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Lots of reviews have compared Dishonored to Valve's classic Half-Life 2. Both titles enjoy richly-drawn gameworlds with play mechanics that let you get creative. And they've both got lead characters who don't talk. So, you'd figure that Gordon Freeman served as a model for Dishonored's Corvo, right? Not exactly.
"I hate what Valve does with the silent protagonist," said Austin Grossman, who served as writer on Arkane's action/stealth hybrid. "I find it incredibly awkward and really creepy. I find Gordon Freeman creepy as hell. The difference between Dishonored and how it works in Half-Life 2 is that it's a lot more personal. I think you get that involvement because the character has personal relationships with people from the beginning. And it's very clear that people have fucked with you in a very personal way."
Grossman offered these opinions to me when I spoke to him over the phone last week, and he made it clear that he was speaking solely for himself and not for either developer Arkane or publisher Bethesda. When I noted that Valve's crowbar-wielding hero gets a lot of people talking at him, Grossman agreed and took it a bit further. "It's people talking at him, about him and sometimes even for him. He just happens to be in the middle of this whole thing."
"I'm biased, of course, but I think Dishonored grips you much more viscerally, more emotionally. And that's on purpose. Corvo doesn't talk and I think it works because everybody knows what Corvo would have to say," Grossman continued. "His actions form a sort of speech, something like "If I could kill the people who screwed with me… And if that includes you, then I'm going to kill you right now."
Grosman may have a point when comparing Corvo to Gordon. To be fair, more is shown of Corvo's relationships in Dunwall than of Freeman's in his backstory. But you could also argue Corvo's quest for vengeance is a much more personal motivator than Gordon Freeman's guilt. Part of the reason why one silence feels so different from the other might lie in the protagonist's backstories, too. If Freeman's muteness carries an element of cold detachment, it might be because he's a scientist who's been shifted through time and space. And Corvo's quiet could seem like it contains more menace because we're told he's an assassin. Still, silence is golden in each instance, even if each game finds its shine a different way.
Pandemic is a Half-Life 2 movie made by anklove. While it's got its fair share of effects, this isn't some attempt at a blockbuster action flick. Instead, it does what Eastern European movies do best: turn the screws on a desolate, bleak landscape.
So, yeah, this isn't a feel-good project. At the end of four minutes you'll probably want to go play Half-Life 2 again, sure, but you'll also probably want to go find someone special and give them a hug. Maybe in a green, sunny park.
We featured the work of LEGO builder ORRANGE back in 2009, with his brilliant take on Half-Life, but a recent playthrough of the game has got him returning to the universe to take more pictures.
So thanks, Half-Life 2. And thanks ORRANGE, for reminding us all that a world in which these sets and minifigs aren't commercially available is a cold, dark place.
And by that I of course mean silliest. Do you ever just randomly talk to the games you play? Poke fun at characters playfully? That's essentially what BlackLightAttack does with his 60 Second Let's Play series.
60 Second Let's Play: Half-Life 2 [YouTube]
If there's one man who knows from originality in video games, it's Viktor Antonov. He's the man responsible for the oppressive, beautiful art design of City 17 in Valve's masterpiece Half-Life 2. One of the main reasons that I'm excited about the upcoming Dishonored is that Antonov will be art director. Just check out this gallery of the man's work. He's a true original.
But Antonov is generally unhappy with the current state of video games. In an interview at Eurogamer, he laments: "It's been a poor, poor five years for fiction in the video game industry."
Antonov's observations mostly revolve around the fact that there are so few new ideas for games, and that so many games look the same. He sees the fact that the closest touchstone for this year's Dishonored is BioShock, a game from 2007 that doesn't actually have all that much in common with Dishonored, as cause for concern.
"I'm not a harsh critic of games," Antonov insisted. "I'm extremely happy of where technology has gone. But artists and art directors should make their own life a little bit harder by pushing management to take more artistic risks, and use the technology to a better, higher level. That's what I've been doing and suffering by - I've been spending as much time creating, as convincing the people who are financing games how important it is.
"We were always waiting for the next generation of great worlds or great graphics. Well, great graphics came; the worlds that came with these graphics are not up to the level of the graphics.
"Graphics used to be an excuse 10 years ago, that we can't make great worlds. Right now, we have a lot of New Yorks, we have a lot of war games. Please everybody," he pleaded, "let's do more science-fiction and more crazy worlds out there."
Antonov advises that developers stop trying to make games that are all things at once. "Now a game is trying to pack too many games - narration, music, contemplation, shooting - that they lose the experience." Instead, he suggests, developers should make more specialized games that pick one thing to do and do it well.
Read the rest of the article, which talks in-depth about the process behind Dishonored's city of Dunwall, at Eurogamer.
I've never played as a black video game character who's made me feel like he was cool. Worse yet, I've never played a black video game character who made me feel like I was cool. Instead, I've groaned and rolled my eyes at a parade of experiences that continue to tell me video games just don't get black people.
