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GCG Feature: 'Phantom Fingers, Half-Life, & Half-Life 2'

Both Half-Life and Half-Life 2 toy with the concept of how the player interacts with the world, and game writer Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh teases out the meaning of it all in
Both Half-Life and Half-Life 2 toy with the concept of how we interact with the world, giving us, the player, tools with which to bang about the world, which keeps us from touching it directly -- for a time. In a new feature article from Gamasutra's sister educational web site GameCareerGuide.com, writer Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh questions what this means and its relevance to games in general. In this excerpt, Waugh examines the concept of what he calls “phantom fingers” in games: “Imagine for a moment that we had no bodies and therefore no sense of touch. Or imagine that everything we touched had the potential to hurt us. How would we engage our environments? The answer would probably be through some form of man-made sonar. There we have video games, in a nutshell. From Spacewar! to Pong to Breakout to Space Invaders to Doom to Rez to Everyday Shooter, video games are obsessed with resolving the gap between the player and the game world, and the simplest solution is to use a phantom finger. Since the player's experience is disembodied, the game treats him as at a distance, like tossing a stone into a well to gauge the water's level based on the sound of the stone's plop. Since game worlds tend to be hostile, and anything might hurt or kill the player at a touch, the player's phantom fingers tend to be both weapons and probes, creating a sense of cosmic tag. It's you against the masses; whereas they can foil you by touching you, you can foil them back by phantom-touching them. So long as you keep everything at a distance, so you can safely study it, you're all set. One thing that made the original Half-Life so novel is that, for a first-person shooter, it's only unconcerned with shooting. Instead, the player spends most of his time whacking at things with a crowbar. Though still violent (it's still a matter of lashing out and seeing what breaks) the game is less disembodied and more hands-on than it might be, which is odd for a game with a mute and invisible protagonist. The sequel builds on and around that structure to the point that it comes close to subverting the whole concept of a shooter. Failing that, it sure hangs a huge lampshade on the idea.” You can now read the full article on GameCareerGuide.com, including lots more theories from Waugh on how players interact with the world in the Half-Life series.

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