I'm Nathan Hardisty, an author, ex-editorial writer for Platformnation.com, ex-games writer at Screenjabber. I now write for a variety of sites on the internet while still updating both my DTOID blog and my regular blog, which can be found below.
I am currently writing for Flixist.com
Also I'm incredibly pretentious about video-games so beware. I might just hipsterblow your minds.
When people talk about weapons having 'weight' in video-games I always think of BioShock's wrench. From the minute Atlas said with his Irish laden lips "Pick up a crowbar or something." I knew that there was something afoot. Not only was there a poke at Half-Life mythology (which we covered last week) but there was just something about it. Atlas never directs you to actually pick up the wrench and, in some sense, it's one of the smallest chances of free choice that are offered by the game. I'm trying not to spoil it because it's close to Infinite's release and I think a lot of people will be playing the beast for the first time.
The wrench works so well because it feels like a wrench. Swipes do take a degree of time, especially without the added gene tonic bonuses, and the thudding squash of flesh when the metal hits the Splicers always feels realistically satisfying. When you manage to thud a splicer's head as he's about to pounce on you, that's when BioShock really excels in its construction of tension and atmosphere. The wrench adds this layer of rebellion to it, like you're some laborer in Russia during the 1930s and you're bashing Russia into a brighter future with the Communist rhetoric blaring above. Although that vision's in stark contrast to the Randian rants of Andrew Ryan that spill out of the tannoys throughout Rapture.
The wrench does feel just completely fitting of the game. I was always disappointed with BioShock 2's melee weapon, the drill, because it (puntended) never had the right impact. It always felt the slightest bit 'empty' in how you were able to spin it up a little and then smack people. You never tore through bodies, largely thanks to the limited capability of the engine and hardware stuffs, and it never had the same thud that the original wrench had. When you swiped a Splicer with your drill in BioShock 2 there was a degree of lethargy in it but also lacking of that special punch that the wrench gives. Like the jumping mechanics in Super Meat Boy, the timing of the swipes was nailed just perfectly with the wrench.
Around a year ago I completed BioShock on normal difficulty using only the Wrench and plasmids at hand. Now I want to complete it on Survivor difficulty, no Vita Chambers, no tonics, no plasmids and Wrench only. Adding this rule to the game, I feel, is a lot like going Permadeath in Far Cry 2. It really does bring out the best in the video-game and also shows exactly what kind of special feels that the power of interactivity has to offer when combined with degrees of player freedom. I would not do this if sequel's drill was in the original BioShock, it just feels 'repetitive' to me.
The wrench seems fine-tuned to any combat situation. There's tonics to make stealth attacks practically kill Splicers in one, there's a tonic to freeze enemies upon hitting them and there's even a tonic that drastically increases your damage output to make you a one man killing machine. In BioShock there's no 'Swiper no swiping!', there's a freedom to mix up the tonics, plasmids and weaponry per encounter to advance throughout the game in an exciting manner.
More important to the very 'feel' of the wrench, in my opinion, is the idle animations. When not swiped for long, Jack will turn it over in his hands. There's even a metal 'clunk' when he does this. When you've got the winter wrench tonic attached then the frozen wrench still 'clinks' against his other palm. It gives an added sense of weight to the object and perhaps shows off that Jack is ready for action, ready to be the deliverer of pain.
In short, this tool of bludgeoning gives BioShock even more of its mechanical identity. The plasmids, Tommy Gun and steampunk-esque arsenal all give a sense of 'weight' and harsh grit to the world and the wrench embodies this similar sensation of solidness. The wrench, above any other weapon in the game, allows the player to touch the world... with an instrument... to the face. Bloodily.
Video-games are too obsessed with weaponry. I understand guns give that 'instant feedback' which is utterly crucial to tactile experiences but interactivity for a good amount of time has always resided in the tunnel vision of the blood-soaked industry. With that in mind I'd like to explore some choice examples of weapons that work beyond shooting people in the face. If this industry is going to build itself around weapons then the least we can do is find elements that are at the very least interesting or shape an experience in unique ways.
