the best developers out there right now, cranking out shooters on par with Bungie and what-was-once-Infinity Ward, or, in other words, the best shooters in the industry. Go watch Cliff Bleszinski talk about being a power creative, or, failing that, just pay attention to Epic’s games. If you actually bother to pay attention, you’ll understand just how smart their games really are.

I could devote a large portion of this post to the intelligence of Epic’s game design, to talking about the cleverness of the levels, the inventiveness of their weapons (pausing to lament the lack of the Ripper in this millennium’s Unreal Tournament games, of course), the perfect feel of the gameplay, their great AI, and the great variety of their enemies. I could even discuss the beauty of their art (Bulletstorm is one of the finest-looking games I have ever played, and Gears of Wars’ art aesthetic is absoltuely flawless, even if it could use a bit more color), the fantastic soundtracks, or the really good sound design. Instead, I’m going to sum it up in one simple sentence: Epic’s games, particularly this generation’s, have been very good in all respects, because Epic does a superb job in every department of game creation.

I don’t really need to discuss their technical proficiency, so instead, I’m going to focus on their writing, because that’s that one exception to the rule.

I don’t mean it’s bad, of course, because it most certainly isn’t, but more often than not, it doesn’t quite fit. Before I get to that, though, I want to back up the claim that it’s really good–then I’ll come around to explaining what I mean about it not fitting.

I've got nothing clever to say here.

Aside from the chainsaw gun, what do you see? What does the tone of the game’s cover convey? Does it advertise “HRRGRR STRIP THE FLESH! SALT THE WOUND!”? No. No it does not. Borderlands does, but it wears its humor on its sleeve. There’s no way you could miss that it’s trying to be funny, with its psycho midgets and intergalactic ninja assassin Claptrap. Instead, what we have is a solemn poster with a big guy. He’s holding COG tags. Do you know what happends to put that many tags in someone’s hand? Usually death. In a game where people are trying to be all “MURDERDEATHKILLPUNCHFACE!” generally, their covers are a bit more dynamic than Gears of War 2. Usually, in the place of muted colors, wafting smoke, and solemn looks, these games have cocky heroes with explosions and bright colors.

Gears of War isn’t trying to be absurd HURRRRR GRAAAAGH ROOOOOAAAAAARRRRRGHHHH even if it does have a chainsaw on a machine gun and characters with muscles. Try watching the Mad World trailer. After that, go for Rendezvous and War Pigs. Finally, watch Ashes to Ashes. The game’s always been advertised as serious war drama, and its told its story as such. It saddened me to see many comments after the War Pigs trailer that asked “why are they using War Pigs, an anti-war song, to advertise Gears of War?” Most people just laughed at how stupid the advertising was. It was like they were completely missing the point of the game. The fact that it’s an anti-war game is why it’s so great, and, of course, having really fun (not as fun as Unreal Tournament or Bulletstorm due to its slower pace, of course) combat works against that. The storytelling of the series, though, has always been serious, emotional war drama.

First off, the fact that Marcus and Dom are brothers in arms seems to be horribly misinterpreted these days. Whether it’s because of the fact that college frat boys enjoy playing Gears (thus associating the “bro” mentality with the game in the mind of nerdy, hardcore gamers) or because of the fact that culture effectively refuses to see close friendships between men as anything other than sexual/closet sexual, people completely fail to interpret the male relationships in the games. I’m very close with my brothers, and I have friends that I think of as brothers. We’re extremely loyal to each other in that sort of way that can only be described as brotherhood. It’s that sort of family bond. Dom and Marcus, being members of Delta Squad, really do seem like brothers, as do Baird and Cole. Through the games, the characters run the gamut of emotions, and it’s not wonky, cardboard character transformations like you get in most video games. Maria’s death is one of the most moving moments in video game history, and definitely the most emotionally engaging death, especially if you’ve been hoping that Dom would find Maria this whole time. There are no Mary Sues to fuel cheap emotional stabs–after a game and a half of searching for someone, she’s ripped away from you, and worst of all, you knew it was coming, especially after what happened to Tai. You hoped it wouldn’t happen to her, but it did anyway. Gears 2 stood head and shoulders above Gears, and those death scenes were a big part of that reason.

Doesn't really look like Duke Nukem, does he?

Gears 3’s Ashes to Ashes trailer, shown above, is reminiscent of the aftermath of bombings in World War II. Some time ago, I read a book (I want to say it was Flyboys, but that doesn’t seem right) detailing the American bombings of WWII. It talked about how American bombers dropped napalm on Japanese cities, burning them so hotly that people turned to ash where they stood. One woman survived by leaping of a bridge into a river, only coming up for air when she needed to. She had suffered third degree burns on her hands from the rails on the bridge. The next day, she walked through the streets of the city until she came to a temple. A man stood there, but when she reached out to touch his shoulder, he disintegrated right before her eyes.

There are plenty of other bits throughout the game. The entire art design of the cities harkens back to images of Dresden after it was bombed in 1945. The Locust are armed with weapons disposed of by humans after the Pendulum Wars, a 79-year-long period of infighting between the humans of Sera, itself an offshoot of the Age of Armageddon, a millennium-long period of war in human culture. Hints and clues (there was another link but I can’t find it; I could write a whole post on my pet theories for Gears) have been offered that indicate that the Locust may be a result of human bioengineering (I presume the Locust Queen to be some perversion of Marcus’s mother; perhaps Adam tried to bring her back after she died). Throughout the story, the continuing emphasis is that war destroys us. Marcus often expresses regret and frustration in regards to war, like when he meets Anthony Carmine for the first time.

Overall through the imagery, story, and history of Gears, we learn the story’s message: war is hell. While Apocalypse Now communicates this message through psychosis and Full Metal Jacket through emotional detachment, Gears simply gives us war head on and asks “is this what you want?” We are faced with the relentless brutality of Gears, and not once does it take an opportunity to glorify war in any way. Time and time again, the series says “no. This is awful. How could you enjoy this?” To be portrayed as worse than humanity, the Locust have to become complete monsters, with floating torture barges and towering butchers hiding in their gothic caves decorated with skull motifs.