The faces that look like mine that I've encountered in video games have been, at best, too inconsequential to be memorable and offensively tone-deaf at worst. What about Barrett from Final Fantasy VII or Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII, you might ask? Or Cole Train from the Gears of War games? Wait, there's Sheva from Resident Evil 5, right? No, no and no. Too many elements of caricature in each, I'd say, and they're all sidekicks. Their stories aren't the focus of the adventure players go on.
But, hey, it's a given that video games tend to present exaggerated characters. Marcus Fenix isn't like any white guy I've ever met, after all. But he doesn't have to be. For every Marcus Fenix-type grunt hero, you can also get a witty Nathan Drake, a charming Ezio or a regretful John Marston. Enough white characters exist in video games for a variability of approach. That's simply not true of black characters.
In creating Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance, Valve gave players a woman who was feisty and fragile at the same time. Alyx ranks amongst the best black game characters of all time, but she's another sidekick. C.J. from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas comes closest to this pie-in-the-sky ideal I'm dreaming of. C.J. managed to hold a core contradiction inside of himself—an intense love of family balanced against the violence of thug life—that added depth to his characterization. And while he was the lead of the game he starred in, he was still a gang member. Rockstar found interesting things to do with him but C.J. still comes into being by virtue of another overused stereotype.
Does this stuff matter in video games? Yes. The thing to remember is that beneath all the comforting platitudes about a character's color not mattering lies a sticky web of stereotypes and cheap myths that can still insult and anger people playing a game. Even if I wanted to like Sam B from Dead Island, for example, I'm still running up against the fact that he's a hot-tempered thug rapper.
Stop leaning on this stereotype. Stop creating loud black soldiers who only know how to yell. Stop putting spear-carrying primitives in games.
What I want, basically, is Black Cool. It's a kind of cool that improvises around all the random stereotypes and facile understandings of black people that have accrued over centuries and subverts them. Black Cool says "I know what you might think about me, but I'm going to flip it." Dave Chappelle's comedy is Black Cool. Donald Glover is Black Cool. Aisha Tyler is Black Cool. Marvel Comics's Black Panther character is Black Cool. Their creativity is the energy I want video games to tap into.
There's a book about it. In the anthology Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, author Rebecca Walker assembles a crop of personal essays that talk about how Black Cool manifested in their lives. One of those writers is Mat Johnson, a professor in the University of Houston's creative writing program. Johnson's like me, a lifelong comics-reading, game-loving geek who continues to bump into jarring, awful portrayals of black people in video games.
"I played Dead Island when it came out last year and there's a point when you get the Natives Camp area. I was like, ‘Oh, OK, we're going to have an African-style primitive out here,'" he told me. "The bizarre thing is that the stereotypes you encounter in the games don't even match up timewise with our current culture. That's what's so odd about it. The mainstream culture at large has moved beyond the trope of the black primitive. You can't get away with that kind of thing in a movie."
Johnson's written prose along with graphic novels and when he compares video games' racial awareness to comic and he says "comics had a much more concerted effort to change images of minorities in the work. And part of that was a market-driven concern." There's a difference of scale, too, he continues. "If comics can access another 5,000 or 10,000 in their possible audience, it has a huge impact. Whereas video games have become a mass market phenomenon that have an even bigger scope than movies. So they're not as worried about minority concerns as comics are."
The importance of seeing a face that looks like yours when stepping into a fictional universe can't be overstated. I'm a big Superman fan, but it was DC Comics' Black Lightning that piqued my interest when I was growing up. Every black superhero face I saw growing up was another signpost that said "Hey, you're welcome here. You can be larger-than-life, too." The absence of such characters doesn't make fictional constructs hostile; it makes them indifferent, which can be far worse.
"Another difference with games is that, as a medium, they're about invoking our fears so that we can overcome them," Johnson speculates. "I think that's what happens in both Resident Evil 5 and also Dead Island. They're not just invoking fear of zombies, they are invoking fear of blackness, and offering the gamer an opportunity to challenge their racial fears as well as their other fears. What you're seeing here is a subconscious action. And the reason it becomes clear because it's not in one game, it's in several different games."
"There have been exceptions in games like Left 4 Dead," Johnson observes, "where you have an actual black nerd character in the game." "I honestly think the move away from this going to be generational, when it's so easy to produce a 3D video game that it's the equivalent of shooting a movie today with a digital camera. But, until then, when I see a game that clearly walks right into a racial dead-end, I know I'm seeing a room of developers talking out a story with not one black person, not one Latino person of power in that room. So I think the single biggest thing that many of these companies could do to make sure that they are being representative of the larger culture's ethos, would be to hire in a diverse way."
"It's not a question of [developers and publishers] pushing culture forward," Johnson said. "It's a question of them catching up to mainstream culture. Part of it, I think again, is market success. They haven't had to worry about that at this point, because they're still going to sell a ton of games if the basic gameplay is good. But being better about black characters and characters of other races would make the overall quality better, too."
In other mediums and creative pursuits, there've been the black people who pivoted the conversations, expanded the possibilities and deepened the portrayals about what black people are. In jazz, it was Charlie Parker. In literature, it was Ralph Ellison. In comics, I'd argue that it was Christopher Priest, followed by Dwayne McDuffie. For me, the work of the deceased McDuffie managed to create characters that communicated an easily approachable vein of black cool.
