A cactus.

What’s the point of Desert Golfing?

It was when I found myself tweeting my score that I realised that Desert Golfing was something a little bit different.

This peculiarly minimalist mobile game makes no demands on you: it doesn’t even have a start menu. Prodding at the screen or my phone’s softkeys yields no pop-ups, options, version numbers or credits. There’s no tutorial – but then why would it need one? It’s Desert Golfing. Desert… golfing. And we’ve all played Angry Birds by now so we know that you just drag your finger to power-up and aim, then let go to take your shot.

[as an aside, I’m always fascinated by mobile games that throw you in at the deep end. This applies to games generally, but particularly mobile games where those first few minutes are so important in a vast market dominated by million-dollar marketing budgets. Swing Copters is a good recent example – it literally does not tell you how to play. It took me 10-15 attempts before I worked out how to actually control the character: at which point I handed the phone to someone else to make sure they failed just as badly as me (they did).]

A cloud.

A cloud.

Back to Desert Golfing. You drag, you aim, you fire the tiny golfball at the tiny hole. Most holes can technically be accomplished in a single shot, although that’s somewhat optimistic given the terrain (and the fact that if an overpowered shot disappears off the right of the screen, you have to tee off again). Nonetheless, the game doesn’t give you any feedback whether you plant a pixel-perfect chip shot for a hole-in-one or whether you scrabbled around for nineteen shots before finally nurdling the ball home. Your overall score just ticks up, the screen pans right, and you’re onto the next hole.

And that’s it. Each hole is subtly different and the changing terrain presents its own challenges – but there’s nothing distinctive to separate them, with a few exceptions every two hundred holes or so.

Yeah, you read that right – two hundred holes or so. At time of writing, I’m on hole 1443, although that’s nothing compared to some people I’ve seen on Twitter who are into the 3000s. Is there an end to Desert Golfing? Given that it is apparently not procedurally generated, probably. Where is the end of Desert Golfing? It’s a question I don’t want to know the answer to, until I arrive at that end myself.

A cactus.

A cactus.

Playing Desert Golfing leaves me with a profound feeling of smallness (see also: Total Perspective Vortex). This is because Desert Golfing is one long, continuous trek through a seemingly-endless wilderness. In my fourteen hundred holes, I’ve encountered 1 cactus, 1 rock, 1 cloud and 2 chasms. The other 1400+ holes were just sand. It’s the least-interesting game world… ever. It is a desert.

But because your perspective is always fixed within that desert, you never know what’s on the next screen. Maybe there’ll be another cactus, maybe you’ll actually reach the end and get a giant “game over” sign… in all likelihood it’ll just be more sand. But the only way to find out is to keep going. Desert Golfing is a journey. Your progress is recorded, but not in the traditional, completion-percentage way – like a man lost in the desert, you only know what’s behind you, not what’s over the next dune.

Writing that last paragraph, I realised that I’m doing it again – exactly the thing that I was alluding to in the opening of this post. I’m ascribing my own metagames to a game that doesn’t have any. In the example above, the game is to advance a hole and have a small chance of being rewarded with a cactus or rock or other detail that breaks the monotony. The example I mentioned right at the top was when I found myself proudly tweeting that I’d not only got through four hundred holes of Desert Golfing, but that my shots-per-hole average was below 2.5.

The game didn’t give me that figure – I used a calculator. Yup, I took the two figures the game does give you (total shots and number of holes completed), divided one by the other, and then actually looked at the result and felt pleased. But now that I think about it – why? Desert Golfing doesn’t have a par score for its holes – so how can I possibly say what’s a “good” score? My reaction suddenly seems so arbitrary and – frankly – a little silly.

It’s precisely because Desert Golfing doesn’t give the player any feedback, or any measure of success/failure, that it leaves itself open to adding your own goals to it. Why am I still playing the game after fourteen hundred holes?

  • To find more rare “sights” like the rock or the cloud
  • To find out if there is an end, and what happens
  • To get a better score than screenshots I’ve seen on Twitter

Not that the game needs these goals – the core golfing mechanic is both fun and satisfying in itself and, thanks in part to the lack of load screens / logins / menus, a perfect time-filler for a play session of almost any length (you can literally achieve meaningful progress with just 3-4 seconds of play). Desert Golfing is a throwback to an age before achievements, badges and gamerscore, but, given that that’s the age we’re in, I find myself ascribing those mechanics to it anyway. Validate my desert golfing ability!

1000 holes.

1000 holes.

Spoiler alert – I gather that once you hit 1,000 holes on iOS, you get to view a global Game Center leaderboard. This in itself opens up the possibility of other mysteries – does anything happen when you hit 2,000 holes, or 5,000 or 10,000? It recalls the brief spell in 2013 where a large section of the gaming community seemed hooked on Aniwey’s Candy Box, an ASCII grind “game” that revealed itself to have surprising depth. The discovery of that depth was largely down to the aforementioned community of players around it, as noted by Leigh Alexander:

[Candy Box] gives the player very little direction or feedback, aside from an FAQ provided to answer very common sticking points. It’s so minimalistic that it recalls a beloved earlier age of games, when all of them were opaque and mysterious, and the only real way to progress was to share playground lore.

Having seen fourteen hundred holes of Desert Golfing, it seems highly unlikely that it will eventually open up to the same level of layered complexity that Candy Box showed us. But it doesn’t need to. The possibility of reward – however tiny – as you take another step into the unknown is more than enough. Even if I still have one eye on keeping my shots-per-hole average under 2.5.

Notes on Transistor

Having recently completed Supergiant Games’ Transistor, I wanted to get out a few things that ran through my head while playing it, in the form of a (carefully-edited, much-too-long) brain-dump:

Bastion 2.0

The teaser trailer for Transistor hinted that Supergiant were about to hit us with a spiritual successor to 2010’s Bastion, with its isometric viewpoint, hack-and-slash combat and a rich, colourful fantasy world. In many respects, that’s exactly what Transistor is: Bastion 2.0. By which I mean, it builds on the strengths of that game and takes them to the next level.

Combat is Transistor‘s core loop, but with the dynamics subtly shifted. In Bastion you play the Kid, a sort of white-haired, warhammer-toting Link. The Kid packs a mean punch and can block pretty much any attack with the Mirror Shield he picks up early in the game – plus, if the danger gets too close, he’s got a neat evade move that gets him out of harm’s way more often than not. Should all else fail, Bastion is pretty generous in dishing out its health potions.

The Kid

The Kid

Red, the star of Transistor, doesn’t have anywhere near as many of the Kid’s protective benefits. There’s no healing in combat (your health does get fully restored after each battle, and there is a leeching power-up that you can unlock), and no way to block attacks. Each battle, once triggered, takes place in a cordoned-off “arena”, from which there is no escape. Finally, where the Kid can tuck-and-roll away from most attacks, Red is comparatively slow on her feet – perhaps because of the Transistor itself that she drags around as she moves. Even the dodge function, Jaunt, is underpowered compared to the Kid’s evade move, requiring greater timing to use effectively.

In summary: it’s difficult for Red not to take damage in battle, particularly as around half the time, you can’t actually attack (see below). However, Transistor has a novel approach to “dying”. If Red’s health hits zero – which, given the above, it will do at least a couple of times – it isn’t a case of “you’re dead, try again”. Instead, you lose one of your attack functions.

The game lets you carry on, but takes one of your toys away. More specifically, it takes your best toy away: the first functions to vanish are the ones into which you’ve sunk the most upgrade points (“memory”). If you’ve been upgrading with the meticulousness that the game invites, then your best function is probably your favourite one too. No more Cull? Aw, man…

But it’s okay, you can get it back – once you’ve survived a few more battles and reached a couple more access points. But by that point you’ve probably switched in some different functions to take advantage of the freed-up memory points – and maybe you’ve found a new favourite toy.

