[Game: Half-Life, Valve, 1998]

Half-Life, Black Mesa, and the Work of Art in the Age of Post-release Modification



In an unassuming former monastery building adjacent to the church of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, there is a wall decorated with the remnants of a mural painted by Leonardo da Vinci. In English, the mural in question is known as The Last Supper, and—due to a combination of the oil-painting-like techniques employed by da Vinci (which differed considerably from Fresco techniques, and thus were very unconventional for mural work) together with aspects of the construction and later history of the building—the work is badly damaged.

Meanwhile, about 20 minutes away, in a space on an upper floor of the Galleria Vittorio Emannuelle II shopping complex (next to the Milan Cathedral), at the time of writing this there is an exhibit known as Leonardo3 which includes, among other features, a computer-aided reconstruction of what The Last Supper would have looked like at the time of its original completion by da Vinci in 1498. The question I now pose to you, dear readers, is a simple one: if these were the only two options in existence, which one would you say is what is meant by the phrase, ‘The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci?’

I’ll give you my own answer to this quandary in due time, and (regardless of your own response) it’s almost guaranteed to be an answer you don’t expect. But I can’t provide it just yet, as first I need to take some time to introduce and discuss the main topic of this article: Half-Life. And I need to do that in order to adjudicate a similar superficially straightforward dilemma. The Half-Life remake Black Mesa is a terrific game, is an incredible labor of love, and is the single greatest fan-led project of its kind ever completed. But on top of all of that, does Black Mesa also count as being Half-Life itself?

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci - Half-Life, Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

The Half-Life Purist or Idealist Position:

My first playthrough of Half-Life occurred in 2011. Despite the 13 years of rapid technological advancement that had elapsed between then and its original release, I found the game magnificent and captivating.

The atmospheric level, lighting, and sound design drew me into an intense and dangerous world. It led me through a sequence of linear passageways, but by opting for more organic ‘chapters’ rather than discrete levels, it remained immersive and grounded. Its approach to science fiction felt mature and serious, and that maturity in the worldbuilding was matched by gameplay and enemy AI that demonstrated a concern for realism through relative complexity.

Its story concerns a science experiment gone exceptionally wrong and the violent military coverup that quickly follows, with implications of something even weirder going on peppered throughout (and coming to the forefront at the very end of the game). The way in which Half-Life’s presentation of that story is seamlessly integrated into the core experience of its gameplay is absolutely masterful, far surpassing the majority of releases to this day—as games generally continue to present their stories as interruptions to their gameplay rather than elements of it.

Soon after playing the game, I became aware that there exists in the popular response to it a persistent notion that the game is no longer pleasant to play because it is, for them, visually unappealing and mechanically ‘clunky.’ Having been around long enough to play plenty of 3D games produced during the 1990s—including playing many of them, you know, during the 1990s—I had simply accepted the low-resolution textures, low-polygon models, and stiff movement of Half-Life as being the style of the game. But as the years wore on, this idea that Half-Life hadn’t aged well (to which I was diametrically opposed) began to attach itself to an even more troublesome corollary.

Half-Life screenshot with anti-mass spectrometer - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

See, in the wake of Valve’s underwhelming port of Half-Life to the Source Engine in the mid-2000s, a team of fans set out to produce their own ground-up remake of Half-Life, with a scope and list of aims which steadily expanded over the years. The eventual goal of the project could be summed up as creating a game that takes full advantage of the newer engine to offer (1) a hugely changed visual style more in line with that of Half-Life 2 and its episodic follow-ups, (2) a number of minor alterations to unpopular level layouts and puzzle mechanics, and (3) an extensive reimagining of Half-Life’s divisive final chapters. This fan-made remake is called Black Mesa, and it started to approach completion in the mid-2010s.

Thus, it was in the mid-2010s that the troublesome corollary to which I referred a moment ago began spreading across the web. The new companion to the claim that Half-Life does not hold up well was the claim that—as a result of this alleged poor aging—one should simply play Black Mesa instead. The latter was being taken not merely as a supplementary work, but as an acceptable and even advisable substitute for the former.

That sentiment persists wherever games are recommended between people, and my reaction to it now is basically the same as my reaction to it then: revulsion. Imagine if every single time someone in an American film forum said they wanted to watch the 2002 film Infernal Affairs, someone always chimed in to tell them that they can just watch the 2006 film The Departed instead. After all, while both films are great, Infernal Affairs is in Cantonese and is set in Hong Kong. These potential difficulties for a modern American audience have been removed in Scorsese’s remake—which switches the language to English and the setting to Boston. And if a newer or more accessible cinematic version of the story is ever produced, that should be preferred instead. Then the viewer can go ahead and say they’ve basically already seen Infernal Affairs, or at the very least that they’ve already seen The Departed, with the least possible exposure to old things . . .

Black Mesa screenshot with warehouse full of mines - Half-Life, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

But the substance of a work inheres in its details. The characters speaking Cantonese and the film being set in Hong Kong are some of the elements that make Infernal Affairs the film that it is. The more such details that are removed or ‘smoothed out,’ the less that the work is Infernal Affairs. They can only be considered obstacles to watching the film in the same way that the flavor of a meal can be considered an obstacle to eating it.

Perhaps some players don’t like low-poly art, or tracing lengthy cart rails underneath a facility, or a final set of levels including a sudden change to artstyle and mechanics. To the degree that that is the case, those players don’t like Half-Life. When those things were removed or changed in Black Mesa, that brought about a distancing between it and the original. And the more such alterations were made, the more remade or more ‘remastered’ it became, the less it was Half-Life.

Along these lines, one would never have to wonder why I would avoid directing my analysis of, for instance, Crash Bandicoot—at its iteration in the N. Sane Trilogy remaster. If the game I am setting out to analyze is Crash Bandicoot, then I will analyze the game containing thoroughly and exclusively the details which make up the original Crash Bandicoot. Only if the game I am setting out to analyze is instead the first title in the N. Sane Trilogy remaster will I extend any analysis or attention in that direction.