Video games need this kind of paradigm-shifting figure. Not an exec, mind you—sorry, Reggie—but a creative face who steers the ethos of a game. For example, you know what kind of game a Warren Spector or a Jenova Chen is going to deliver. With Spector, it's a game that'll spawn consequences from player action. With Chen, you'll get experiences that try to expand the emotional palette of the video game medium. I want someone to carry that flag for blackness, to tap into it as a well of ideas.
Blackness can be a sort of performance, a lifetime role informed by the ideas of how people see you and how you want to be seen. One thing I've heard over the years is some variation of the colorblind testimonial: "I don't see a black guy when I look at you. I just see you." Well, if you're not seeing a black guy, then you're not seeing all of me. And if you're seeing just a black guy, you're not seeing all of me in that instance either.
I'm not naïve: no one's going to buy a video game because it's less wince-worthy on matters of race or diversity. But, maybe if Black Cool found its way into video games, I wouldn't have to hear the word "nigger" during online multiplayer sessions so much. Or maybe I wouldn't have to listen to characters that sound like 18th-Century minstrels in cyberpunk games.
While I'm sick of video games stumbling around the same ol' stereotypes and being afraid of black lead characters—"they won't sell!," cries the panicked logic— I'm not going to love Starhawk or Prototype 2 more because they have black lead characters. But if Emmett Graves and James Heller tap into some kind of deeper, more surprising portrayal than Standard Gruff Black Guy #29 and feel more human as a result, I'd feel better about the creative possibilities of video games.
Any mode of creativity that wants to be called mature needs to grapple with the sociopolitical issues of its time and place, especially if it wants to hold onto future generations. If it doesn't, then said medium just remains stuck in its own adolescence. When it comes to the examining the realities of how race can be lived in the world, movies, books and TV all do it. I'm not saying video games won't or can't, but damn if it's not a long time coming. Getting black characters who don't make me grit my teeth would be a great sign that video games are growing up.
And you thought it was some giant building in Dubai. Nope. According to measurements converted from in-game models ad referenced for scale, City 17's own Citadel, constructed by the Combine, easily takes the cake.
Standing at 8430 feet tall, the Citadel easily, ahem, towers over the competition, Dubai's Burj Khalifa only managing to get 2723 feet off the ground (note: the image above is in metres).
Before anyone complains about the tense used in this post, let's assume there are people here who haven't played Half-Life 2's episodes.
German artist Daniel Ritthanondh is the man to thank for this Half-Life-inspired lamp, which will simultaneously light up your room and darken your dreams.
As big a Half-Life fan as I am, I could not own this. Wherever it went, I couldn't walk under it. Ever. That or I'd come home one day and creep up on it, shooting at it until it coughed up a human skull and giblets all over my living room floor. Which would just be too messy.
It's hard to put my finger on a "favorite" part, really—there are so many iconic moments that they all kind of blend together. But if I had to name one, it would be the bridge level.
You know the one I'm talking about. Near the end of "Highway 17," you'll arrive in a small villa that's located along a cliff. Up a hill is a long bridge, along which are running menacing Combine trains. To get Gordon's buggy up onto the track, you'll have to go to the other side of the bridge and unplug the combine force field that's blocking your way. And to get to the other side of the bridge… you'll have to go under it.
This is one of those make-or-break moments, when the designers at Valve grabbed their ambitions and carried them into the end zone so assuredly that it's still impressive, coming up on ten years later.
You enter the bridge support structure. And then you come out, and you're on a deck looking out onto the scaffolding underneath the bridge. It looks like you can jump down there… but can you? Is this safe?
The sound effects here are key. The wind, ripping into your ears, cutting through the air beneath this massive metal structure. It truly feels as though it could blow you off.
And so then, you jump. Everyone who has played this level has probably died at least once; slipping on a girder and tumbling, watching the ground come rushing up towards you. Just watching the video above gives me vertigo. I could play this level a hundred times and never tire of it—it is pure video game magic.
And once you're halfway across, things get even better. A train goes by above you, foreshadowing the coming race against the onrushing train that closes out this level. And once you've made it to the other side, cleared out the nest of combine soldiers and deactivated the force field… well then you have to make your way back. But why should you get to make your way back exactly the same way you came? Wouldn't it be much more interesting if a flying whale-helicopter attacked you and totally wrecked your shit?
This bravura section is my favorite single bit of Half-Life 2. The video of it is broken into three parts, with the middle section above. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube: Part one, part two, and part three.
Or, you know, you can just go play it again. You know you want to.
Thanks, Graag, for posting these videos.
Actually, calling it an action figure does it a bit of a disservice. The term "action figure" conjures all sorts of images, mostly of very small men. This custom Strider from the Half-Life universe is not very small at all.
Not only does it look awesome, but its builder, nomadamusic, says it was almost entirely made from scratch, and even includes a few points of articulation.
Who needs large toy companies when individual artists can make their own Striders? Not nomadamusic, that's for damn sure.