That's a lot of functions.

That’s a lot of functions.

Designed to experiment

Transistor pushes you to experiment with your combat options, right the way through into a second playthrough (and maybe third: I haven’t got that far yet). Every function you unlock can be used in three separate ways: as an attack mode, as an active upgrade in combination with an existing attack, or as a passive upgrade that imposes its own buffs and modifiers on Red. As an example, the Crash function on its own is a damage + stun attack, or you can combine it with another function to add stun to that attack, or you can equip it as a passive upgrade to give Red some damage resistance and immunity to all slowing effects that might get hurled her way.

With individual functions running into double figures, the scope for combination is almost overwhelming, and it’s easy to slip into a set-up that you’re comfortable with and ride that all the way through the game. That’s fine – no function is noticeably overpowered except perhaps for Switch, which temporarily converts enemies to friends. It’s certainly not the case that you’ll need to discard your earliest attacks as you progress through the game – in fact I had Breach, Bounce and Jaunt equipped pretty much right the way through.

But while Transistor is fine with you using the same attacks throughout, it wants you to experiment. As well as the “lose a function” penalty of running out of health, the functions themselves are grounded in the game’s story: each one is a soul-like remnant of a citizen from the world of Cloudbank. Consequently, each function is linked to a deceased character – and you can only dig into their history with repeated use of that function.

Each character has three stages of discovery, with each stage revealing a little more about their backstory, their fate, and Cloudbank itself. To get the full picture, you’ll need to equip and use each and every function throughout the game, in each of the three available slots – which, to my best estimate, will require a second playthrough. But with each character so shrouded in mystery – particularly the ones that are so central to the game’s story – you’re constantly incentivised to experiment your way to discovery.

Fantasy worlds

For me, the best fantasy worlds are the ones that are shown rather than told: you don’t sit there while the world is explained to you, the world is sat waiting for you to discover it. A big part of this – and where Transistor succeeds – is not giving you too much detail, and not giving it in a heavy-handed way. Bioshock‘s audio diaries worked back in 2007, but have been frequently parodied since (just why do these people keep recording so much incidental detail on tape, usually while in mortal danger, and leaving it conspicuously placed for you to find?). Transistor‘s delivery of detail makes sense in its highly-digitised world: it’s a world of functions, processes, subroutines, SuperUsers, cells, upgrades, consoles – so it fits with the game’s logic that you can access data about characters via public records. The more “familiar” you become with those characters via using their associated functions, the more data you get access to.

Like BastionTransistor is not explicit in explaining what’s actually going on out there. There are tons of unanswered questions, the solutions to which are merely hinted at (if at all): where is Cloudbank – are we talking a pure fantasy world, or is it Earth in the future? Who is Red, really? What are the Process, and where did they come from? Who are the Camerata, and why did they try to kill you? Why is this giant sword talking to me? Just what is the Transistor? Enough is left unexplained that I’m still mulling over a lot of these things now after completing the game.

Short and sweet

Increasingly, I am finding that my ideal game length is somewhere around the 5-6 hours that Transistor gave me. Put this down to getting older, day jobs, an increased prevalence of tight mobile games like Year Walk or DEVICE 6, or maybe just a shortened attention span. But it’s a much more positive interaction with a game where you’re left wanting more (and consequently have no compunction about firing up a second playthrough) rather than the open world fatigue that usually sets in around 75% of the way through a Grand Theft Auto or an Assassin’s Creed.

A game as tonally rich as Transistor, with its relatively subtle exposition, is crying out to be experienced again; happily, I know that I can do just that without effectively writing off a month’s worth of free time.

That combat though

Yeah, back to the combat. Bastion‘s hack-slash-shoot-block-dodge battles were frantic and fun – but Transistor takes it in a whole new direction, blending real-time and turn-based combat into one with the Turn power. Hitting this freezes the action and activates one of the Transistor’s key powers, allowing you to plot out your attacks before you trigger them. You can move Red around, dodge behind enemies for the purposes of the “backstab” multiplier, get in position to chain a beam attack into multiple foes, or simply face up to one enemy and stack a ton of attack functions into one devastating burst.

Planning out a Turn.

Planning out a Turn.

There’s a finite amount you can do with each Turn, with the most powerful attacks using up the most energy from your limited supply. But it transforms every combat encounter into a tactical duel in which you have the opportunity to maximise whatever functions you’ve got equipped at that point.

It’s a forgiving system – if you don’t like what you’ve chosen, or aren’t in position for a good shot, you can reset the Turn at any point before you eventually trigger it. But it’s not overpowered: you won’t be devastating your foes without immaculate strategy and the right tools to pull it off. Equally, it has a cooldown period during which all other functions are disabled (apart from Jaunt/Jaunt-modified ones) – and the more of the energy bar you expend in a Turn, the longer the cooldown. It’s a brilliantly-balanced system: you can cue up a super-powerful attack, but you’ll be leaving yourself totally vulnerable for precious seconds afterwards… so how do you decide to play it? It’s a dynamic system that feels utterly rewarding when you get it “right”.

The Process

What is the Process? A self-inflicted wound that has gotten out of hand in Cloudbank and is now taking over and destroying the city. There are plenty of science fiction tropes hinted at: the self-aware AI that rebels, humans playing God.

Towards the end of the game the Process have gone from weird, semi-comic robots with names like Jerk 2.0 to full-on superpowered humanoids. It’s a pretty clear message: if the humans are wiped out, they can easily be replaced by superior models. As you progress through Cloudbank, so too does the Process: taking over every surface and replacing the rich, colourful world with a washed-out grey. It’s bringing a strange, identikit order to the individualistic beauty of the city: all monochrome blocks, with the sound dampened as though by snow.

Who are they, what do they want, and where did they come from? As with much of Transistor‘s fantasy, you’re left to form your own conclusions. It’s this level of subtlety that forms the basis of good fantasy fiction.

Members of the Process.

Members of the Process.

Sounds Good

Transistor is probably the first game I’ve bought on the strength of the song used in the trailer. Bastion made such excellent use of sound: not just a killer soundtrack but in Rucks’ gruff, mysterious narration and the way that it uses Zia’s song as a siren call for you to follow to her location. Transistor takes this on a step, weaving music into the game world: Red is a singer whose voice has been stolen, one of a group of influencers and artistes that the Camerata were trying to silence. And, again, killer soundtrack.

Close to the game’s end, when the Process have smothered Cloudbank, almost all is silence apart from the clacking of Red’s heels as you move around the world, reminding you that you’re not playing some badass superhero: just a character out for answers… and revenge.




In keeping with the rest of the game’s fantasy, you’re given little information on who Red actually is. There’s no dumping of backstory in your lap, and no grand revelation as you progress: Red is just Red. Transistor dripfeeds tiny granules of detail about Red’s personality into the game, but you’ll only find it if you seek it out.

Her gaze lingers on a poster advertising her show, with the Transistor urging her to be strong and turn away – not to dwell on the fact that having her voice stolen has changed who she is. The comments she leaves on public terminals – usually self-censoring the stronger version of what she’d like to post – show her desperation at the situation. Eventually, she uses these to communicate with the Transistor itself, typing out what she’d like to say to it and then deleting it to write the next sentence. When the Transistor’s “life” seems to be being drained by a particularly powerful Process, she tells the Transistor “I’m going to find the thing that’s doing this, and I’m going to break its heart”.

There’s even an interlude, quite late in the game, for Red to go to the bathroom. She’s more real than any character I’ve played in a game for a long time.

