Electron Dance
30Nov/199

Discussion: Expect the Expected

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Sometimes I think the worst thing that happened to Valve was creating Steam because it took all the artistic videogame fire out of its belly. Say hello to the sleek new Valve 2, videogame rentier.

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  1. Yeah, I’ve been weary of sequels and spinoffs since the EGX days. It was around the time I played through the first Dishonored DLC, The Knife of Dunwall, that I realised I really struggle with ‘more of the same’ in general. I later realised I play very few sequels and DLC. Not going to lie though: I do want more of the new Doom.

    Don’t get me started on Star Wars, Marvel and Disney’s live action adaptations.

  2. I can’t believe you didn’t title it “Prepare for Foreseen Consequences” :)

    I’m glad HL:A is VR only! I’m a VR disbeliever, so it spares me the nuisance of actually paying attention to the game. If it was on flat screens, I’d still have to fight the few remnants of nostalgia and vague FOMO—and would probably lose, and end up putting more time into a series that in my heart is long dead. May it rest in peace.

  3. Gregg>
    I think if Half-Life: Alyx had looked markedly different, I’d have been more excited, but it had more of a DLC feel…

    Blockbuster sequels, of course, are always a safer bet for bringing in more money than something freshly squeezed… so it’s no big surprise we see so much sequel after-action. I’m not too sure the same can be said for small indie projects.

    Andy
    Oh my GOD I wish I had thought of that. I resign.

    In terms of VR, I feel we’re going through that “the future is 3D” phase of the industry again. I remember that phase – was it the last 90s? – when *everything* had to be 3D otherwise it was worthless. So concepts like 2D platformers were wiped out because the 3D analog is a completely different beast (which were then picked up by independent developers, years later).

    I can see how VR shooters may well eliminate the 3D FPS – VR seems like an embiggening of the same concept. But then the constraints of the monitor-framed 3D FPS will probably be picked up as another indie-nostalgia burst and I’m sure someone will find lots of cool ways of making them special.

    But there are some *really serious* technical problems preventing VR from replacing our monitors – i.e. motion sickness or holodeck.

    I hadn’t thought of the VR being a welcome barrier between me and getting snared by the Half-Life brand again. I still get nostalgic about the HL days – my son is playing through Half-Life 2 now after he did HL1, the expansions and Poke646 – but I’m not convinced new Valve is the same one that made those old favourites. That said, I also love Black Mesa even though it messes with the atmosphere by injecting black comedy unnecessarily. (No opinions on Project Borealis at this point.)

  4. This comment has been eaten a few times; sorry Joel if I’m spamming the back-end of your site with it.

    I think a couple of things this piece reinforced for me is a) our tendency to anthropomorphise (is that right? I always feel I’m short a few syllables) game developers and b) a pronounced ‘what have you done for me lately’ affect regarding the same.

    Hello! I’m a person who doesn’t exist. That is: I’m someone who has spent Valve’s ‘wilderness years’ playing and enjoying the games they’ve released in the period – CS:GO, Dota 2, Dota Underlords – and enjoyed the full benefit of that attention, as the games I love have been improved and iterated on. I’ve been immersed in the culture of those games, have learned glossaries of memes and even found myself, against every conceivable odd, an esports convert. I’ve been present (sometimes physically) to a scene and an industry grown truly from the grassroots – and have been delighted that Valve have shown as much enthusiasm as I have celebrating and uplifting it. The International and ESL One Birmingham are now highlights of my year in much the way Blizzcon or EGX or SGDQ are for others.

    I say I don’t exist because I’m nowhere to be found in the discourse. I play the game that was the most popular thing on Steam in the six years between its release and that of PUBG – another game whose players don’t exist – but stick a pin in the comments sections of Eurogamer, Quarter to Three, RPS, Twenty Sided or wherever the Serious Adults With Their Thinking Caps On are ruminating over the culture of games, and the chances you’ll find me are infinitesimal. You’re much more likely, vastly more likely, to poke someone to whom Valve are the company staggering out of the grand folly of those wilderness years, clutching a box of chocolates, a wilted bouquet and a new Half Life game in sobbing penitence, begging for one last chance.

    Well, I’m as guilty of anthropomo-whatevering game companies as anyone, so imagine the person I’m picturing instead. I don’t feel that same betrayal that quickens the bile in many whenever Valve’s name comes up, and I don’t feel the need to punish them with the theatrical shrugs ‘n’ sighs of affected disinterest now that they’ve returned to making the single player blockbusters everyone else was resenting them for walking away from. Valve aren’t the ex who jilted me; our relationship is as solid as a rock. I’m on completely the other side of the looking glass here.

