Pick Up That Can

Pick Up That Can

I’ve found myself thinking lately about the moment early in Half-Life 2 in which a Combine soldier knocks a can off the lip of a trashcan and tells you to pick it up and put it in the trash. Here’s a video of that, including the obedient disposal of the can. In some ways I guess that’s my favourite moment in that famous game actually, it really distills what feels like an ’emotional truth’ about the world of the game and actually made me feel something other than powerful or scrappy or excited or whatever. And it tutorialised picking things up and dropping them again, which is handy.

Anyway, it’s a great effect achieved with surprisingly little effort. And interestingly, all it’s really doing is recasting what videogames always do, which is that they tell us more or less explicitly what to do and then wait for us to do it before we can progress. It’s just that usually the game will tell us to do things we want to do, or at least things that seem empowering rather than disempowering like the can example. And of course it’s that contrast effect, and that breaking of the idea of always feeling empowered that makes the can moment resonate. (Naturally it’s not long in the game before you’re shooting these guys in the head rather than picking up cans, but I try not to blame Valve too much for that less-than-exciting follow-up.)

When I think about it, this is a fairly similar effect to what I was going for especially with the Prometheus level in Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment. You are similarly having something done to you rather than being the sole important doer in the world. The eagle is pecking out your liver, the Combine guard is degrading you by having you pick up litter. And all you can do it take it at a certain point, you have to give up. (Well, actually this is where Half-Life 2 fails a bit since you can throw the can at the guard and have them chase and hit you in a not-very-compelling little morality play of defiance and so on. Blah blah you are undaunted by authority and so on, good for you.)

At any rate, it occurs to me that I feel that games should do things to us more often in play, rather than let us always be that doer. Having something done to you, and having to submit or succumb, is an experience that’s just as powerful as being the prime mover in a world, and of course it’s more so for being rare in that context.

So do unto players, I say. Do the hell unto them.

7 December 2015
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