Chapter 6

 

The Black Widow’s Lair

 

            After the watershed of Half Life in 1998, three innovative bodies of work picked up where Valve’s epochal achievement left off: Neil Manke’s single-player maps for the Quake 2 and Half Life engines (1997-2001); Serious Sam (2001), Croteam’s remarkable serialization of the first-person shooter; and Max Payne (2001), Remedy’s stunning reinvention of the 3D action game. Individually, each of these works revolutionized the realms of 3D mapping, production design and game-play, respectively. Collectively, they opened up the post-American age of videogame culture.

            Manke’s maps are probably the most direct evidence of this process, simply because Manke is a resident of Kamloops, Canada, a region on the fringes of the high-tech Pacific Northwest consumer culture which spawned Valve, while his maps were created as freely downloadable, non-commercial freeware by a multinational team of some of the finest modelers and artists in the gaming community.

            Somewhat further afield, the world-class graphics engine and finely-honed game innovations of Croteam’s Serious Sam testify to the rise of an indigenous EU game culture. Croteam is based in Zagreb, Croatia, one of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia. Serious Sam became an overnight sensation thanks to a canny admixture of Central European design, East Asian console game-play, and the politics of the EU’s geopolitical expansion.

            Geopolitics is also the key issue for Remedy, though in a somewhat different context. Remedy is based in Helsinki, Finland, one of the late-blossoming social democracies which did not ascend into the ranks of the First World until well after WW II. Remedy turned Finland’s relative lack of an indigenous cinematic tradition into a dialectical advantage, by integrating the most advanced video techniques of the John Woo thrillers into the 3D videogame. In effect, Remedy did for the 3D action game what Nokia did for the cellphone industry, i.e. popularized what was once a luxury or high-end information commodity.

            Without question, Neil Manke was the single greatest 3D mapper of the 1997-2001 period. Whereas other authors excel at two or three aspects of mapping – set design, monster placement, or lighting – none approaches the orchestrated brilliance of Manke’s mature work, which combines narrative subtlety, sterling game-play, and superb design while consistently pushing the graphics engine to its limit. Working with a multinational team of some of the very best sound-designers, play-testers and model-builders around, including the well-respected Einar Saukas, Magnus Jansén, Jack Cooper, Paul Taylor, and Dave Waters, Manke completed the narrative revolution inaugurated by Half Life. In so doing, he also set a new benchmark for the 3D action games of the future.

            Manke’s first works of note were based on id Software’s Quake 2 engine, and can be divided in three main groups: the action-adventure series Soldier of Fortune (SOF 2, 3 and 4); Slaughtership, a level set on an alien spacecraft; and finally the three-part Coconut Monkey series. Soldiers of Fortune 2 is a more or less straightforward action level, worthy of note mostly for its convincing outdoor scenery, as well as unusual touches such as a helicopter and a lake-bound submarine. Soldiers of Fortune 3: Desert Bloom went still further, featuring a gripping opening hang-glider sequence, witty voice scripting, and entertaining architecture, as well as a couple of sophisticated scripted sequences involving enemy gun turrets and a friendly (if not quite reliable) mortar unit. Soldiers of Fortune 4: Cold as Ice added a plethora of new designs and opponents, ranging from well-designed polar bears and wolves to strikingly realistic outdoor scenes of snow, ice and waterfalls.

            Impressive as these were, Manke’s real breakthrough came with the Coconut Monkey series. The first of these, Paradise Lost, features a tropical island on the eve of a massive volcanic eruption. The player assumes the role of Coconut Monkey, the official mascot of PC Gamer, the gaming magazine which began distributing Manke’s levels in 1997. From the opening escape sequence to the final battle at a beach-house, and from lava-spills to the thunder of the eruption in the distance, Paradise Lost exhibits the visual energy, expressive detail and hair-trigger unpredictability of a Nintendo console classic. The second adventure, Dry Gulch, is set in a mythical wild, wild West, replete with mining tunnels, mountains, sagebrush, and a design motif which has become a Manke trademark: a realistic moving train decorated with the logo of PC Gamer.

            This is a significant achievement considering that the Quake engine, although the best of its day, was not well-equipped to portray realistic moving vehicles, curved surfaces or outdoor sequences. Since trains are relatively blocky vehicles anyway, Manke added a sound-track and specialized textures (including a coal hod) to make the sequence work. The storyline of Dry Gulch, however, is less compelling than its predecessor, thus making the map more of a pure action experience than a narrative one.

            The third Coconut Monkey adventure, Saving Private Monkey (the title refers to Spielberg’s medium-grade war drama, Saving Private Ryan) is simply outstanding. After being transported back in time to the Normandy landing, Coconut Monkey must fight through hordes of Nazis in order to return to the present. The scenery ranges from WW II pillboxes to burning hamlets, and from stained-glass windows and Nazi flags to realistic guard dogs. Enemies wear Wehrmacht uniforms, and even shout “Schweinhund” and other German niceties. While dodging artillery barrages and even a crude enemy tank, players navigate through authentic WW II bunkers, wrestle with 1940s gunnery technology, and experience a hilariously incongruous telephone sequence (whenever a phone rings, the voice on the other end of the line asks innocently, “…Nathan?” before hanging up). One other notable detail is a clever subroutine which rendered semi-realistic pools of burning flames, nicely anticipating the realistic smoke and explosion effects which Half Life would excel at.