Okay, I said that Red isn’t a badass superhero, but that “break its heart” line was definitely badass.

The ending

Hard to write about an ending without spoiling it, but let’s just say that, when it comes, it may surprise you. If not in what actually happens, but the deftness in which it does. And, while you don’t get the this-or-that choice of Bastion‘s conclusion, it does contain just enough ambiguity to leave it hanging hauntingly in your mind.

Moral choices: killing in Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line

“I hated it… in the end it does not matter if you execute a civilian, leave him to be killed, or try to save him. Just doesn’t matter.”

This is a comment on a Gamasutra article about Spec Ops: The Line (2012), specifically with regards to the moral choices that the player is presented with during the game. Set in the ruins of Dubai after a catastrophic sandstorm, The Line is the story of Captain Martin Walker’s recon-mission-gone-wrong. As he attempts to track down Colonel Konrad (The Line wears its Heart of Darkness influences quite plainly), Walker experiences and participates in horrors that eventually break his mind and spirit.

It is these horrors to which the commenter is referring: at certain points in the story, the player is given a choice between how to react to a specific situation. With one of Walker’s squadmates, Sergeant Lugo, lynched by a mob of locals that the American troops are purportedly there to protect, the player is put on the spot. Fire into the air to disperse the mob, or – as Lieutenant Adams insists – open fire on the mob itself and take vengeance for Sergeant Lugo’s death.

Whichever way you choose [1], the story doesn’t change. Adams continues to blame you for Lugo’s death, even if you comply and gun down the civilians, and the events of the narrative are not altered – as the commenter says, it “just doesn’t matter” what choice you make. Or does it? I would argue – strongly – that this choice matters very much indeed, on a moral level rather than a narrative one.

Morality is a subject in which games have become increasingly interested, particularly in the role-playing genre. In titles like Mass Effect or Fable, virtually every action the player makes is assessed on a sliding scale of good or evil, which in turn affects how non-player characters react to the player and even governs which quests/missions become available in the game. Fable even goes so far as to transform your character’s appearance depending on how you’re playing the game: consistently evil characters grow devil horns and consistently good characters walk around with a glowing halo.

A "good guy" in Fable

A “good guy” in Fable

Morality is a core mechanic in these games. Essentially, they reward the player for the consistency of their character’s moral stance (sometimes it’s fun to play the bad guy). Unlike The Line, these games explicitly signpost every moral decision, either with in-game alerts or as part of the character menu. Yet what does it therefore mean to play the good guy? The player is being actively rewarded for their moral choice: be good to join the Jedi Order, or make this character like you so that they sell you gear for less. Can an act truly be called “virtuous” if there’s a tangible, otherwise-unattainable reward gained by it?

To take this on a step, and return to the above quotation, what if a player’s moral choice – good or bad – leads not to a reward but to a narrative change? Multiple endings have become increasingly prevalent – even Black Ops 2 (2012) offered a plethora of possible outcomes depending on players’ actions and choices, including whether or not to spare the chief antagonist, Menendez [2]. BioShock (2007) is rather more primitive, offering a “good” or “bad” ending depending on whether the player chose to harvest (kill) Little Sisters or save them. Role-playing games generally offer a huge divergence of story and outcome that hinges on player choices. Arguably, those choices “matter” on a narrative level, rather than a moral one.

Bioshock's "good" ending

Bioshock’s “good” ending

The Line has frequently been compared to Far Cry 3 (several critics have argued that they satirise the shooter genre), and there is much to be said about the relative ways that the two games handle moral choices. At the end of Far Cry 3 (2012), your character is given a binary choice, intimidatingly-presented. After one of the game’s many expositionary drug trips, Jason comes round to reality to find himself holding a ceremonial knife to his friend’s throat as she begs him to stop. The choice is to either complete the tribal ritual by killing her, or “save your friends” [3]. A choice, right at the end of the game, independent of anything you might have done before, and even called out as such by the tribal leader Citra:,

“Complete the path, or all your progress, […] everything you have done on this island will be erased.”

The irony here is that by attempting to trap Jason by warning him that he’ll lose all the warrior power that he has earned and developed up to that moment, Citra fails to realise that there is a part of Jason that wants very much to lose that power, as addictive as it is. The choice is more murder – this time of the friends you originally set out to save – or a shot at redemption. Choose the honourable option and you save your friends and Jason is on his way to being absolved of sin for all the hundreds of people he’s killed. Simple as that, a single click of a button.

Left click or right click

Left click or right click

This concept treads fragile ground. Far Cry 3 changes narratively depending on this final choice; The Line does not. True, The Line also has multiple endings, but they all leave Walker as a broken man [4], whereas Jason is given a second chance. As a player, Walker’s story is more satisfying because it forces the player to see the moral consequences of their actions: there is no escape for him from the civilians and soldiers that have died by his hands. Conversely, the moral loophole offered by Far Cry 3 cheapens the significance of Jason’s (and the player’s) actions up to that point. Like Walker, Jason comes to relish his kills – in his words, “killing feels like winning”. But unlike Walker, Jason can escape from that insane moral stance, without consequence.

Far from being a game where a player’s actions “don’t matter”, The Line holds those actions up to the light and reveals their ugliness. When Konrad presents Walker with two prisoners and asks him to select one for execution, it is possible for the player to defy Konrad and instead turn Walker’s fire on Konrad’s men. Indeed, this seems like the heroic choice: don’t shoot the prisoners, shoot the “bad guys”. This was the choice I made and felt better for it. Does it change the outcome of the game? Not in the slightest: in a late flashback, we are shown that the two “prisoners” are already dead, and Konrad is just a voice in Walker’s head. But did I feel that I’d done the “right” thing by defying the game’s antagonist, and refusing to follow Konrad’s eye-for-an-eye philosophy? Absolutely I did.

Left or right?

Left or right?

So do the player’s choices in The Line matter? For sure they do: they matter on the player’s internal moral compass. While The Line doesn’t provide an alternative to killing (outside of simply turning off the game and refusing to play), it made me think about my actions. Lugo and Adams frequently question Walker’s orders (without disobeying them, significantly), particularly when firing on Konrad’s American 33rd Battalion.

At one point – when Walker’s grip on reality is becoming strained – he ziplines into a neighbouring skyscraper and surprises a 33rd soldier there. But the soldier doesn’t appear as an enemy to Walker – it wears Adams’ face and uniform. The only option (again, other than turning off or allow Walker to be shot by “Adams”) is to hit “Execute”. Earlier in the game, hitting this button would see Walker knock out the downed enemy, usually with a knee or a rifle butt; here, Walker bludgeons Adams’ face into bloody oblivion, a shockingly violent moment in a game about violence. The real Lt Adams then ziplines into the room and gasps:

Adams: Jesus… what the fuck did you do, Walker?

Walker [panting]: He, uh, caught me off guard.

Lugo [after a pause]: Hey, it happens… come on.

In the above clip, the player allows Walker to linger over the corpse of the man he has just killed (murdered?) for a few seconds, just enough to show the Captain’s chest heaving. Note too that Walker noticeably gasps as his Adams-vision flashes back to reality [5] – his actions are taking a toll, mentally and physically. This is what The Line wants the player to feel: the impact of the violence and murder that the game’s characters are enacting at their command [6]. As madness grips him, Walker is almost reduced to tears by the game’s conclusion, whispering “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody” – again shifting the responsibility onto the player.

The Line does not offer rewards or incentives for making moral choices – shoot the civilians or fire into the air, in this respect it doesn’t matter what you do. Not to The Line. Yet in some respects this purifies the player’s moral choice: it simply comes down to whether, despite all the questions that the game asks, you still feel comfortable killing someone. And that does matter.