This is Dresden, by the way. This is a crime that was actually committed by humanity against humanity.

There are numerous reasons that people don’t look at Gears as a smart, thoughtful game. For one thing, there’s the stigma that shooters have had since the days of Doom, something I’ve been covering. Then there’s the fact that Gears of War, a shooter, actually took itself seriously, and people seem not to like that. There’s this idea that first person shooters can’t take themselves seriously (see all the hate Microsoft received for Halo 3, which Epic themselves parodied; Gears’ Mad World trailer was parodied by Bad Company.). It’s like everyone is saying that FPSes are big and dumb and cannot “rise above their station.” There are, of course, pictures like the one of Carmine above that exaggerate this image of braindeadedness. In addition, gamers have something of a nerdy resistance to the perceived jock-like nature of Gears’ protagonists–the ignorant idea that a meaty body means a meat-head. And, of course, there’s the games themselves.

In replaying Gears of War, which I haven’t played since the PC port back in 2008, I was struck by the “bro-like” comments made by Gears’ protagonists, such as “nice” after the occasional kill. Finally, there’s the split-nature of Epic’s games. At heart, they’re always absolute blasts more than anything else. If you are not having fun playing an Epic game, then you don’t know how to play an Epic game, because they are nothing but pure, unadulterated fun. Generally, the game’s writing doesn’t always work with that. The gameplay of Gears of War, with its chainsaw, excessively-stylized gore, gorgeous Grub architectural style reminiscent of the Sagrada Familia, and growly, uniquely-designed protagonists all put forward the idea of a game that is somewhat separate from its writing. Gears of War’s visual, auditory, and haptic experience puts you in mind of Epic Meal Time, not Black Hawk Down. It’s a clash.

More often than not, Epic’s writing is often a bit like someone trying to film Casablanca by way of the Wizard of Oz. They’re both great, but the experience doesn’t always mesh with the writing. Unreal Tournament 3 is Epic’s best example of this trend, delivering an offline arena bot experience coupled with a seemingly-unrelated storyline. Even when the story meshes perfectly with everything else, like with Bulletstorm, the advertising kicks in and screams “HAY IM BIG AND DUMB AND STOOPID!” and it puts people off. I don’t know who was responsible for Bulletstorm’s advertising, but I find myself suspecting Electronic Arts. You might notice that the Gears of War trailers, in contrast to Bulletstorm’s, don’t the game’s highlight puerile stupidity–instead, they accentuate its quiet reverence. Ultimately, it feels as though Epic is often guilty of divorcing story from gameplay (but with each game, they seem to realize the mistake and improve!), and too many gamers are busy paying attention to the experience to pay attention to the story itself.

Wait, this has a story? I thought I this was just an excuse to use a dinosaur with laser eyes!

Of course, gamers have never been terribly thoughtful about stories. If they were, we wouldn’t see Dragon Age, Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, or the vast majority of RPGs receiving the praise for their stories that they do. People wouldn’t look back on adventure games and praise them for their clever narratives, and Half-Life 2 wouldn’t have the most praised shooter story of all time. If gamers were actually smart, they’d realize that Modern Warfare 2’s story makes more sense (so long as you pay attention to it, because, like Inception, it has a lot of narration shifts and tiny details you need to pay attention to) than one of the most praised JRPGs of all time, Final Fantasy VIII. Not only that, but Modern Warfare 2 actually has some worthwhile sociopolitical commentary to offer, letting the player be a victim of an unwarranted invasion (putting the player character in the terrorist’s shoes was only the first step, intended to show that people can have good reasons for doing horrible things). Of course, because it’s a shooter that requires attention to detail, and people seem to think shooters aren’t smart, well, most just didn’t bother to pay attention, and called it stupid.

Maybe I shouldn’t expect much of video gamers.

I think Clay Carmine is going to die. I don’t want him to, but I think in their morbid stupidity, most gamers see Gears as its gore, rather than its story. It’s all HAAHAHAHAHAHAHA DIE DIE DIE to them. They’re going to kill Carmine because to them, the story doesn’t matter. They’re Romans at the Colosseum: they want blood; little else will sate them. Carmine’s death will hold no consequence. As a figment of their imaginations, an irrelevant element of an irrelevant plot, they completely miss the point, and the beauty, of the game.

The game says war is hell because life is good, and gamers? Gamers are going to consign Carmine to death, just ’cause they’re cruel, miserable people.

I hope I’m wrong; I really do. …but I don’t think I am.

———-

Speaking of Gameplay vs Story… well, I’ll be writing about that very soon.

*Mass Effect is artless, not crass or vulgar. I’ll cover that later.

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Remember Me?

"We who are about to rock salute you."

Let’s play a game!

It’s quite simple, and you should enjoy it, unless you’re some sort of daft punk who hates music. All you need to do is adjust your volume to proper levels, click on a link, and close your eyes. Once you’ve guessed the name of the song playing, you can open your eyes, check to see if you were correct, and repeat, until you’ve heard all the songs listed. Then we’ll have a think about it.

  • If you can guess what this is, congratulations, you are alive.
  • Here’s another easy one.
  • Honestly, if you haven’t heard this, there is no hope for you.

Right, so, easy, no?

  • This one, you should recognize, but… well… hm. I’ll get to it in a moment.
  • Again, I expect you to recognize this, maybe.
  • I’m not sure if you could call it a theme, but it should be somewhat recognizable.

Was that more difficult? I expect it was.

Surely you recognized those songs, Princess Leia!

I didn’t actually see Star Wars, Mission Impossible, or The Pink Panther until very recently, but I knew those themes. Ask me to hum them for you, and I probably could. Ask most people and, unless they’re horribly tone-deaf, chances are they can hum, whistle, or sing those tunes with great ease. The latter songs, though? I’m sure many people have played or heard of the games they come from, but I doubt many people, when asked “hey, do you know Fallout 3/Bioshock’s/Assassin’s Creed 2’s theme,” would be able to recall the tunes right away. Show them a picture of the games, and you’ll have instant recognition–but you can do that with the films, too. Star Wars looks distinctively Star Wars, and pretty much everyone should be familiar with the cartoon Pink Panther.

