Artists are invited to give editorial shape to a project they have embarked on but that isn’t yet defined

Words and images by Oliver Payne

At the time of its release in 1998, Half-Life was a serious benchmark in gaming and its 2004 sequel, Half-Life 2, is still considered to be amongst the finest examples of its kind.

In the Half-Life games you play as Gordon Freeman. A silent, spectacled scientist. Not particularly typical for the protagonist of a first-person shooter game.

As Gordon Freeman, you spend a great deal of Half-Life killing things. As you progress through the game, the limp, lifeless bodies of your enemies fall and flail all around you. They plummet from guard towers and helplessly bang their dead limbs and heads against the banisters as they hurtle to their death as realistically as the hardware will allow.

Such realism is made possible in games of this type by using “rag doll” physics during player death sequences. This means the character we are controlling as well as the Non Player Characters (or NPCs) appear to move in an almost unsettlingly lifelike fashion. Particularly when they die.

Strictly speaking, Half-Life 2 actually uses a technique called Inverse Kinematics Post-Processing. This technique relies on playing a pre-set death animation and then using inverse kinematics to force the character into a possible position after the animation has been completed.

So, each time you fall to the floor – from a bullet to the back of the head or your skull being smashed by some falling debris – you briefly view your death from a third-person perspective, before quickly returning to your lifeless body to view the world from the eyes of your corpse.

Every inch of these worlds has been textured, rendered, polished and lit to appear as realistic as the hardware can possibly manage. But while all this adds to the immersive experience that these games offer us, we are never really invited to take a moment and enjoy the scenery. We run from area to zone to mission to cutscene, all without taking a moment to admire a glorious sunset or marvel at a striking skyline.

Death allows us a glimpse of these amazingly realized worlds from a perspective we were never really intended to see. But, of course, we never choose where we die. And so we are doomed to view these worlds from behind a cabinet or under a desk or stuck behind the door by the fire escape staircase. Or, very often, we see nothing but the wide expanse of a clear blue sky above us.

As the world of Half-Life 2 goes on without us, we can often see and hear the person who shot us walking away, and we are left to ponder the matter from our given perspective.

Oliver Payne (1977) is a British artist based in Los Angeles. During the late 1990s he worked in collaboration with Nick Relph creating video and installation works. Since 2009 he has been working individually. His recent work centers on ideas of subjectivity and context, drawing from disparate sources like Japanese videogame subcultures and camping gear brand fetish to reflect on our perception of "outside" reality.