            If Coconut Monkey can be considered a masterful étude, brimming with flashes of what was yet to come, Manke’s next set of projects were truly symphonic in their scope and complexity. The turning-point was Manke’s shift from the Quake engine to the Half Life engine in 1999. In a manner which recalls to mind Beethoven’s orchestration for the Third Symphony – the notation called for an instrument which had not even been invented yet, namely the French horn – Manke’s final Quake maps already anticipated Half Life’s advanced texturing and scripting capabilities. This is most evident when comparing Manke’s first Half Life map, USS Darkstar, with his earlier spaceship map, Slaughtership. Though this latter had some nifty sequences, ranging from an impressive asteroid strike, an astounding power generator room, and even the gruesome interior of a Strogg kitchen, replete with an axe which flies at the player’s head, the Quake engine put severe limits on what Manke could do.

            By contrast, USS Darkstar opens with a panoramic shot of the Darkstar spacecraft worthy of Lucasfilms, and only continues to accelerate from there. Players take on the role of an onboard scientist, and must wend their way from crew quarters to the laboratory, encountering a number of scripted events along the way (including the real-time landing of a shuttlecraft in the docking bay). Such realistic vehicles were far beyond the capabilities of the original Quake engine, but are easily handled by Manke’s ingenious variation on Half Life’s Osprey and Apache models.

            When the inevitable high-tech catastrophe happens and aliens begin to invade the ship, players are confronted with a spellbinding admixture of pulse-pounding action, atmospheric transitions and mission-oriented puzzles. One of the most striking features of Manke’s work is its uncanny capacity to rework the extremities of disorder and panic-stricken pandemonium into the most exquisite formal symmetries. Adorno pointed out long ago, in a disquisition on the Second Viennese School, how the conflict between the categories of chaos and order in musical Expressionism drove the atonal composers towards an ever more totalizing counterpoint.1 There is a strikingly similar dynamic at work in Manke’s maps, which transform Half Life’s game-scripts into an Information Age counterpoint. In USS Darkstar, the opening cut-scene of the ship and the shuttlecraft is mirrored by the closing sequence of the escape pod and the alien ship, while the symbolic shrinkage of the player in the teleportation module is answered for by the symbolic expansion of the player in the planetarium. Meanwhile, ominous public address announcements issue from the ship’s computer, detailing how the aliens are taking over one subsystem after another. Just as Half Life gradually teaches players that human beings are the worst alien invaders of all, so too does USS Darkstar decode the interstellar neocolonialism of the Cold War space opera.

            Manke’s scripted events equal and occasionally even surpass Half Life’s lofty standard. Players must learn to use a handily-placed incinerator, operate a forklift, navigate flooded passages and fire a small cannon. During the warehouse sequence, zombies not only break out of their boxes to attack the player, but one particular zombie walks over and turns off the lights. Manke even makes sure that the overhead girders partially shield the player from the alien soldier teleported onto the balcony later in the sequence. Given the lack of cover at that point, the chances of survival for weaker players would normally be slim; but Manke respects the cardinal rule of 3D game-play, namely to privilege motivation over frustration (the same logic is at work in the early confrontation with the giant spider, which is an extremely tough opponent in Half Life, but very weak here).

            The subsequent teleport sequence is masterful. Due to a computer glitch, the player is inadvertently shrunk down to the size of a mouse. To return to normal size, players must scamper up furniture the size of apartment blocks, while avoiding a lethal mouse-trap and other hazards, and even explore the bizarre, rainbow-hued interior of a security computer. The cavernous low-gravity fusion chamber is another brilliant touch: ninety-nine out of one hundred mappers would spoil this sequence by either making a fall to the floor fatal or heavily damaging, or creating a solid maze of machinery too difficult for low-powered computers to easily render. Instead, Manke provides a see-through forcefield as a floor, which gently catches players if they fall (even proficient players may fall once or twice while trying to jump onto the fretwork). Not only does this give the player a fighting chance against the airborne aliens, it also allows us to admire the scenic field of stars in the background. The same principle is at work in the single most visually arresting moment of USS Darkstar, namely the planetarium where various blue, white and red stars shine in glorious, miniaturized 3D.

            This delicate counterpoint between biological interiors (terraformed holding pens and ingeniously scripted zoological experiments gone haywire) and cosmological exteriors (vistas of the cosmic void, transparent tunnels and elevators) allows Manke to move beyond the two main visual palettes of Half Life – namely, the sterile metal surfaces, dusty greys, rusted browns, and bright red emergency signs and lasers of the Black Mesa complex on the one hand, and the scabrous green, blue and purple hues of Xen on the other. Intriguingly, both palettes are fused into the rainbow colors, shimmering force-bridges, muted greens and charcoal greys of USS Darkstar’s security computer. This suggests the computer is nothing less than a stylized informatic microcosm, a fantasm of the interior of the late 1990s personal computer, right down to the obligatory cooling fan, which complements the macrocosmic space of the planetarium.

            Manke’s next project, the three-part They Hunger series (subtitled Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Rest in Pieces, and Rude Awakening), would push the informatic microcosm towards its political content, in what can be described as a gruesome journey into the heart of neoliberalism’s darkness. Instead of Gordon Freeman, players step into the role of a popular writer of horror fiction, who is vacationing in the countryside when the Black Mesa disaster strikes nearby. Horror narratives have long been one of the most productive sources of narrative innovation in the neoliberal era, everywhere from Tobe Hooper’s ground-breaking Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to Sam Raimi’s spine-tingling Evil Dead (1981), all the way to the late 1990s Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Manke’s unique contribution to this lineage is the invention of what can be termed 3D horror gaming.

            Two key design innovations distinguish They Hunger from Manke’s previous work. First, the player-character does not have the benefit of a protective power-vest. Normally this would make the game-play frustrating, but Manke turns this extreme vulnerability into an asset, via careful monster selection (e.g. very few of the early monsters have distance weapons), clever map design, and extra-strong health packs. Second, Manke employs a wealth of customized textures, monsters and weapons models, editing or tweaking almost every single one of Half Life’s original effects. The textures are superbly rendered, ranging from limestone tunnels to wooden surfaces, and from the dusty interiors of crypts to the burning hulks of overturned cars and trucks.             

            Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the first episode in the trilogy, features an impressive array of monsters. The zombies are no longer Black Mesa personnel, but male and female civilians in business suits and skirts, as well as the occasional zombified police officer. Unlike the zombies of Half Life, who are clearly under the control of living aliens, these zombies not only look like the undead, but gurgle comments such as “Hunger-r-r…”, “Flesh”, “Why do we hunger-r-r…”, “Live brains”, and “Fresh meat” – dialogue lifted in part from the Night of the Living Dead horror comedies of the 1980s. The female zombies, for their part, utter bone-chilling enticements such as “Mommy’s hungry-y-y…” and “Come to Mommy…”, suggesting that the family sphere has become as cannibalistic as the work-world. The dialogue and sound-track are superb, pacing the occasional scratches and howls of animals in the underbrush with periods of tense silence, shattered by the chime of a church bell, the hoarse cry of a zombie, the howl of animals or birds in the distance, or shards of glass shattering underfoot.

            In addition to artfully sampling, quoting or bracketing almost every quality horror film ever made, Manke packs a remarkable narrative punch into the outdoor sequences, by employing trees and underbrush (very difficult to render with late 1990s 3D technology, but glossed as tree-like silhouettes which rustle just like real trees), architectural ingenuity (e.g. massive tree-stumps, floating rafts, and hovering helicopters), as well as scripted scenarios which build narrative tension from one encounter to the next. At one point players encounter a police officer near a house, whose back is turned. Expecting rescue or assistance, players approach, only to discover it’s a zombie cop – and still worse, a zombie cop capable of using a gun. Those quick-witted enough to survive the encounter immediately take the two fundamental lessons of all zombie thrillers to heart: the authorities are not your friend, and happiness is a fully-loaded shotgun.

            Manke will gradually increase the difficulty of these sequences by expanding the number and type of opponents, while expanding the terrain features to include everything from swamps to cave-tunnels. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also takes a page from the middle sections of Half Life, by counterpointing jumping and leaping puzzles with dramatic scenery and textures. Players must navigate shifting lava pits, explore zombie-infested lava tunnels, outwit carnivorous fish in a lake, and employ a steam vent to “bounce” up a sheer cliff-face. Half Life’s scripting capabilities truly shine in the subsequent train sequence, where players drive a full-scale train along a track (replete with warning whistle, gear changes and sound-effects). It is only in the later stages of the episode that players confront multiple challenges, e.g. the combined land and sea opponents of the dam sequence, or the zombie police in the town sequence, areas which require both finely-honed game skills as well as creative improvisation.

            Following a truly dire catfight in a cellar, players eventually reach the DJ’s radio station, where they must press a button to radio for help. It’s worth stressing that almost every single switch or toggle in Half Life is mono-functional: that is, players press a button to unlock a gate, find a keycard to open a door, etc. But Manke has the wonderful intuition of guessing that the most logical reaction of the embattled player will be “twitch finger”, i.e. jabbing at the radio button over and over again. During the resulting dialogue, the radio operator remains strangely calm, saying simply that “We’re very busy here” and refusing to believe that flesh-eating zombies are walking the earth. What makes the sequence so compelling is that we only hear the radio operator’s dialogue, allowing us to identify almost completely with our character: the frenzied pounding of the player’s fingers on the keyboard is louder than the most gut-wrenching scream. It is only at the end of the first episode, after the player has been captured by a zombified Sheriff Rockwood, that the spine-chilling realization sinks in that the zombies must have figured out how to operate radio sets, too.      

            The second episode, Rest in Pieces, begins with an astounding scripted sequence. The player is locked in a cell, and watches a few human prisoners attempt to escape the jail, only to be cut down by the zombies. Just when it seems the player is doomed to become zombie-food, one of the surviving human police officers blasts open the cell with a vehicle-mounted rocket launcher (Rockwood, meanwhile, makes his escape). In addition to gorgeous, all-new textures, ranging from purple underground tunnels to the ivy-covered walls of the Rivendale asylum, Manke provides us with a host of new weapons. One of the very first items players acquire is, interestingly enough, an umbrella – one of the great mediatic symbols invented by Patrick McGoohan’s video classic, The Prisoner. In fact, Manke will replace Half Life’s signature melee weapons – the crowbar and pipe wrench – with three new items: the umbrella, the service wrench, and the garden spade. Each of these items is found in a specific space: the first, in the police station; the second, in the service station; and the third deep underground, at the entrance to part of the Black Mesa base, a significant constellation which we’ll return to in a moment.

            The scripted events in Rest in Pieces are particularly noteworthy for their sheer density. These range from simple motifs, such as exploding television sets or microwave ovens, artfully-constructed ambushes (e.g. the wickedly fast packs of zombie dogs on the asylum grounds, a citation of the werewolf genre), and radio broadcasts or tape recordings (cf. the military radio which relays the gruesome fate of a Black Mesa recon team, or the tape-recorders in the asylum). In contrast to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which follows an essentially linear design – tunnels interspersed with narrow outdoor pathways – Rest in Pieces features multiple scripted events, often nested within each other, located in an entire facility. The morgue sequence where you accidentally resurrect one of the skeleton zombies, for example, involves three separate script-events: the tape-player, the resurrection process, and the resultant explosion which leads to a new area of the map.

            Three other script-events lurk in the laboratory, ranging from another involuntary zombie resurrection to a gruesome encounter in the lab’s refrigeration unit (a quotation from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). This gives rise to some truly hair-raising sequences, such as the moment when one of the monsters breaks loose and begins chasing after its creator, the mad Dr. Franklin; or the tunnel sequence, where the player must chase after a rampaging bullsquid, a creature one would normally run from. Manke even salts straight action sequences with original character-animation, ranging from the zombie cop who falls on the slick floor in the Rivendale asylum, to the zombified heart beating merrily in the morgue’s examining room, to the moment that Alfred, Dr. Franklin’s assistant, stops to tie his shoelaces in mid-conversation.

