Monday, January 27, 2014

Collaboration and Resistance: Half-Life 2 and the Xenogensis Trilogy

Please come in peace, we beseech you,
Only a landing will teach them.
Our earth may never survive,
So do come, we beg you.
Please interstellar policemen,
Won't you give us a sign?
Give us a sign that we've reached you.
—"Calling Occupants of Interstellar Craft," Klaatu

Before I go anywhere here, know this post will assume that videogames are art. I don't have strong opinions about what, exactly, art is, or what it is for, but I believe that videogames require the same level of skill, patience, and creativity to make that other art forms do, and that videogames can reward close scrutiny and intellectual engagement in the same way that art does. So for my purposes today, they are art. If you think I'm wrong, maybe go read some Tom Bissel.

~   ~   ~

Octavia Butler at a book signing.

Octavia E. Butler was a science fiction writer, working from the 70s to the 00s; she was the first black female sci-fi author to rise to any kind of prominence, and I've recently found I can't get enough of her work. I just finished reading what one of my sources calls her "masterpiece," the Xenogenesis trilogy,* which begins with the main character's introduction to an alien race:  
The Oankali, a nomadic alien species, have engineered themselves into genetic dead ends. They have refreshed themselves many times in the past through cross-planetary interbreeding. Now they are looking to take the best traits from humans by combining our genetic material with theirs, using an advanced race of tentacled breeder-beings called "ooloi."...From the Oankali point of view, humans, taken alone, are disastrously hierarchical and domineering; the new blend will be less fierce and less individualistic. When they arrive on Earth, humans have barely survived mutual destruction. (From Octavia Butler, the outsider who changed science fiction)
The central problem of the trilogy is this: the Oankali have come to Earth to trade. Their trade is not in goods but in genes, and they intend to create a new species by mixing their genes with humans', as the summary above mentions. No one is forced to breed with the aliens; however, given that the Oankali view humans as  a danger to themselves, they will not allow any humans to breed on their own. Humanity as we know it, then, is doomed to extinction, while an alien/human hybrid will succeed us. Understandably, much of humanity is pretty furious about this. The "resisters," as the angered reactionaries come to be called, see anyone who collaborates or breeds with the Oankali as an enemy, which includes the main character of the first book, Lilith Iyapo:
The Oankali manipulate her into training the first group of humans to re-colonize Earth. Lilith is a natural leader, but leading 40 angry, confused, and captive humans is no easy task. Her loyalties are divided: On one hand she wants human freedom; on the other, she comes to respect and perhaps even love some of the Oankali...Certainly the humans react to the Oankali with xenophobia and violence...The humans are none too keen on having a leader who appears to have allied herself with the enemy. The men are particularly threatened by Lilith’s strength and confidence. They beat her and call her a whore...They respond to Lilith’s Chinese-American boyfriend Joe with bigotry and homophobia. (From Sleeping With the Enemy: Octavia Butler's Dawn)
The humans' negative reaction to their situation and to the collaborator Lilith is the dark side of the resistance mentality, a mentality that is presented quite positively in the videogame I just finished, Half-Life 2.

In Half-Life 2, the main character is Dr. Gordon Freeman, a physicist who re-eappears on Earth mysteriously a number of years after an apocalypse event and alien invasion, and who joins the resistance against the aliens. In the opening sequence, he (and the player controlling him) is introduced to Earth as it is now, with humans living under an alien occupation and police state:

As he steps off the train and enters City 17, Dr. Freeman is confronted by the white-bearded face of Dr. Wallace Breen, Earth's Administrator. He welcomes visitors in a recorded message: "You have chosen, or been chosen, to relocate to one of our finest remaining urban centers. I thought so much of City 17 that I elected to establish my Administration here, in the citadel so thoughtfully provided by our Benefactors." The player at once begins to identify Dr. Breen as the smiling face pasted over the ugly situation that is the world of Half-Life 2, and his message is immediately followed by scenes of that ugliness: police brutality, separation of loved ones, intimidation, and hopelessness.

As the game unfolds, the player finds out more about Dr. Breen: he is the person who arranged the surrender of Earth to the Combine—the alien force that has come to the planet with some largely unspoken, yet undeniably sinister purpose—after a short and one-sided conflict. But he has high hopes for the future: humanity can profit from its association (however involuntary) with the Combine, if only we can collaborate:
It has come to my attention that some have lately called me a "collaborator," as if such a term were shameful. I ask you, what greater endeavor is there than collaboration? In our current, unparalleled enterprise, refusal to collaborate is simply a refusal to grow—an insistence on suicide, if you will. Did the lungfish refuse to breathe air? It did not. It crept forth boldly while its brethren remained in the blackest ocean abyss, with lidless eyes forever staring at the dark, ignorant and doomed despite their eternal vigilance. Would we model ourselves on the trilobite? Are all the accomplishments of humanity fated to be nothing more than a layer of faded, broken, plastic shards, thinly strewn across a fossil bed, sandwiched between the Burgess Shale and an eon's worth of mud?

