Midway through Valve Corporation’s Half-Life 2, a PC game, I was accompanied by lively companion rebel Alyx Vance as we fought against the Combine, an alien empire that has taken control of Earth and rules humans with brutal and unrelenting force. As I continued onward after passing a loading point, I pulled up short after realizing that where there had once been a single Alyx Vance, there were now two, standing with their guns at the ready and attentively waiting for me to lead the way. I decided to ignore this obviously extra-narrative development, turned my back, and moved forward through an electric-powered metal gateway, which quickly sealed once I had passed through. One Alyx managed to sneak through with me, while the other remained stranded on the far side.
I glanced back and forth between the pair, unsure of which one was part of the prescribed plot and would continue to assist me in my quest to save the human race. Would it be the one next to me, using her advanced technological skills to enable us to travel further into the Combine’s headquarters, or would it be the separated other, offering the video game cliché that she was “fine” and would “find another way around” so that she could “meet me up ahead.” I discovered that my true partner was the former as she swiftly moved into action hacking a Combine computer once we entered the next room. The duplicate stood forlornly gazing through the closed gate, expertly rendered and totally irrelevant to the rest of the story and my gaming experience.
Despite the surreal nature of this particular glitch, it was, in the end, just that: a glitch. But the accidental Alyx embodies the limitations of the devices and capabilities we have today, a tease of what we’d like to accomplish but cannot with modern tools. I had reached the boundary of the coded gameplay running the game. For an instant, it seemed possible to pursue an alternate narrative with the second Alyx, abandoning Valve’s plans for my progress to forge my own storytelling path, free of the designer’s binds. Of course, it was not to be, and I experienced the absurd disappointment of resuming play as it had been laid out for me and for all others that play Half-Life 2.
This is a regular occurrence when it comes to utilizing or engaging with a technology. There is a persistent desire to push its limits, to endow it with a capability that does not exist, to accomplish a personal task that, while it makes sense in our heads, is not (yet) a possibility. (I wrote previously on the expectations we have for technology, and the way in which consumer demand now precedes development and manufacture.) We are continually frustrated by the physical and virtual blockades which impede the dream of unfettered creativity and utility. We catch glimpses of that unattainable path which meets our needs rather than strictly adhering to the natural and designed rules that determine the constraints of modern technology.
Such wishful thinking is not a complete lost cause: it is also the fundamental desire that drives new developments and sets the goals for which we strive. To an extent, we need the occasional tantalizing taste of what may yet come. It inspires and stretches our conception of what future technologies can do and even encourages us to move beyond the objectives we have set to consider more outlandish possibilities. A second Alyx Vance is a catalyst for reimagination and therefore worth keeping an eye out for, no matter where she might appear.