It matters because your choice doesn’t change the game, and, unlike Far Cry 3, you can’t exonerate yourself for your actions. When Walker orders a devastating attack on what he mistakenly believes to be the enemy but transpires to be a large group of civilians, he has to live with that fact. This is mirrored by the player’s position when The Line presents its choices – the only variable is whether the player will be able, like Walker, to blink away the consequences and “keep moving”.


If Far Cry 3 presents an outright satire of the shooter genre[7], where killing feels like winning, flamethrowers are awesome and warrior power is to be embraced, then The Line is more subtle but no less satirical. In one of the game’s endings – the one I saw on my first playthrough – Walker is finally picked up by American soldiers. One of them asks, in the game’s closing lines, “If you don’t mind me asking… what was it like? How did you survive all this?” To which Walker replies, squeezing his eyes shut, “who said I did?”

Where Jason can escape his actions at the end, for Walker killing will only ever feel like defeat. That fact alone adds meaning to the choices the player makes in The Line. Does murder matter? To Walker, sure it does.



[1] It didn’t actually occur to me to fire into the air. I tried to walk out of the mob’s circle, hoping that this would be enough to disperse them – it’s not. That led me to conclude that there was only one option available: shoot the civilians. Honest!

[2] I do feel that Black Ops 2 deserves a lot of credit for not making the implications of its moral choices as black and white as might be expected.  As each ending is influenced not only by the player’s decision to kill Menendez or let him live, but also by whether they completed all optional Strike Force missions and fulfilled certain other objectives, there is a multitude of possible outcomes, some more “good” than others.

[3] I guessed that a scene like this was coming – the mission is called “Hard Choices”, after all – and I had mentally prepared myself to do whatever it took to fulfil Jason’s apparent destiny to become the ultimate warrior. But I couldn’t do it – credit to the game for the way it switches from dream sequence to close-up of Liza’s face, credit to the animators, and credit to voice actor Mylène Dinh-Robic for being just too human for me to go ahead with it…

[4] Arguably the most “positive” ending for Walker is that he has truly accepted his status as an insane killer. Instead of surrendering to the US troops, or dying at their hands, the player can kill every single one of them which leads to Walker’s ominous “welcome to Dubai” sign-off.

[5] Reality, or Walker’s version of reality, as Brendan Keogh has highlighted in his excellent close critical reading of the game, Killing Is Harmless.

[6] I like to think that Lugo’s casual dismissal in the above scene is The Line’s comment on the notion that perhaps not every player will feel this way, that shooting a civilian “doesn’t matter” unless there is a narrative change effected by that action. As Lugo says: hey, violence happens. This is jarring given that it comes from a man who so openly decried Walker’s actions in an earlier scene that leads him to scream that Walker has turned them into killers. Like many players, Lugo has already become desensitized to the murder around him and is able to just dismiss it as part of the experience.

[7] Far Cry 3’s writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, has often referred to his game as a genre satire, notably in a series of interviews on Rock Paper Shotgun. Here is one – although it should be noted that there is some contention as to whether the game constitutes satire, as highlighted in that same article..

There’s always a lighthouse: BioShock Infinite and auteur theory

This post contains SPOILERS. Do not read unless you’ve finished Infinite.


The opening of BioShock Infinite is mysterious, wondrous and threatening. The protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is in a boat off the coast of Maine, on his way to a lighthouse. His companions, an unnamed and unseen man and woman, talk obscurely about rowing. Booker reaches the lighthouse and enters, alone. Inside, he ascends to find various religious messages – including one offering to cleanse him of his sins – and, finally, a dead body with the note “don’t disappoint us”. From here he reaches the top of the lighthouse and activates the device that launches him into the clouds, to the floating city of Columbia.

In itself, this opening sets up the tone for the rest of the game: a mix of mystery and menace. But if we take a deeper look – with knowledge of the previous two BioShock games – then it begins to take on added significance. Infinite’s opening is packed with references and nods to the preceding games, seemingly dropped in for the benefit of the super-observant or the BioShock uber-fan. It recalls the recurring touches or themes that certain directors – be it Hitchcock, Kubrick, Lynch, Godard, or Tarantino – embed within their films and which led to the establishment of the concept of the director as auteur.

Auteur theory – the notion that a director’s creative vision and influence positions them as the overriding “author” of a film – is a firmly-established, oft-debated facet of film criticism. It deals with a director’s signature, whether that be thematic, visual, aural or even a recurring piece of camerawork. It positions the director as the artist at the forefront of an entire film production. Given that a typical Hollywood movie is a collaborative effort of hundreds of people, it’s not difficult to imagine that auteur theory is not one that everyone subscribes to.

It’s even less surprising, then, that the games industry is rarely ready to apply the concept of auteur to its output. After all, games are produced by studios, the crew of which – unlike movies (generally speaking) – do not disband as soon as the production of a title is completed. If we view AAA titles as the equivalent of Hollywood, then we associate studios with those titles rather than individuals: Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto, Infinity Ward or Activision’s Call of Duty, EA’s Battlefield, Bungie’s Halo. As Brian Ashcroft notes in his piece The Search for the Video Game Auteurs, “the auteur ends up being the studio itself”.

Ashcroft’s “Studio Auteur Theory” undoubtedly carries weight, but what then of notable video game creators like Warren Spector, Tim Schafer, or Shigeru Miyamoto? Or, to bring it back to BioShock, Ken Levine? All can certainly have auteur theory applied to their games as identifiably “theirs”, through their use of recurring themes, styles and visual touches.

The opening of BioShock Infinite positions Levine firmly as auteur in the way that it so clearly imitates the original game [1]: like Booker, BioShock’s Jack enters the game’s city via a lighthouse in the Atlantic – the city of Rapture which, like Columbia, is a haven for a specific philosophical/political line of thought (Objectivism and American Exceptionalism respectively). And, like Booker, he starts the game’s events by picking up a gun (although in BioShock we only learn this retrospectively in the game’s twist). Infinite even recycles one of BioShock’s memorable opening lines – “is it someone new?” – except this time it is spoken by a preacher rather than a murderous splicer. The visual similarities even extend to the journey the two protagonists take to their destination: Jack looking out of a bathysphere’s porthole at the wondrous city beneath the sea, and Booker staring out at the colourful floating buildings, decked out for a parade. Columbia’s blimps are even a virtual reproduction of an iconic shot in BioShock’s opening of a giant squid gliding between Rapture’s buildings.

The similarities border on the obvious, even for the casual player. However, upon reaching further into Infinite’s story, it becomes apparent that the game is less evidence for Levine as auteur, and in fact more of a critique of auteur theory itself. While true that Infinite treads thematically similar ground to the original BioShock, we are – in the game’s final act – given an explicit explanation for why these similarities exist. In its twisting, multiverse-centric plot, Infinite’s characters speak of constants as well as variables between those infinite universes. Elizabeth, Booker’s companion who has the ability to manipulate portals (“tears”) between the alternate realities, even goes so far as to announce:

“There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man, there’s always a city…”

There's always a lighthouse

There’s always a lighthouse

That is to say: there are certain elements that are common to every reality, and by extension every BioShock game. It is highly significant that this declaration comes moments after Elizabeth has transported Booker into Rapture (or, more accurately seeing as we’re dealing with infinite realities, a Rapture). At this point, the player gets to walk through the opening setting for the original BioShock, except rather than retreading steps taken back in 2007 we are actually in reverse: heading back to the bathysphere and out of the city. With Elizabeth’s words, Levine turns the whole concept of auteur theory on its head: yes, this feels familiar, but here’s a narrative reason for it.