One may possibly object to this reasoning, on the grounds that Naughty Dog could have actually intended to create a game that looks like the remastered Crash back in the mid-1990s, yet were unable to do so due to the limitations of contemporary console technology. Given the computing resources available today, Naughty Dog may have produced a work substantially similar to the remastered title and released it under the name “Crash Bandicoot.”

Crash Bandicoot screenshot with gaps and crates - Half-Life, Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

That may be true. On a similar note, it is also possible that Frida Kahlo was limited in her ability to translate the art she envisioned in her mind onto a canvas by the precise size and shape of the paintbrushes that were available to her. I doubt this is the case, but it is conceivable. As a matter of curiosity, I am interested in the practical limitations against which the works of both Frida Kahlo and Naughty Dog were created.

But when it comes time for analysis—for close reading, thematic studies, and hermeneutics—only the details of the work that emerged from the process of creation (whatever quirks and limitations that process included) will be those to which I attend, from the brushstrokes on Kahlo’s canvasses to the jagged polygons in Crash Bandicoot’s physique.

But if you’ve been nodding along until now, then you may be initially displeased by the material that comes next. For while the deferral to the newest remake or remaster as always being a legitimate way of experiencing an original work (provided that the new work is itself of high quality) strikes me as an obvious error—the hardline commitment to the apparently opposite notion, that only the work as it was originally released could possibly count as the thing itself, runs into numerous problems of its own.

The Half-Life Pragmatist or Realist Position:

As one walks through a gallery of Renaissance paintings, even if one sets aside the group of works left unfinished by their artists, one is still not seeing works as they were originally released. One is seeing representations, modifications, or versions of them. They may have sustained significant damage from warfare, weather, improper storage, or otherwise. They may have been removed from their original locations and/or frames. They may have accreted layers of well-meaning restoration work. They may have been accidentally or surreptitiously switched for copies or forgeries. And even if all of that hasn’t happened, they may have deteriorated through more subtle means across the simple passage of time, such as due to humidity or chemical changes in the paint.

Half-Life screenshot with rotating posters - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

Nevertheless, one may be tempted to think, as they browse the Louvre, that they are at least privileged to be seeing so many original works of art as they were intended by great artists of the past. They are not, after all, instead viewing a convenient copy of the works in a book or on a web page. Thus, they are still accessing the magical authentic experience of the works themselves. Or are they? Consider the following words from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:”

To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. [. . .] Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics. [. . .] by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental. (Benjamin)

Benjamin is speaking of a fundamental change that technology has caused in the role art plays in society, and that change can not be avoided or reversed by a trip to the museum. A museum, as a publicly accessible exhibition space, is in fact one of the sources of the change according to Benjamin. Now, he doesn’t think this change is a bad thing, per se. Benjamin wants art to be able to achieve political progress, and the “artistic function” he felt was being diminished was specifically the kind of traditional reverence of authenticity, beauty, or religious significance that dominated interactions with art for the preceding millennia.

The relevant key point here is simply that, in an era where changes of that kind have occurred, visitors to the Louvre who feel they are seeing the works in their original forms or format are, in some very real sense, either being deceived or deceiving themselves.

Half-Life screenshot with gargantua underground - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

Even if every single solitary one of those various forms of damage or displacement listed a moment ago actually hasn’t affected some subset of the Renaissance paintings in question, and even if those works (as is the case with many murals) actually have not moved from their original locations—the works are still being received by individuals whose ideologies, languages, cultures, and often also social statuses differ from those extant among the audiences to whom the paintings were originally presented. An experience of such paintings that strongly resembles the experience of them that was available when they were first created has been, in the famous phrase of Roy Batty, “lost in time, like tears in rain.”

When I played Half-Life via Steam in 2011, I was playing the version from which this article’s screenshots were drawn. At the time, I thought I was playing the game in its original form. I had deceived myself; I had not actually played the game as it had been released in 1998. Not only had minor bug fixes and optimizations been made consistently over the years, but I had also played the game at a widescreen resolution of 1366 by 768. Relative to what was available in the release version of Half-Life, that resolution is both wider than the largest option (which was 1280 by 960) and at an incorrect aspect ratio (widescreen display in the original version was offered by stretching or cropping one of the available 4:3 options)—not to mention the fact that, unlike me in 2011, most players in 1998 would’ve been experiencing the game on a CRT monitor.

And people who played the game for the first time between 2013 and 2023 and believe themselves to have experienced the game in its original form might be in an even deeper fog of self-deception (depending on how much research they did prior to playing), as an ‘HD pack’ of graphics (which had been made freely available on Steam in 2005) based on the graphics of the standalone expansions Blue Shift and Opposing Force, was added into the official release of Half-Life and activated by default in 2013. This decision was not reversed by Valve until the game’s 25th anniversary update, a decade later. Personally, before playing I did no advance research whatsoever, so it is merely a benevolent quirk of fate that by playing the game in 2011 I played the game with its original graphics essentially intact. You can see a comparison between some original graphics and some HD pack graphics in the image below:

Half-Life screenshot with HD model pack comparison - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

But what are we to say of people unknowingly playing the game with the HD pack enabled, or at an ‘incorrect’ aspect ratio? Well, I know what I would’ve said in the past: I would’ve said they hadn’t actually experienced Half-Life. See, the first draft of this essay was written five years ago. Despite sharing the exact same subject matter and even the exact same title, it was far different from what you are reading here. In that first draft, I took a naïve hardline purist stance.

I was drawing on Walter Benjamin’s argument that the ability of works in new artforms (especially photography and film) to fulfill new and important social, revolutionary, and political functions derived in large part from the total interchangeability of every reproduction of one of them. So, following the letter of Benjamin’s essay, but not its spirit, back then I boldly wrote that the ‘true’ Half-Life is therefore only the game exactly as it was released in 1998.