In order to be true to our nature, and our destiny, we must aspire to greater things. We have outgrown our cradle! It is futile to cry for mother's milk, when our true sustenance awaits us among the stars. And only the Universal Union, that small minds call the "Combine," can carry us there! Therefore I say, yes, I am a collaborator! We must all collaborate, willingly, eagerly, if we expect to reap the benefits of unification. And reap we shall! (Source)
However valid Breen's hope of a brighter future may be, the player is given very little chance to see his point of view. The game's narrative quickly thrusts the player-as-Gordon-Freeman into cahoots with the resistance movement against the Combine and its human collaborators; the resistance befriends him, shelters him, and asks for his help in rescuing imprisoned members and ultimately in bringing down their oppressors. And the Combine respond by trying to kill or capture him. All the while, in the background of the game, Dr. Breen issues public messages upbraiding the resistors and admonishing humanity to come to its senses and cooperate peacefully with their "Benefactors," the occupying alien force. Breen seems, in essence, another Lilith Iyapo, seen from the perspective of one of her human enemies in Xenogenesis.

Just how apt this comparison is not quite clear; it takes a fair deal of reading between the lines to generate a sympathetic portrait of Dr. Breen, whom Half-Life 2 sets up as the final enemy to be defeated at the close of the game's narrative.** And even if the player is able to come to terms with Breen's worldview, and accept that he's only doing what he thinks is right, the player can never know for sure that the Combine's promise for humanity's glorious future is not simply a lie. At best, Breen comes off as a well-meaning man forced by circumstance to go along with and even occasionally instigate oppression; but this is a pretty strained reading, given that Breen is also certainly also a bully and kind of a jerk.

Lilith, on the other hand, is a more complex figure, dealing with more morally complex circumstances. In the Xenogenesis universe, neither humanity nor aliens are completely in the right, and she manages to choose one side over the other without sacrificing her moral authority:
The humans start a war with their alien captors. The Oankali are peaceful, environmentally responsible and relatively egalitarian. They’re just trying to save humanity, right? And look at the thanks they get. Yet Butler isn’t interested in simple characterizations: Oankali good, humans bad. The Oankali don’t have a utopian society. They berate the humans for their deadly combination of intelligence and hierarchical thinking. Yet they constantly violate the rights of their captives...

Lilith is coerced and manipulated, and her choices are extremely limited (interbreed, death, or a solitary life aboard the ship). But she’s an intelligent, creative, and strong-willed woman, and she does what Butler’s heroines do well: She negotiates between poor options. She reluctantly acts as the mediator between the humans and the Oankali. She isn’t willing to be an Oankali pet or a guinea pig, but she isn’t willing to revert to caveman society with the humans either. Throughout the novel she demands respect from the Oankali, and works to forge a more equal partnership between the two groups. (From Sleeping With the Enemy: Octavia Butler's Dawn again)
Videogames are a young art form, and one thing videogame creators are still grappling with is how best to deliver narratives to the player. Half-Life 2 has an incredible narrative delivery mechanism: all narrative elements are delivered within the gameplay itself; there are no cutscenes (in which the player must put down the controller and watch a short movie) and no dialog boxes (where the action stops and the player goes through a list of possible questions and answers with a non-player character), only seamless gameplay. Creating this kind of narrative is incredibly demanding, as it requires timing events correctly and placing them in the right space so the player will not miss them and thus a crucial part of the story.

"How would you feel about committing genocide on behalf of a corporation?"
"What's in it for me?" (Knights of the Old Republic)

The only narrative that can readily be constructed with such delicate requirements of timing and placement is a rigidly linear one. On the other hand, the main tools that have been developed so far for creating moral complexity in videogame narratives require nonlinearity: games like Fable and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic allow the player to make choices that affect their own moral standing in the narrative, and which can even affect the actions and development of the non-player characters around them, creating branching narratives, the different limbs of which can only be seen by going back and playing the game again and making different choices. For now, such complex character development seems to require suspending any opportunity for the kind of seamless narrative experience offered by Half-Life 2, as the only videogame tools currently available for delivering it are the cutscenes and dialog boxes that Half-Life 2 deliberately avoids.

So the player cannot choose what will happen in the story, only how soon it will happen. There is no opportunity to explore other characters' motivations and internal worlds in greater depth; instead, the options are things like which tunnel to explore first, and whether to shoot the enemy or fling an exploding barrel at him.

You can also choose to shoot a chair at a gunship, though, so that's something

While the player of Half-Life 2 may try to look closely and find different readings of the character of Dr. Breen, ultimately the game is at pains to make him into an enemy for the player to overcome, and what moral complexity he might have accumulated in a more developed art form, like a novel, is here sacrificed for the needs of satisfying gameplay.

*Also known by the much less appealing name Lilith's Brood, for what it's worth. Seriously, Xenogenesis wasn't cool enough?
**The player is allowed to sit and listen patiently to Dr. Breen's broadcasts, but can often just as easily walk out of earshot or even pull the TV or other broadcasting device out of the wall, cutting off Breen's message with a satisfying electric pop before he's had the chance to make his case.

Photo sources:
1. & (Used here under what I believe to be fair use circumstances; the images are serving in the context of critical commentary on their respective works of art, and they contribute to readers' understanding of the material in a way that could not be practically achieved by words alone)
3. My gameplay

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