Half-Life 2 is an indisputable modern classic. I've written on it before from how it cursed me for years and how I do believe it's the most 'competent' first-person shooter ever made. I still replay it every once in a while just to capture that very unique feel. One of the main criticisms lobbied at Half-Life in general is the lacking of mechanical identical. BioShock has its plasmids, Fallout 3 has its V.A.T.S and even Call of Duty has a very 'modern' approach to its arsenal. Half-Life, as a franchise, has carbines and alien guns and other apparatuses that really don't give it a 'distinct' identity when it comes to its mechanics. When I think of playing Half-Life 2 I instantly think of playing the game but not how the game plays. This is why the shotgun is so crucial to Half-Life 2, more than the gravity gun in my opinion. It truly is more unique than a simple physics firing wotsit.
The shotgun (full name: Combine SPAS-12) in Half-Life 2 is given to you by Father Grigori in the Ravenholm section of the game and it, on the surface, functions like any other video-game shotgun. Push one button to shoot. The twist comes in its alternate fire that spews out two shots instead of one. This can be used to instantly ice certain fools or blow up barrels. One pellet is enough for certain enemies, such as barnacles, but others take more than two. It really depends on what distance you're working at. During boss battles and other heavy sequences you start to realize there's an intricate system to the shotgun. It has its own economy.
The economy of the shotgun is as follows: the chamber can hold up to six pellets at the time. This means there's a need to conserve and also add up, within seconds, the root value of what exactly your next button press results in. This table might help:
What you're constantly having to weigh up is how to maximize the pellets in your shotgun at any given moment. The shotgun has an economy within itself that really separates it from a lot of the weapons in the game. The sub-machine gun, pistol and magnum etc. don't carry the same 'power' as the shotgun. The magnum arguably has the closest economy to the shotgun, and it too usually kills all enemy types in one button press (one bullet), but it doesn't have an alternate fire like the shotgun does.
Now obviously I haven't considered the nature of the 'reload' and this effect drastically changes the internal economy. Having six shots gives you more options than having five for instance but being able to reload quickly gives the shotgun a unique quality in Half-Life 2 thanks to its alternate fire. Let's say you're fighting two big enemy types in the game and each takes around two shots to disperse but you're only carrying three shots in the chamber. This mean you can weaken them both with single shots and eventually killing at least one of them, or you can alternate fire and single shot another to at least take one away. With the added 'reload' there's now a multiple of possibilities and a layer of urgency thanks to this internal economy. Do you reload one more pellet just to alternate fire both enemies and vanquish them? Do you alternate fire and rush to cover to reload? Do you instantly rush to cover? You can interrupt reloading too which mixes everything up further. This entire system that orbits the shotgun is further deepened when you consider the various contexts that Half-Life 2 can put you in. Under water, open-spaces and other environments can all add or subtract urgency. Urgency can further be molded by manipulating resources in the environment or by the player his/herself; imagine having low-health in a room full of health items versus having low-health in a room without health items. Both scenarios play out drastically differently to one another.
The value of the shotgun I'm writing about here does seem somewhat 'too heavy', but that's largely because a lot of this design is sub-conscious. All of those 'ripple' effects such as ammo supply, the environment, health items, enemy types and others are all entangled with the shotgun's internal system. The internal and the external marry to bring about a gameplay experience aka. 'a firefight'.
Obviously the shotgun isn't your exclusive choice in Half-Life 2. You usually want to minimize input while maximizing output; using the least amount of ammo possible, conserving as much health as possible etc. The shogun's economy enriches this gameplay equation and its aesthetics are the cherry sweetener. The 'feel' of the weapon is felt with every reload, every pump and every shot/alternate shot. The weight is felt in both the recoil and in the second delays between reloads and shots.
The shotgun isn't just engineered with a rather simple but intricate economy but also designed to be pleasing to both the ears and hands. Valve really do nail the mathematical and artistic principles of their weapons and, for me at least, the shotgun is my weapon of choice.