            Manke’s monster designs display an equally sharp wit: the fleshless skeleton-creatures complain about how cold they are, and when they do attack, they intone in surprise: “So much flesh…”, “Human”, “Flesh-creature” and the hilarious non sequitur, “Sssooo-faaaa” (a reference to the humble sofa). It’s difficult not to conclude that the skeletons are, basically, alien couch potatoes. By contrast, the linebacker-sized Frankensteins unleashed by Dr. Franklin – “Franklinsteins”, as it were – are dead ringers for the Hollywood monster of the same name. (Manke gives us a broad hint, by draping Dr. Franklin’s lab with cinema-worthy electrical effects) The third new monster, the Hand, represents the purest tactility of all: it is simply an undead, severed hand, a horror genre staple which can be traced all the way back to The Thing from the Addams Family TV series.

            Far from being an innocent or random choice of monsters, this roster is closely linked to the three melee weapons mentioned previously. The mediating code which links the monstrous projections of body with the no less monstrous introjections of the praxis-making tool is, of course, the tool-using body. We know that the umbrella is centrally associated with the interior of the police station, while the wrench is associated with machinery – specifically, the car in the shop, as well as the gears of the underground switch-room. The garden spade, for its part, is associated with underground digs or tunnels. Note further that the skeleton-creatures are associated with the morgue, that is to say, the dissection of bodies. The Franklinsteins are associated with laboratory products, that is to say, dead body-parts which have become living creatures. Meanwhile the hands are associated with a roof or vertical access of some sort: the first is located on top of an asylum roof, three others guard an important ladder, while the last is in an attic crawlspace.

            In the case of the umbrella, the mediating bodies in question are those of the security forces, or the malign Sheriff Rockwood and zombie cops, versus the few remaining friendly police. The wrench, on the other hand, seems to point to the bodies of tool-using or technical personnel. These run the gamut from the mad Dr. Franklin and the frenzied skeleton-creatures, who both wield electricity as their weapon or tool of choice, to the friendly scientists and Alfred. This suggests that the spade does not connote the undead creatures which literally and figuratively rise up from the ground, so much as their literal and figurative gravedigger, i.e. the sole figure capable of outmaneuvering the twitchy mobility of the Hand while countering the brute materiality of the Franklinsteins. This gravedigger, of course, is nothing less than the body of the player-character – that is to say, the horror fiction writer.

            In retrospect, Rest in Pieces is saturated with such reflexive tropes, ranging from the doctor’s offices, which are named after the real-life members of Manke’s programming team and contain their real-life photos, to the scene in Dr. Franklin’s laboratory, where scanned facsimiles of the team members’ heads are on display in bubbling vats of electrical fluid (a motif which goes all the way back to the Doom series, where id Software’s programmers mapped a photo of lead designer John Romero’s head onto one of the monsters). This is confirmed by the uproarious sequence where we meet Alfred, Dr. Franklin’s assistant, who evidently received his Ph.D. in the field of deadpan humor: “Thank God you’re normal,” he says, smack dab in the middle of the insane asylum, “Everybody else here seems to be out of their minds.” Explaining that the zombies were created by a contaminant in the city water supply, he adds: “It’s something that can bring anyone, alive or dead, to some intermediate state of half-life.” Half Life is indeed one of the few games capable of engrossing players for hours on end, but Manke pays the ultimate compliment to the original, not by imitating but by transcending it.

            The third episode of the series, Rude Awakening, presents an intriguing conundrum for the critic. Though unquestionably the most polished and well-plotted episode of them all, and boasting a number of sequences superior to the vast bulk of the commercial 3D games released in 2001, Rude Awakening does not have quite the concentrated energy of its two predecessors. This is not due to any aesthetic deficiency on Manke’s part, but to the objective development of Manke’s material, which drives irresistibly past the capacities of Half Life’s graphics engine.

            Manke had previously managed to disguise the weaknesses of this engine by the clever use of trains and tunnels, as well as superb monster design, placement and event scripting. In Rude Awakening, Manke aims at nothing less than the definitive sublation of the single-player and multi-player maps into a new form, or what we will term the melee map. Whereas single-player maps are inherently view-centric, i.e. place great emphasis on texture design, atmospherics and overall narrative continuity, multi-player maps are inherently motion-centric, i.e. emphasize overall map balance and continuous player movement through a gallery of interconnected rooms or spaces.

            In retrospect, many of Half Life’s most enduring innovations, everywhere from game-scripting to the advanced artificial intelligence or “AI” of non-player-characters (that is, they react realistically to the actions of the player), represent the selective reappropriation of multi-player forms into a single-player narrative context. Manke took the next logical step, by endowing those multi-player forms with their corresponding content. His first and most counterintuitive move here is to replace the fundamental design trope of Rest in Pieces, namely the railroad tunnels linking crucial areas of the map, with a series of rock-hewn valleys and open-terrain maps. This makes impossible demands on Half Life’s graphics engine, but it is only by demanding the impossible that Manke transcends the possible.

            The first great example of this is the opening cut-scene or tag of Rude Awakening, which portrays an aerial shot of Dr. Franklin’s ghost escaping from an autumnal crypt, presumably to wreak further havoc on the world. The scene cuts to a static shot of a pack of unearthly beasts, huddled around a fire in an underground cave (one even snaps at us irritably). Each scene is keyed to a specific sound-effect: thunder roils in the background of the aerial shot, while the distant wail of a child is audible somewhere beyond the crackle of the cavern fire. This ingeniously rewrites the opening tag of They Hunger 1, a cinematic tracking shot of the player’s car moving through the countryside in the midst of a thunderstorm, into a reflexive parable of the multi-player genre: the aerial shot recalls to mind the invisible, roving spectators of a multi-player contest watching players respawn, while the static shot suggests the perspective of a multi-player team member located at a team base camp, listening to the chatter of fellow team-members.