See, video games have a problem. Any sort of audiovisual entertainment, whether it’s a television show, a movie, or a video game, relies on certain cultural shorthand for recognizability. A theme song, a logo, or a character are all symbols that can be used to convey a lot of information in a very small amount of space. The Jurassic Park theme immediately conjures up pictures of dinosaurs in my head, and at the same time, the fact that it has multiple connections to Indiana Jones and Jaws (John Williams composed their soundtracks, and Stephen Spielberg directed the films), means that I might start thinking about them as well. Essentially, it’s about conveying an idea, or many ideas, without words. It’s like a signature–a thing that says “yes, I am a part of this idea or from this person, whatever it or whoever they may be.”

This Bat-symbol means something to most people:

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a symbol is worth a million.

This one does too:

Atomic batteries to power! Turbines to speed!

The Bat-symbol is visual shorthand for the idea of Batman, but there are multiple interpretations of the character. Adam West’s Batman isn’t like Michael Keaton’s or Christian Bale’s, and as a result, the Bat-symbol changes. It’s still a Bat, so you know it’s about Batman, but one particular symbol makes you think about the Nolan films and another makes you think about the Burton ones. You see, it’s all about identity. Give a game a symbol, a logo, a distinct character design, or a song, and you give it a unique identity. If someone were to write replace the letters B-I-O-S-H-O-C-K with H-A-L-O, you’d still know it was Bioshock’s logo. But if you replaced the Bioshock theme… well, it doesn’t really matter. Bioshock’s theme is nice, but ultimately insignificant. It’s soundtrack music–designed to stay in the background. The same is true for most video games; the music simply isn’t good, or at least distinct, enough to burrow itself into our cultural identity.

I know a good number of people who think that certain JRPGs they played as children and teenagers have great music. As a former music teacher and honor band member, I honestly couldn’t tell you that Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy have great music. It’s mostly forgettable unless you have a certain emotional attachment to the game itself; otherwise, the music doesn’t really stay with you. Firelake’s Dirge for the Planet is a fairly forgettable song, except for the fact that it’s inextricable from my time playing STALKER. It’s a song that plays on the radio in the few safe places in the entire game. Hearing it is intensely comforting to me, but to people who haven’t played STALKER (or had their music turned off), Dirge has no meaning. Half-Life 2, Earthbound, and Dragon Age have such forgettable soundtracks that I have replaced them in my head with Armin Van Buuren, Scorpions (specifically, the Rhythm of Love), and Electric Six/Led Zeppelin, respectively. Mass Effect may have a theme song, but that didn’t stop Bioware from using Two Steps from Hell’s Heart of Courage in place of it during the trailer.

Now, I did say that it’s true for most video games. There are a few exceptions, most notably Halo and (before it’s even out, no less) Skyrim. If you hear them once, it’s unlikely you will ever forget them.

Ultimately, I think games could do with a more distinctive identity. With greater, more distinctive themes, they could push themselves further into the general pop cultural consciousness. As it is now, game music is basically forgettable drek, cared for only by the people who already love the games that each song is from. Come on, games industry, let’s do better, shall we?

Let Them Eat Cake! Ugly Truths, Pt. II

A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges. ~ Benjamin Franklin

My father once told me about a business dinner he attended in Japan. At this dinner, he told me, the various people in attendance all asked the chef for specific cuts of meat. Dad said the chef didn’t seem terribly happy, so when it was his turn, he asked the chef to prepare the steak in whatever way he felt was best. The chef, Dad said, excitedly got to work on his steak, and when it was done, seemed very proud to present it to him. What my father did was respect the chef’s ability to do what he did best, and in doing so, he was served the best steak of his life.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, game developers aren’t chefs. They’re farmers, fishermen, and ranchers. They’re the guys who provide the means to create that delicious steaks, but they are not the ones who create the steaks themselves–no, the chefs are the gamers.

You see, in a truly great game, whether it’s Dragon Age Origins, System Shock 2, or STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, it is the player who takes the tools provided by the developer and creates a wholly unique experience. I can almost guarantee you that the way I play Half-Life is not the way you do. How we each interpret the game’s world and its rules is ultimately up to us.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem.

For me, gaming is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake. ~ Me, butchering someone else.

Previously, I discussed the issue with player manipulation. To recap: conditioned behavior is artificial fun and therefore lacks any meaning. Ultimately, this is a subset of possibly the worst problem in video game design right now: disrespect for the player base. At its worst, the problem means that gamers are seen as little more than sheep to be manipulated into spending money on things. Instead of being comfortable with letting gamers play how they want to, developers seem to have more interest in controlling every aspect of your experience.

In other words, the farmer is saying “hey, I raised this wheat, so I know the best way to make a cake.”

There are several examples of this. Because I already covered Valve in great detail last time, I’ll mention them briefly before moving on. The joy of cooking, as with jazz, is in improvisation. The best food is where you take the recipe and make it your own. In a cooking class, a good teacher will make sure their class understands the basics of good food before letting the students experiment with the recipes. Say the class final is a black forest cake; if the teacher’s done their job, then each student is going to come out with a cake that’s unique to them. Each student has made a true cake–one that’s as much an expression of who they are and how they interpret cooking as much as it is a great cake.

Valve, unfortunately, is a bad teacher. Oh, yes, every student will end up with a delicious cake, but at the same time, each cake will be virtually identical. Cooking, like gaming, should not be an assembly line process. The experience should not be manufactured, or it loses much of its appeal. Ultimately, a student who learns to bake a cake from Valve’s school of cooking, has baked a lie.

Okay, maybe this isn’t so brief. Back in my Eli Vance post, I pointed out that Valve also abandoned the silent protagonist approach of Half-Life for a similar, but fundamentally different approach in the sequel. Where Half-Life said “okay, you can kill anyone you want and behave however you feel like,” Half-Life 2 said “No. You are THIS guy. Even though you can’t talk, we have defined you through NPCs and how they treat you.” Ultimately, it’s as if Valve didn’t feel the player could create a compelling-enough experience for themselves, so they defined the persona of Gordon Freeman while offering the illusion of freedom.  It’s as if they want to have their cake and eat it too–they want to railroad the player through their story, but they want to make the player feel as if they’re actually free to do as they choose.

