The Ravenholm Tourist Bureau Welco- AAAIIIIEEEEE!!!!
Sorry, folks, but that's probably about the best way to sum up the quiet little town of Ravenholm, population
Well, you know Doom III? Okay, so you know that in Doom III the idea is that our super-duper technology created a portal to hell, right? Good. Now imagine that Doom III was made by someone OTHER than ID Software. You know, so we have enemies other than upside-down heads on spider legs, Dick Cheney, some kind of wrestling tag-team, small children, and rocket-propelled human heads. In other words, we end up with a vision of hell that looks more like... well... hell, than the backstage of the Gong Show. That, in a nutshell, is what Ravenholm is like: a vision of hell on Earth that has the potential to actually unsettle you, rather than just make you snort derisively.
I bring all this up because I want to talk a little about something that happened to me in Ravenholm. Relax, folks, I won't spoil any plot for you here. Last night I found myself in, for lack of a better term, a courtyard wedged between buildings. The obvious way out, an open window into a room that contained a door, didn't seem to be the right way out. I decided this because when I approached the door and hit my "use" key, nothing happened. For those who aren't gamers, the "use" key is a button that more or less means, "Fucking do something with that thing right in front of me." It's your one-stop-shop for opening doors, turning switches on, turning switches off, etc.
In any case, that door didn't seem to lead to salvation. So, I began looking around for a way out. First I discovered that a lambda logo was painted across a fence that I could manage to jump over- given a little preparation. I thought this was a hint, since lambdas are used in several spots to guide you forward. On clearing the fence, however, I discovered a largely empty chamber containing only some sort of grain hopper that was too tall for me to climb onto, and an opening in the wall too high to reach. Clearly, something more was needed.
With mounting frustration I began to search the courtyard and surrounding buildings for objects. You see, Half-Life 2 includes a very advanced physics system. This means that objects in the game behave much more like objects in the real world than you might expect. Some earlier puzzles have involved moving objects onto and off of balances and scales, so I've gotten used to needing to move shit around and build things to solve sections of the game.
During my search, I noticed that two planks I thought I had destroyed earlier seemed to have respawned. I thought this might be a subtle hint and attempted to take the planks down. Sure enough, they came down in long solid pieces that I could maneuver out into the courtyard. This surely meant that these planks were key to my escape from the courtyard. I felt a short-lived sense of accomplishment at this realization. Why was it short-lived? Well, because I was suddenly struck with a question:
What the fuck do I do with two chunks of lumber?
As it happens, there's quite a lot you can do with pieces of lumber. The first thing I tried was, I think, very creative. See, in this courtyard there was, for lack of a better term, a catwalk around the perimeter. From one point on this catwalk you were immediately over a set of parallel cables that ran out over the edge of the courtyard. Since I had two planks, I guessed that I was supposed to set one plank down across those cables, jump onto it, grab the other plank, set it down a little further along, jump onto that plank, then pick up the first plank and set IT further along before jumping forward and repeating the process. In this way I would inch my way forward and eventually escape from the courtyard.
After some frustrating episodes with the GravityGun (Basically just a way to manipulate things at a distance) I managed to get a plank into position and tried to set it on the cables. No dice. It turns out that the cables are "insubstantial objects," meaning that they're technically there, but game objects like enemies, planks, and... well... you, pass right through them. Scratch one idea.
My next plan was to use the planks to build a bridge from the catwalk to a nearby angled roof. Granted, that roof was in the direction I had come from, but sometimes you're supposed to circle back through a different part of the same area. This plan took some doing to execute since I had to wedge one end of the planks between a telephone pole and the angled roof, and had to set them up at an angle so that they wouldn't slide down the roof when I placed my weight on them. My bridge was eventually ready but, alas, an invisible game barrier prevented me from getting on that new roof. Scratch two ideas.
My next plan involved the grain hopper I mentioned earlier. As I said, it was too tall for me to get up onto, and was on a platform to boot. However, I reasoned that I could use the planks as ramps. So, I somehow got the planks over the fence and into the chamber with the hopper. Once we were all there, I set up a plank and walked easily up onto the platform with the hopper. Once there, however, I discovered that the hopper was too tall, even with a plank ramp, for me to get onto it. You see, I could make a ramp from the top of the platform to the top of the hopper, but the angle was too steep for me to walk up.