            As it turns out, this entire sequence is merely a nightmare our player is having before waking up in the hospital, surrounded by realistic X-ray negatives and advanced medical equipment. The hospital facility features any number of delightful scripted sequences, ranging from a spine-tingling encounter with a zombie nurse (who cheerfully utters the single best line of Rude Awakening: “You’ll feed the little ones”, i.e. the infant aliens) to a moment where players must refunction an X-ray machine into a weapon, to signature Manke touches such as the ringing telephone or the scan of Manke’s head in the chapel. No less striking are the old-fashioned radios scattered about the hospital, tuned to a station playing the bizarre, neo-fundamentalist ravings of a zombie preacher (the “zombie news network”, if you will), and strategically placed next to equally archaic typewriters – symbols of obsolete technologies of broadcasting and dissemination, disrupted or hijacked by the zombie plague.

            What marks the hospital facility as Manke’s first full-fledged melee map, on the other hand, is the breath-taking balance between its textures (everything from spotless operating rooms to working X-ray equipment, and from the cellar crawl-space to an out-of-order elevator) and its architectural or spatial forms, which quote or cite almost every single hospital superstructure imaginable (admissions, billing, examining rooms, inpatient wards, physical plant, food services, stockrooms, chapel, maternity ward, etc.). By seamlessly integrating architectural function with textural form, Manke raises the tropes of local level design perfected by Rest in Pieces into fundamental principles of 3D game design.

            Probably the easiest way to grasp this transformation is to think of the rock-valleys and open terrain sequences as the inversion of the outdoor desert sequences of Half Life, shorn of the mediating infrastructures of the Black Mesa Research Facility, such that Arizona’s desert sun is now upstaged by an icy moon. But whereas Black Mesa’s trademark symbol, the stylized silhouette of a mesa, hints at a specifically natural history, Manke employs its logical antipode, namely social history: this is the giant skull of a steer, stuck on a pole in one of the very first rock-valleys like some medieval herald. The steer-skull points to the transformation of the corporeal symbols of Half Life – everything from the grinning memento mori of the player’s own skull, to the Nihilanth’s Über-brain – into new informatic bodies, ranging from the ossuary of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the skeleton-creatures of Rest in Pieces, and finally the undead bestiary of Rude Awakening.

            One of the clearest examples of this is the X-ray of the steer-skull players glimpse in the hospital. While trudging through a rocky valley, players hear an unearthly cry, which turns out to be a steer being zombified. It is only much later that players are confronted with the actual monster. This is a remarkable allegory of informatic production, which retraces the production-cycle from design blueprint, to prototype copy, to an unseen but audible production-process (i.e. the whine of the laser-printer or beep of the fax-machine), and finally the autonomous information-commodity.

            In fact, Rude Awakening’s monster-types are modeled on the neoliberalization of explicitly multinational institutions. In the case of the zombie nurses and doctors, this is clearly the privatization of Canada’s health care system, under attack by predatory pharmaceutical companies and privatization-mad Governments. The zombie train engineer refers to the privatization of the railways and transport systems, while the zombified animals and farmers highlight the onslaught of factory farming and Frankenfoods. Last but not least, the zombie troops clearly symbolize neoliberalism’s military and police agencies.

            At the end of Rude Awakening, players must retrace their steps back through the same rock-valleys, farm-buildings and asylum corridors they passed through before. This puts enormous demands on the maps in question, simply because they must be playable in two directions instead of just one. That is, the monsters and obstacles must be difficult enough to compensate for the fact that the player has some knowledge of the terrain and will avoid the most obvious traps and ambushes, but not so difficult as to make the sequence frustrating. Once again, Manke’s mapping skills rise to the challenge, by delivering an inexhaustible variety of modified textures, design variations, and scripted events – everything from realistic smoking rubble and ashes, to burnt-out walls which make the ruins of Black Mesa look positively tidy.

            In so doing, Manke illuminates one the fundamental design principles of the information culture, namely the equilibrium between the extended repetition of informatic forms and singular, unrepeatable design innovations. Just as the mirror and crab techniques of European musical counterpoint generated rhythmic variations out of invariant tonal structures, so too does Manke employ similarity to generate difference.

            Significantly, Manke eschews the most obvious narrative solution here – throwing large numbers of low-level monsters at the player – in favor of tactical complexity. Open spaces are generally filled with movement-based monsters, that is to say packs of dogs or steers, while enclosed spaces are filled in with hitscan opponents, i.e. zombie troops which players must dodge or outwit. What makes this work is the precise configuration of the game-script with game-play. In order to defeat the Army helicopter, the player must learn to duck and snipe with a fixed machine-gun. To defeat the zombie steers, players must either turn the strength of the beasts into their weakness, by permitting them to knock you into the relative safety of a lake, or using creative vertical strategies against them. To defeat the zombie troops, players must use close angles, terrain features, and sniper tactics. Put another way, Manke sets the informatic body in motion towards informatic labor-time.

            The first hint of this is the scan of Manke’s own disembodied head, bubbling in the lab vat of Rest in Pieces. This seems at first glance to be a standard “Easter egg”, the name given to the bonus sequences hidden away by programmers within a game, as a reward for especially diligent or clever players. However, we soon run into the Manke-model again, this time on the pulpit of the hospital chapel. The third time around, the Manke-model is now piloting a ferocious zombie farmer, capable of full movement and wielding a signature spade.2

            This echoes the symbolic progression of the steer-skull, i.e. the trajectory from the informatic model to its off-screen assembly, and finally to its operational deployment or field-testing, only with two crucial differences. First, where the steer-skull operates with a specific set of textures, i.e. the X-ray, the rock-valley and the farmhouses, the Manke-model deploys corporealities. The lab tank is linked to the disembodied hand, the chapel is linked to the dissociated body-parts lying around the hospital, while the farmer is linked to fully-assembled zombie animals (i.e. zombies designed to grow other zombies).

