Now we are all sons of bitches new york university

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Now We Are All Sons of Bitches

MICHAEL BONTATIBUS

"Wake up, Mr. Freeman. Wake up and smell the ashes," the enigmat-

ic G-Man murmurs as he leers into the camera, finishing an eerie opening monologue--and so begins Half-Life 2, Valve Corporation's flagship game. The last time we saw Gordon Freeman, the protagonist, the same rigid and mysterious (though more poorly animated, since the prequel was released six years earlier) G-Man was handing him a job offer after witnessing the former scientist transform into a warrior, bent on escaping from the besieged Black Mesa Research Facility alive. Now, suddenly, Freeman finds himself on a train. No context.1 Is it a prison train? The three other individuals on it wear uniforms like those the inmates wore in Cool Hand Luke. The train soon stops at its destination, and we realize that it is a prison train, in a way--Freeman has arrived at the Orwellian "City 17," where the ironically named Civil Protection abuses and oppresses, where antagonist Dr. Breen preaches poetic propaganda from large monitors hung high above the town. In the years since scientists at the facility accidentally opened a gateway between dimensions and allowed a bevy of grotesque creatures to spill into our universe, Earth has been taken over by the Combine, an alien multiplanetary empire. Breen is merely Earth's administrator--and we realize that the ashes the GMan spoke of were the ashes of the prelapsarian world. It's classic dystopia, complete with a Resistance, of which Freeman soon finds himself the "messianic" leader (HL2). The saga spans four separate games (Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode One, and Half-Life 2: Episode Two), and although the faces of the enemies change, the types of enemies stay the same: Freeman

1 Having a disoriented character is also a clever technique to orient the player behind the character, especially one who is new to video games, as I was: basic tasks, like walking and jumping and picking things up, are introduced. Fingers on the WASD keys to move, press E to grab that object--most of all, the player must become accustomed to the first-person shooter style of both the Half-Life and Portal series, to seeing through the eyes of a different person, to only being able to view the weapon your character is toting around poking out from the bottom of the screen.

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fights both a gaggle of hideous monsters and a regiment of uniformed guntoting soldiers. Blood and guts fly.

Valve has created one other narrative-based series, consisting of Portal and Portal 2. These games are quieter compared to the Half-Life series--and to most video games in general. There is very little combat. There's only one other character in the first story: GLaDOS, a rogue supercomputer, who for most of the game is present only as a disembodied voice. Ellen McClain's voice acting is almost musical, reminiscent of tinkling chimes--which makes it all the more disturbing when GLaDOS slowly becomes unhinged, maintaining her computerized semi-monotone musicality but suppressing a sociopathic murderousness. Throughout the series, the protagonist, Chell, tries to escape from the Aperture Science test chambers, navigating test after test and evading GLaDOS's wrath. Both Portal and Half-Life can be classified as horror, but in contrasting ways. Half-Life exemplifies a more classic sense of horror, manifested in its hideous and myriad monsters. In Portal, the horror is psychological, born of a claustrophobic cat-and-mouse game, though it incorporates the established rebellious-robot trope of dystopia. It seems almost paradoxical at first that such contrasting types of horror could come out of the same studio. But common elements of the campy and the uncanny underlie the horror in both games.

Although Valve draws on campy horror films for inspiration, it would cheapen Valve's accomplishments to equate their games with fast-tracked formulaic Hollywood horror movies--the latter often use more terror than horror. Studios shoot for jump-in-your-seat scares, misshapen faces roaring and popping up out of nowhere. This terror takes no skill to engineer. The sense of suspense comes not from dread of the creature but from fear of sensory overload. Horror, in contrast, is a psychological feat that, to work, must pervade the human psyche.2 It is why The Exorcist is a memorable film and My Bloody Valentine 3D is not. While Portal incorporates only horror, the Half-Life series presents both horror and terror--in part because terror is written into the plot and game design architecture, but also because of the overlap with campy slasher or science fiction films.

In her essay "Notes On Camp," Susan Sontag says that "the whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to `the serious.' One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious." Video games are

2 An analogy: sitting on a cold toilet seat versus sitting on a warm one. The cold seat provides merely an unpleasant surprise. The warm seat has much more horrifying implications.