I tried to commit suicide by sticking my head in the oven, but there was a cake in it. ~ Lesley Boone 

The illusion of freedom is rather common in video gaming.

Before I get into that, however, I foresee a major objection that many pseudo-intellectuals might offer: “you haven’t really got any freedom in a video game!” This much is true. You haven’t got much freedom in real life either. You can no more move a mountain with your mind than rewind time itself, after all, so unless you’re God Almighty, when I’m talking about freedom, I’m clearly not talking about total freedom. Being a silent protagonist in a linear game like Half-Life still offers freedom, because, as I mentioned earlier, you can still be whoever you want to be. Perhaps you’re the earnest hero, attempting to save everyone from the disaster you blame yourself for. On the other hand, maybe you’re a psychopathic alien rights activist who intentionally sabotaged the experiment so you could get away with killing everyone and everything in Black Mesa!

Right. Enough about Valve.

Let’s talk about Bioware.

Dragon Age Origins is a great and wonderful game, and you ought to give it a playthrough. It might not be as rich or unique as, say, any isometric RPG ever made, but it has got things like great graphics, interesting ally AI, and better gameplay going for it. Dragon Age 2 is the worst RPG I’ve ever played. I’m sure there are worse RPGs out there, and I know for a fact that, say, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura has a more convoluted menu system, worse graphics, worse sound, and lower production value in general. Dragon Age 2 is still worse.

You see, one of the most important things in an RPG is player choice (JRPGs haven’t got this, which is why they aren’t JRPGs; they’re adventure games with stats in). Your ability to impact the world around you through your decisions is why the RPG is different from, say, a military arcade manshoot, where your job is just to shoot lots of things. This isn’t to say that every decision in an RPG must be a hugely meaningful one (such as choosing whether or not to topple an entire empire); merely that decisions must have some point. The FPS and the RPG fundamentally different game types, and as such, players expect fundamentally different things from them. I expected the ability to make meaningful choices in Dragon Age 2.

It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it. ~ Richard M. Nixon

Instead, what I got was an adventure game with stats in–a lot like a JRPG, in fact. I can honestly only think of two instances in the game where a choice I made served any purpose; one decision led to my mother’s frankensteining, and the other led to one party member leaving my party. In other words, none of my decisions had any positive impact on the world.

Indeed, Bioware was so intent on very specific outcomes that every decision that ought to have been a major one was steamrolled over by bad writing. Sided with the mages? Too bad! All but one will resort to using blood magic, and that one will hate you for a good long while. Kept the magic tool-thingy that is the only way to complete the magic mirror from Merrill? Too bad, she’ll fix the mirror anyway, and the game won’t even acknowledge it. Want to kill that Chantry woman who is trying to get you to killed? Too bad, the game won’t present you with the option to do so.

A good RPG would take into account everything the player wants to be able to do and allow them to attempt it. If Bioware’s writers really didn’t want you to kill the Chantry agent, then they could have had her run away, but they should have given you the option to attack, and you should have been able, at the very least, to kill her bodyguard person. In Mass Effect, how you treated Wrex ultimately determines whether or not he commits suicide. In Dragon Age 2, no matter how you treat Anders, he is going to straight up murder a bunch of innocent people because he is an insane psychopath. Unfortunately, if you want to keep him as a healer (Bioware refuses to let you teach anyone else anything from Anders’ bag of healing tricks), that isn’t going to happen.

In fact, the only choice the player can have is who they’d like to have a relationship with. Bioware’s gone a total 180 here and turned the game into a (pretty poor) dating sim, and you can romance almost any member of your party, regardless of gender, personality, or anything else. It’s not like the choices are that great–you can select from an emo elf, a walking STD farm, a naive/possibly underage welsh blood mage, or a complete murderous psychopath (who is like the worst spirit of Justice ever; and yes, I realize he became vengeance, but how did that happen, exactly?), for instance.

Once you get rid of integrity the rest is a piece of cake. ~ Larry Hagman

So… congrats. In the end, the one choice you make that matters is which character will leave with you at the end of the game because your character hates both the templars and the mages, ’cause they’re both stupid.

Much of the joy of Dragon Age Origins’ simplistic story revolved around how the player treated it. You could be whoever you wanted to be, right down to appearance, backstory, and race. Dragon Age 2 ignores this and locks you in to a rather boring story with two-dimensional anime-ripoff characters and relationships right out of a bad fanfiction. It’s got some great ideas, but it’s so intent on making sure you experience them that it forgets to give you any choice.

Could you imagine a jigsaw puzzle where every puzzle piece is numbered and you have a nice background to set all the pieces on? Where would the fun be in that? All you do is find piece number 1 and put it in the top left hand corner. Piece 2 goes next to that. Piece 3 goes right next to that… and on and on it goes. It’s not fun.

Another example: imagine that you buy a sandbox. Now imagine that you want to make a sandcastle in it. How much fun are you going to have if the guy who sold you the sandbox keeps coming over and telling you how you ought to build your castle? What happens if he kicks down everything you do that isn’t to his standards, ensuring that any decision you made that he didn’t want you to make is quite meaningless. Is that a sandbox worth having?

No, not really.

Would ye both eat your cake and have your cake? ~ John Heywood

Developers need to respect their players. Their responsibility is to design a framework around which players can have fun, not create an intensely controlled environment where even the most basic player response is a learned behavior. What makes Deus Ex: Human Revolution and The Witcher/Witcher 2 such great RPGs is that the player is taught how to play the game and let loose in the world to behave as they feel like.

The Witcher 2 has a great story, not just because of superb characters like Letho, Foltest, and Roche, but because it manages to really make you feel like you’re part of the plot, not just an outside observer. Some events will happen because of the (often difficult) choices that you make. Others will happen regardless of what you choose, and some will even happen despite your presence. It creates a realistic world where you have freedom, but some things are still beyond your control.