I have a few books coming out very soon (one on video-games, another on American Psycho, my first proper novel and a poetry compilation) so I'm very short on time at the moment. I'm here to say that I've now happily joined the Flixist.com crew as an editor so do expect more filmic editorial content from me over there on the front page.
My DTOID blog however suffers given, well, I'm devoting a lot of my time to film now. NATHAN HARDISTY. BETRAYING HIS ROOTS SINCE 2013.
I've decided then to start trying to write something short but weekly. Here's a few of my ideas and I'll start whatever you want me to at the beginning of March or something?
Weapon of Choice: Every week I look at a unique weapon from a different game. Starting with the shotgun from Half-Life 2. As much as the industry's fetishization of violence often upsets me, it's still incredible to note just how unique we can make weaponry. This would be like 500 words every week or something.
52: For 52 weeks I write about one singular video-game going through its mechanics, story, themes, level design and try to untangle what it means to exist as a 'video-game' today. I think it'd be interesting to do a not-so-well received game or a cult classic maybe? At the end I'd release it as a free eBook. Maybe even move on to a new game.
1124 Years: I've recently jumped into the league of Paradox games, starting with Crusader Kings II and discovered that it's possible, through save game converters, to play a whole millenia of history. The Old Gods expansion for CK2 is releasing soon and pulling the start date back to 867ad which means with the release of East vs West I'd be able to forge an empire from the birth of Viking siege of York up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. I'm a history geek too so expect some stories spliced in. I have no idea how I'd write this.
There’s a reason I haven’t posted much not so often, or not at all, in the last few months and it’s down to a singular reason. This reason has sucked up more time than anything. I fully expect my impending exams to do the same thing, so don’t expect a massive HARDISTY BLOWOUT just yet.
As you know, I’m only eighteen years old. I’m doing my A-levels, the stuff you do the year before you gallivant off to university.
Here’s the reason I’ve been hiding in case I got too excited and jumpy up and downy about it. I’m a History boy, if that’s not apparent already, and I’ve wanted to study History at university for a good while now. I got a few offers back quite suddenly after my application but…
I also applied for Cambridge back in October out of trying to see if I could charm my way in. I had to write essays, extra questionnaires and read myself to death. I got an interview for the next month which went swimmingly well in which I discussed topics ranging from apocalyptic fiction birthed by the Black Death and Lyndon B Johnson’s penis. I kid you not. Since then I’ve been panicking, crying and pretty much dying in terms of motivation.
Today I received a letter from Churchill College, you apply to the university and to a college within, stating that they have given me an offer of A*AA.
Quite frankly, I’ve spent the day in locked-in disbelief, shock and a general ‘glass case full of emotions’.
This is why my time has been diverted to other areas, this is why I have spent so long just cursing at myself and generally being self-deprecating and this is why I have yet to really established any pattern or schedule of content.
But, yes, I did it.
Expect waxings to pick up after the exam period. Early February probably. But for now know that, well, 2013 has started for me in an incredible place.
Note: Yes, I disappeared for a millennium. Yes, I am back. Yes, things are hectic but hello!
About roughly one billion years ago I wrote one of the very first 'Game Critique Corners' on Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. Forgive the spellings, grammar and general 'young Hardisty' vibe that the piece carries, but I still think it makes a valid point about the Spike VGAs. Both in video-games themselves, from cut-scenes to voice talent to linearity, and the industry itself, from advertisements to merchandising, there has long been a thought that we are simply living in the shadow of cinema. The term 'cinematic' has practically been said about every video-game for the past decade, and it's this term that I think is now outdated. For a while the 'cinematic' influence was our stepladder to higher expression, and now I think it's happening. Now the teenage identity crisis is over. Now we have our own messages, themes, ideas and celebrities from Schafer to Newell. Now we have our own voice talent.