Ironically, I was making an appeal to the authority and authenticity of that version (its ‘aura,’ as Benjamin would render it), but that still seemed to me to be the choice that most closely paralleled the potential of the medium of film that he saw in the 30s—which lay in film’s ability to broadly distribute a particular carefully assembled experience for wide consumption and critical analysis. For games to do the same, I felt that the experiences they offer must have stability. Like Benjamin, the potential commodification and politicization of art facilitated by mechanical reproduction did not necessarily offend my principles; but minor alterations being present in those reproductions certainly did. As a result of this stance, it is a somewhat amusing fact that that earliest draft of this essay was written by a version of me who did not know that, by his own standards, he had therefore never played Half-Life . . .

Anyway, minor variations of that kind are by no means even remotely exclusive to Half-Life. Even setting aside the version differences created by both ports to new platforms and incremental updates on live services like Steam—many games come with aesthetic variations baked in, through the graphical, audio, and gameplay settings available in the menu. Similarly, games frequently release with differences based on the region in which the player lives. Famously, there was a 10 Hz difference between North American and European consoles for decades due to NTSC and PAL standards that were in use. Cultural and legal differences have often introduced small variations, like the censoring of sexual jokes and imagery when distributing games in the USA, the censoring of violence when distributing games in Germany, and the censoring of all of the above and more when distributing games in China.

Half-Life screenshot with turret and vortigaunts - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

The earliest version of Half-Life, as sold on disc in 1998, has options to change the game’s difficulty, alter its display resolution, download the latest online update of the game, and even toggle “visuals inappropriate for younger players” (which refers to some of the blood and gore in the game).

And beyond all of that, there is the basic matter of gaming’s most unique attribute among artistic media—that it is interactive. Even in games containing no randomized elements whatsoever, the exact experience that any given player will have in completing a game may be literally unique to that player alone. Whether the player-character turned left or right at a given moment; succeeded quickly, succeeded slowly, or failed at their tasks; and whether they thoroughly explored the gameworld or rushed to an ending—will all necessarily vary from person to person.

There are thousands of people, for instance, walking around in the world saying they have played through Dark Souls without their characters having ever set foot in Ash Lake, let alone Oolacile. There are players who have only ever played melee characters, and never explored other mechanics such as archery or magic. There are players who have defeated Gwyn, but never fought the Taurus Demon. I don’t think this is controversial for me to say, but: all of the people who have beaten the game have played Dark Souls. Of course they have. In fact, I have a hard time even imagining a purist so ‘pure’ that they would tell those players they haven’t. But what it is for them to have played Dark Souls is far different from what it is for a completionist to have done the same. That fuzziness between the experiences of individual consumers is inextricable from the act of consuming art; it is simply drawn out more clearly than usual in the medium of games, where one routinely discusses artworks as having ‘optional content.’

Along these lines, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” shows itself to be incredibly prescient when—while covering the effects of the increasing historical proliferation of literature, literacy, and expertise—Benjamin declares, “Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.” The degree to which every player of a game is actively involved in the production of their own experience of that game is the loudest knell ever sounded for the death of the author.

Half-Life screenshot with military airstrike - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

Ultimately, in a world of day-one patches and ‘games as a service,’ insisting on experiencing games as they were originally released becomes either a quaint bit of trivia or a quixotic impossibility, rather than a defense of art. Aside from certain speedrunners and MMO players, the quest to access such absolute earliest versions will increasingly become the domain of academic curiosity.

Just as I was deceived into thinking I had played and appreciated ‘the true original Half-Life’ in 2011, so you may possibly have been deceived into thinking you saw the original Last Supper, however damaged, at the top of this article. But even that version, the one now available in the former monastery next to the church of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, has undergone massive restoration efforts.

Below you can see what the painting looked like in the 1970s, by which time it had in turn already received an enormous amount of restoration attention in the preceding centuries. In fact, by then, the painting had already existed for over twice as long without the section below the table in the center (which was removed to make room for a doorway in 1652), as it had existed with it. And, again, owing to da Vinci’s insistence on using a method closer to oil painting than fresco, the deterioration of the work began almost immediately upon completion—and was significant and blatant within just a few decades. According to the testimony of 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari, the original painting had simply flaked away into an unrecognizable blur by the end of the 1500s.

Anyone in the here and now who is willing to claim that they have seen The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, that they know what it looks like, is required to admit they are willing to accept something other than the original work as completed by the artist as being the work itself—perhaps they are referring to the repeatedly diminished and restored mural standing in the monastery; perhaps they are referring to a good-faith attempt at reconstructing the appearance of the original work, like that exhibited in Leonardo3; perhaps they are even referring to a more durable copy of the original work by another artist, such as the one by Giampietrino or the one by Andrea Solari.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci in 1975 - Half-Life, Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

In a similar vein, there are a great many people today saying that they have played Half-Life without having played the game as released in 1998. They comprise a set that I believe is accurately representing reality when they say they have played Half-Life, and it is a set that contains me. But now it is time for the last swing of the pendulum. For, even in light of the realistic and pragmatic concerns raised here, I feel a need to bring the material in this section and the material in the prior section together into some kind of general principle before I will be ready to close the question of whether those who have only played Black Mesa belong in that set.

The Matter and Form of Half-Life:

For the past couple sections, we have been skating along the surface of a lake which is remarkably deep. It’s now time to plunge our heads and look down. What, in general, makes something distinct from all other things of the same type? What makes one giraffe different from a similar giraffe? What makes me different from you? And, yes, what makes one game different from another?

Obviously, we are not hoping to capture the similarities among all things of a given high-level type—the common nature or universal category that includes them all and sets them apart from other types: giraffes, humans, games. Rather, we’re trying to capture the differences among entries within a category. We want to know what picks out a particular entity as being distinct and individual. We’re looking for ‘a principle of individuation.’

Perhaps, as a first attempt, we could make a list of elements that are literally unique to the entry under study, and shared by no other. For instance, it is conceivable, and even likely, that no human being other than you has the patterns of fingerprints and iris coloration that you have. But such unique details are clearly not the totality of what makes you you, rather than someone else. After all, if you were to lose your fingers or your eyes, you would not cease to be you. So they are not necessary conditions for something to be you. But nor are they sufficient; a list of those truly unique elements, after all, would not include things which are clearly part of your being you but which are shared among you and others. A hypothetical entity with your fingerprints and iris coloration but which has no internal organs fails to be you.

