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RJ Hill shared an extensive analytical take on the legendary title Half-Life, examined the backbone of its plot, the reason behind success and the game’s phenomenal influence on the video game industry.
Half-Life is a game that changed the standards of narratological structure in first person shooters, It raised the bar for all that came after it and made players question what they expected from the genre.
Half-Life is based around the story of Gordon Freeman, a 27-year-old scientist. Gordon works in the field of Anomalous materials at a government institute called Black Mesa which is situated deep underground. Black Mesa is responsible for performing top-secret scientific experiments with questionable ethics. During Gordon’s normal work schedule, a spanner is thrown into the gears when a science experiment goes wrong. While the accident is taking place a portal is opened up, and for a brief moment, Gordon is transported to an unknown world. When he is returned back moments later the lab he is working in named Sector C is in a state of destruction, and he is forced to make an escape attempt.
Gordon works his way through a maze of tunnels, air ducts, broken elevators and corridors in an attempt to get out of the catacombs of Black Mesa. He comes face to face with primitive animal-like aliens that have been mysteriously transported from the dimension he briefly visited. These aliens have infested the facility and turned a large proportion of the surviving scientists into walking dead zombies. Gordon meets some surviving security guards and scientist who aid him in his escape while offering clues as to what may be transpiring. A scientist tells Gordon that the army is coming to evacuate the facility and that everyone should get to the surface. Shortly after this Gordon witnesses the murder of a scientist. The situation gets more twisted once he finds out that the army is, in fact, coming to the facility to kill everyone and destroy any remaining evidence.
Once at the surface, the army makes an attempt to murder Gordon, but he manages to make a getaway by going back down inside Black Mesa. Gordon then finds out about another lab inside Black Mesa known as The Lambda Facility. Another group of surviving scientists tells him that he must go to The Lambda Facility as they have a possible solution to the problem and that it will allow them to stop an all-out invasion of earth by the uninvited aliens. On his way to The Lambda Facility, Gordon is pitted up against increasingly larger alien species plus stronger hordes of the army and special ops personnel. He also discovers that Black Mesa has been doing tests on the Aliens. There are many hidden secrets that Black Mesa has been keeping. All is not what it seems and Gordon is the only person who has the courage to put an end to it all.
I aim to delve into narratological structures within the Half-Life story. I will compare my findings and theories with other popular structures and also offer a cross-analysis of the differences between modern and classic story structures in computer games.
A Game Changer
The esteemed writer for Half-Life was Marc Laidlaw. Laidlaw was a science fiction writer before he took on his role at Valve (1), and his understanding of sci-fi tropes and clichés was undoubtedly a strong asset. It is a credit to Valve as a company for having the insight to employ and empower a sci-fi writer to help produce the story for Half-Life (2). Although having had a small role at one previous game studio named Synergy, in this role he did not work directly on the game’s plot. Laidlaw was commissioned to do a side novel to reinforce Synergy’s game. His knowledge of pre-existing first-person game story structures before joining Valve was limited (3), by this was a boon for the game.
Laidlaw’s application of core narratology theories in Half-Life was what blew the lid of story-based first-person shooter plot structures, managing to set a new precedence for immersion in FPS games and raising the level of expectations of FPS plots overall. After Half-Life was conceived the way people approached stories in FPS games changed dramatically. No longer were games of this style based only around run-and-gun mechanics, where the only aim in the game is to kill all that is before the player’s eyes. After Half-Life FPS games demanded more feeling, more structure and more plot to sink your teeth into. Unlike all that had come before there were more things in Half-Life that the player could connect with. It was deeper than just another story about the players own survival. No longer would gunning down wave after wave of space mutants suffice. This is what made Half-Life stand out and be a literal game changer.
Marc Laidlaw quoted himself as using two core rules in the Half-Life story structure. Poe’s Totality of Effect, also known as the Unity of Effect (4) and another defined as “Start your story 500 feet underground on a dark day and then… don’t tell them.” (5) According to Laidlaw, this was taken as a point of reference from James Tiptree, Jr. (6) These two theories can be taken very literally and attributed to the Half-Life plot with relative ease. There are also close similarities to that of Propp’s Morphology of Folk Tale (7). I will be expanding on this later as to how it can be related to the Half-Life plot.