Indeed, we can also revisit Infinite’s opening moments in a whole new light, as the game subverts – literally and figuratively – the intro sequence of its predecessor. Instead of travelling down to the bottom of the ocean, this time we are heading up into the floating city in the clouds. Instead of the dark and dangerous Rapture that awaits us, all wreckage, dripping walls and shrieking splicers, our introduction to Columbia is part-church, part-Disneyland.

Disneyland in the clouds

Disneyland in the clouds

Again, the visual similarities between the journey that Jack and Booker undertake are immediately obvious, both ending with a descent past signs that lay out the respective cities’ ideologies. But where Rapture’s promise that “all good things of this Earth flow into the city” fails to hint at the horrors that await Jack, Columbia’s overtly religious message (culminating in its self-proclamation as a “new Eden”) is backed by chains and clunking machinery, and finally the harsh, Hellish glow of red lights.

Booker’s symbolic descent from the Heaven above to the Underworld below is a jarring contrast to Jack’s journey. Levine pulls the old magician’s trick of making the audience look at one hand – the obvious visual similarities between entering the two cities – while doing something with the other – foreshadowing the evil that lies beneath Columbia’s shining, virtuous veneer with its subtle references to a descent into Hell.

At this point it’s worth considering precisely what it is that characterize a BioShock game, for Infinite is not a sequel in the traditional sense. Unlike BioShock 2 (which, incidentally, Levine did not work on), Infinite introduces a new setting, new characters, and is set half a century earlier. Yet it treads very similar themes: politics, parenthood, manipulation, destiny. The gameplay still focusses around shooting, and the plasmid power-ups are present in all-but name. It would be easy to dismiss the idea of Levine as auteur, and instead look at these similarities and simply say “well, that’s what makes a BioShock game”.

I would argue that this is simplistic. Infinite is littered with small details that reference back to BioShock, and in doing so lean towards auteur theory. A wrench, suspiciously similar to that wielded by Jack, sits by the controlswrench of an airship (and, further to the “inversion” argument, is actually used by Elizabeth on Booker). Songbird, Elizabeth’s mechanical protector/keeper, bears distinct resemblance to Rapture’s Big Daddies [2]. Columbia’s history, and the game’s narrative, unfolds via a series of “voxophones” that are near-identical to Rapture’s audio diaries. And of course, Levine gives us the explicit explanation of the thematic similarities: there’s always a lighthouse.

One could mischievously tie all this to a deeper message about what it means to create an AAA title as part of a franchise: simply, you have an established mainstream audience for that franchise that you must satisfy. Inarguably, Infinite panders to the conventions of the First Person Shooter genre, something that Michael Abbott has noted with frustration. How do you satisfy that established mainstream audience? The (sad) truth is by giving them more of the same. Is Levine mocking this convention? Is that what Elizabeth is hinting at: there’s always a man… with a gun? Is that what it means to send us, improbably, to Rapture for a brief moment? It’s entirely possible to view Infinite as a pastiche of the identikit nature of some AAA franchises.

The game is much more than the cynical recycling of features that have worked before. Despite something of a critical backlash since Infinite’s release, there can be no doubt that it has provoked remarkable levels of discussion: everything from its treatment of race to its similarities to The Wizard of Oz. To return to the AAA games as Hollywood movies analogy, Infinite is no Transformers and Levine, a former screenwriter, clearly has more to say in his medium than mere explosions and electric shocks.

Being considered an auteur is about more than mere visual signatures: thematic links play their part. Levine’s games carry those links, but in Infinite he drops the veil of auteur to explain to us explicitly why they are present and, arguably, says a little about the state of today’s games, and the whole concept of auteur theory itself.



[1] Here are the intro sequences for BioShock and Infinite. If you’ve not seen them, I encourage you to watch them (particularly the original, which is masterful). If you have seen them, I still encourage you to watch them again.

[2] A recording of Songbird’s creator, Jeremiah Fink, tells that his creation was in fact influenced by something he found through a tear into an alternate reality – possibly Rapture (or a close version of it).

Year Walk and the power of tablet gaming

Year Walk

“In the old days man tried to catch a glimpse of the future in the strangest of ways.” — opening titles, Year Walk

Year Walk (2013) is a surreal and spooky tale set in 19th century Sweden, centred around the ancient practice of “year walking”. Similar to the vision quest rituals that were common in some Native American cultures, year walking – we are told – typically takes place on New Year’s Eve or Christmas Eve and requires a period of sensory deprivation before finally, at midnight, leaving the house and heading for church. On the way, the year walker would encounter all manner of dangerous creatures – but if they reached the church alive, they would be given a glimpse of the future.

An unusual premise for a game, then, but Year Walk’s dreamy mysticism is perfectly suited to its chosen medium: tablet gaming. Through immersion, atmosphere and a novel meta-game device, it’s difficult to imagine the game experience being anywhere near as powerful on PC or console – little can compare to the impact of physically holding an atmospheric game in your hands as you play. When a seemingly benevolent figure suddenly transforms and charges directly at your first-person view – held mere inches from your face – it is very hard not to flinch.

From this moment on, with the game’s intentions set out more clearly, the player proceeds with some trepidation. Year Walk plays on this superbly, holding back the “cheap” shocks so that the player is never quite sure when they happen next, if at all – a classic horror movie technique. To the same end, it mixes the surreal (an almost-Lynchian besuited horse in a brook) with the grotesque (the ghosts of four babies). This juxtaposition – the horse and the dead children are part of the same puzzle – is compounded by the game’s art style, which mixes a storybook style with a stark, near-monochrome colour palette. Combined with a flickering point of view, Year Walk frequently evokes silent horror films, particularly German Expressionist-era movies like Nosferatu, Vampyr and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Angular trees in Caligari are echoed by Year Walk's forest

Angular trees and architecture in Caligari are echoed by Year Walk‘s forest

This is, of course, not to say that horror games are ideally suited exclusively to the iPad – although anyone who has played Telltale’s excellent The Walking Dead series will testify to its effectiveness when experienced up-close. But Year Walk makes comparatively innovative use of the medium in its puzzle mechanics, often surprising the player with solutions that extend beyond The Walking Dead’s “tap here” or “swipe this”. When trying to locate one of the ghostly children, the player encounters a pool of blood dripping upwards and off the top of the screen. The natural assumption is that there is something off-screen that the player needs to find, probably by moving backwards a level (Year Walk allows the player to move left and right freely, but only forwards and backwards at certain points on that axis, usually a path or item of interest). In fact, the solution is to turn the iPad upside-down so that the blood is dripping the “right” way.

Naturally, this is not something a player can do on their PC or console. Nor can they step their fingers across a TV screen in a dragging motion (keeping at least one finger in contact with the screen at all times) to reach a bit of previously unrevealed terrain, or “carry” a burning flame with one finger while navigating the landscape with the other. That this rarely – if at all – distances the player from the experience owes much to Year Walk’s dreamlike atmosphere. There are no menus, no hints, not even a title screen with the developer’s logo on: even when played over multiple sittings, the player is kept firmly in the experience of their own vision quest.

In addition to the game itself, players can also download the Year Walk Companion, ostensibly a free e-book containing information on year walking and some of the mystical figures that you encounter in the game. The Companion is not a guide in the traditional sense of the word: it does not contain any hints as to how to solve the game’s puzzles, it is purely background information on the fantastical folklore behind what the player experiences.

