Sunday, November 18, 2007
Alyx Vance may be one of the best game characters ever
If you're a gamer, chances are pretty good that you are at least aware of Half-Life 2 and the recent expansions, dubbed Episodes 1 and 2. Since I finished playing Portal, probably about five times now, I've been exploring the other aspects that the Half-Life Orange Box has to offer.
Man, what a great collection of games. I liked the original Half-Life a lot, and HL2 was even better, but this is simply a triumph of great story combined with great action. In these last few days, my perception of Valve has jumped up from "A really great game company" to "Nearly Blizzard-like in their ability to consistently do everything right."
One of the major contributors to this perception is the character of Alyx Vance, an NPC (that's "Non-Player Character" for you non-gamers, although you folks probably stopped reading before the end of the previous paragraph) who stays at your side throughout most of the game. Alyx was a fun character in the first HL2 story, but she has really gotten a chance to shine in the expansions. With her specifically in mind, I present:
Seven surefire ways to make an NPC that every gamer will love!
1. Make her female. Because -- go on, it's okay, you can acknowledge it -- most gamers are male.
2. Make her kick ass. The damsel in distress is SO fifty years ago. Today's great female characters should be created in the mold of Buffy Summers, Sarah Connor, Ripley, and Hermione Granger. They aren't sitting around waiting for some man to come along and sweep them away; they can blow away armies of ant-lions on their own very well, thank you. And she does look so very stylish when she's kicking zombies in the face.
3. Make her spend a lot of time with you. Most 3D shooters are all about solo play in an environment where everything is either dead or wants you to die. Ever since Wolfenstein 3D, there has always been a distinct feeling of loneliness as you slog through level after level and don't see a single living thing that isn't evil. Having a buddy who is right alongside you nailing enemies can cause a huge difference to the mood of the game. That's why I always liked playing networked games in cooperative mode much more than I like Deathmatches.
4. Make her talkative. As a corollary to the previous point, if she's going to be around a lot, she'd better be talking because you're not going to. Having a NPC say "Wow, nice shot!" can be a tremendous ego booster, while having her occasionally say "Look out, I hear something" can make her feel like a vital trusted companion. If you're a real roleplayer (code word for "dork") then you can always talk back to her yourself and pretend she's responding to you. Not that I would ever do that. Nope. Not me.
5. Make her actually help you. If there are any in-game hints to give, it makes so much more sense to deliver them through the always-present NPC than a disembodied narration. Whether she's shooting something that just came up behind you, or suggesting "I think we should go this way" or yelling "Look out, grenade!" you need to appreciate having a friend in the game. But more than that, Alyx gets special abilities that set her apart from the player, like climbing to places you can't reach, and hacking through security systems. In the early levels of Episodes 1 and 2, she gets a gun and you don't, so you're relying on her for basic protection. Later, as you're strolling through hordes of zombies, it's just so comforting to see the laser targeting line which means Alyx has your back with her sniper rifle. And there had better be at least a few occasions where it's obvious you would be dead without her intervention.
6. Don't let her hinder you. NPC's are generally very hard to write into action games, because they get in the way and aren't supposed to die. The "Opposing Force" Half-Life 1 expansion was really bad about this. Along the way, you keep picking up small squads of soldiers who are vital to your survival. The difficulty in these sections is generally cranked up, so if you blow away your own squad with an errant rocket, you're really up a creek. NPC's in the recent HL episodes seem pretty near indestructible. You can't shoot them yourself, and the monsters don't finish them off for a fairly long time. Yes, it's cheating for a game designer to give a character near-invulnerability. But remember that the NPC is there for the purposes of story and atmosphere, and NOT as an additional obstacle to keep you from getting through the game. Nothing's worse than when you've just come to the end of a five-minute firefight, you're feeling pretty good about yourself, and then from fifty feet away you hear "Argh..." Alyx has died, game over.
7. Let her get in trouble, but only after you've established point #2. I don't really care about the data card that we've been carrying to who-remembers-where throughout the entire game. It's a MacGuffin -- supposedly important to the characters, but irrelevant to my understanding of the plot. On the other hand, I care a lot about Alyx, because her character has been established so well. So if she just took a fall while heroically protecting my life, you bet I'm not going to take a break from the game until I'm sure she's okay.