    People as developers, developers as people. It can’t be healthy, right? I’m pretty sure at some point it goes back to Peter Molyneux – who else? – uniting everyone in that cultural moment of delicious hate-ecstasy when… there was nothing in the cube/John Walker called him a liar/there was nothing in Godus/Black and White/you couldn’t really grow a tree in Fable/Black and White 2/the Syndicate expansion pack was too hard… now I think about it, there’s been a few. But taken together they might represent the most united we’ve collectively ever been (or that might have been Jack Thompsongate, but the effect is the same.) Riven as the culture now is – torn wholly asunder – we instinctively grasp for the one thing that can truly put us back together again, rallying against the pantomime villains, reaching out with a knife.

  5. I knew those words were familiar, although it took me until the quote attribution until I realised why.

    CA makes a good point about “the discourse”, to which I have nothing to add but it’s interesting to read & think about.

    Perhaps games that demand hundreds or thousands of hours of time investment to reach a basic level of competence (in terms of parity with the average of the player base) are simply difficult to meaningfully comment upon for people who are more inclined to dart from game to game, either because it’s their job or because that’s where their natural interests lie?

    I’ve probably played almost a hundred hours of PUBG at this point and I am very bad at it. A hundred hours is nothing in PUBG, but it’s staggeringly vast to someone who would look askance at a 20-30 hour time investment for a single game. Expanding on the anecdotal, a guy I used to work with has played thousands of hours of League of Legends and might describe himself as okay at it. I remember listening to podcasts where Dota players said similar. A friend of mine has played thousands of hours of Path of Exile – another game largely absent from “the discourse” – and regards himself as terrible at it. AFAIK Path of Exile doesn’t have particularly significant competitive elements but it is a *seasonal* game with evergreen content updates. I guess the point is that these kinds of long-term live operations games are a poor fit with the model of most games journalism and criticism; if even dedicated players can fall behind the curve, what hope the rest of us?

    Anyway. Uh. I think VR is cool, but the two criticisms I’ve held for years still haven’t been addressed. It’s prohibitively expensive to get into, particularly on the PC, and that won’t change until the tech has matured further and there’s enough of a market for it to operate at scale. PSVR is an admirable exception although you’re probably still looking at a £500 investment, which is a lot. And whilst there have been some solid VR titles (Astro Bot Rescue, Beat Sabre, the Rez remake are some I’ve enjoyed) there hasn’t been anything that has really redefined in an exciting way what can be done within the constraints of VR. Try playing something like Doom VFR. Compared to the masterful fluidity of the game it’s derived from, it’s mere novelty. Most developers are still largely attempting to articulate pre-VR experiences in VR and that’s… at best limiting? Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t follow VR games that closely. It’s a real hassle to actually set up and play VR games. Maybe that’s a third criticism.

    Anyway. I’d like to play HL:Alyx at some point. But I’m not going out of my way to do so. Perhaps Valve have achieved something truly special here. But it’s been a very, very long time since the Episodes, and to my knowledge no one else has really cracked the problem of “VR embodiment in 3D space” + “moving around when not in a rollercoaster or cockpit”.

    Oh, and thanks for the link to the Fallout 4 piece. A depressing game for depressed people. Hey-o!

  6. Watching the HL:Alyx and getting flashbacks to HL2 made me think of entertainment’s false dogma “realism is better than abstraction.” I’ve thought about this concept a lot for book –> screen, and stage –> screen adaptations (where abstract choices need to be realized, and somehow this typically cheapens them). Makes me think about how the lack of a “killer” VR game might be due to a parallel challenge: in theory, common wisdom is that the ultimate VR game will fully-embed the player in a realistic virtual game world. Walking to make our character walk, twisting our body to dodge, gripping a gun in our own hands, and scouring shelves to find a new clip of ammo.

    But does that really make the game experience more interesting, once the novelty wears off? Or is the fun of a game like HL that I can perform super-human feats of execution and endurance just from slight, precise twitches of my fingers? Maybe I don’t want my character’s skills to be limited to my own execution skills…I want them to be as good as inexplicably-competent theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman’s.

  7. Finally, I can spend a little time on the comments on a newsletter I put out a week ago. Yay.

    CA

    Your comment is the most interesting – because it throws in a counterpoint grenade – and the one which made forced me to be more pensive in response. Number of moments in which I could be pensive this week: 0.

    I agree we should always be wary of anthromping (I just made this word up and I love it) companies and franchises because it’s often to the benefit of juggernauts. Not just watch work by Marvel, but Love Marvel. Companies routinely weaponise their fanbase into a relationship – that’s a word often used in marketing discussions – and it’s all a little disturbing due to how effective it can be. (I hate the fact that Fortnite is bigger than God after PUBG.) But it is difficult to peel our ego away from the stories, the art, we invest in.

