Phantom Fingers

By Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh [10.25.07]

 Why do we make communication so darned difficult? We create languages, manners, rules, syntax, subtext, irony. We learn to love language and its artifice, and the more we cherish our tools, the more signals get lost in transmission. It's possible to get so caught up in what we're saying that we no longer have any anchor in our surroundings. The foundations give way, and all our facades collapse around us.

So little is necessary to communicate, and so much can be said with so little. Communication is basically an awareness of something outside one's self, a distinction between one's self and one's environment, and an identification of each in the context of the other. If things are close by, we reach out and touch them, which provides us with information. How does it feel? What shape is it? What are its properties? For things outside our reach, we rely on secondary or passive input. We see how objects look, hear how they sound, and imagine their properties, based on prior experience.

We can also actively engage targets at a distance by using "phantom fingers." Bats use echolocation; we are less equipped, but we can use external tools, such as sticks for poking an object or stones for tossing at it.

Imagine for a moment that we had no bodies and therefore no sense of touch. Or imagine that everything we touched had the potential to hurt us. How would we engage our environments? The answer would probably be through some form of man-made sonar.

There we have video games, in a nutshell. From Spacewar! to Pong to Breakout to Space Invaders to Doom to Rez to Everyday Shooter, video games are obsessed with resolving the gap between the player and the game world, and the simplest solution is to use a phantom finger. Since the player's experience is disembodied, the game treats him as at a distance, like tossing a stone into a well to gauge the water's level based on the sound of the stone's plop. Since game worlds tend to be hostile, and anything might hurt or kill the player at a touch, the player's phantom fingers tend to be both weapons and probes, creating a sense of cosmic tag. It's you against the masses; whereas they can foil you by touching you, you can foil them back by phantom-touching them. So long as you keep everything at a distance, so you can safely study it, you're all set.

Half-Life and Half-Life 2
One thing that made the original Half-Life so novel is that, for a first-person shooter, it's only unconcerned with shooting. Instead, the player spends most of his time whacking at things with a crowbar. Though still violent (it's still a matter of lashing out and seeing what breaks) the game is less disembodied and more hands-on than it might be, which is odd for a game with a mute and invisible protagonist. The sequel builds on and around that structure to the point that it comes close to subverting the whole concept of a shooter. Failing that, it sure hangs a huge lampshade on the idea.

The two basic functions in Half-Life 2, similarly, are picking stuff up and manipulating it, and tapping on the scenery with wrought iron. Although one is more important than the other, as evidenced in the game's structure, the game sends us, the player, on a wide enough tangent to distract us with familiar sights, sounds, and ideas before it shows its hand with the introduction of the gravity gun.

Whereas the original Half-Life had a crowbar for a "sword," its sequel substitutes a grand phantom finger in the form of the gravity gun. Indeed, the player's first task is to claim said implement; unfortunately for the protagonist, what should have been a simple teleport goes awry, forcing Mr. Freeman to find his own way to his prize and the player to spend half the game in a quest to begin it. With tongue in cheek, the game throws the player a crowbar as a consolation prize, then lays out several levels of familiar Half-Life-like action.

The crowbars in Half-Life are like phantom fingers,
keeping the player from directly touching the world.

Given the built-in audience from the original game, this portion of the game serves as an extended warm-up period. When the player actually claims the gravity gun, the new dynamic it introduces stands in marked contrast to what came before. Yet even then, with gun in hand, the game waits until its final stretch before it fully owns up to the gun's significance.

 The Free Agent
The player starts with nothing. He has no resources except bodily motion, which includes picking up small items. Although there is only ever one way to move, the level design is clever enough to make the player think he is exploring on his own. That little nook off to the side of the main track, which anyone with a dose of curiosity will dip into before continuing on the obvious path, will turn out to be just where the player is expected to go -- every time. Trying to be clever and outwit the level design will again, almost inevitably, lead the player down the intended path. This in itself is kind of an amazing work of psychology, though I won't dwell on it here except to point out its role.

The player trots along on a rail, figuring things out as they come, reacting instinctively instead of deliberately. There's always something else pressing, distracting the player from what he just did, keeping him from dwelling and keeping the momentum up. The player might fiddle with trash on the ground or vending machines. Picking up an item causes it to hover in the air, in the center of the screen. Tossing it sends the item in a limp arc.