            What mediates between the steer-skull and the Manke-model, or more precisely, between the informatic commodity and informatic labor-time, is a new kind of informatic entity or agency. Somewhat surprisingly, this agency is not Dr. Franklin, i.e. the comprador mad scientist – a powerful enemy, but not the player’s true nemesis. The first clue is revealed at the very beginning of They Hunger 1, when the radio announcer tells the player that Sheriff Rockwood is running for an upcoming election. Somewhat later, we encounter the signature trademark of the “Rockwood Stud Cattle Co.”, suggesting that the real comprador is Rockwood rather than Franklin. The final bit of evidence is delivered in the chilling cut-scene where the player is captured by Rockwood for the third and final time, and hauled off in a cage by a zombie steer to what can only be described as a Zombie Party rally. As the player waits behind bars, Rockwood delivers a suitably demented speech to the assembled zombie troops, concluding with the Pattonesque flourish: “We hunger for victory”.

            At this point, a paratrooper assault by human soldiers inadvertently springs the player from their prison. In terms of form, this scripted event is a clever refunctioning of Half Life’s helicopter soldiers, who shimmy down ropes. In terms of content, this is the reflexive self-critique of the neo-nationalism still latent in Manke’s earlier maps, most notably Saving Private Monkey. The choice between a terrifying zombie neoliberalism and an equally nightmarish US military-industrialism is a false one: both must be resisted, simultaneously, if the player wishes to survive (this is underlined by a key moment at the railroad junction, where we learn of the military’s plans for a scorched earth operation).

            Most remarkable of all, Manke provides us with a model of what this resistance might look like, via the three bodies in captivity in the railroad junction. The first is an unclothed female zombie, which is not quite the reference to online porn that one might think. The second is a wounded civilian, whose dying words are, “I don’t want to become one of those… those things” – a line we will decode in just a moment. The third and final body, or more precisely set of bodies, is a quotation of Quake 2’s meat-packing plants: a button inadvertently sends a group of town-dwellers, huddled on an assembly line like so many machine-parts, to their doom.

            There is a logical progression here from the initial production of the (unclothed, i.e. texture-less) informatic body, to a neutralized informatic body (the texture-effect), and finally to the extended reproduction of informatic bodies (the scripted event or ensemble of textures). Putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, the steer-skull, the Manke-model, and the Rockwood-farm are the coded forms of the information commodity, informatic labor-time, and the multinational factory, respectively. Conversely, the player-character is transformed from a neo-national horror fiction writer turns into the multinational horror-fiction game designer.

            This is confirmed by the remarkable cluster of mediatic references at the very end of Rude Awakening, grouped around the asylum’s underground movie hall. This is both a witty pastiche of the horror movie, courtesy of the glittering posters of Frankenstein and Dracula, as well as a parody of the newsreel and WW II epics, something relayed by a film clip of Dr. Franklin ranting about “the greatest war in history”. Most significant of all is the moment when military zombies quite literally blast through the silver screen to attack you: this is the moment that Hollywood, or the cinematic arm of US military-industrialism, converges with zombie neoliberalism.

            It is somehow fitting that Manke should refunction one of the central symbols of the US Empire at its zenith, namely the helicopter, into an unlikely symbol of the informatic resistance. What piques Manke’s interest about the helicopter is its uniquely airmobile or birds-eye point of view, which provides the crucial narrative hinge between the two “boss” sequences at the end of Rude Awakening, i.e. the air-to-ground skirmish between the heliborne player and the cybernetically altered Dr. Franklin, and the final air-to-air struggle with a heliborne Sheriff Rockwood and various paratroopers.

            What marks these as pure melee maps is their total mobilization of perspective. In the first sequence, the player must take moving sniper shots while the helicopter pitches and yaws. The second is organized around a series of cyclical shoot-outs with Rockwood’s helicopter, as it orbits your own aircraft. To be sure, traces of the single-player and multi-player genres persist in both maps, e.g. the zombie on the watch-tower next to Dr. Franklin, or the health kit in the cockpit, a trope borrowed from Counterstrike, the single most popular multi-player version of Half Life. Fittingly, Manke’s epic ends not with a stereotypical landing or closing still photo, but with the promise of a new beginning. The final shot of the bullet-riddled helicopter, battered but unbowed, as it limps off into the radiant dawn, rewrites Half Life’s interstellar tramcar into the reflexive symbol of the Half Life engine itself – more than a little worse for wear, but just powerful enough to ferry us to the next level of the 3D videogame.

            While Manke’s helicopter pointed in the direction of a revolution in 3D engine design, the thing itself would be carried out by Zagreb-based Croteam. Rather than trying to replicate Half Life’s blend of horror and action registers, Croteam struck out in a new direction, by inventing the very first “melee game” based primarily on melee maps. The crucial innovation here was the creation of vast outdoor sequences, thickly strewn with advanced textures and swarming with hundreds of smoothly-animated opponents, resulting in colossal skirmishes unlike anything the videogame genre had seen before.

            What made the melee game possible was the explosive growth of online or multi-player gaming and the rise of powerful console systems (Nintendo, the Playstation 2 and the X-box) designed specifically for 3D graphics. In many ways, the melee game is the first aesthetic form to cross the divide between the personal computer market and the console market. Rather than trying to create a graphics engine capable of performing every single processing function imaginable, Croteam focused on the specific features required for melee gaming – specifically, crowd-effects, outdoor environments, large-scale action, and 3D sound and particle effects.