    I guess there are three Valves. There is Half-Life Valve, the one that got me invested in the company as a powerhouse of design and thoughtfulness. Then there is Steam Valve, the one I tend to think as pushing creative Valve out of the picture. But then there is a third Valve, which I can only summarise as Online Multiplayer Valve. This Valve was there from the very beginning, along side HL Valve.

    I remember a lot of work being invested in multiplayer networking and reading the occasional missives from Yahn Bernier on all the cool stuff they were doing to the HL networking code. While HL Valve moved forward slowly, OM Valve was always moving forward: they embraced Team Fortress Classic and multiplayer mods like Day of Defeat and Counterstrike. They promised one day that Team Fortress 2 would come out. And I remember at the time – being an occasional player of TFC – how could TF2 do any better than TFC because that thing seemed so complete.

    And of course TF2 came out and “won the internet”. It was big news with their clever, viral marketing stretching across the years. Then Left 4 Dead. And, of course, Dota 2. It’s true: I’m not an eSports person and not really into online multiplayer, so the development of OM Valve is not something I’ve taken much notice of. But perhaps it’s fairer to say that Valve as a force has been aligning itself more with the “future of gaming”, characteristed as a connected multiplayer experience – and free with some type of microtransaction system associated with it. Artifact seemed to be the first time Valve struggled with this approach.

    On one hand, I guess perhaps we are mourning more of not HL Valve, but Single-Player Valve. I remember harbouring a streak of jealousy when all these multiplayer works were coming out over the years.

    But on the other hand, there was a definite sense that Valve was now more of a publisher/incubator hybrid. Portal, Portal 2, Left 4 Dead, Dota 2, Counterstrike are all ostensibly bought in from outside. The interesting spin this week is that Valve’s recent acquisition – In the Valley of the Gods – has been put to sleep and no one is confident that it will be resuscitated. The Campo Santo team appear to be working on Alyx. That Valve had no room for two single-player experiences on the go.

    I can understand that feeling of commentary isolation, that the “discourse” has overlooked the multiplayer base that Valve has kept more than happy over the years. But really, I just wished they had left Half-Life to rest. This feels very Phantom Menance.

    Shaun

    What you say about the “time of investment” to reach a basic level of competence is interesting for these big multiplayer operations because it means when these games are inevitably written about, they are easily siloed. I admit to skipping over any articles that relate to eSports such as The International. Having said that, I was engrossed in the Smash Bros documentary a few years ago. But there’s I feel less cross-over potential for commentary here, as if we were trying to discuss athletics and horse-racing in the same breath. I’ve accepted these are different worlds and I feel like I don’t lose out too much for not studying them (although the videogame economics angle is acutely important to me). And to some extent – the VR angle is exactly the same thing. Valve might as well announced “A New Half-Life title: Valve takes on the MMORPG!!” It exists out there, in place where I do not visit. And that place does not visit me either.

    I loved your article, Shaun. It deserved its place on the Podium of Links.

    Aaron

    I don’t know either. I guess we’re going to see if Valve pulls off anything interesting here that will set trends for years. They definitely have the drive and horsepower to do it. And there is that sense of embodiment that changes how your interact with the environment.

    But I’ll be honest: when I saw Alyx changing her gun clip, I heard the drool of a thousand gun nerds. That is not what I want from VR.

  8. I agree that Valve is many things to many people. Speaking to my friends about the reveal, there were some who were very excited, some who didn’t care at all, some in the middle… and I’m not myself quite sure how I feel. I adored Half Life, liked HL2, and have yet to play the Episodes (I was waiting for them to conclude!)

    Officially, on paper, I can’t justify buying a VR headset, nor even the PC upgrades that I’d need to run it. What I’ve learned about games and tech, though, is that ‘on paper’ dictats often don’t seem to hold up in the face of reality. We could ‘never’ afford to spend such crazy amounts on smartphones, on paper, but we dutifully upgrade for X hundred pounds every Y years (I appreciate not everyone is trapped in this cycle.) We ‘don’t have the time’ to play a new Civilization or dozens of hours, but those hours are lost to it all the same. And so on and so forth.

    I think that, by some measures, VR could represent the apotheosis of this phenomenon, the ultimate unjustifiable that somehow becomes justified. But it’d need a hell of a push.

  9. CA – It does feel like VR is trapped right now, unable to significantly move forwards. That’s why it seems easy to dismiss the tech because the hype cycle has been spinning for awhile now. We’re still waiting for something to happen to make it all worthwhile, to become a must have. Not so much a killer app but a killer concept. I guess Valve hopes it’s Alyx. I don’t think this is going to be true but easily see a wave of editorials “why Alyx has changed the VR game forever”.


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