Presently, a security guard orders the approaching player to pick up a can. The guard blocks the passage ahead. If the player obeys and tosses the can in the trash, the guard steps aside and chuckles. Otherwise, he whips out his stun baton and moves toward the player, offering an alternate strategy. Later, a friendly character orders the player to stack boxes so as to escape through a window. All these moments serve to hint at the tangibility of the gameworld -- even before the introduction of the crowbar and the gravity gun. The tools help make the point, certainly, yet the world and the player, and the relationship between them, are established from the start. All the tools do is serve to amplify and clarify that relationship.

The first task is to find a nearby lab and teleport, experimentally, to a distant location to pick up a secret weapon: a gravity gun. The teleport misfires, and the player is forced to flee on foot. Finally, two full chapters into the game, someone tosses the player a crowbar. A self-conscious guitar riff sounds. It's Link picking up the sword in The Legend of Zelda. It's a sign of accepting the quest. The nature of the quest? The search for the "real" sword. So for half the game, Half-Life 2 amuses the fan and gamer with a retread of Half-Life, a clever and quirky panic-fueled first-person shooter that really isn't about shooting, even though it contains guns. If anything, it plays like Super Mario Bros as designed by Cyan Worlds.

Finally the player reaches the more distant lab, is introduced to the supporting cast, accepts the gravity gun, and is set loose -- and Half-Life 2 proper begins. Appropriately enough, the next location is a sidetrack, a playground for the new tool, around which the entire game will revolve. The chapter has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the game. It's kind of bizarre, actually: a haunted town filled with saw blades and compressed gas canisters. For an hour or two, as the player learns to rely on the gravity gun, the game turns into Silent Hill. After that, it's back on the road with bright sunshine, on to beat the bad guys with all these new skills.

Phantom Fingers, Phantom Hands
The thing about a gravity gun is it's a gun that grabs. It doesn't directly hurt anything. All it does is allow the player to reach out and take hold of something -- anything! Nearly anything. Anything of a reasonable size. Once the object is in hand, the player may do whatever he pleases: place, stack, repel, shoot, throw, hang on to for protection or later use. It is, in effect, a super power-up for the player's innate desire to grab and throw stuff, and it works from a very safe distance.

The gravity gun turns changes the concept of phantom fingers and personal boundaries. With the gravity gun, you don't just poke at the environment; you drag it toward you or push it away. The player can, in effect, touch everything in sight without ever actually strolling over to it. Since the player is not himself moving (he's sitting at his computer eating Chee-tos) it's only reasonable that he can touch anything laid out before him on the screen. From the perspective of the player's real-life personal space, everything should be equally within his character's grasp. And here is where Half-Life 2 gets brilliantly weird.

 Recall that the player's avatar, Gordon Freeman, is never seen or heard. Instead, supporting characters look directly at you, the player. They speak to you, lead you, wait for you. They treat you as a mythical hero, dropped in from nowhere to save them all, and in fact from the game's perspective, that's accurate. When the game begins, a figure known as G-Man looks into the player's eyes, tells him he is being thawed out and put into a situation because he is just the right man for the wrong time. The implication is that the entire game is planned out for the player who has, in effect, sat in stasis since the original Half-Life -- as an adventure that only the player, a free agent within the game world, can handle.

The player's role, or destiny, is as the player of a video game. As the only element within the gameworld with that crucial gift of liberty, it all hinges on him, and every friendly character admires the player for it. Every success incurred just fuels the flames, convincing in-game allies of his abilities and strengthening their trust in him. By the end of the game, everyone looks up to the player as a minor god. They will follow him and obey his orders without question.

Furthermore, no character expects anything more from the player than what he is able to provide, no social graces or niceties, or even the manners to stay put while they're talking.

In the last segment of the game, all the player's tools and weapons are confiscated, except the gravity gun, which is instead overloaded. The final portion of the game then turns the player into exactly the figure the entire game has gone to lengths to establish: the god and hero of this little experience, able to touch and grab and spin and launch anything at all within the game world. The player is granted full, unhinged, stomping communication with the game, and it is all so very simple.

The game has reached out to the player and allowed the player to reach back in, through one of the more ironic conceits in gaming history. It has bridged the communication divide about as well as a video game can, given current technologies and methods. And then with no fanfare, without even seeing the consequences to his final deeds, the player is put on ice again, to wait for another game, another day. Or another episode, as it were.

Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his dreams and his clutter. Sometimes when the sun hits the leaves outside his window, he remembers fond times that never were. He also likes ice cream.

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