I was watching my friend play Half-Life 2, not all that long ago – all part of my elaborate plan to turn him to the PC side, after a lifetime of console gaming. He was on the chapter called ‘Sandtraps’, and had just encountered a simple puzzle, where the player has to find two car batteries and place them into the socket to power up a gate, allowing the player to continue down the road. The first is close to hand, to show the player what it is they’re looking for. As he dutifully socketed the block, I thought about my own experiences playing the game for the first time, and remembered how long it’d taken me to find and retrieve the second battery lodged halfway up a small tower – I’d eventually got it down with a combination of carefully placed bullets and hurled projectiles, nearly losing the battery off the edge of a cliff in the process. It was a moment of victory I remembered clearly, and I wanted my friend to experience the same victory.
He is not a man known for his patience, with video games in particular, so in the spirit of wanting him to enjoy the game I decided to warn that the second battery would probably take a while to find.
“Don’t give up” I said, “You’ll get it eventually. It might take some-”
“What are you on about?” he interrupted, “it’s clearly right here.”
He then wandered over to the wreckage of a car, not five feet from the tower I’d found my own battery on, and casually picked out the battery from under the bonnet.
I was shocked. There was another battery there. I’d spent ages hurling bricks at a tower, when there was another bloody battery right next to me.
My friend, never one to miss an opportunity to take the piss, leapt at this. “Where do you look for a car battery? In a car.”
A car battery. In the bonnet of a car. The most obvious thing in the world. Embarrassed, I slunk off to make a cup of tea, brain on overdrive.
How the hell had I missed it?
The answer, I think, lies in our backgrounds. I was an experienced gamer and he, while he’d played more than his fair share of games, was always more of a practical man. To him, it was as plain as day that a car battery would most likely be found in a car, but I had read the situation differently. It’s certainly not that I was too stupid to realise where car batteries live*. I know that, if I’d been on a real street searching for a real car battery, I would certainly not have gone around lobbing debris at rooftops. But because this was a game my instinct was to look for a puzzle to solve, and because it was Half-Life 2, I knew that the puzzle would almost certainly be physics-based. To me, the car battery may as well have been a red key, whereas the car itself was simply one of the seven or so ‘ruined car’ models that had been strewn about the place since I’d started that section of the game. I had seen the car, sure, but I had instantly dismissed it as an irrelevant decoration, a part of the scenery.
I know for a fact that I’m not the only one who had trouble with this section, and my story is definitely not the worst. I’ve heard tales of people simply abandoning their car and walking the rest of the way, or even spending ages building an impromptu ramp out of junk in order to jump the gate. I suppose this is a testament to Valve’s ingenuity with game design – all of these solutions are perfectly valid ways to progress, even if some of them are slightly more insane than others:
I’m certain this is not the only time I’ve made such a basic error in a game, but it’s definitely one that sticks in the mind. There’s clearly a counter argument to the theory that gaming somehow makes you a more intelligent person here.
In a few specific ways, gaming does in fact make you appear to be very, very stupid indeed.
My cry of ‘But that’s not how games work!‘ is certainly not a lonely one.
* My friend disagrees with me on this point