Ultimately, The Witcher 2 respects its players. It doesn’t ignore your choices, nor does it defer to you every time you want to do something. It says “alright, you can do this–so let’s see how you handle this kidnapping!” This sort of respect is a hallmark of great gaming: STALKER gives you a gun, some ammunition, bandages, and a first aid kit. It tells you how to play, but it doesn’t hold your hand. The onus is on the player to keep an eye on their health and armor, as well as to watch out for anomalies and enemies. STALKER trusts you to be good enough to carry the right gear and to be observant, and it’s certainly never cheap. If something kills you, it’s because you screwed up. I’ve heard similar praise in regards to PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls.

The best games are those that respect their players and help those players craft a unique, exciting experience. I don’t know anyone that says “aww man, I did this thing in Half-Life 2 that was so awesome!” or “hey, in Dragon Age 2, I managed to…” I do, however, know people who play games like STALKER, Demon’s Souls, and The Witcher 2, and they absolutely love telling me about the decisions they made or the fights they got in.

Developers, respect your gamers. Give them a framework to operate in, but don’t treat them like they’re toddlers. In the end, they’ll love you for it.

Ugly Truths, Pt. I

Surgery, for the uninitiated.

Many people have asked my why I don’t enjoy Valve or Blizzard games as opposed to other titles. After all, they’re hugely popular and nearly everyone enjoys them, so why not me?They also find it odd that I enjoy other things that are similarly popular, but less universally loved. I’ll admit that this is rather strange, particularly since I’m such a huge fan of the first-person shooter genre, and that’s practically all Valve makes. My reasons are fairly straightforward: I feel that these developers manufacture enjoyment rather than make fun games. To explain it better, I ought to provide a little bit of background first.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the type of person who is said to find enjoyment by taking things apart and putting them back together; that’s me–the clockmaker type. While I’ve never been mechanically gifted, I do find myself applying this thought process towards entertainment, particularly in regards to film and video games. I cannot watch films without thinking about how lighting and framing are used, and I cannot play games without thinking how their levels are designed or how sound effects the player.

In many ways, this enhances my enjoyment of whatever work I’m experiencing. The Third Man, a film by Orson Welles, has taken on new meaning for me because I have, over time, learned to understand the elements that went into the film’s production; for instance, lighting is used to set the scene as well as establish the characters’ intentions. Anyone can have fun watching The Third Man as a straight crime noir film, but anyone looking for more depth and detail can find it, which enhances the experience.

Scarier than Clint Eastwood, smoother than something really smooth.

Unfortunately, this mindset has its downside. It can reveal ugly truths about things we may enjoy–a character may act a certain way simply to gain our sympathy instead of being genuinely sympathetic, or a gameplay mechanic might utilize operant conditioning to disguise repetition as fun.

Ultimately, that’s why I have a hard time enjoying Valve and Blizzard titles. You see, these companies prefer to engineer enjoyment, to manipulate the player’s feelings, rather than to just try to make fun games. For them, their products are rigidly designed and structured in a way to effect maximum positive consumer response. Team Fortress 2, for example, isn’t that special beyond its art aesthetic; instead, much of the game’s draw relies on the human weakness for unpredictable rewards. There are other ways to do this, of course. Intangibles, like achievements and TF2’s hats, serve no purpose other than to stimulate the “gotta catch ’em all” part of the human brain. The fun–the act of actually playing the game because it’s enjoyable–has been ripped out of many games and replaced with things that are designed to keep you around so you keep paying subscription fees or from reselling your games.

Chances are, you know this already. After all, this sort of thing has been covered in-depth elsewhere, and if you haven’t checked those sources out, you should do so.

You might think that the problem is minor–perhaps you’re one of those rare (as in unicorn rare) individuals who hasn’t succumbed to anything mentioned above! If so, good for you. Those things are all pretty basic psychological tricks that anyone can understand and combat. Problem is… it’s a bit deeper than that. There’s something else Valve does to the player, and it’s something that the industry has slowly been warming up to for quite some time, and, because it actually alters the way how the game is designed and played, it’s far worse than simple achievements or free hats you get for pre-ordering another game.

It’s called training.

I am the sports!

Most developers use training rather innocuously–to get you in the game faster and avoid the unnecessary time it takes to develop a training level, most games’ first levels are also their training grounds. This is a pretty basic thing, and it’s generally a good way to design a game, unless your name is GSC Game World and you design your games for people who know this stuff already. For the generic AAA shooter, like Crysis 2 or Bulletstorm, it’s par for the course. It’s good to get people who are unfamiliar with the game and its mechanics some hands-on time, rather than hope they remembered everything in the manual. Generally, the player learns everything they need to know, and then they get loose into the game’s world, ready to experience the story and all it has to offer. It’s great!

I was going to mention Modern Warfare 2, but it actually has a training level.

Valve, though? Valve does it differently. Instead of approaching a game as a fun thing to be played, Valve approaches a game as a thing its players cannot understand, and players are put through consistent in-game training until they’re unconsciously just doing what they’ve been taught to do. As soon as they’ve completed the most advanced activity that Valve has in store for them, the skill is dropped and not picked up again.

Portal is a game about being trained to do things. Portal 2 is a game that somehow manages to restrict the player even more and scream it in your face: “THIS IS A GAME ABOUT TESTING!” It’s as if Portal 2’s team weren’t sure anyone got it, because, presumably, they didn’t feel the audience was bright enough to understand, so they decided to make absolutely sure that you were aware of this by telling you every chance they got.

However, Portal is such an easy target, so I’m going to talk about Half-Life 2: Episode One instead.

Half-Life 2: Episode One has a great example of in-game training. For anyone who has played it, you’re doubtless aware of the incredibly tedious sequence involving a lot of energy balls and the sockets they go in. Where a well-designed shooter, such as the original Half-Life, would have taught you how the balls and sockets worked, then left you to your own devices for a series of puzzles, Half-Life 2: Episode One puts you on a rigid path of puzzles of one type that increase in complexity. This is endemic of the Half-Life 2 series as a whole: in general, when a Half-Life 2 series game wants to do puzzles, it only gives you one type of puzzle, then slowly increases its complexity. It’s unnatural (from a believable-world standpoint) and manipulative (from a game design) standpoint.

If Dog is a great character, Bay’s version of Bumblebee is the greatest.