So, I improvised. I set up one plank at the sharp angle, then got the other plank and set it up at a shallower angle, one end on the first plank and one end braced against a wall. Put together, both planks made a ramp I could climb. And climb I did, arriving on top of the hopper. Next, I recovered my planks and set up a similar ramp leading from the top of the hopper to that opening in the wall. Alas, when I cimbed this ramp I discovered another invisible game barrier. Scratch three ideas.
I moved my planks and myself back into the courtyard and thought for a while before coming up with a new plan. The window I had climbed into earlier actually had a sort of ledge outside it. This ledge hung just over the catwalk. I reasoned that if I wedged one end of a plank between the ledge and the catwalk, I could get a diving board like extension out into open space. From there, I might be able to set the second plank between the end of the first plank and a chimney pipe, which would get me close enough to a rooftop to jump to it. Unfortunately, when I tried this plan, I discovered that the ledge and the catwalk were too far apart. The plank could be wedged in place, but hung at too much of an angle to be useful. Scratch four ideas.
By this point I was annoyed. What I usually hate about First-Person Shooter (FPS) games are that they tend to float at opposite extremes. Either they're just flat-out brainless gorefests (i.e. Doom) or they're so crammed full of obtuse puzzles that you need a strategy guide to finish them (i.e. Marathon). What I loved about Half-Life was that the puzzles and combat were well balanced and well constructed- making each fun, and challenging, at the same time. To this point Half-Life 2 had continued in this grand tradition. Yet, here I was: a guy with some lumber and no place to stick it. That's when I figured it out.
You see, while thinking and generally cursing Valve (the makers of Half-Life) I was hanging out in that room from before. As I was staring at the screen I noticed something: the door had a doorknob that actually stuck OUT from the door. More out of whimsy than anything else I walked over, looked directly at the knob, and pressed my "use" key. Sure enough, I heard a click, and watched as the door swung open.
I won't lie, I was annoyed. It is a convention in FPS games that you just have to look at a door from up close and hit the use key, not look at the door knob. So, it was very surprising to me that here I had to go so far as to direct my attention at a specific part of the door to make it open. I was a victim of a gaming standard. Yet, once I got over my annoyance I felt something else: intense satisfaction. Here's why:
I may have spent a significant amount of time in that bloody courtyard due to my own dependence on FPS conventions, but while there I was able to use the physics engine to try a variety of things. Consider the complexity of several of my solutions; I mean, multi-plank ramps onto grain hoppers, diving boards wedged between other objects? I was actually building various simple machines within the gameworld in an effort to move forward. Certainly these attempts were unnecessary, but the fact that the game was able to accomodate so many of them is just amazing. Puzzles in games usually have to be pre-programmed to such an extent that there is only one way to use a given object. In Half-Life 2, there are far fewer limitations.
So why does that matter? Well, in a simple sense, it makes the game more immersive. The environment has taken a quantum leap forward in realism thanks to the new physics. Imagine it: in real life if you were attacked by some sort of creature, but had no weapon handy, you might just grab up a coffee mug or a book and throw it at your attacker. In games, until now, it was effectively impossible to do the same. Objects were usually nailed down and immovable. Hell, does anyone else remember Wolfenstein 3D? This is the grand-pappy of FPS games, but the experience of playing it is partly defined by candelabras, chairs, and roast turkeys that can't be affected in any way. Certainly the game is fun, but when a fragile wooden chair offers cover from minigun fire, you're reminded a bit that you're in a game. As Half-Life 2 draws us into a world that behaves more like our own real world, it makes the entire experience of playing more involving.
In a more complex sense, however, this new physics system shows incredible promise. As our simulations of physics improve, and they're already pretty damned good lemme tell you, how might we be able to teach using these games? Can we imagine a future where school children learn about Newton's laws, or molecular chemistry, or architecture, or engineering, through manipulating a realistically-created gameworld? How might understanding of suspension bridges, for instance, be improved if a student could build and manipulate one through a simulation, rather than just through a book? Even non-physics tasks might be amenable to this sort of simulation: might we teach regression by treating different residuals as though they're objects on a balance beam with different amounts of weight? I think we could, and I think it might be a real benefit to some students for whom math is not a first-language. Most important: these physics puzzles are fun, and that makes a big difference to students of any age.
So, despite my frustration, I can only offer my warmest compliments to Valve. Half-Life 2 is well constructed, it is a lot of fun, and it offers an amount of flexibility to the player that is simply unparalleled in my experience. As for my experiences in the courtyard, I have just one thing to say:
I never want to see another plank as long as I live.