The above image is taken from the nominations for voice talent in the Spike TV VGAs, the largest 'gaming awards' thing. This thing has been ridiculed, dissected and been utterly despised by gamerkind since its inception. Because it's not for gamerkind. Gaming journalist personality Geoff Keighley has served as producer on the project for many years now and I can honestly say that, after so long, this is one giant leap in a good direction. Go look at how Journey is nominated for Game of the Year, how Emma Stone is the last 'celebrity' nominated for voice talent and how Spec Ops: The Line (a goddamn SHOOTER game that DESTROYS AND DEMONIZES ALL SHOOTERS) is nominated for something. More importantly how Nolan 'I am in everything and give stellar performances every single time but yet have yet to receive a fucking Spike VGA award' North is primed to get something for once, for Spec Ops as well.
This was the VGAs' voice nominees two years ago;
Look at that. Not a real video-game talent in sight. Just celebrity after celebrity after Rob Wiethoff after celebrity. You can imagine them sending letters and requests to agents to PLEASE ATTEND! PLEASE LET PEOPLE SEE VIDEO-GAMES ARE COOL! It's a compromise. One that, quite frankly, remains detestable but necessary. Video-games had to become popular to become widespread, to gain credibility. Celebrities was the fast track. Keep in mind I still think that talent like Gary Oldman and Wiethoff delivered INCREDIBLE performances in their respective games, but video-games have long tried to find their own mix of talent. Now we have our own A-listers and B-listers and so on and so forth.
We still have work to do, obviously. We still have celebrities helming the thing, we still have some stupid nominees (Assassin's Creed 3 for game of the year? Really?) and there's still the issue of some ridiculously warped categories like 'Character of the year' and 'Most anticipated game' and the general giant advertisement for next year's titles. Award shows shouldn't be trade shows, they should be separate.
But the voice talent nominated? Some of the nominees for some of the bigger awards being goddamn downloadable? Spec Ops: The Line being nominated?! A game that literally beats the shooting genre to death and calls it out on everything (my personal game of the year and the main topic for my next book).
A note: I'm terribly sorry. Truly I am. I'm juggling a lot in the air right now and I've decided to cut off regular gamey type stuff like this. All of this will be irregular postings on whatever I want. For now I'm moving over to film journalism, but will still finish my book series on video-games at some point.
This was written in an hour and it gets waxy and a little bit preachy. I apologize if it isn't up to the usual standards.
Black Mesa comes out in less than two days and we’re a month away from it being over five years since Gordon Freeman’s last formal outing. There’s a definite sting in the air as the anticipation of the continuation of the Half-Life saga begins to boil to a whimper. This is what I’m feeling. For a good while even at the slightest hint of their being Episode Three or Half-Life 3 there was a burst of emotion of almost child-like glee. For a good while there was genuine hope and a desire for Half-Life to continue. Half-Life is a part of our collective consciousness, especially when it comes to discussing Valve titles, and now it’s coming to over half a decade since the last title and I have decided that I would be okay to never see Gordon Freeman again.
Although we don’t see him anyway because he’s a mere avatar for the player to control and a further element of game developer commentary on the nature of the protagonist and linear video-game design. Or something.
I still delight in every new spring of Valve goodness. I’m currently looking forward to lapping up Counter-Strike: GO at some point this year, and I hope to finally head into Dota 2 at some point. I’ve relished the Team Fortress 2 updates and was stunned by the commentary, humour and bombastic artistic masterstroke that was Portal 2. I have a feeling that Valve feel themselves no longer defined by the ‘crowbar’ but by their wider franchises and genres that they dip their toes into. They have their fingers in many pies, delicious pies, and from Left 4 Dead to Portal there are heavy references and in-jokes about Half-Life and the mythical ‘Valve time’. I feel Valve are trying to build out an incredible, expanded universe of Half-Life to the point where everything around Freeman and company dissolves and we’re left with this giant pool of original and wide-stretching content.