If you’ve ever flown an airplane, it’s a remarkably liberating experience. Imagine learning to fly and having your flight instructor grip the controls every time you tried to do something, never allowing you to just get up there and muck about with the skills he’s taught you. Would that be any fun? Sure, you’re in an airplane, and that’s great, but learning to fly has no purpose if you never get to apply the skills you’ve been taught beyond flight training.

This is how Valve seems to approach its single-player games. It says “you! I want you to ride these rails. I want you to see what I want you to see when I want you to see it. Every choice you think you’ve made, I have predetermined.” Do you see why that’s terrible? Gaming, at its absolute best, is all about putting the player into the world and letting them experience it. That’s why games like STALKER and System Shock 2 are some of the best games ever, and games designed to control your every behavior, like those titles manufactured by Valve, are not.

I’m not suggesting that these games become non-linear open-world experiences (though I do think the industry could use a lot more of those); I’m saying that it’s a good thing to let players think for themselves and use the skills they’ve learned in the game. There’s nothing wrong with an incredibly linear game like Max Payne that teaches you everything you need to know up front, then lets you loose with the skills you’ve learned! Even the original Half-Life is great precisely because of its linearity. Instead of drip-feeding increasingly advanced puzzles, linear games should be designed more like the original Half-Life. If the player comes along and finds an obstacle in their path, they should have to try to solve it, rather than simply instinctively know what to do because they’ve been subtly trained how to think.

Manipulating the audience is one of the worst things any artist can ever do, but Valve seems to believe that it’s the only way to make games. To their credit, it has worked well, and if their ultimate goal is to make lots of money, then designing addicting games is a good way to make money. But… I’m a gamer. I want to play my games, to experience the worlds that game designers have crafted for me. Manipulation is anti-art and anti-game, but it’s just a symptom of something far, far worse.

I’ll cover it in Pt. II.

What is Free to a Good Home?


I never asked for this.

If the reports are true, a bunch of dastardly (or heroic, depending on your point of view) Italians managed to steal (or liberate, depending on your point of view) a copy of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (or Deus Ex: Highlight Boogie, depending on your point of view) to the internet (or the information highway, if you’re stuck in 1994).

Square Enix/Eidos have taken this all rather well. They could have attempted damage control, talking about how evil piracy is, asking people not to download the game because it’s incomplete, and then finished with some dehumanizing marketing spiel, much like EA did when Crysis 2 was leaked. Instead, they took it in stride, going so far as to encourage discussion of the leak and request feedback, which was a great move. Where, like Crytek, they could have condemned their potential audience–people who downloaded the leak because they desperately wanted to play more Crysis–they embraced the leak and got their community involved. It showed that they were interested in making their game better. They weren’t just treating the leak like a demo–they were using the opportunity to dialog with their audience, and to make the game the best it could be.

I have seen discussions unfold where people who have played the leak actually convince others to preorder the game, or at least, check it out for themselves. Yes, it speaks to the high quality of the game, but it also brings to mind a question: why don’t developers and producers rely more on positive word of mouth?

In an era where game previews are guarded more tightly than state secrets, where demos have all-but disappeared (and, failing that, tend to be misleading or too short to provide an accurate picture of the game), and where reviews rarely come before the game is purchased, one might get the impression that developers are actually ashamed of their games. It’s as if the almighty marketing machine thinks that holding screenshots hostage is a better way to sell games than to get people talking about them.

The idea is, of course, hogwash.

Old Spice Bodywash is a superior alternative to hogwash.

Whether it’s Lost or The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, getting people to talk about something is the best way to sell it. Humans are social creatures, and we like sharing excitement. Most people weren’t terrifically excited by Human Revolution’s leaked screenshots; every game has those, and they’re from the same few levels that will be shown over and over again until the game is released. It’s hard to care about a picture beyond the initial game announcement phase. When Human Revolution was leaked, the excitement for the game skyrocketed. Once people got it in their hands and were able to play it, they got excited, especially when they got to experience things that had upset them before.

One of the biggest complaints about Deus Ex was object highlighting. A few people had got it in their heads that it would be an obtrusive “feature” forced on them by shoddy developers, so they started telling everyone how bad it was. Negative word-of-mouth spread fast. The team released gameplay videos, gaming websites said it wasn’t that bad, and Eidos Montreal said they’d include the option to turn it off, but nothing seemed able to stop the naysayers from their whining. It’s a different story now that the game’s been leaked, however; the complaints seem to have vanished.

Consumers do not trust the marketing machine, and, by extension, they rarely trust the gaming press. A consistent lack of respect from advertisers and phony excitement from the gaming press has helped foster an environment where consumers are increasingly cynical towards new games and longing for the excitement of the old. Even now, many gamers refuse to believe that XCOM will be a good game, despite 2K Marin’s solid history and a slew of excited previews.

Might be a great game. Might not.

How do developers entice the wary consumer? How does 2K calm down the X-COM faithful, or the people who say “it looks like all those other shooters?” After all, to everyone not wearing a tinfoil hat, the leak of Deus Ex was a happy accident. It’s not like it could become a legitimate business practice or anything…

…right?

Let me be clear: I am not talking about demos. Modern demos for AAA games rarely work; nobody wants to spend two hours downloading fifteen minutes of misleading gameplay. Fifteen minutes of gameplay is rarely enough to get anyone hooked on a video game. Players need something more substantial than that, and that’s where Free to Play comes in.

Judging by most reactions to those three words, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were slapping your forehead in disbelief right now, and I can’t say I blame you. Free to Play seems like a corporate scheme to make players spend $68 for a monocle, or to deliver neutered, unfun games that are only worth playing once you begin shelling out a small fortune on a regular basis in order to keep up with the rich kids who don’t mind doing that.

What I’m thinking of is more akin to the shareware model: offer the first several hours of your game for free to get people into it, and then let them pay for the rest. Of course, the shareware name is something that tends to be associated with small, indie products, as opposed to large AAA affairs, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. Imagine at E3 if a developer said “oh, and you can download the same preview build we’ve got here on the floor right now, so check it out and let us know what you think!”