            What is most astonishing about Serious Sam is the fact that the game was produced by a group of programmers based in Zagreb, Croatia, a former principality of Yugoslavia turned independent nation-state. In fact, it is precisely Croteam’s status as Eastern Europe’s first blockbuster videogame exporter which endows Serious Sam with its unique geopolitical content. Even the name “Croteam” implies Croatia’s extraordinary transformation from a Cold War semi-periphery into a high-tech export-platform economy, capable of producing world-class software.

            Though the plot elements of Serious Sam may seem to be utterly stereotypical – e.g. alien invaders from outer space, battles waged not in the future, but in humanity’s past, the obligatory muscle-bound hero, and even a Doom-style admixture of undead and cybernetic monsters, the game is anything but derivative. The opening sequence of the game shows Sam quoting a classic Dr. Seuss line, “Sam I am” while wielding a hilariously oversized chaingun. Croteam had the essential insight that the only way to transcend the 3D action game’s inherent tendency to devolve into a cartoon is to accentuate this tendency, and thereby transform it into a new kind of content.

            This is the genesis of the game’s inventive and entertaining roster of monsters. The single most famous of these, which raised Serious Sam to the status of an instant classic, is the kamikaze – a literally headless soldier which homes in at the player’s location, holding twin bombs designed to detonate upon arrival. The kamikazes are a clever quotation of Robert Minor’s classic anti-war cartoon from 1916 in the New Masses, which shows a lieutenant at a recruiting station exclaiming, “The perfect soldier!” (the soldier, naked from the waist up, has massive shoulders – but no head). Instead of hands, however, the kamikazes have twin spherical bombs attached to their wrists. This is a double-jointed reference to the bomb-throwing anarchists parodied by Serious Sam’s game logo (a ticking bomb, with a stylized frown across it), as well as the globular monsters of Nintendo’s classic Mario Brothers games of the 1980s. But Croteam, in a stroke of genius, gave the kamikazes something no other monster-type had before: a three-dimensional sound-effect. Undeterred by their lack of a mouth, they literally shout in the distance, which means players must literally use their ears in order to turn around and pick them off at a distance, before they get too close.

            In fact, Serious Sam plays incessantly with the notion of heads and headlessness. Sam has a cybernetic implant in his skull, giving him a superhuman sense of aim, while many of the other monsters are headless, or literally carry their severed heads in one arm and fire weapons with the other. The cybernetic monsters and the were-bulls are essentially giant heads with vestigial bodies, and it’s no accident that the one major monster-type which does have a recognizable head is correspondingly bodiless, namely the fleshless skeletons.3

            What marks the were-bulls as a genuine advance over They Hunger’s zombie steers is Croteam’s creative use of game design. While the zombie steers cannot be dodged at all, and thus are ill-suited for ensemble attacks, the were-bulls have a tiny turning radius and cause a relatively small amount of damage when they hit the player. This makes dealing with an entire herd of the beasts enormously entertaining, simply because the player must constantly dodge one after another. It’s also easy to use them as an improvised means of elevation, i.e. by jumping into their path the player can be knocked high up, onto a ceiling or roof – something especially useful in conjunction with “rocket jumping” (a technique invented by Quake players, where players use the back-blast of the rocket-launcher to jump higher than normal).

            It is only when in the midst of a herd, surrounded by dust-clouds, the thunder of hooves, and furious bellows, that one begins to grasp the true aesthetic potential of the melee map. This is its capacity to portray an informatic space teeming with cybernetic bodies, the direct inversion of Half Life’s cybernetic space (the Black Mesa lab) teeming with informatic bodies. Later in the game, Croteam will expand this space into the aerial dimension, by means of swarms of flying opponents which swoop down from the skies in vast packs. Such herds and swarms are the logical counterpart of the grandiose stadiums, temples and arenas of the game, which cite architectural motifs from all manner of preindustrial cultures (Egypt, Central America, a mythical Babylon and – appropriately enough – medieval Europe) with a gusto worthy of Disneyland.

            Croteam also designed Sam’s arsenal exclusively for the context of the melee game. The most prominent of these is a handheld cannon, which disgorges a giant bowling ball capable of rolling over entire crowds of enemies, bouncing off walls, and so forth. The second is a flamethrower capable of melting entire streams of enemies.

            Croteam’s emergence on the global stage bears intriguing parallels to the rise of several other Eastern European cultural superstars, most notably the trajectory of Krzysztof Kieslowski from a quirky Polish documentarist to one of the great EU filmmakers of the early 1990s, or Slavoj Zizek’s trajectory from Slovenia’s in-house dissident to the EU’s greatest living cultural theorist. But whereas Poland and Slovenia integrated with the EU with comparative ease, Croatia had to pass through the purgatory of civil war, national revolution, ethnic slaughter and UN intervention.4 As a point of biographical fact, the members of Croteam experienced the breakup of Yugoslavia into its constituent nationalities in the early 1990s on the most personal level imaginable. Many of them served their mandatory term of military service in the Croatian national army, and thus had personal memories of the ferocious civil war between Croatian and Serbian guerilla forces in during 1993-95, as well as the UN’s show-down with the Milosevic regime in 1998.

            This history may explain the curious double narrative scission in Serious Sam, which decisively separates the game from its Northamerican analogues. In the first place, while Sam is clearly modeled on the prototypical Northamerican action-adventure hero, Croteam carefully avoids any mention of Sam’s national identity – suggesting that Sam is very much the Croatian version of the bemuscled strongman One in Caro and Jeunet’s City of Lost Children (1995), i.e. the multinational action-hero (something confirmed by a delightful hillside sign in Serious Sam 2, which spells out “Crollywood”, as well as John J. Dick’s terrific voice acting). Second, it turns out there are two sets of aliens in Croteam’s mythical universe: the first are the enslaved minions of Mental, the alien warlord bent on destroying the Earth, while the second are the vanished species which built the structures Sam journeys through, as well as the spaceships which ferry him through space and time.

