Portal is for lesbians
Good game / bad game

In praise of empathy and good teaching

Alix_and_dad Revisiting Half-Life 2 this week has reminded me of the powerful impact dynamic game design can have on a player's experience. Even three years after its release, Valve's near-total integration of narrative, character development, and gameplay elements remain unrivaled, in my view. To be sure, Bioshock deserves every bit of the love it's received--and its design debt to the Half-Life series is unmistakable--but stylish as it is, it simply didn't hook me into the characters as deeply as Half-Life 2.

It's a bit ironic in a way, given Bioshock designer Ken Levine's notion that "Empathy for the characters is something first person shooters need. People get that when the Little Sister is a little girl. And making people 'get it' is the first step."[1]

I think I 'got it,' and I enjoyed the way Bioshock played with my emotions regarding the Little Sisters, but it all felt a bit manipulative. Placing an apparently innocent child in a macabre setting is nothing new for video games or films, and I think many of us have become at least a bit inured to that little conceit. Beyond conveying an image of a girl in danger, Bioshock doesn't follow through on developing a depth of character necessary to sustain an empathetic response.

Half-Life 2 constructs its empathic framework slowly through the course of the game, and it's often the little things that matter. Case in point: the introduction of the gravity gun.

In most games prior to Half-Life, when players receive skills, power-ups, weapons, etc., everything stops and the omniscient designer steps in to teach you how to use what you just got. This happens in a variety of ways, including on-screen text, voiceover instructions, exiting to an inventory screen, or the classic old-school RTFM!

Valve reconceptualized the process of teaching players how to physically interact with the game environment. As designer Jay Stelly stated in his presentation at last year's Game Developers Conference, Valve boiled game mechanics design down to  a set of experiences that:

  • Trains the player in some mechanics
  • Allows him to show his skill using these mechanics
  • Is presented with style

And it's the "presented with style" part that makes all the difference. So here's the situation: Gordon gets the gravity gun and must learn to use it. The question for Valve was how to do this in a way more interesting than opening a box and adding it to your inventory. Their brilliant solution was to integrate it into the narrative while adding backstory, character dimension, narrative depth, and fun experimentation for the player...all while learning how to use the new weapon.

After an adventurous airboat sequence with lots of action, racing, and shooting (the gaming trifecta), Gordon arrives at Eli's lab in Black Mesa East. A timely change of pace and tone allow the player to catch his/her breath and reorient. Gordon meets Dr. Judith Mossman, who simply won't stop talking technical gibberish. When Alyx reappears, it feels so good to see her. For one thing, she's the perfect antidote to Mossman, but more importantly, Gordon and she were accidentally separated earlier in the game (something the designers love to do with Alyx), and the arduous journey is really all about finding your way back to her.

Alyx immediately begins disparaging Mossman as an over-intellectual dilettante, which once again reinforces our positive impression of Alyx since those were exactly the thoughts Mossman provoked in us. Alyx leads us to the testing area where she introduces Gordon to the gravity gun. Since Alyx has already been established as a clever engineer/tinkerer/dare-devil, it makes perfect sense that she wants Gordon to play with the gun.

She delights in the process of inventing little challenges. The tutorial is well underway, but the game fully integrates this interaction with Alyx as a natural progression of their growing relationship. She's showing off a bit of her knowledge and playing with Gordon in a free-spirited way. If you haven't already fallen a bit in love with Alyx by now, you possess a very hard heart indeed. Of course, the game narrative will continue to leverage this playful bond...and Gordon will very soon become separated from Alyx again.

The designers could have left it right there. Alyx could easily teach you everything you need to know about the gravity gun. But Valve insists on doing it with style and, more importantly, substance. In order to teach you the more complex functions of the gravity gun, Alyx calls on "Dog" her giant robotic pet to help her:

"Dog, come! (Dog runs enthusiastically to Alyx and lowers his head) Good doggie! Gordon, this is Dog. My dad built him to protect me when I was a kid. First model was about yay-high. I've been adding to him ever since. Haven't I, boy? (She pets him affectionately on the head) Okay, Dog, let's play catch with Gordon."

Consider how much information is imparted via this simple exchange. We see Alyx's soft and affectionate personality emerge. We see evidence of her remarkable engineering skills (she is certainly her father's daughter). We discover a bit more about Alyx's past, growing up surrounded by danger, learning to protect herself. We see further evidence of the lengths to which her father has gone to protect her and provide her with companionship.

We also learn how to use the gravity gun. See how they did that?

Alyx Vance is one of the most interesting and indelible characters in the history of video games. If you want to know what empathy in video games looks like, you need go no further than her.

If you somehow missed Half-Life 2 the first time around, now is your chance. The Orange Box version looks and plays better than ever.