Half-Life screenshot with firing gluon gun at alien grunt - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

Somehow, what we really want to capture is all conceivable details of the individual, both unique and common, which—when taken together—mark them out as being only themselves. Two promising methods of doing this, at least since the work of Aristotle, have been to point to the matter of the individual or to point to the form of the individual. In a doctrine that now bears the attractive name ‘hylomorphism,’ Aristotle contends that matter and form are the two parts of which every particular thing is a compound.

Let’s start with matter. Can matter be the principle of individuation for which we’re searching? Well, this is initially a very promising idea. Considering the example from a moment ago, if we were to specify not only that a being must have organs to be you, but that a being must have your organs to be you, we seem to be getting somewhere. It does seem to be the case that any given entity, such as one particular giraffe, at any given time has or is a distinct parcel of matter, and that the way in which that is true sets that entity off from all other entities with overlapping features.

In terms of strict metaphysical possibility, however, it is perfectly conceivable, though incredibly unlikely, that at another time—in the distant future, perhaps—a second giraffe could come about which has the exact same parcel of matter as the giraffe under study has now.

Well, you may fairly remark that this notion of the same matter being used by two different entities of the same type at different times . . . seems like a pretty contrived and unlikely objection. Perhaps it poses a problem for professional philosophers specializing in metaphysics who are seeking a rock-solid principle of individuation—but for everyday, practical, pragmatic purposes, it may still seem like matter is good enough to formally distinguish and set apart the identity of one thing from all others of its kind.

Black Mesa screenshot with soldier in silo - Half-Life, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

Matter, however, encounters an even bigger obstacle to being the principle we’re seeking when we come to consider our main topic: necessarily reproducible artworks like books, films, and games. When we want to know what makes one giraffe different from the rest of the species at a given time, the matter involved is clear enough. But when we want to know what makes, say, Things Fall Apart different from all other novels or stories, the matter involved is, to put it mildly, less clear. Every copy of a given edition of a book has equal claim to being that edition of that book, and just about everyone in the world would accept a copy of a book as also being (at least in some sense) the book itself. To put it into terms introduced by C.S. Peirce, we are not interested in what makes my token or copy or individual instance of Things Fall Apart be the token that it is, but rather what makes the type or narrative or novel that is Things Fall Apart be the type that it is. Yet a particular edition of the novel simply is a sequence of words, and whether that sequence is etched into stone or spoken aloud, it remains recognizable as being the novel that it is.

Though tied more immutably to certain platforms, the same is ultimately true of films being a sequence of images and sounds (rather than, say, a film reel)—and games being the experiential interface of an underlying ruleset and code (rather than, say, a NES cartridge).

Granted, there is, at any given time, including the partial contents of hard drives and libraries around the world, a subset of matter that corresponds to all extant copies of a particular book, film, or game. But it is an arbitrarily telescoping set which can be added to or subtracted from according to the will (or whim) of interested agents; it does not seem to draw a line around the identity of the work in the way that your matter at any given moment seems to do for you. And at any rate, that kind of loose conceptual amalgamation of all existing copies of Things Fall Apart—does not seem to be what people actually mean when they talk about the book (what the book is like, whether it is a good book, any possible meaning of the book, and so forth). And in the case of a memorizable artwork like a novel, holding to that position would lead to strange consequences, such as some of the matter that constitutes particular works arguably being matter that is inside of human brains.

And zeroing in on our main topic here, often no singular definitive physical copy of a game precedes mass production, if there is ever a physical copy at all apart from the atomic presence of the storage of the data on various hard drives. And even if one is speaking of the source code (which it is fairly trivial to demonstrate is not what almost anyone is trying to refer to when they refer to a game in general discourse), that code is often duplicated across multiple workstations. Ultimately, unless we are dealing with a rare collectible or one of them is broken, a person usually doesn’t much care what makes one copy of Ratchet and Clank for the Playstation 2 different from another same-release-version, same-region copy of Ratchet and Clank for the Playstation 2. What we are trying to figure out, rather, is what makes the HD release of Ratchet and Clank for the Playstation 3 different from Ratchet and Clank for the Playstation 2, and how (if at all) that affects its identity.

Half-Life screenshot with pair of mournful scientists - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

Ultimately, what we want to know about is an identity that isn’t necessarily tied to all of a work’s currently associated matter, nor to any particular subset of its currently associated matter. That’s a shame. It seemed like such a promising answer! So . . . if matter isn’t going to help us, then where do we turn? Well, Thomas Ainsworth describes the situation thus:

We have seen that there are some textual reasons to think Aristotle makes matter his principle of individuation; but in fact particular forms are better suited to play this role. We need to distinguish between two different questions, one about unification, the other about individuation: (i) what makes this giraffe (or this giraffe-matter) one and the same giraffe (over time)? (ii) what makes this giraffe distinct from that one? The first question [. . .] does not obviously require an answer that is unique to the giraffe in question. Giraffeness in general may well suffice. The answer to the second question, however, cannot be the universal species, since it is common to both giraffes, nor can it be their matter, since they could (albeit improbably) be composed of the numerically same stuff at different times. It is not so obvious that Aristotle sees the need to address the second question, but if his forms are particular, not universal, he is in a good position to do so. (Ainsworth)

Alright, what is this “better suited” avenue referenced by Ainsworth: particular forms?

First, what is something’s form, as opposed to its matter? Form is not just shape, but also structure and possibly also function. Form is the way that something is arranged in the world—the way, for instance, that your matter is arranged to constitute the existence of you.

A ‘universal form,’ which philosophers often just call a ‘universal,’ is a grandiose way of referring to a property or category that is shared by multiple things. For example, if two objects are both rectangular, then rectangularity may be the universal that binds them together in some way.