            The solution to the mystery is revealed only at the end of the first Serious Sam, which features one of the most memorable final opponents ever created for the 3D game. The player must defeat a gigantic four-armed minotaur within a cube-shaped arena, which happens to be located inside an Egyptian pyramid (the pyramid is really an alien spaceport). To defeat the monster, the player must periodically turn on the transport machinery of the unknown, benevolent aliens, creating a transport-beam destructive to the monster, although harmless to the player. Once the monster is defeated, Sam rides the same transport-beam up to the spacecraft.

            The last and most telling hint is the visual motif stamped on the walls of the arena: pseudo-Egyptian metallic “coins” – baroque but nonetheless unmistakable, anagrams of the euro. This suggests Sam’s epic journey is somehow tapping into the latent geopolitical unconscious of Croatia’s accession process for membership in the EU. The contradiction can be explained by the fact that the EU was an economic superpower before it began to develop its corresponding political and cultural institutions. As it turns out, negotiations between the EU and Croatia on a framework for accession did not begin until 2000. While Slovenia became an EU member in 2004, Croatia is hoping to join in 2008 or 2010.

            All this is confirmed by the dense thicket of references to the EU’s indigeous consumer culture in the latter half of Serious Sam 2. These range from ancient castles to an incongruous Dutch windmill in the midst of a Swiss hamlet, all the way to Croteam’s own reflexive signature, the crate-flying aliens who appear at the beginning and end of the episode. These latter are the Croatian equivalent of the late 1990s Bobble-head dolls, which feature bloated heads displaying the scanned faces of the Croteam members and shrunken, Serious Sam-style bodies. This Euroconsumerism will touch base with its corresponding Europolitics during the penultimate battle outside of the Grand Cathedral: a series of eye-popping meteor swarms rain down from the storm-filled skies, clobbering Mental’s assembled minions and aiding Sam to wear down the masses of monsters. When the sky clears, Sam enters the courtyard to battle a floating magical summoner, whose defeat occasions a wild round of applause – a stunning two-part allegory, indeed, of the EU/NATO intervention in Bosnia and the subsequent overthrow of the Milosevic regime.

            It is entirely fitting that Serious Sam 2 should end with a quotation of the rocket launch sequence of Patrick McGoohan’s classic video series, The Prisoner (1967). But where McGoohan reappropriated the leading symbol of the Cold War space programs from the standpoint of the global uprising of 1968, Croteam’s achievement was to document the launch of the Starship Europa: the first multinational democracy in human history, an intricate webwork of Western European avionics, Central European engineering and Eastern European programming, blazing into the 21st century to battle the fearsome monsters of neo-national ethnic fundamentalism and neoliberal financial fundamentalism alike.

   

 


 

Endnotes

 

1. “But the reality of chaos is not the entire reality. In such appears the law according to which exchange-society reproduces itself blindly, over the heads of human beings. It automatically includes the continual growth of the power of the administrators over others. The world is chaotic for the victims of the law of value and concentration. It is not, however, chaotic ‘in itself’. This is only how it appears to the individual who is relentlessly squeezed by such. The forces which make its world chaotic have already taken the reorganization of chaos in hand, because it is their world. Chaos is the function of cosmos, le désordre avant l’ordre [French: the disorder before order]. Chaos and system belong together in society as much as in philosophy. The world of values conceived of by Expressionistic chaos bears traits of the newly dawning domination.” Theodor Adorno. Philosophie der Neueren Musik. Gesammelten Schriften: 12. (My own translation). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1975 (49-50).

 

2. There is a delightful informatic pun here which speaks volumes about the subversive potential of the 3D game: Manke was not employed by a game or software company when he wrote the They Hunger series. Instead, he made a living by doing construction work in Kamloops. The photo he posted of himself while on the job, available on his website, is a dead ringer for his very own zombie-model. Web: http://www.planethalflife.com/manke

 

3. This is also the secret of Serious Sam’s ultimate villain, a mysterious entity known only as “Mental”. The game offers four standard modes of difficulty, from “Tourist” (absolute beginner) up to the hardest of all, the appropriately named “Serious”. Upon defeating this last difficulty mode – something possible for most players only in multi-player mode, though there are the occasional 3D Olympians who can defeat this level by themselves – a bonus difficulty level appears, called “Mental”, which is essentially “Serious” with the added twist that the monsters are partly invisible. Put another way, Serious Sam is one of the few games with the sheer gumption to reflexively cite its own game-play as its villain: Mental is the shadow of information capitalism itself – literally, the mental game-within-the-game.

 

4. Eastern Europe’s transition from Second World autarky to aspiring members of the EU (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary all plan to join in 2004, while several others are on track to join somewhere between 2005 and 2008) was mediated by a set of three economic phases or transitions, as opposed to a single political event: first, the savage neoliberalization in the 1991-94 period (what Boris Kagarlitsky memorably described as “market Stalinism”), which sparked a catastrophic economic depression. Second, a gradual recovery process, characterized by the total rejection of neoliberalism and market orthodoxy by Eastern European citizens and their governments, and the construction of EU-style social democratic states, with extensive aid and managerial assistance from the European Union (the European Investment Bank, for example, is the largest single investor in Eastern Europe, accounting for somewhere between 5-10% of the region’s investment spending during 1993-2002). The last stage was industrial take-off, as Eastern European countries began to export high-tech goods to capacious EU markets, replicating the export boom of Taiwan, South Korea and the Chinese coastal regions.