Pages from the Year Walk Companion

The tablet medium is at its absolute strongest here: we are, today, very accustomed to reading books and articles on mobile devices. While developers Simogo have clearly taken the decision to keep the Companion apart from the game (insofar as they are two separate apps, and one is not accessible from the other), it’s only when the player experiences both that the full depth of Year Walk is revealed. The fact that the Companion is separate actually enhances this: the player’s role changes from walker/dreamer to researcher/detective, trying to piece together the strange events of the game from the slightly-oblique fairytales in the e-book.

Again, this serves to juxtapose the bizarre with the macabre. The odd, almost comical-looking horse in the stream is actually the Brook Horse Bäckahästen, who would lure children to ride on its back… before leaping into water and drowning them. References are made to “angel makers”, who were paid by mothers to take care of their babies… when the mother left, the infant would be killed. Infanticide, we are told, was “a fairly common crime” in 19th century Sweden. Suddenly, the player comes to understand a little more about the presence of the four cute-looking ghost babies they encounter in the game, and that what may have started out as a mystical journey to “glimpse the future” is in fact something rather more menacing.

The Brook Horse

The Brook Horse

This, however, is only the surface: upon completing the game players are given a code which unlocks a whole new section of the Companion. Once more taking its cues from the e-reader format, what follows is a diarised account of a researcher looking into a very specific instance of the year walking ritual: the year walk that the player has just completed. As the diarist begins to lose his grip on reality in true Lovecraftian style, clues are given as to a mysterious box that players encountered in Year Walk – but never unlocked.

The Companion thus gives the player a reason to dive back into the game for a second (and third) playthrough – to “walk again” as the game offers as you draw to its tragic, enigmatic conclusion. It’s a remarkably powerful moment to realise that a free, supporting app – easily dismissed initially as little more than a bonus feature – is actually the meta-game key to unlocking all-new layers and adding emotional weight to the experience. It is refreshing and heartening to know that tablet gaming, as well as catering to the casual market, can be the home for such a narrative as Year Walk and the innovative techniques used to tell it.

There is also something to be said about the length of Year Walk, which I completed in a couple of hours (theoretically the game can be whistled through in around 30 mins if you know all the solutions or are an exceptional puzzle-solver). While there are plenty of time-sink mobile games out there, a film-like length feels somehow “right” for narrative-focussed mobile games like Year Walk and The Walking Dead (which is split into episodes that take roughly three hours to complete). That Year Walk has such story depth – dealing with destiny, death, folklore and murder – is testament to the effectiveness of the Companion app, and what lies within.

The meaning of death in XCOM: Enemy Unknown – what happens when we die in a game?

In XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012), you are the commander of the eponymous Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, formed of the NATO-style Council of Nations. Your task, through careful resource management and turn-based combat, is to defend the Earth from alien invaders. If you botch a mission, panic rises in the country that you failed. If that country’s “panic level” reaches critical mass, they withdraw from the Council which means a loss of funding. Less funding makes it harder to upgrade weapons and armour, and replace the soldiers you’ve lost. It’s very easy to find yourself in a downward spiral from which there is no recovery: if eight countries pull out of the Council, XCOM is shut down, humanity defeated and the game over.

Say you were playing Call of Duty, or Resident Evil, or The Walking Dead, and you’re confronted with a quick-time event – press X to not die – and you freeze up and miss X. And you die.

Click mouse to not die.

In both these examples, what happens next? Typically the game reloads from a previous save state – usually a checkpoint – and you have another go. This time, you know what’s coming, you hit X in time, and the game progresses. Or, in the case of XCOM, you manually choose a savegame to load, and hope you do better this time. Maybe you have three or four different backup savegames on the go, to cover yourself in the event of in-game catastrophe.

I chose XCOM as a specific example here not because I can’t stop playing it (1) but because it is noticeable for one of its difficulty sub-settings, known as Ironman mode. Playing XCOM on Ironman, there are no backup savegames – the game saves automatically after every action, overwriting itself. Brainlessly moved one of your soldiers into an enemy ambush? Forgot that the burning car you’re cowering behind will blow up at the end of the turn? Tough – you’re stuck with your actions. Ironman XCOM plays out like science fiction chess: once you’ve taken your hand off the piece, there’s no going back. And when those eight countries leave the Council, there is no reloading of an old save. You have to start the game all over again. Your role as commander is finished – you failed. Better luck next time.

This is quite a unique mechanic in today’s games – arguably, games of this century. Even though death is a big part of gaming, what does it really mean to “die”? Consider a specific example: early on in The Walking Dead: Episode 1, your character Lee Everett is attacked by a zombie. As it crawls towards him, you have perhaps 10 seconds to do three things: find and pick up a shotgun, then a shell, and finally aim and shoot the zombie. It’s the first of many tense moments in the game, but very straightforward (2). Yet it is, of course, entirely possible to fail to complete these three actions, and the zombie will reach Lee and he will die.

And then? Assuming you don’t turn the game off in rage/fear, it will reload from a previous checkpoint – mere seconds before the above incident – and you play it out again. Only this time, the game doesn’t have the element of surprise. You know what’s about to happen, where the items are, and (probably) what to do. So you grab the shotgun, load the shell, shoot the zombie and the game goes on.

Imagine the same thing happening during a film – the viewer doesn’t understand a plot point so they rewind a few seconds and watch it back. But the experience is now broken: the viewer has come out of the world of the film and back into their living room. It is curious that this is not true with games – the mechanic of die and try again is a totally accepted one, even in games that are as narratively-focussed as The Walking Dead, described by IGN in their review as “a deeply personal and emotional experience”. Yet in a game so exquisitely focussed on death – one that trades on the emotional impact of losing people with whom you had bonded – it never jars that your own character, Lee, can be resurrected at a moment’s notice.

One of The Walking Dead's more serene moments

Lee and Clementine, The Walking Dead

Does this “checkpoint mechanic” remove all challenge from a game? One could playfully suggest that little or no skill is required to beat a game like The Walking Dead. Like a rat in a maze, given enough time the player will work out what they’re doing wrong and reach the end. But perhaps that is missing the point for this example, which is more of an interactive movie (not quite a “choose your own adventure”, as the key points of the story are unaffected by the player’s in-game choices) and is to be enjoyed rather more passively than most other games.

Could the same suggestion be made of a game like Call of Duty? Yes, to an extent, albeit only on lower difficulties. Some dexterity is required to perform actions like moving, aiming and firing in order to reach that next checkpoint, and on Veteran level Call of Duty is unforgiving. Other games like Dark Souls (2011), and Ninja Gaiden (2004) have virtually traded off the fact that they pose significant challenges (where failure means death), whereas Battletoads (1991) gained notoriety for the ridiculous reflexes required in order to survive certain sequences.

Death and difficulty, then, are intrinsically linked. Nonetheless, there remains the paradox that as unforgiving as a game can be, the norm is that the today’s players get a second chance. Indeed, they get infinite chances: as many as they can stomach before cracking it or cracking up. In Ninja Gaiden – which ruthlessly separates the hardcore player from the casual – a struggling player could, with appropriately ninja-levels of patience and dedication, master the requisite skills to complete the game. Death is merely the temporary punishment for failing to be “good enough” to win.

There is a certain macho prestige to these hardcore games, which is also the case with XCOM’s Ironman mode. Even the name “Ironman” conjures up courageous imagery: take your pick from superhero Tony Stark or the Ironman triathlon. Ironman mode, along with Dark Souls et al, is clearly not for wimps. These games hark back to a time when games existed chiefly in arcades and were routinely difficult. Back then, of course, death was the arcade game’s business model: if a player coasted straight through with their first credit then they wouldn’t be inserting a second, third… hundredth one (3). Unquestionably, skill was required to rack up the top scores in the arcade.