A ‘particular form,’ on the other hand, would be a form that is unique to a single thing: the form of you, as opposed to the form of me. That is to say, the particular form of you is the shape, structure, and perhaps also function that your matter instantiates.

Half-Life screenshot with water, health refill, and headcrabs - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

This latter notion of a particular form is another promising answer to our predicament, but once again, when we turn our attention away from tokens (like your copy of a game or mine) to types (like the game itself considered apart from any specific copy), complications arise.

A minor complication is that there’s a bit of linguistic confusion here that needs to be ironed out. My usage of the technical terms ‘token’ and ‘type’ may mislead you into thinking there could never be a particular form of something like a story or a game that I’ve called a ‘type.’ After all, if a particular form is a form that is unique to a single thing, and a type is a class of things, then surely we’re speaking of the universal form of those things instead. But notice what I actually just said: “a type is a class of things.” It’s not ‘things.’ It’s ‘a class of things.’ Class is singular there. It’s the particular form of that thing, the class, which we’ll be discussing here.

This confusion ultimately arises from the fact that there is some ambiguity in the words ‘particular’ and ‘universal;’ they’re always relative in their application. For example, if we’re discussing the universal category ‘animal,’ then we might speak of ‘human’ as a particular; but we could just as easily discuss the universal category ‘human,’ and you as a particular. Notice that this is possible even for Ainsworth’s example, as one could speak of ‘being part of a particular giraffe’ as a universal, and, say, one of that giraffe’s legs as a particular. So, you could say that we’re seeking the universal form that all copies of a given game share, or you could say (what I will be saying) that we’re seeking the particular form which only a given game has. The distinction there is in the words, not the concepts.

But even with that clarification in mind, there’s a more troublesome complication. The remaining concern takes the form of the following question, and it is the actual question underlying this entire article: what is the particular form of a game? In other words, which aspects of the shape, structure, and function of a game—which of its aesthetics and mechanics—constitute its particular form?

Half-Life screenshot with gonarch on Xen - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

If the answer is absolutely every aspect, every detail, all of them without exception—then the particular form is the work exactly as it was originally released, and we are back in the realm of the ‘purist or idealist’ stance lambasted earlier on; a second edition of a novel that does nothing but correct a few typos in the first edition would be a new, distinct, separate novel—and every minuscule bug fix patch distributed online releases a game that is brand new. Half-Life fans who wish that there were more entries in the series may welcome that consequence, as it would mean there are actually already hundreds of Half-Life games officially produced by Valve . . . but the rest of us are likely to see that as an untenable definition.

Conversely, if the particular form is a loose category that contains only some essential subset of the details of the original work (which seems to be where the earlier ‘pragmatist or realist’ section is leading) then a new issue surfaces: how do we select this essential subset? Consider the following summary by Aaron Smuts:

[. . .] the general worry for the type theory of story identity is that just as it is difficult to decide when a story should fall under a general type [. . .], it will be difficult to say when we should consider something the same story. [. . .] If the type theory of story identity is to be viable, it must provide a principled explanation of where we can draw the line that is not based on salience. (Smuts)

Smuts feels the line between one story and another can not be based on salience (that is, on how seemingly important or memorable particular details are) for several reasons: because salience may be a quirk of any particular version of a story, because salience will vary from person to person, and because salience may even vary from reading to reading. But at last, this is where I am ready to retreat to the realm of the everyday, the practical, and the pragmatic.

I agree with Smuts that through current paradigms it will be basically impossible to uncontroversially establish the particular form of a given story or game. But I’m not troubled by that. I’m comfortable with controversy, and I’m comfortable with a definition of particular form that allows it to vary from person to person in relation to a given work. Thus, I am willing to accept salience as the solution, and to be, in Smuts’ phrase, ‘unprincipled’ in my explanation.

In a way of discussing the situation that may be derived from the work of Thomas Aquinas, it is necessarily in the abstraction of the mind that one thing may ever be recognizably the same as another thing. After all, something being “recognizably the same” requires at least a hypothetical recognizer. Thus, it is from a specific perspective (yours, for instance) and not from some place of neutral objective authority, that such a determination can be made. As a result, it is—in a perhaps unsatisfying conclusion for some—almost definitively subjective.

Half-Life screenshot with robot viewed from inbound tram - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

The metaphysicians may continue to argue to the end of time as to whether these human perspectives are actually discussing a real property (or set of properties) shared by the particular objects in question, or are discussing something that has no real existence outside the mind. But that’s of no special consequence to me as I live my life. I’ll never be able to step outside of my mind to get a glimpse of reality itself, apart from my experience of it, and even that terminology of a ‘glimpse’ helps to reveal the truth of this sentiment. Thus, whether universals are real or imaginary is one of the many debates that can not be conclusively won. It’s just not possible to know whether there is any ultimate transcendent difference between the concept ‘recognizably the same’ and the concept ‘the same’—not possible to know whether sameness is a property of reality itself, or just a property of reality as it is perceived—because we only have access to reality as it is perceived.

But that unreachable ‘reality apart from perception’ (the ‘noumenon’ or ‘thing-in-itself’ in the phrase of Kant, the ‘transcendental signified’ in the phrase of Derrida) is not what concerns me; all that matters to me is the world that I perceive, the world in which I live. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, what a thing is is what it appears to be. Not just how it appears on its surface, but how it appears to all human attention and investigation.

I don’t know what the most important element or set of elements is for establishing the specific identity of a game, and neither do you. Yet, for all that, I feel capable of establishing principles whereby, when presented with two works, I can make a determination for myself as to whether they are or are not the same work. Now . . . I imagine you want to see what this subjectivity-based solution looks like in practice. Well, then it is finally time to move on to the last main section of the article.

Drawing Lines in Sand:

Our central questions have been revealed to be these: ‘what is the particular form of a game?’ and ‘when does any new variant of a game get to be said to have that game’s particular form?’ I have now argued that there can be no objective answer to these questions (or, at the very least, that no human will ever have access to an objective answer to these questions, whether or not there are any).