By allowing early access to the game, developers can allay fears while simultaneously building excitement for the title. There’s a bit more than that, though. If 2K Marin were to release a demo that put me in exactly one XCOM mission, I can’t say I’d necessarily be interested in buying the game. I definitely wouldn’t be interested in the story, because fifteen to thirty minutes generally isn’t enough time to get fully invested in a video game’s fiction. If they offered the game’s entire intro, on the other hand, as well as a few missions after that to whet my whistle, chances are I’d be gnashing at the bit, screaming for more. A sufficiently lengthy involvement in the game is required to stimulate the “well, I’ve come this far! I’ve got to keep going!” response, and that’s what developers should be wanting. They should be getting their audience to think “I need more of this and I need it now!” rather than “bah, this demo is probably all the best parts, and not even in the game.”

I feel wrong just posting a picture of this game.

In addition, letting players get a good feel for the game without some PR person standing over their shoulder watching their every move would allow gamers, particularly those who might not be able to attend various gaming conventions, to get a good feel for the game. It’s somewhat hard to be objective about a game when you’ve got people nearby who are incredibly excited about it and want you to be as excited as they are, which makes it difficult to offer any worthwhile criticism or helpful feedback.

At the same time, developers benefit. Bioware, for instance, has admitted that they made many mistakes with Dragon Age 2–if they had released the first few hours of gameplay some months before release, they would have been exposed to the overwhelmingly negative consumer reaction while there was still time to do something about it. As it happened, an iron-clad PR machine steamrolled through leaving no one with much bad to say about the game, because they simply didn’t have the opportunity to be critical. Shortly after the game’s release, negative word of mouth had spread far enough that its sales plummeted drastically over the next few weeks. With a substantial early release, developers could use the feedback from players to determine what could be improved. Shooter developers could take the opportunity to iron out kinks in the multiplayer, and, more importantly, offer a free version of their multiplayer to people who might otherwise not want to risk their cash on an untested FPS title.

See, as game prices increase, so has the number of “I’ll just wait for the Steam sale” remarks, which ultimately means lost profits. Offering several hours of a game for free means an opportunity to pique the interest of gamers who might not otherwise be interested in a title. STALKER’s a hard game to sell to people who are unfamiliar with it, because it’s so unique. If there was a free version of the game with, say, the Cordon and Garbage levels for players to explore, there would be no entry barrier, and anyone who was even remotely interested could give it a try. Many of the games I own were only purchased because I got to play them for a good few hours at a friend’s or something.

Essentially, it’s a win-win scenario. Gamers can formulate their own opinions about games before their release while building a better relationship with the developer, and the developer is, in turn, getting free crowdsourced focus testing and great PR. It’s high time developers rethought how they relate to their audiences. The current method is broken, and gamers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied by being forced to take a gamble on their games. Allowing the consumer to offer honest feedback about games before they’re released means better games, and ultimately, allowing people to try a game is the best way to get them to buy it.

The Most Important Man In The World

Most complaints about DOTA 2 come from the fact that it isn’t Half Life 2: Episode 3. In fact, ask anyone their least-favorite thing about Valve today, and you’ll almost invariably hear the same thing: “They haven’t announced Episode 3.” Many people have suggested that Valve is tired of working on Half-Life, or perhaps they’re just more interested in working on titles that aren’t Half-Life, but has anyone considered that… well, they can’t?

Valve is incapable of making Half-Life 2: Episode 3 without totally bullshitting the player.

Don’t believe me? Well, we need to think long and hard about the most important person in the Half-Life universe, then. That’s right! We need to have a little talk about Eli Vance.

Eli Vance got his start in 2004 when Valve decided to return give a character from the original Half-Life, Generic Scientist Number Two a name. That name was Eli Vance. It was determined that instead of being one of the many faceless drones throughout Black Mesa, he would be an old personal friend of your character’s, the same way that the one security guard seen at the start of the game, Barney, became your ol’ chum… er… Barney. This retcon caused a fundamental paradox in the purpose of the Half-Life series, which I’ll get to later. For now, though, we’ll talk about Eli.

I actually decided to start Half-Life from the beginning to get him. I could have gotten anyone else, but somehow, I just knew they weren't the real Eli.

You never see him again in Half-Life. In subsequent canon, it’s made clear that Eli escaped, stuff happened, seven hour war, and now he leads the resistance. This is where things get a little odd. We don’t really know much about Eli–what kind of a leader he is, how he interacts with people, or even why he’s the leader of the resistance. All we know of his leadership skills is that he’s too trusting (a bad trait when you’re going up against a stereotypical dystopic government) and a nice old guy, all things considered.

Half-Life 2 begins beautifully enough, letting the player stroll through City Seventeen at their leisure, witnessing just how wrong everything has gone, but everything goes sour(er? I mean, the world’s run by laser-faced cyborgs and psychic slugs now) when the Combine shows up and attacks you. It’s cool though, because this woman named Alyx saves you, but everything starts to go wrong again when characters start dumping all the information they can find in your lap. In the roughly eight minutes between when you first meet Alyx and when Barney gives you a crowbar, you’re subjected to a torrent of information, as if Valve has suddenly forgot all about the wonderful “show, don’t tell” rule they’d been following. One of the few genuinely important details imparted to you is that you must make your way to Eli Vance, because he will explain everything.

Get out of here, STALKER.

Traditionally, when a protagonist like Gordon Freeman finds himself in a strange world, a character comes along to explain the situation. Take The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. When little Lucy Pevensie is first transported to Narnia, Lewis sets the stage by showing us the frozen wasteland that is Narnia and by having the faun Mr. Tumnus fill in the gaps. In Half-Life 2, Eli Vance is that guy. At least… he’s supposed to be.

Thus begins Act I of the game. Armed with a nothing more than a crowbar and pursued by Combine forces, you make your way to Black Mesa East, where Eli Vance awaits. Upon meeting the man, you’re offered a few more details about how the world ended, and introduced to stalker (no, not THAT kind of STALKER) and budding kidnapper Judith Mossman. Eli doesn’t really tell you much important, and this interlude really only serves as a break from combat, an introduction to the gravity gun, and a chance for Judith to kidnap Eli, now that you’ve met her.