This progress/total failure balance in XCOM throws up several unique sensations while playing. In the first instance, Ironman mode is not a relaxing experience given how aware the player is that they will be punished for their mistakes. Secondly, it is surprising – almost disturbing – how much you begin to care about the soldiers you command. Even on “normal” mode, you develop a bond with your troops as they progress from green rookie to powerful colonel. Each soldier begins with nothing more than a name and a nationality, but as they become more experienced they are assigned into one of four classes (sniper, heavy, assault, support) and may even earn nicknames that add yet another touch of personality. XCOM does an excellent job of making you care about randomly-generated characters that have no personality outside of what you invent in your head.

The upshot of this is that the player will actively seek to protect their “favourite” soldiers, and will wince when they die (which is an inevitable part of the game). Remember, if your troops die, it is probably your fault: you moved them into danger, you left them exposed, you took a chance on a 45% shot rather than move them back to safety. The longer a soldier survives, the better they are and the more attached the player will be.

This is only exacerbated in Ironman mode. The finality of a soldier’s death is at the forefront of your mind every time you prepare for a mission. Assaulting an alien base – should I leave my ace sniper at home for this one? You try and kid yourself that it makes more tactical sense to go with close-combat specialists for an interior battlefield, but in reality you don’t want to lose your sniper. Or at least, not that sniper. Take that other guy instead. Regardless of who you take, at the end of every successful mission you will let out a breath that you didn’t realise you’d been holding.

XCOM-Enemy-Unknown-11 (1)

Is Ironman mode’s perma-death “a good thing”, or is it simply a tonic to those who feel gaming has become too casual and yearn for the halcyon days where the best were separated from the dead? Consider BioShock’s controversial Vita-Chambers, where the player is regenerated upon “death”, providing a story-based explanation for checkpointed gameplay. However, any damage the player has inflicted upon enemies – before expiring – remains inflicted. This means that the player can steadily chip away at the ferocious Big Daddies, “dying” repeatedly and arriving back on the scene to continue the job. While the Vita-Chamber mechanic neatly circumvents the issue raised earlier about breaking the fourth wall by making a player re-enact the same events, it also removes any real menace from a game built on its sinister atmosphere.

The Vita-Chambers prompted such debate among gamers that BioShock’s makers eventually released a patch offering players the option to turn them off altogether. This is admirable, but somewhat obscures the fundamental reason that Vita-Chambers, autosaves and checkpoints exist in games: dying is not fun. In the main, it’s highly frustrating and, if you’ve invested emotionally in your character, can affect you in a similar way to seeing a favourite TV show character get beaten up or tortured. If this is then compounded by losing all your progress (because you didn’t happen to save, or because a save function doesn’t exist) then the frustration might reach terminal levels.

So the checkpoint mechanic exists to make games fun, by effectively making them easier. Given the booming video game industry, this is clearly no bad thing. Players want to be challenged – an easy game is a boring game – but they rarely want to be persistently punished and forced to re-do large portions of the game. Yes, XCOM’s Ironman mode provides an extreme, “no extra lives” challenge – but don’t forget that it’s a game mode that players can choose, rather than have it forced upon them.

How else do games handle death? There are of course games where you cannot die: it goes without saying that death is not a part of the vast majority of sports titles and driving simulations, but there are also many instances of character-based adventure or puzzle games where you control effectively-immortal characters. Fez (2012) is a puzzle game wrapped around a platformer mechanic – but if you miss a jump and fall, the game helpfully restores you to your previous position. Challenge removed? Quite the opposite: Fez is a brain-hurtingly difficult puzzler, using an innovative 3D mechanic, a made-up language and even in-game QR codes. Throw in frequent death for mis-timing a jump and players would become overwhelmed. Instead the game allows you to move through its serene, soothing environs at your own pace without the threat of danger.

2008’s Braid is another puzzle game whose core mechanic is one that allows the player to rewind time to undo their mistakes, even after death. Similarly, in 2008’s Prince of Persia, the character Elika “saves” your character from impending death throughout the game – freeing the player to enjoy open, acrobatically-focussed gameplay. The lack of death encourages rather than inhibits exploration and experimentation.

Like all game rules, immortality is ripe for subversion. The Monkey Island adventure games keep the threat of death away from the central character, Guybrush Threepwood, and the tone consequently comedic: swordfights end in punctured dignity rather than punctured lungs, and even an off-screen attempt to “use staple remover on tremendous dangerous-looking yak” leads to little more than Guybrush flying through a wall, cartoon-style, before diving back into the fray. Guybrush even claims to be able to hold his breath for ten minutes – allowing plenty of time for the player to solve a simple puzzle when Threepwood finds himself underwater (pick up weight, walk to ladder). Wait too long, however and… Easter Egg.

Monkey Island 2 contains the best example of this subversion. Guybrush, captured by his nemesis LeChuck, is being lowered into a vat of acid in a trap that would make a Bond villain blush. The player moves the mouse around, looking for a typically-elaborate solution to the puzzle. The only action available is to (inadvertently) trigger the trap itself, which leads to the screaming Guybrush being lowered into the acid… only to be taken back to the game’s opening scene and reminded that we’ve been playing through a flashback of Guybrush’s story up to that point.

“You honestly expect me to believe you were disintegrated in acid.” Just for a moment, we, the players, believed.


1: It’s true though: I can’t stop playing XCOM.

2: This straightforward puzzle – grab gun, shoot zombie – barely scratches the surface of the rest of The Walking Dead, that frequently forces you to make emotion-based decisions under pressure.

3: It’s slightly worrying to wonder where gaming would be today if those early arcade machines were too easy and didn’t make any money.

4: System Shock 2 (1999), the spiritual predecessor to BioShock, has its own form of Vita-Chambers in its Quantum Bio-reconstruction Devices. These are similar to Borderlands’ New-U stations, in that they need to be activated and you incur a fairly-sizeable fee every time you use one. In keeping with the rest of Borderlands’ brash, tongue-in-cheek style, the New-U stations helpfully take your genetic make-up and reconstruct your body after death. Got that, scientists?

4: Fez is wonderful. Please play it.

FINALLY thanks to everyone who threw suggestions at me for this post, on Facebook and Twitter!

Who is Gordon Freeman? An examination of a detailed blank canvas

Gordon Freeman, age 27, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a PhD in Theoretical Physics and works as a Research Associate at the Black Mesa Research Facility in New Mexico. He is assigned to the Anomalous Materials Laboratory, has a level 3 security clearance, and an administrative sponsor listed – cryptically – as classified. He is the player’s window into the universe of Half-Life and, by popular opinion, the greatest video game character of all time.

What is it that makes Gordon so memorable, and so well-loved? Maybe it’s the beard, or the glasses. It’s certainly not because of any one-liners he delivers, or the sympathy he shows to other characters during the game, because the lines of dialogue uttered by Gordon Freeman in his four appearances in the Half-Life series amount to exactly zero.

Halflife 2 Gordon Freeman 4

This lack of dialogue was not uncommon around the time of Half-Life’s release in 1998 – similar games in the First Person Shooter genre like Quake (1996) or Unreal (1998) divulged barely any details about the player’s character. Half-Life gives us a few hints about Gordon in those opening moments of the game, but it amounts to nothing more than the bare facts listed above.

Nonetheless, those facts alone are enough to tell us that Gordon is no ordinary hero – at least, not by 1998’s standards, where the Schwarzenegger-styled Duke Nukem was still viewed as the archetypal FPS lead. A physicist from MIT was new ground for a genre where the main characters were super-soldiers with overpowered weapons with names like “the BFG” (the F didn’t stand for “friendly”) – suddenly here was a guy called Gordon running around a disaster zone with a crowbar.