But all is not lost.

At the end of the day, perhaps all we really need or want is to be able to communicate our thoughts and considerations about different works to each other. For that, if we simply choose and use them, subjective answers to these questions could work just fine.

Half-Life screenshot with radioactive liquid - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

Due to the issues discussed in the first few sections here, a subjective answer that is purist in nature (while perfectly coherent) won’t work, simply because it would be pragmatically useless. A purist answer won’t allow people to communicate their thoughts and considerations about different works, as practically no one would be able to say they’ve played a given game, seen a given film, or read a given book. Thus, ideally, the subjective answer we accept will be an answer which itself enshrines the subjectivity involved, as a discouragement to the bickering of the most stubborn originalists.

To that end, here’s an answer to the first question:

The particular form of a game is the set of details that constitute the experience of a game.

Is this just a tautology, saying that a game is a game? No, as we have introduced the concept of ‘detail’ and related it to ‘experience.’ This answer is not a rulebook that will let people access objective truth. It’s a guiding principle that will help people pinpoint their own intuitions.

And here’s an answer to the second question:

A variant of a game gets to be considered the same game if it is perceived as being a good-faith and credibly successful effort to preserve with minimal alteration the salient mechanics, sounds, and artstyle of a work.

Thus, to spell out the relationship between the second answer and the first one, the mechanics, sounds, and artstyle that are salient to a player are the details that make up a game’s experience. In the world of paintings, the analogous situation to the second answer would be the fruits of the subtlest, most skillful, and least presumptuous art restoration efforts.

Note that, despite it leaning so heavily on subjectivity, this is actually still a pretty strict standard. Even though you will very rarely be literally experiencing a work exactly as it was originally released, this standard still says that for what you experience to count as that same work—it has to seem to you that its aim is to present the work as close as possible or as close as reasonable to its original form (hence ‘good-faith effort’), and has to give you no obvious indication that it is failing at that (hence ‘credibly successful effort’). You may take or leave these answers as you like, but first watch me put them to use . . . with a practical demonstration of what I declared a little while ago about being comfortable with controversy:

Demon's Souls screenshot with Tower Knight boss fight - Half-Life, Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

Metroid: Zero Mission is not the same game as Metroid. Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories is not the same game as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Bluepoint’s Demon’s Souls is not the same game as FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls. Despite the clarifications of the previous two sections, I’ve said those things before, and I’ll likely say them all again. They may be similar creations, but they do not share identity as the exact same artwork. To me, it does not seem that the details which constitute the experience of the games in question are sufficiently present in their paired examples, because I do not perceive those three remasters or remakes to be good-faith and credibly successful efforts to preserve with minimal alteration the salient mechanics, sounds, and artstyle of the works. Unsatisfying? Possibly, but in accordance with the definitions I’m using, I am open to being convinced that I am wrong about any of these determinations. Clearly, I have not settled any arguments here today; what I am advancing is a set of subjective guidelines that people can use to make such decisions for themselves, and to advance such arguments.

And at any rate, although those particular remasters and remakes seem to me to fall short of the standard I’ve proposed, it must be granted by everyone that there is a range of acceptable variations which do not cause the drawing of that kind of hard distinction.

If any of us are to ever be able to say that we have seen The Last Supper, or watched Infernal Affairs, or played Half-Life, then we will have to become comfortable with some level of ambiguity—with the fact that there are many subtly-differing-yet-legitimate forms of any given work. The only version of Infernal Affairs that I have personally watched, for instance, had subtitles covering part of many frames of the film . . .

Most would agree that nearly all possible combinations of graphics settings and nearly all official update versions of a game qualify for status as being the game itself, and I feel that should be obvious enough to cause the most staunch of originalists some pause. A game can perhaps be considered to be in a prolonged state of public development as official updates and expansions continue to roll out. Moreover, straightforward ports to comparable or more powerful platforms and engines, as well as nearly all official regional variants or ‘localizations,’ typically fulfill this requirement as well; such ports of a game are sort of like different editions or translations of a novel. And finally, and this is where things get a little ‘wild’ for the purists, sometimes subtle remasters, volunteer translations of works without official localization, emulated versions with or without CRT filters for older titles and with or without hardware upscaling for 3D titles, and even games with subdued community mods that target technical details like an increased frame rate—qualify as equivalent experiences too.

The Legend of Zelda The Wind Waker screenshot with Great Sea traversal - Half-Life, Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

How about some more examples? Have a look at the Zelda series. Nintendo’s recent remaster (or remake) of Link’s Awakening for the Switch does not count for me as exactly the same game as Link’s Awakening. Yet their remasters of Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword do qualify for me as presentations of the games themselves. Along the same lines, even if I don’t like most of the changes involved, I nevertheless feel compelled to admit that Dark Souls Remastered absolutely remains Dark Souls.

Now, you may ask, how am I personally drawing this line? How do I decide that the symphonically covered music and shiny bloom-heavy look of Winder Waker HD count as presentations of the aesthetics of the original Wind Waker, but the orchestrally reimagined music and busy dilapidated look of Bluepoint’s Demon’s Souls don’t count as presentations of the aesthetics of the original Demon’s Souls? Both are clear approximations, and neither significantly alters gameplay, after all. Well, I’m happy to answer, but you’ll find that, for reasons now well-established, it’s not a precise scientific process.

First, I try to determine what I consider to be the salient mechanics, sounds, and artstyle of a game. To do this, depending on the circumstances, I may play the game again—or else I may simply think of the experience of playing it, and see what I remember and what stands out to me among those memories. Either way, I consider what the details of the game are, and how those details come together to establish its themes. But, at least in most situations, it’s not as though I make a formal list of such details; I’m just, after the fact, putting myself mentally within whatever remains in my head of the feelings and experiences I had when interacting with the work. The elements of that remaining mental experience are the elements I find salient about it. Next, I consider the experience of a newer work that may or may not share the target game’s identity, and I decide whether or not I perceive that “a good-faith and credibly successful effort has been made to preserve with minimal alteration” all of those salient elements. That’s the definition I have accepted, so that’s the best answer I am able to give.

