Walking and Falling

One of the other games I’ve been playing lately is Half-Life 2: Episode 2, just another in the long line of games I play long, long after their release date. It has all the polish you expect from the series, and from Valve more generally.

Part of that polish concerns the spatial design of the world. This being Half-Life, the world is pretty much linear – you can’t really go anywhere except in the direction which drives the story along. And of course there are all sorts of amazing designerly touches that help to prod you along that “right” course.

It’s this aspect of design that I’m finding most interesting as I play it right now. In Zelda I don’t get lost so much as often don’t quite know how to get where I know I want to go (the Skull Dungeons housing Blind have been the latest adventure there), and in Kane and Lynch 2 I’ve sometimes gotten lost due to what I’m assuming is poor design.

But in Half-Life 2: Epsidoe 2 I sometimes have this uncanny sensation of simultaneously being somewhat lost and also not at all lost. That is, I’ll be standing in a particular room, feeling that I’m in a very foreign (and hostile) place, bristling with visual content (and zombies), such that I don’t know where the way out is, or where I’m going. And yet, at exactly the same moment, I’ll know that if I blunder forwards and never backwards, I’ll end up making constant progress. At times this experience borders on disbelief and I am briefly paralysed by the inability to trust in the linearity of the game (such as when I was being chased around by an Ant Lion Guardian underground).

Inevitably, though, you take steps into the unknown and it is inevitably progress. It’s a bit like the idea that the best way to live your life is to do things you’re afraid of and don’t know how to do – in this game, you always proceed in the least known, least illuminated direction in order to succeed. It reminds me, too, of Laurie Anderson’s great phrasing about the constant unknown miracle of movement:

You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling. With each step you fall forward slightly. And then catch yourself from falling.

17 September 2010
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