Poe’s Unity of Effect
The concept behind Edgar Allan Poe’s well-known theory ‘Unity of Effect’ states that every element of the story should help create a single emotional impact (8). Meaning that at all points in the story it should have a similar feeling or convey the same emotional goals. However, in a brief email interview I conducted with Laidlaw, he pointed out that although Poe’s theory was at the forefront of the structure that was used to outline a guide for the designers, it was not unified and led to the use of two sources of emotion rather than one (15). Horror and isolation are the two emotions that Laidlaw stated were most poignant in the plot. However, when considering these two emotions it can be milled down to a common goal of perpetual uneasiness.
This uneasiness is relayed in all stages of the story structure, small or big. For example, at the start of the game, the voice the player can hear coming from the trams loudspeaker bestows an unsettling feeling in the tone and monolog it delivers (9). This fills the player with impersonal feelings. This delivery lets the player know from the outset that Black Mesa is lacking in any personable morals. It also lets the player know of the possibility of impending danger. The message that life at Black Mesa hangs from a thread at all times and that any small mistake can lead to ruin is an excellent way to keep the player on edge. This is also reinforced by the scenes depicted outside of the tram. On Gordon’s travels to work he sees people die as a result of malpractice, he sees strange mysterious characters, he also sees guards trying to escape dangerous situations. All of this is presented in the first 5 minutes of the game. This uneasiness or horror and isolation is kept at the forefront of the player’s mind during the duration of the game.
James Tiptree’s 500 Feet Underground
“Start your story 500 feet underground on a dark day and then… don’t tell them.” This is the phrase referenced by Laidlaw. It is so closely aligned in its description that it is hard not to see how it can be applied to Half-Life. The player literally spends the first 5 minutes going down 500 feet underground and more. This adds to the isolation which is an effective way to let the two core fundamentals work together in unison. Once everything goes wrong for Gordon the player is fully aware of the literal depth of their position and the lengths they are going to have to go through to reach the surface. Once the player gets to the surface they find out that in fact, they will have to dig their way back down into Black Mesa to find a real solution to the problems at hand. This literal interpretation of the concept is however not as reusable as theories like Unity of Effect. You wouldn’t be able to start every story 500 feet underground but you could use Unity of Effect multiple times without the player knowing you have applied this theory. The term “Start your story 500 feet underground on a dark day and then… don’t tell them.” suggests more of a metaphorical statement than a literal objective, but for Half-Life, it works perfectly.
Look Who’s Not Talking
Something that plays a large part in reinforcing the immersion in the Half-Life is the fact that throughout the entire game, and even looking at the franchise as a whole, Gordon Freeman never speaks a single word. This is known as the Heroic Mime (10). This use of a silent player actor is a great way of not breaking the metaphorical 4th wall. Akin to, when an actor in a film looks directly at the camera and the viewer is reminded that they are watching a film or TV show. In games before Half-Life, for example, Duke Nukem, the player character would have some form of witty dialogue. When this dialogue is delivered they are reminded that they are playing a game and that 4th wall is broken. In a time when putting voice acting into games was used at every opportunity, Half-Life held back with the knowledge that giving Gordon Freeman a voice would not only detract from the immersion and believability, it would also imply design constraints to aid in the delivery of certain feelings in the player (11). Not having a voice for Gordon also allowed the player to apply their own inner monologue to situations. For instance, when first meeting the guard as Gordon gets off the tram ride into work. Gordon says nothing in reply to the guard, the player then instinctively applies their own words. This self-applied inner monologue adds a great deal of immersion, it makes the player feel like they are in fact Gordon and that they are looking through his eyes as if they were a ghost in the shell of his body.
Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale
When looking at the overall story structure close similarities to Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale (12) can be seen.
of the Folk Tale
|Sphere Introduction||The train ride and the resonance cascade|
|The Body of the Story||After the resonance cascade|
|The Donor Sequence||The journey to the Lambda Facility|
|The Hero’s Return||To XEN and back again|
Here we see many boxes ticked to indicate this structure. Gordon is warned about the potential for issues many times by the gossip between scientist before the cascade happens, then also by the lead scientist who briefs him just before the experiment. This is an example of Interdiction. This shows the player that even before the cascade something is not right. Regardless of this, the story dictates that Gordon must go ahead and do the job. Ignoring all warning signs Gordon chooses to do his job and seal his fate which displays Violation of Interdiction because Gordon chooses to ignore all the warning signs. Once the cascade has happened we start to lead into The Body of the Story.
The Body of the Story
At the body of the story, we see Villainy and lack when Gordon first sees that scientists are being killed by an unknown assailant. It is the first time the player sees a villain in the act of his crime. The story then moves into Mediation as Gordon discovers the lack as he finds out it is the army who are killing scientists and that his escape is not going to be a simple one. At this point, Gordon could choose to succumb to the wishes of the government but instead, he offers Counteraction and Departure by rebelling and turning on the army himself.
The Donor Sequence
Gordon displays his strength and agility by enduring growing levels of obstacles, armed forces, and aliens, completing the stages known as Testing, Reaction, Acquisition, Guidance, and Struggle. This is the part in the story where the hero must show his abilities before he can be helped towards a solution. Gordon meets many scientists during this time, offering him information and direction. Ultimately this leads to the army’s intent on eradicating all knowledge of Black Mesa and the solutions that enable the plot to move onto Branding. Gordon is now perceived as someone who is able to overcome these issues and potentially play the part of the hero by solving the main issue in the plot. Allowing the story to move finally to Resolution, Gordon is sent to XEN to put an end to the alien invasion and solve the story.
The Hero’s Return
When Gordon has done his duties and is brought back to earth by G-Man we are presented at the Arrival. Gordon is greeted with a rather cold but acknowledging G-Man showing Recognition. He is given credit for his work showing the Solution and is offered an ultimatum. This is really the only point in the game a real choice is made. Take the job or Don’t take the job? If you take the job, we see the Transfiguration as Gordon is put into stasis. If you don’t take the job, we see Gordon undergo the punishment as he is sent back to XEN which wraps up the theory quite efficiently.
Cross Analysis of Games
When looking at Half-Life and what it has done for narratology in FPS games, you can see that a stark change happened in the quality of stories after Half-Life was delivered. IGN in their top 100 FPS games break down the top 100 into pre-Half-Life and post-Half-Life games (13) showing a serious defining factor in FPS games based on nothing but Half-Life’s conception.
If we look at Doom as a comparison we should analyze Doom 1 as a game before Half-Life, and Doom 3 which came after Half-Life. Doom before Half-Life was in itself a landmark game but not because of its plot. It laid the groundwork for FPS games along with a few other titles, but it didn’t manage to create the level of immersion that Half-Life did.
Doom 1 and Doom 2 were classic run-and-gun games. The most the player had to do was find the correct corresponding key card for a door to progress through the game as they kill everything that moves. If you ask the majority of people who played Doom on an average level, they would struggle to describe what the plot in Doom 1 and Doom 2 was about on a deep level. The main thing portrayed in these two games is that there are enemies that want to kill the player, so the player better kill them first. That is what made Doom fun. It was a run-and-gun game. The plot was just an afterthought to the player. It didn’t matter if the player didn’t know what was going on.
After Half-Life, Doom 3 was made and the contrast in strength and structure of the plot is black and white. In Doom 3 the player knows exactly what’s going on. They are on Mars, an outbreak has happened and a portal to hell has been opened up. They need to kill or be killed, but now it’s not just about key cards and getting from A to B killing everything in their path. The player now spends a substantial amount of time in Doom 3 finding out what has happened to the crew, building a plot as they play the game. Although if not for Half-Life this progression in FPS narratology would have surely still happened, regardless it is Half-Life that managed to broach this problem first, and as such it’s a game that will forever be etched in gaming history.