I provide this criterion here so that people may, if they so desire, choose to employ it when deciding for themselves about particular works. But even in cases that seem straightforward to most people, there will never be unanimous agreement. As I said earlier, salience will vary from person to person. It is better to accept this than to fight it. It is better to recognize this state of affairs than to pretend that one’s statements about this topic are objective. As when arguing the definitions of genres, the quest to establish unquestionable objectivity is a futile one which can and will draw people into ceaseless debates.

Blade Runner still with cityscape and vehicle - Half-Life, Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

And speaking of debates, the content of this section should not be construed as saying there can be no preferences or questions of priority among versions, even if the standards presented here would consider them to share identity as essentially one and the same work. For instance, even though I maintain that Dark Souls Remastered counts as being Dark Souls itself, I personally have a strong preference for many textures, all lighting, and all fire effects in the ‘Prepare to Die’ edition. And similarly, though I consider them all to be ‘legitimate’ versions that share identity with the excellent films to which each of them correspond—I will always actively discourage first-time viewers from selecting the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, or the Redux cut of Apocalypse Now. Legitimate or not, I still consider them to be inferior experiences of those works. While a good-faith effort has been made to preserve with minimal alteration the salient details of these works, the relative success of such attempts is arguable.

Now, on the subject of “first-time viewers,” it may reasonably be asked how a person should in general determine which version of a thing to start with. Well, first I’d say that there’s typically no significant harm for most people in simply starting by playing, watching, or reading whichever version is ready-to-hand (and then only investigating further if interested or better informed). But if you want to know my personal policy, it’s this: except in situations where I believe the original or all early versions to be damaged or lost, I always prioritize credible originals and direct ports or prints for my first experience of a work—initially avoiding all remasters, remakes, reimaginings, and re-edits if possible. Yet, as the foregoing example of Blade Runner, whose theatrical cut may actually be its worst version, clearly demonstrates, a person may still fail at making a good first choice by following this policy; this too is a rule of thumb, not a law. I nevertheless feel such a policy offers the most favorable probability of actually experiencing any given notable, influential, or culturally relevant work one sets out to experience.

As much as I might earnestly wish that rights-holders looking to re-release past works would focus on historical preservation, on providing experiences that resemble the original works as closely as possible, while resisting the temptation to dress the works up to match contemporary tastes or technologies, unfortunately that is the minority phenomenon (at least for games). So, for me, when possible seeking out a credible instance of the original work (or a credible facsimile of it, or a direct port of it to another platform or format) is a worthwhile effort.

That reminds me: back on track discussing the identity of a game, some will surely say that the line I’m drawing is merely the distinction between a remaster and a remake, but again things are not that simple. For instance, the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and Spyro Reignited Trilogy, which I feel are clearly distinct works from the originals due to dramatic aesthetic differences—with new voice acting, new animations, new models, new textures, new enemy and NPC designs, and sometimes new areas—are marketed and broadly construed as remasters, not remakes, due to the overlaps in narrative, level design, and mechanics.

Crash Bandicoot screenshot with waterfall and river - Half-Life, Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

In light of such edge cases, folks are eager to offer technical criteria, like saying that a game is a remake rather than a remaster if it is in a different engine, or if new art assets were made, or if gameplay was altered. Yet Wind Waker HD, which is an experience that’s extremely similar to that of the original and which is thus broadly considered a simple remaster, has new art assets (and has slightly altered gameplay). And Half-Life: Source with the community bugfix patch for it, which is an experience that’s extremely similar to that of the original and which is thus broadly considered a simple remaster, is in a new engine (and has slightly altered gameplay). So, while details like whether the primary selling points of a project are similarities to an original or differences from an original can provide rough guidance, subjectivity is the only answer that is ultimately both accurate and honest.

How far is too far from an original artstyle, soundscape, or set of mechanics? Frankly, I’m not sure. The whole situation calls to mind the Sorites paradox, otherwise known as the paradox of the heap. How many grains of sand can be removed from a heap of sand before it transitions from being a heap of sand to not being a heap of sand? Any specific line drawn will always be arbitrary and contrary to logic. There will always be edge cases where deciding between heap and not heap due to the difference of a single grain seems baseless. And yet, for all that, if everyone were to simply select a rule to follow, however arbitrary, then in everyday life they would be able to consistently discuss and make determinations about what is and isn’t a heap.

And speaking of sand, for all the implied finality and authority of ‘drawing a line in the sand’—where, when, and how to draw such a proverbial line is a necessarily individual and fragile task. I’ve drawn such a line in this section, and will operate according to it in the conclusion that follows. But soon after that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone else wander out onto the same shore and, with a swift movement, erase my line in order to draw their own.

Those of you knowledgeable about the Zelda series may have felt I made a convenient omission when discussing Link’s Awakening a little while ago. The differences between Link’s Awakening from 2019 and Link’s Awakening from 1993 are fairly dramatic. But what about Link’s Awakening DX from 1998? Do the added colors, additional music, new optional dungeon, new optional side quest, and slightly altered secret ending of Link’s Awakening DX make it a genuinely different game from Link’s Awakening? Or does the fact that the two are otherwise functionally identical preserve their shared identity? I have made my own decision about this, but it’s a close enough call that—instead of blurting it out—I’ve decided that some of my points here are better supported by leaving this one as an exercise for the reader. Take the criteria offered here into your mind, and let me know: are they the same game?