These sparse details aside – and Half-Life makes no attempt to build upon them at any stage during the series – Gordon is a blank canvas for the player. With no dialogue, and no visual appearance in the game, there is nothing for the player to work with. In 1998, it wasn’t expected that you would walk past an in-game mirror and see a reflection of your character. Nonetheless, it’s tempting to believe that the developers, Valve, made this omission consciously to keep Gordon purely in your head – especially given that his lack of speech was reputedly an intentional decision to keep the player immersed in the Half-Life world. There isn’t even a glimpse of any part of Gordon’s body until he swings his crowbar – and he doesn’t acquire that until at least half an hour into the game (1) – at which point you see his hand. Even that, however, is concealed within the Hazardous Environment Suit that you pick up early on. Gordon’s appearances are restricted only to the box art (2).

In 2001, another seen-but-unseen protagonist arrived, in the form of Halo’s Master Chief. Like Gordon, Master Chief wears an armoured suit that conceals everything that lies beneath. The game’s creators, Bungie, go as far as to tease the player during cut-scenes in the Halo series that suggest we’re about to see Master Chief’s true face – only to be summarily fig-leafed. Master Chief is an interesting comparison to Gordon, not least because of the sheer weight of material that has been written about him and the Halo universe (3), which is in stark contrast to Dr Freeman.

In the book Halo and Philosophy, Joyce C. Havstad suggests:

“Master Chief’s personal identity […] is to some extent determined by each player of Halo. This is an ingenious consequence of generating a character without a face. By never revealing, and perhaps never creating, the face of Master Chief, the designers of the game allow each player to imagine Master Chief’s face however they choose. Part of his personal identity is unfixed, and can thus be envisioned in a multitude of ways. Players can make up and relate to the character that they choose.”

Havstad is suggesting that, perhaps contrary to common perception, the best characters are the ones that aren’t mapped out for us. This seems like a paradox: how can Gordon or Master Chief be two of the most memorable video game characters of all time when there is little to remember them by? We knew more about the characters of Mario in 1985 (cutesy, pudgy Italian plumber) and Sonic in 1991 (sassy, impatient so-and-so) than we do about Gordon Freeman, even four games into the Half-Life series.

Yet, while I don’t dispute Havstad’s claim, I do think that her theory would be much better applied not to Master Chief, but to Gordon. Even if we discount all Halo canon outside of the games, there is actually much more to Master Chief than Havstad suggests. Yes, he wears a near-impenetrable suit of armour and symbolically reflective visor, but we have in fact been given a very detailed look into Master Chief’s character in the four Halo games released to date. We now know that John-117 was acquired (“kidnapped”, even) as a child and augmented into the ultimate soldier. And, by the start of Halo 4’s timeline, he is “at his core, broken”.

In mitigation, Halo 4 was released the year after Halo and Philosophy was published, but even ignoring that most recent game we still know more about Master Chief than Havstad suggests above. For starters, he has a voice (LA DJ Steve Downes) and every Halo game has plenty of cut-scenes that not only advance the story but also give an insight into the game’s characters, Chief included. We know he has an action hero’s sense of humour (“Sir, request permission to leave the station […] to give the Covenant back their bomb.”) and we get further clues as to his character by the fact that he is shown in third person in those cut-scenes. This means that, despite the depersonalising armour, we get a wealth of information through Chief’s body language – he double-takes, he flinches, he moves slowly and softly during emotional scenes with Cortana.

In short, the player gets a much clearer picture of John – the man within the armour – than we ever get of Gordon Freeman. There are no cut-scenes to speak of in Half-Life, with the story being told exclusively within the game engine (somewhat revolutionary at the time). Gordon is much more “unfixed” a character than Chief – he has no voice, no face, no body language. In a game, every time a character opens their mouth, they are prescribing a little bit of their personality onto the player. Not so with Gordon. It’s not until Half-Life 2 that he even gets a cast of characters with which to interact, save for some interchangeable – and very disposable – Black Mesa scientists. Even his name is begging to have a personality applied to it: the Free Man (4).

Yet if we accept that Gordon is a blank canvas character, does that really explain the accolades? Is it not simplistic to say that we love Gordon because we readily transpose ourselves onto him?

Certainly, there are more factors involved in making him so well-liked. On a basic level, we like Gordon because we like Half-Life: the series is a regular fixture on all-time greatest video game lists. Gordon is our window into the world; we enjoy the world, ergo we feel positively about the character. In the case of Half-Life, the character is inseparable from the experience. This would not be the case if Gordon had a “fixed” personality, to borrow Havstad’s term.

In Half-Life 2, the story expands to include more characters, and these are fixed, particularly in the case of Alyx Vance. Alyx is a character who is extremely easy to like: feisty and knowing (crowbar joke), and devoted to her father and his revolutionary cause. It is great testament to the work done by Valve that any way I attempt to describe Alyx Vance’s character seems totally deficient (5). By readily developing an affinity between Alyx and the player, the game positions Gordon in a much more emotionally-driven position than in the original Half-Life.

When the player rescues Alyx, Gordon has become the hero and the conduit for the player’s emotion towards her – and vice versa. When Alyx hugs Gordon, she’s really hugging the player. We thus feel even more positively towards Gordon – the conduit – for rescuing her. Without Gordon, we wouldn’t receive our emotional and narrative pay-off.

Compare this with Jason Brody rescuing his girlfriend Liza in Far Cry 3 (to choose another example from the FPS genre) – when Liza hugs the player, we know that she is hugging Jason – we are distant from that emotional interaction. Unlike Gordon, Jason is a fully fixed character who talks, has a network of family members prominent in the game’s storyline, and a drip-fed backstory. In fact, Jason’s character – and the transformations it undergoes – is key to Far Cry 3’s narrative. He is anything but a blank canvas.

Conversely, Gordon’s non-personality means that any interaction between him and Alyx remains underplayed. There is no gazing wistfully into the eyes of the player; in fact there is not really a hint of physical attraction from Alyx at any stage (the presence of which, in retrospect, may have compromised her as a character). Like Gordon himself, the emotional link between Gordon and Alyx is left entirely in the player’s mind.

The player’s mind, then, is where Gordon’s fame rests. It is not just because we, as players, can invent any kind of hero that we wish and transpose it onto the unfixed Gordon. Instead, it is because Half-Life – a visually and narratively stunning series of games – lets us feel those thrills and emotions in a manner as close to first-hand as possible within the medium’s restraints. If Half-Life were dull, or if Alyx Vance was a clichéd damsel in distress, we would care far less about Gordon than we do. Half-Life invites us into its world, terrors and all, but never treads heavily over the experience with a cut-scene or a piece of prescribed characterisation.

Who is Gordon Freeman?

Only you can answer that.


1: Unless you’re doing a speed run.

2: There is a solitary moment in the Half-Life expansion pack Blue Shift, released in 2001, where Gordon can be seen in third-person being dragged away by two soldiers – a moment that we experience as Gordon during Half-Life’s story. EDIT: there are actually a couple of other glimpses of Gordon in Blue Shift – thanks to @blackmyron for the heads-up.

A glimpse of Gordon in Blue Shift

3: I may look into this in a future post – why do some games have so much written about them, fiction and non-fiction, where others (Half-Life being a case-in-point) are left by the wayside? The amount of words written about Halo is quite staggering, to say nothing of web series like Red vs Blue or the Halo toy range. As a brand, it nears comparison to Star Wars.

4: Half-Life 2 actually makes this point somewhat more heavy-handedly, with the alien Vortigaunts openly referring to Gordon as “the Free Man” following his ascendance from scientist to liberator.

5: Seriously – does anyone not like Alyx Vance? It’s not just me, right?