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playful by nature, even when they take on what horrifies us--what evokes the serious, the psychological disturbance that distinguishes horror from terror. Because Valve inhabits this tension of horror and play, they will always be tied to Camp in some way. That Valve embraces elements of Camp has a lot to do with the tastes of its team members--writer Marc Laidlaw, for instance, is an author of horror novels and has expressed his love for "pulps" (qtd. in Yan).

The games are darkly funny, too. Portal and its sequel are two of the rare games that generate frequent laugh-out-loud moments, and Freeman's witty companion Alyx delivers chuckle-inducing quips--even when a mortal battle rages in the foreground. Sontag claims that "Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. . . . If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment." Valve deftly demonstrates proficiency in the use of black comedy, mixing paradoxical elements of darkness and whimsy, so it's hardly shocking to say that Valve has also been able to combine hyperinvolvement and underinvolvement. The studio has one foot in Camp and one foot in the serious, and it catches the player off guard. We know what we're supposed to feel--or rather, not feel--when viewing the Camp, the zombies that remind us of Evil Dead, the sinister machine that reminds us of I, Robot. We're meant to laugh at the cheap scares. And so when the games turn out to deliver horror, not just terror, it's a shock--not a sensory shock, but a psychological one.

Horror in Valve's games is most apparent in their monsters, which are monstrous because they are "uncanny"--too strange, too unfamiliar, to be accepted as fact. Sigmund Freud, in his essay "The Uncanny," postulates that the quality from which the essay derives its title is "undoubtedly related to what is frightening--to what arouses dread and horror." But the game world takes this concept further, building on robotics professor Masahiro Mori's concept of the "Uncanny Valley," which takes Freud as its foundation. It's a cruel trick of the industry: designers want to create as lifelike an animation as they can, since up to a point we sympathize more with characters who look more human-like--but make the animation too lifelike, and the minor differences between the animation and real life become repulsive--the animation has fallen into the Uncanny Valley. It appears that Valve hasn't run into that problem yet,3 though they've capitalized on the idea: no doubt acutely aware

3 Gamers who know the ins and outs of programming and animation have found ways to install "skins" onto characters and objects, changing the way they appear within the game--and the availability of skins for some of the female characters that squeeze all literal meaning out of the word "skins" goes to show that Valve has struck a nice balance between characters lifelike enough for us to believe them as people, and far away enough from the Uncanny Valley that gamers can actually fantasize about them.

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of the Uncanny Valley, they take advantage of it when designing monsters to arouse dread and horror. "Zombie" is placed at the lowest point in the Uncanny Valley in Figure 1, and zombies are among the most common enemies in the Half-Life series; Freud observes that "many people experience the feeling in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts."

Fig. 1. Uncanny Valley diagram from Mori Masahiro, "The Uncanny Valley."

Combine soldiers, masked men with two pinpricks of blue light where their eyes should be, also teeter dangerously close to the edge of the Valley. Most notably, the G-Man looks human, wears a suit and tie, and speaks English. But his skin is pallid, his head slightly squarish, his eyes far too alive for his corpselike body. His speech, though, is the most unsettling aspect--disjointed, semi-robotic dialect, with dips and rises in all the wrong places.

Fig. 2. Del Toro Notebook, from Angela Burton, "Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Notebook."

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These monsters in the Half-Life series are like the creations of Guillermo del Toro in Figure 2, grotesque because of a Picasso-esque reamalgamation of body parts--eyes are placed on hands, mouths on stomachs, extra arms on torsos. And though the parts look almost real, almost human, the new wholes they form don't look human at all.

The village of Ravenholm in Half-Life 2 is likewise "uncanny" because of a similar combination of what we recognize and what we don't. It can be described as a collection of haunted houses, recalling both the Camp of carnivals and Disney rides and Freud's observation that "some languages . . . can only render the German expression `an unheimlich house' by `a haunted house.'" Delving into the etymology of the subject, Freud demonstrates that although "the German word `unheimlich' [uncanny] is obviously the opposite of `heimlich' (`homely'), `heimisch' (`native') the opposite of what is familiar," we must resist the temptation to merely conclude that "what is `uncanny' is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar." The uncanny exists somewhere in the middle, and is something both foreign and familiar-- for instance, the Pale Man's humanoid figure combined with unnaturally saggy skin and optical palms.