The Legend of Zelda Link's Awakening DX screenshot with octoroks - Half-Life, Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin


Alright, here’s the moment of truth: four examples have been questioned throughout this article as to their ability to impart the experience of particular works: two ostensible versions of The Last Supper, and two ostensible versions of Half-Life. So let’s list them off, and give each of them a straightforward, direct answer. Now that everyone reading this has been reminded recently with great clarity of the fact that these are answers given from a necessarily subjective perspective, I can rest assured that I can safely state them without inviting any ire from the reader whatsoever . . . ah hem. Here we go:

Does the mural in the former monastery satisfy the meaning of the phrase, “The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci?” Yes, I would say it does. Does the attempted recreation in Leonardo3 satisfy the meaning of the phrase, “The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci?” Well, prepare for a potentially surprising response . . . yes, I would say it does. I feel that both the restored mural and the digital recreation satisfy the criterion from a moment ago. They both represent good-faith and credibly successful attempts to resemble da Vinci’s Last Supper as closely as possible, because they both possess the salient details which impart what I take to be the experience of the work—the poses, proportions, and positioning of the figures and objects; the colors; the depth, character, and details of the faces. People who have seen either work, whether in-person or via reproduction, can in my opinion consistently and truthfully say that they have seen The Last Supper. As that probably now includes you, I suppose I should say, ‘congratulations.’

On to the games:

Does the HD-pack-defaulted, periodically updated, high-resolution game available on Steam under the name Half-Life count as Half-Life? Yes, I would say it does. While I might personally rejoice that the game has returned to having the so-called HD pack disabled by default, I would even begrudgingly admit that I do not feel the alterations it introduces are quite significant enough to say that the game is not Half-Life. And does the newer-engine, ground-up remake available on Steam under the name Black Mesa count as Half-Life? (Drum roll, please.) No, I would say it does not. Despite all my jabs at purists, my hedging and backpedaling, and my harping on about pragmatic and realistic circumstances—I nevertheless feel secure saying that Black Mesa does not represent a good-faith and credibly successful attempt to present a work resembling Half-Life as closely as possible. That was, of course, never its aim. Hence its altered level layouts, its completely new Xen chapters, its expanded and rerecorded voice lines, its remade textures and models, its reworked mechanics and puzzles, its new music, and so on. Black Mesa is a great game, but its incredibly numerous differences from Half-Life are precisely its reasons for existing. The experiences are not interchangeable, and in my opinion should not be treated as such.

Half-Life screenshot with cliff overlooking desert landscape - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

So, there are plenty of people who should relax a bit about whether players on emulators, or on low settings, or with an unlocked frame rate, or without optional content are getting ‘the true experience’ of a game . . . but there are also people who should stop pushing interested individuals away from old art.

Now, I’ve spent the majority of this analysis on the technical task of tearing down, and then reconstituting in a more useful form, the sub-discipline of metaphysics related to establishing the identity of particular games as particular artworks. But what I’d like to leave you with is actually a turn back toward the theoretical angle that energized Walter Benjamin to write about the promise and danger of the similar transitional moment in which he was writing nearly a hundred years ago:

Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question—whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art—was not raised. Soon the film theoreticians asked the same ill-considered question with regard to the film. But the difficulties which photography caused traditional aesthetics were mere child’s play as compared to those raised by the film. (Benjamin)

As from photography to film, so from film to games. The thoroughgoing involvement of the consumer of an artwork in the production of the artistic experience has never been harder to ignore, more blatant, more inescapable than in games. The way that the meaning of art is a cooperative creation between the content of an artwork and an audience member experiencing and interpreting that content has simply never been clearer. In most modern games, it is practically impossible to participate without engaging at least at some minimal level in a casual kind of improvisational acting—an exploratory, immersed-yet-critically-distant, credulous-yet-ironic activity which folks have taken to calling ‘role-playing.’ In games, we are asked to take on roles, to control particular characters or objects, and we do this willingly though we never truly lose sight of ourselves outside the game wearing the virtual costumes.

Half-Life screenshot with G-Man on outbound tram - Black Mesa, Valve, art, Walter Benjamin

A decade before self-conscious works like Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line came along and raised outright the question of how much control players really exercise over the things games are asking them to do, players young and old were faced with the obvious non-option of whether or not to collaborate with the G-Man, within the manifest constraints of a game so self-consciously linear that it both begins and ends in a railcar, and after one of its longest chapters toward the middle was both titled and centered “On a Rail.” And yet, for all that restriction, for all its scripted set pieces and circumstances, Half-Life remains an experience more variable and interactive than any non-game work of art. Thus, while the passive, uncritical mode of reception which Benjamin feared was all too common among filmgoers certainly can be practiced by folks playing games, I would argue that it is nonetheless basically antithetical to the medium. What you are being tasked to do in the Black Mesa Research Facility is something that you never really forget you are being tasked to do, in your role as Gordon Freeman.

The stories that games tell us are always in part stories that we tell ourselves and in part stories about ourselves, in which we act and improvise. This accounts for why players over the past 20 years have become so sensitive to perceived differences in ideology between themselves and the games they play; they detect a disconnect or dissonance between themselves and their storytelling partner. They are being forced to confront their own sociopolitical priorities as rules of action and interaction, in a way that is not demanded of them by, say, a film with a perceived message with which they disagree.

This essay is an examination of the attributes of the work of art in the age of post-release modification. But by that phrase, I should not be understood as meaning only the unusually fine gradations of change between versions that modern distribution methods provide—changes of source code or assets in bugfixes, mods, ports, updates, remasters, remakes, and so on. Those things, in addition to my mapping of those phenomena onto processes like the degradation, movement, and restoration of paintings, have lent nuance to my stance that the identity of a reproducible artwork, its particular form, inheres in the experience that arises from its details. But by ‘post-release modification,’ I also mean the way in which games, as such identifiable experiences, are modified immediately and in an ongoing fashion after their release, by every moment of play that occurs within them.

Works Cited:

Ainsworth, Thomas. “Form vs. Matter.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2020. Web.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1936. Translated by Harry Zohn. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, pg. 166-195. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Mariner Books, 2019. Print.

Smuts, Aaron. “Story Identity and Story Type.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67.1, 2009, pg. 5-13. Print.

[Game: Half-Life, Valve, 1998]

Half-Life, Black Mesa, and the Work of Art in the Age of Post-release Modification

was last modified: December 7th, 2023 by Daniel Podgorski
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