Tag: Half-Life

The Creeps

HAL 9000

Slasher movies and torture porn will always have their place at Halloween and in the hearts and minds of horror fans. For me, effective and lasting horror does not necessarily have anything to do with buckets of blood or how stomach-turning the visuals are. Sometimes, the most penetrating stories of terror have less to do with what we see, and more to do with what we don’t; less about the delivery of lines, more about what’s left unsaid.

In terms of visuals, one of the most effective and haunting horror games I’ve ever played is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A little indie gem from a few years back, Amnesia remains a game I have yet to finish. Some horror games like to throw their monsters directly at you in as loud and visceral a way possible, but Amnesia plays things with more subtlety. With no means to defend yourself, a limited amount of lighting in a game defined by darkness and shadows, and the addition of a sanity meter that makes things even more difficult if we’re alone in the dark for too long, when monsters appear (or don’t, but you know they’re there) it’s best to just run and hide. It’s frighteningly easy to lose track of where you’re going and what your goal for the moment is when you hear a moan or a scraping sound and you pretty much crap yourself in terror. The sensations created just through sound design and good use of the environment are, in a word, creepy.

Endermen in MineCraft also qualify. Dark-skinned creatures that appear in dark areas, Endermen are unique in that they won’t attack you right away. They’ll blink around with their teleportation powers, move blocks here and there, and stare at you. If you stare back, though… that’s when they become hostile. They scream. And they teleport directly behind you to attack you. Quite creepy.

Sometimes, though, the visuals and triggering mechanisms aren’t what stick in our minds as something that creeps us out. Sometimes, a person or object can appear completely normal, yet project that aura of vague discomfort that’s impossible to shake. This happens a lot when a character appears normal, but talks and acts in a way that hints that they’re not quite human, and perhaps only learned about humanity from reading a pamphlet or taking a correspondence course. The Observers in Fringe apply, especially September in the first season. The G-Man from Half-Life also springs to mind – courteous, polite, well-articulated, but… there’s definitely something wrong with him.

Stanley Kubrick is one of the best film directors to convey this sense of unease. Many of his shots in The Shining and A Clockwork Orange are off-putting in their framing, length, and presentation, even if the conversations within could be considered entirely mundane. But for me, one of the creepiest things he’s ever brought to life is the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Faceless antagonists range from Doctor Who’s Daleks with their stilted, loud voices and monstrous appearances concealed by armored throwbacks to low-budget sci-fi, to Michael Meyers and his silent, towering, knife-wielding menace. But HAL is unique. He’s not overtly malevolent, nor is he outwardly psychopathic. He is a computer. He is a construct of logic and reason. His actions, given his programming, make sense, when you think about it. And he never raises his voice, never swears, never even speaks ill of those he wrongs. This calm, even manner of speaking coupled with the unblinking gaze of his multiple cameras and the amount of control he exerts over the crew of the spacecraft Discovery make him one of the creepiest characters ever created.

What’s creepy for you? Who’s your favorite creepy antagonist?

Concerning Dr. Freeman

Courtesy Valve

March Mayhem over at the Escapist is in its final round. For most of the competition I’ve been rooting for BioWare. However, last round Valve was up against Zynga, and after a tense period of back and forth, Valve emerged the victor. Now, it’s up against BioWare. It’s a very close competition, and since I’ve talked at length about BioWare in the past, let’s discuss the guy in the other corner.

Courtesy Valve

Back in the late ’90s, Half-Life showed us that the protagonist of a first-person shooter didn’t have to be a hyper-masculine roided-out Space Marine. Instead, Valve slipped players into the hazardous environment suit of Dr. Gordon Freeman, theoretical physicist. The hero of this story is pretty much a bookworm, and only becomes legendary due to circumstance and the fact that his HEV suit can absorb bullets just as well as it does radiation. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Gordon, though, is that he’s a mute protagonist through and through, and Valve doesn’t do any pre-rendered cut scene cinematics. Everything happens within the game engine and, for the most part, we are in control of Gordon the entire time things are happening. This allows the player to experience the action, terror and humor of Half-Life and its sequels without any sort of forced dialog or moral choices.

Just as notable, however, is the way Valve provides for the modding community. Both the engine of the original Half-Life and the Source engine used in its sequels are geared in such a way that anybody with the time, passion and knack for coding or rendering to approach a game based in them can bring their dreams to life. For example, there was a mod for Quake called Team Fortress that some enthusiasts ported over into Half-Life‘s engine, a project that became known as Team Fortress Classic. Emphasizing specialists working together instead of one lone gun-toting badass rushing in to claim all the glory, Team Fortress was one of the most played mods of the original Half-Life. So, when Half-Life 2 was re-released in a bundle called The Orange Box, fans were delighted to see the bundle included Team Fortress 2.

Courtesy Valve

I could talk about the balanced gameplay, the fun aesthetic touches or the fact that the visual style reminds me a great deal of The Incredibles, but the important thing about TF2 is that there’s something for everybody. Still looking to be the rocket-shooting glory-hog? Play a Soldier. Interested in playing a healing class? Look no further than the Medic. Love setting things on fire? The Pyro’s for you. While the similar mechanics of all nine classes mean that anybody with even periphery knowledge of how to play an FPS can pick them up, truly mastering the nuances of a class can really enhance the experience for both the player and their team.

And then there’s Portal.

GLaDOS

If Half-Life broke the mold when it came to first-person shooters, Portal pretty much disintegrated it when it comes to first-person gameplay, period. With a series of testing chambers and the omnipresent passive-aggressive presence of GLaDOS, Valve demonstrated that it wasn’t just violence that drives their games. Even more so than the physics or jumping puzzles in either Half-Life game, Portal is driven more by cleverness and outside-the-box thinking than straightforward shoot-em-up gameplay.

I’m not going to go into the politics or long delays or differences between console & PC versions at the moment, but rather I want to stay focused on Valve as game developers. They’ve really changed things over the years, and I look forward to what’s coming next.

Thank you for your attention, cake will be served immediately.

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