And yet Mori's Uncanny Valley theory, in light of Freud's theories and some of the game's other monsters, seems to be missing something. There seems to be a reverse-Uncanny Valley, one that would appear on the far left side of the graph in Figure 1, which describes almost completely non-human beings with just one or two human-like features. A creature with only a few subtle differences from humanity creates a sense of unease, but a creature with only a few subtle similarities to humans elicits comparable discomfort. Valve, by exploiting this property, seems to have uncovered a new way to induce unease. GLaDOS is simply a disembodied voice: there's no latex skin or fiberglass eyeballs--indeed, you hardly see her at all. And yet, her omnipresent voice, feminine yet robotic through-and-through, has that lifelike music to it. When you finally see her mainframe, the twisted setup of metal and wires is eerily similar to the silhouette of a woman, bound and gagged. And in Portal 2, we discover that GLaDOS was constructed based on a now-dead person--that she's a zombie for the digital age. She still doesn't resemble a human, but she does have tiny unsettling similarities. In the same vein, one Half-Life monster is the barnacle, a sea anemone-like creature with a long, stringy tongue, trapping and eating its prey. When a barnacle is killed, it retches up the partially digested food: first a jawbone, then a skull, and then

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a hunk of meat which we know must be human from the preceding bits but cannot connect to a living being at all. This loaf of human inspires a sort of comic repulsion4 because of how little it reminds us of the former being. It's the tiny similarities that scare us, as well as the tiny differences.

Which isn't to say that only monsters can be uncanny--the settings in both games are dystopian. Valve shows admirable restraint in dealing with post-apocalypta, like Cormac McCarthy exhibits in The Road: there's nothing sexy about the end of the world. Everything is kept alarmingly simple. Houses. Simple houses, a frequent location in both works, provide another sense of the uncanny, a perversion of the familiar more effective than if the action took place in an airport or supermall. While playing Half-Life 2 as Freeman, looking for supplies, I stumbled across a house in the middle of nowhere. I can't remember what I found: a medical kit, perhaps, shotgun shells, or nothing. What I do remember is the body, a shriveled corpse rigidly placed on a bed as stripped down as the body on top of it, and its stark contrast with the wallpaper. There was something distinctly homey about the baby blue wallpaper with the tiny red flower pattern running vertically down it, an artifact of the world that was, like the can of Coca-Cola in The Road, eerily familiar and quotidian. These objects, integrally associated with a mundane existence but surrounded by post-apocalyptic destruction, by dust and blood and debris, generate a sense of the uncanny--these homey things have become both foreign and familiar.

Dystopia itself becomes a wide-scale version of the uncanny, where things previously part of the known universe have changed ever so slightly and turned alien in our own world. Both games' dystopias have the same premise: scientists overstep their bounds, the unforeseen consequences of which have fatal ramifications. ("Unforeseen consequences" is both the name of a chapter in Half-Life and an oft-repeated phrase in Episode Two). The basic premise is reminiscent of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. A scientist or scientists build something they cannot contain, and their creation gives way to destruction. In fact, in all cases, a foreign life is introduced: the Frankenstein monster, Half-Life's creatures of the alternate

4 Usually manifested as a half-groan, half-laugh, possibly followed by an expletive. A similar device is used to this effect in Breaking Bad, when a partially dissolved gangster falls through the ceiling due to a mishandling of hydrochloric acid. We can recognize the bone fragments, but the lump of meat that goes splat on the ground evokes an anatomical curiosity: what part of the body is that? The stomach? It would make the most sense, except the stomach is supposed to have space in it, right? The upper torso, maybe, except the upper torso wouldn't look that homogenous. We don't know what part of the body it is, and so the only link to humans is cerebral, not visual.

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