The ability to portray such compelling stories did also improve with the advancements in games engines. It would have been harder for Half-Life to achieve what managed in the late 80s as compared to its release in the mid-90s. In recent years many remakes of Half-Life have been attempted, but none have managed to pull it off quite as well as the remake called Black Mesa (14). This is a good example of Half-Life’s strong story because the original story of Half-Life has been for the most part left untouched. However, the story’s delivery has been improved with better graphics and animations. Showing that with graphical and engine improvements it becomes easier for games to be able to portray stories. If we were to drive Half-Life 10 years back the delivery of the story would have been much harder to produce or possibly even impossible.
Although Half-Life’s graphics were a landmark in many ways, the graphics are not what people remember. Few people mention Half-Life’s technological breakthroughs when talking about the game. The thing people remember about Half-Life is the story: the tram ride into Black Mesa, the first time Gordon puts on the HEV suit, the first time Gordon gets teleported to XEN. These are all things that are etched in the player’s memory along with the emotions that are portrayed in the game. If the wrong type of feeling was delivered the game would not have felt right and this direction is a credit to the use of Poe’s Unity of Effect. Half-Life has an amazing amount of atmosphere. It gave the player a consistent feeling, and that feeling was horror and isolation.
At the time of Half-Life’s release, no other game had managed to do this in such a convincing and immersive way. It could almost stand next to film and TV. It is the two core concepts outlined by Marc Laidlaw that made the continuity of this feeling easier to keep hold of during the length of the story. Add to this the concept of Gordon having no dialogue and the immersion is raised to a level not previously seen in a game of this genre. Half-Life will forever be held high in the ranks of gaming historians, as a game that made a change in video game narratology, a change undeniably for the better.
- (1) “loonygames Feature: Writing the Game.” 2003. 21 Jul. 2016
- (2) “‘The best zoo in the universe’ – a 1997 interview with Valve’s Marc …” 2013. 21 Jul. 2016
- (3) “Gamasutra – Marc Laidlaw On Story And Narrative.” 2012. 21 Jul. 2016
- (4) Obuchowski, Peter. “Unity of Effect in Poe’s” The Fall of the House of Usher”.” Studies in Short Fiction 12.4 (1975): 407. 23 Jul. 2016
- (5) “Gamasutra – Marc Laidlaw On Story And Narrative.” 2012. 19 Jul. 2016
- (6) “Summary Bibliography: James Tiptree, Jr.” 2010. 23 Jul. 2016
- (7) “Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale – Changing Minds.” 2006. 22 Jul. 2016
- (8) “Teachers | Edgar Allan Poe Museum.” 2010. 19 Jul. 2016
- (9) “Half-Life Game Script for PC by wel – GameFAQs.” 2015. 21 Jul. 2016
- (10) “Heroic Mime – TV Tropes.” 2006. 23 Jul. 2016
- (11) “Gamasutra – Marc Laidlaw On Story And Narrative.” 2012. 21 Jul. 2016
- (12) “Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale – Changing Minds.” 2006. 22 Jul. 2016
- (13) “Half-Life – #1 Top Shooters – IGN – IGN.com.” 21 Jul. 2016
- (14) “Black Mesa: Re-visit the world that started the Half-Life continuum.” 2005. 22 Jul. 2016
- (15) My conversation with Marc. 2016. 22 Jul.
Q “what would you say the single emotional impact of Half-Life was? Based on the use of Poe’s theories.”
A “These were useful principles mainly to guide the various designers in different disciplines and get everybody thinking about how to achieve something with a more focused mood and not just do any random thing that came to mind…allowing them to have some kind of way to pick among different ideas in advance, instead of just reacting after the fact to criticism. Even so, with that many people working on the project, it remained wild and woolly and not terribly unified. I think the mood of horror and isolation was effective…but the deepening of isolation did not pay off, in the Xen sections (when you are literally alone in another dimension) in part because the horror aspect was broken. Just one of many things that went wrong in the latter chapters.”
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