"Wait, who are you? You say you've kidnapped Eli Vance? What do you mean I took your job?"

Act II begins with you fighting your way out of Ravenholm and over to Alyx, who begs you to rescue her father from Nova Prospekt, an evil facility from the Mortal Kombat school of nomenclature, with the sort of chairs that makes one think it might have been an old Soviet Dental school before the Combine rolled in. Eventually, you do manage to find Eli, and, in a feat of monumental stupidity, manage to let Judith Mossman, who admitted over the radio that she felt she could brainwash Eli, kidnap him again.

By now, it should be painfully obvious that Eli Vance is one of the worst resistance leaders of all time, not only having been kidnapped twice, but still managing to trust his kidnapper the whole time. I’ve raised dogs that were more suspicious than Eli Vance. He hasn’t brought up his resistance to be too bright, either. After a suspicious old friend shows up (the same one who, you may remember, brought the Combine to Earth in the first place), Eli gets kidnapped not once, but twice, and the second time, this old friend and Alyx disappear as well.

Most people would begin to suspect that Gordon Freeman had something to do with Eli’s disappearance, but not Eli’s resistance, oh no. Instead, they take the disappearance of their leadership as a sign to begin… we’re not really sure. It’s not like they have a clear goal or anything–for the most part, it seems like the streets have been cleared, a lot of people are dead, and the living are shooting back and forth in the streets, accomplishing little more than chaos.

Logical story progression: for Act II, repeat the events of Act I, but now you have a car!

As soon as you show up in City 17, you’re given a new mission objective: the Combine have Eli Vance, and you need to go rescue him.

Again.

You knew this was coming.

So, dutiful old friend of a man you’ve only met twice that you are, you head after Eli. By accident, you end up getting the entire Citadel to explode and manage to kill the Human ambassador to the Combine, all in a haphazard attempt to rescue Eli Vance and find out just why it is the G-Man brought you here. Then the game just kinda… ends. You show up, topple a regime, start a war, and never learn why you were brought back to life.

It’s not over, though, not by a long-shot. Throughout the course of Half-Life 2: Episode One, you prevent the Citadel from exploding, in order to keep Eli alive, and then fight your way on a train, to follow Eli out of town to Black Mesa East, but you crash. Episode Two actually gets you to Eli, distracting you with a brief detour in which you try to save Eli’s daughter’s life, and a second detour in which you must launch Eli’s rocket and protect Eli’s base from assault. Ultimately, though, Eli dies, and you never find out why you were brought here in the first place.

Getting tired of this face yet? You should be.

Valve had three games to explain why you were around, and not once did the player receive any sort of explanation. Now that Eli’s dead, there’s no room for that. The whole point of Eli explaining everything was so that the G-Man wouldn’t have to, in order to keep his mystique. Killing Eli means that the only person who knows why you’re around is the one mysterious character who must explain nothing to you or risk losing his power as a character.

Remember the paradox I mentioned earlier? Well, what it did was fundamentally change Gordon Freeman and the way players thought about Half-Life. If you play the first game, you can be whoever you want to be. Gordon, as a silent, above average everyman, was given the power to shoot whatever the hell he wanted, enabling the players the freedom to express themselves in a world where everything else was going to hell. Half-Life 2 and its subsequent episodes threw this out the window. By giving Eli Vance an identity, Valve had given Gordon Freeman, and thus, the players, a past. By doing so, they had defined the silent protagonist as a character, thus rendering his silence unnecessary. Half-Life 2 became a contradiction, a game that offered the player the freedom to be whoever they wanted, but strictly regulated how the player used that freedom, effectively rendering the freedom meaningless.

Half-Life was a game that put you in the driver’s seat. It said “hey, you’re a normal guy, and now there are monsters and the marines want to kill you! React!” That’s what made it so pure. It was almost prototypical of the games that would come later, like System Shock 2, Deus Ex, and STALKER. Half-Life was all about how you, the player, related to the experience. No one defined you but yourself; your motivations behind your actions were entirely your own.

Purge the mutant, even if he is your friend. This is the man I have chosen to be.

Half-Life 2 robbed the player of that. By establishing characters, Valve gave Gordon a back story; by creating characters with fixed reactions, Valve gave Gordon a personality. What made the Half-Life experience special was torn away for a weak story about how an old friend of some scientists is mysteriously sent into the future to save one man from getting kidnapped a lot, but the kidnapee, Eli Vance, wouldn’t have been kidnapped in the first place had it not been for Gordon’s presence. Without the ability to be who you want, Half-Life 2 becomes a mere linear first person shooter with a bad story, puzzles, and sidekicks with character, and it’s all Eli Vance’s fault.

See, the Half-Life series isn’t about Gordon Freeman any more; it’s about Eli Vance. In the six years between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, the series went from being a game about you, the player, and the crowbar-wielding death machine that you inhabit, to a story about a kindly old resistance leader named Eli Vance who didn’t even manage to say anything badass when he died. The game’s like a big inside joke, but you’re never really in on it, because the people Gordon allegedly knows, you don’t. Depending on the mindset you played through Half-Life 2, your Gordon Freeman is fundamentally incompatible with the one Half-Life 2 tries to create.

The best con that he ever pulled was making you believe that he is you.

There’s really only one way to play Half-Life 2, and that’s as a trusting, mute amnesiac with great combat skills. In other words, Gordon Freeman is nothing more than a generic mute character, no more important or personal than the Doom Marine.

Ultimately, Eli Vance became the core of Half-Life 2. He was the driving force behind the game–the player’s entire motivation for doing anything beyond “they’re shooting at me so I must shoot back.” Eli, and the secrets he held, was the ultimate carrot of Half-Life 2, and with him dead, there’s no clean way for Valve to say “you’re ultimately here because…” In fact, after all this time, coming out and saying “Gordon, G-Man sent your to accomplish X or Y” would simply feel awkward, coming so late in the story. Valve shot themselves in the foot by eating their own carrot, and, quite frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were at a loss as to how to continue the game.

That’s why we don’t have Half-Life 2: Episode 3, folks. The main character is dead. Rest in peace, Eli, rest in peace.