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  • Phantom Fingers

    [10.25.07]
    - Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
  •  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.

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