The original Half-Life 2 took me over seven years to complete, so I’m no stranger to being patient with the franchise, and quite frankly I think it’s time to let go. It’s an elephant in the room with every Gabe Newell interview and every discussion involving Valve. There’s a definite crisis within gamerkind when we can’t shake the cloud of a franchise in the same sense that Hollywood or comic books or other mediums seem to do so effectively. Franchises and series and issues and heroes all wither and die eventually. I don’t think gamerkind it too overtly attached, emotionally entangled or even too immature to let go – it’s just we’ve never done this before – and we’ve never had a medium like this. Half-Life was birthed from the mixing pot of golden age shooters; the first title representing a dramatic almost monolithic shift into a new technological and engineered era of video-game design. To let go of such an important influence on the modern world, within popular culture and beyond, seems practically impossible. Half-Life fathered the modern shooter.
Mario, Zelda and so many more have outlasted the Freeman. BioShock and Fallout and too many series to mention will carry on to burn the gaming candle wick into the future. Series, heroes, icons and franchises are born every generation. Not as much as we’d like to think, I do believe the industry has a stifling and ‘choked’ attitude when it comes to original IP, but this might be due to the existence of the Half-Life colossus. The status quo of the video-game industry: retrofever. There’s always a sense of glee when something ‘retro’ or ‘familiar’ touches us in a video-game whether it’s a mechanic or a reference or an entire reborn franchise, there’s a tickle of our nostalgia. It’s becoming self-indulgent and I absolutely love that. Video-games are beginning to find their identity in this soulless corporate apocalypse that we call modern civilisation. It’s time to complete the final step.
It let go of Half-Life would mean that something else would take its place, or several new things. A capitalistic fever could sweep the industry as soon as Valve announces its crowbar cruiser as now dead and buried. A healthy spur of competition and for the spoils and riches to be devoured by the true victor: us. When such a massive void is left in the industry, something has to fill that power vacuum. There are so many smaller series and franchises and old age dogs like IO Interactive and Obsidian who could create something exciting and interesting to fill the space. It makes further sense to let go, because then we can become used to it. Then we can let Call of Duty die out, deny the Duke Nukem revival and finally allow the ‘Assassin’s Creed Trilogy‘ (not really a trilogy) to remain just that. A trilogy. Christopher Nolan showed almost great excitement to the fact that The Dark Knight Rises would finish the story, that there’d be an opportunity to finally complete something. Can you think of many video-game franchises that had a completely satisfying and perhaps emotionally tied conclusion? Halo 3 went ahead and ‘finished the fight’ and became Halo 4, Modern Warfare 3 ended the story that begin in the first but there’s already rumblings of Modern Warfare 4 and Gears Of War seems to still be ballooning itself up with add-ons and spin-offs and lovely diversions. Would it be nice if we just… let go, and what better way to show it than through Half-Life? I understand that sometimes a franchise can come back with full spirit (Fallout New Vegas and Deus Ex Human Revolution for example) but some things are left undisturbed. There’s not a common culture in video-game design of ‘finishing’ something. Ask yourself, honestly, how many video-games have you played in the last few years that actually had ‘good endings’? There’s a need to make cliffhangers and ambiguity the status quo, because the sequel and franchise leasing is what leads to the survival of developers and not a refinement of original ideas.
Half-Life 2 Episode Two ended in the most powerful way that I’ve ever seen a video-game do. It killed one of its main characters but eased up the stakes. Gordon and Alyx were heading towards the Borealis in the final push for humanity’s hope. For years we’ve imagined their journey, imagined the first blinks as we take our first steps out into the Arctic wastes and spy combine machinery. For years we’ve thought of the return of Barneyand Adrian Shepard and Judith and finding out what the G-man’s all about, what’s on the Borealis and answering everything and everything ourselves. Episode Two ended in the right kind of ambiguity, the kind that makes you believe. I am okay with never seeing Half-Life again because, this took me some time to realize, Valve created an ending engineered to make you want to stop the Combine. To make you want to continue. To make you realize that it was now all in on the Borealis.
I don’t think Valve can deliver on that. Not within an episode. I expect to find Half-Life return in a few years of time but, quite frankly this would sound blasphemous to my younger self, I’m become desensitized to the colossal hype surrounding it. I’d be happy to see it end, for Valve to finally let go of the crowbar and build new series, but I’m happy now. For it to end like this seems almost right for the franchise, because Valve already moved on a long time ago.