Life Is For Living

So today I had the opportunity to try out the opposite of Permadeath. Let’s call it Permalife, shall we? It just makes sense. Having done the Permadeath thing in Metro 2033, I found myself wondering about the flip-side – what would be the experience of play if you could never die. To do so, I played Half-Life 2 with the “buddha” cheatcode entered so that my health could never go below 1, despite all the slings and arrows (and bullets and bombs) of outrageous fortune.

The obvious intuition is that such a playing would do little more than suck the life out of the game. Without the potential of death, its constant juxtaposition with your current situation, why would your current situation mean anything? This is a fairly typical complaint when anyone plays with cheatcodes, both from their peers and often from their own hearts: the game becomes a shallow fiasco.

In fact, there was much less of the “this is meaningless” experience in my playing than I’d anticipated. Instead, the overriding emotional tone of the game became, for me, that of being a kind of immortal psychopathic hero. While Gordon is, ultimately, a deeply frightening man in the game anyway, when he’s invulnerable, it’s as if his last vestige of humanity has been stripped away. He turns into a merciless hand pointed out at the world with an eye to destroy it. Admittedly for the forces of “good”, but good and evil seemed to become less meaningful in the context of a permadeath playing. I felt like the terminator, but not not in a good way. More in the way of an emotionless, moral vacuum.

By way of contrast, playing this way allowed me to more directly perceive the game design as it pertains to fear and vulnerability. The early sequence in which you start kicking Combine ass becomes oddly frustrating for the immortal psychopath. Rather than walk menacingly through their ranks toward your destination, you’re forced through the nicely designed, but completely linear path created to emphasise fear and the tenuousness of survival. You sneak through vents, hide underwater, and sprint through tunnels. And yet the immortal psychopath should do none of these things – he would rather walk in a straight line to where he’s headed, it’s not like anyone can stop him. Thus this round-about “geography of fear” presented by the game felt wrong. Even the default movement speed of Gordon felt too fast and not methodical enough.

Likewise, the music was far too energetic and suggestive of risk. I realise now that I probably should have just turned the music off, but as I did my best to walk through the level designed for fearful crawling and running I felt constantly jarred by its contrast with the mood I was establishing.

Ultimately, the permalife approach was both unemotional but also strangely empowering and interesting. I found myself coveting the moments when I had the opportunity to blankly walk past a Combine soldier unloading his clip at me, or when I might calmly and without hurry shoot another in the face simply to get him out of my way as I walked up some stairs. There’s a sense in which playing the unemotional psychopath provides a higher level emotional experience of connecting with those particular media tropes of relentless killers and highly proficient bad-asses.

Stripped of my humanity, I found comfort and a surprisingly deep enjoyment in my inhumanity.

14 February 2011
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