Valve’s new “Meet The Pyro” video reminds me of a theory someone told me once about Half-Life. It went like this: Gordon Freeman is an insane psychopath who wanders the streets heartlessly murdering everyone he meets, and the game is all just his hallucination. Makes sense, doesn’t it? This “it was all a dream” type of explanation seems almost preferable to the completely loony actual plot of Half-Life when taken at face value. For one thing, there’s this nonsense about aliens, other dimensions, giant bugs, and zombies. For another thing, there’s the fact that the only thing Gordon ever does, aside from jumping and picking up boxes, is shoot people. How else could you explain that?
Games don’t have to make sense. In fact, most of the time they probably shouldn’t make sense. Games are about alternate worlds, which are as appealing to us as they are different from our own lives. It’s an old joke by now that a completely “realistic” game about daily life, cleaning the house, going to the office, and so on would be an immense bore. But games are more than just alternate worlds, they’re alternate realities. In the world (or perhaps a better term would be the fiction) of Half-Life, an alien race has enslaved Earth. In the reality of Half-Life, you progress by shooting and solving physics puzzles.
It’s tempting to criticize games by how their own realities stack up against our own (is it significant that you can only win the game by killing thousands of people?), but we can’t forget that within game worlds, all of the shooting and killing is not (as) horrific as in real life. It’s actually fairly normal, just as commonplace as daily housework is here. After all, who are we to impose our preconceptions of “reality” onto this other world?
Think about that next time you joke about how silly it is that Mario eats mushrooms to grow bigger, or that the dragonborn can put buckets on people’s heads and steal their goods, or how honey on cat hair makes a mustache. To them, your life is just as strange. When visiting a videogame world, we have to remember that we’re guests in their culture and in their laws of nature.