For many years, the general public has had a misconception about the nature of Shakespeare. His collective works are generally thought of as a pastime of the upper class and intellectual elite, on par with opera.
As many know, the truth is that Shakespeare’s plays were actually a mundane form of entertainment in their time, on par with going to the movies or seeing a musical today. His productions often tackled humorous or tragic concepts that everyone could relate to—love, daily life, sex, rivalries, and conflict—presenting them in a way that was engaging and at times absurd to the general populace.
But the funny accents and fancier words of Shakespeare eventually started to seem incomprehensible to modern audiences. The timeless plays gradually fell out of favor as people became accustomed to the casual pulp-noir tone of radio plays and the action-packed police procedurals that followed with the advent of television. Just as community theater itself supplanted wise elders at the campfire entertaining their families with nighttime storytelling, this was just another step in a long lineage of narrative tradition.
So… what does this have to do with Half-Life?
The evolution of in-game improv
The biggest distinction between “performance arts” and “role-playing” is that the prior takes place on a stage with an audience, whereas the latter is for the entertainment of the actors themselves (or, at best, idle voyeurs and enthusiasts). Over time, the popular platforms for role-playing have changed drastically: from the confines of a tabletop game; to text-based MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons, a primitive form of MMORPG) and MUSHes (Multi-User Shared Hallucinations, an MMO designed specifically for role-playing); to just about any form of online chat room. Over time, role-players started acting out narratives in classical 3D MMORPGs and “the metaverse,” further eroding distinctions between role-playing and theater.
Then, strangely enough, the pastime started making the move to first-person shooters and real-time strategy games.
In these genres, many early server-based multiplayer titles offered plenty of downtime between skirmishes. Bored youths everywhere were happy to fill that time with vibrant interpretations of in-universe lore spun from their imaginations. It’s hard to trace the precise origins of this phenomenon, but it’s easy to find first-hand accounts of it in games like Warcraft, Jedi Knight/Outcast, Half-Life, and many others.
The veritable Cambrian explosion of modding communities online would eventually offer these player-actors as many or more means of self-expression as could be found in contemporary MMORPGs. With violent props, fantastical environments, and stockpiles of worldbuilding at their disposal, there was no limit to the kinds of stories late ’90s and early ’00s kids could unfold through a then-modern first-person shooter.
In 2004, Garry’s Mod would drastically change the scene. The comprehensive Half-Life customization tool enabled anyone who could afford the hosting fees (and had the scripting know-how) to assemble dynamic rulesets and enforce new gameplay mechanics that would foster more immersive storytelling: property ownership, electable public officials, emote systems, and a speech engine that limits your words to those within earshot, to cite just a few examples. Many readers likely have fond memories of late-night, absurdly hysterical antics found in these user-made role-playing add-ons.
Some of the most memorable emergent performances now find a less ephemeral home in comedic YouTube compilations. Recorded performances made explicitly for the sake of machinima have also taken off in popularity. One notable example is the giggle-inducing longplay of Half-Life: Freeman’s Mind by Ross Scott.
Send in the streamers
With the arrival of charismatic Twitch streamers—who sometimes create full in-character personas for themselves—the convergence of performer and digital performance has come full circle. Perhaps the culmination of the trend is WayneRadioTV’s exceptionally hilarious Half-Life VR but the AI is Self-Aware.
Wayne takes on the mantle of the lovable but silent anti-hero Gordon Freeman, imbuing him with the now-common “neurotic panicked narcissist” persona made popular by Freeman’s Mind. He’s joined by a mysterious cast of supposedly “self-aware” NPCs, played with uncannily accurate impressions of the original voice talent.
Wayne’s version of Freeman tromps through the halls of Black Mesa with his cavalcade of fools, turning the entire self-serious narrative of Half-Life on its head. Once regarded as an apex horror experience with few peers, Valve’s shooter masterpiece has now become a vehicle for the wackiest of memes and sublime comedic timing. Who knew Half-Life‘s setting and characters could serve as the basis for a new type of sitcom?
As more people find themselves working from home and turning to digital media for their leisure time, it was perhaps inevitable that the performance arts would adapt to the times in this way. As actors of the past stepped away from the auditorium in favor of movies and TV performances, we are now seeing a new era of actors and playwrights breaking away from the institutional baggage of the trade’s old forms. In Half-Life, they’re free from the baggage of trained acting (memorizing lines, rehearsals, etc.), for better or worse.
Where we once stood in awe of charismatic personalities on the stage, we now quietly become transfixed by our screens, cackling at unscripted jokes and recurring improv gags. It’s a golden age for those who grew up adoring such television shows like Whose Line Is It, Anyway?.
So take a seat, send in the clowns, and laugh your troubles away. I hear it’s the best medicine.
Listing image by Half-Life VR: Self-aware AI