Munroe on Half-Life 2

Jim Munroe on Half-Life 2 via The Cultural Gutter

As a novelist, I strive for verisimilitude: the appearance of reality. I try to give a sense of place, a person’s life, a situation, not by giving exhaustive descriptive detail but by giving just enough detail to evoke a feeling of realism. The videogame has to do this with the visuals and the narrative, but faces an additional challenge: giving people the illusion of free will.

People sometimes criticize the Half-Life series for being “on a rail” — more or less like a funhouse ride on which you’re shuttled through constructed scenarios. Having tight control like this is a trade-off for a nuanced and complex narrative. In opposition to this, games in the Grand Theft Auto series offer scenarios, rather than stories, and are often referred to as “sandbox games.” While both limit the player’s free will, they employ different strategies of evoking the illusion of maintaining it.

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Half-Life 2 does this through a steady diet of marvels, a lot of them based on how smart the objects are. If, in a moment of panic, you grab a nearby paint can and throw it at a zombie, the zombie will be covered in paint. If you grab a circular saw and throw it, the zombie will be sliced in two (and if you go to look, you will see the saw half-embedded in the wall behind). Shoot someone with a crossbow and they will hang literally pinned to the wall. Physics are used a lot in puzzles — if you weigh down one end of a see-saw with the concrete debris lying around, you can get up to the second level. At another part, the buoyancy of plastic barrels in water comes into play.

Thanks John for the link.