Video games indulge their audience more than any other artistic discipline. If gamers line up for a franchise, its publisher will release increasingly uninspired yearly installments, until there’s not a cent left to be made. If players enjoy a certain side character, he will almost certainly return for his own spin-off series. Gamers have a hard time letting go, because they’re so used to getting more, more more. More DLC, more character packs, more endless franchises. They whine when a title gets delayed, and then complain it feels “rushed” upon release. They want constant content, but they also want it to consistently meet their expectations.
So it’s not hard to see how fanfiction reared its ugly head among this madness. Fanfiction allows distraught gamers to access more narrative threads within their favorite fictional worlds, indulging beyond the mere vision of the game designers. Didn’t like the ending to the latest Mass Effect? Write a new one where Shepard throws her crew a big goodbye party! Fanfiction is largely about taking control of a cultural object and finally, truly making it your own. Is it powerful beyond the solipsism and complete disrespect for authorial intent it represents? Sixty billion Fifty Shades of Gray fans (a book that famously began as Twilight fanfiction) can’t be wrong.
Yet every so often, a fanfiction author emerges who is so attuned to the world of his obsession — its tone, its themes, its characters’ dialects — that he not only validates the genre’s existence, but provides a fresh, worthwhile take on a beloved property. Through his capable prose, the form actually transcends mere indulgence and speaks to the fan in all of us, encapsulating what lured us to the source material to begin with. Of all the fanfiction masterpieces recognized as worthy successors to their originals (citation needed), perhaps none is more monolithic, more perfect, and more real than Fanfiction.net author Squirrelking’s magnum opus, Half-Life: Full Life Consequences.
To say Squirrelking had some big shoes to fill when he tackled a Half-Life “fanfic” is like saying J.J. Abrams should probably approach the new Star Wars film with some trepidation. Half-Life revolutionized video game storytelling, and the series remains one of the medium’s high water marks to this day. Players adore its characters, fetishize its weapons, talk endlessly about where the (still unfinished) saga of Gordon Freeman might go next. Squirrelking’s terse prose — full of purposeful misspellings and pidgin English, in one of the most gripping linguistic evocations of a future dystopia since Riddley Walker — internalizes all that is wonderful about the Half-Life experience, then ruthlessly (and brilliantly) slices the game’s lore and plot mechanics back down to their very basics.
In a hysterical, stinging commentary on Valve’s empty and easily replaceable protagonists, Full Life Consequences doesn’t follow the adventures of Gordon Freeman, but his heretofore unheard of brother, John. But Squirrelking’s laceration of the game’s tropes doesn’t stop there: In Full Life Consequences, Gordon Freeman himself becomes the damsel in distress, subverting thirty years of chauvinistic video game gender roles. John Freeman’s journey takes him far away from his safe and quiet laboratory and into the nasty heart of Ravenholm (“u shudnt come here,” a sign proclaims, poking fun at Half-Life 2‘s sometimes on-the-nose foreshadowing), illustrating the huge leap in scope between Half-Life and its sequel. However, as the Half-Life games never leave Gordon’s perspective, Squirrelking rightly evokes this sense of isolation, focusing his attention entirely on John’s plight. Gone are beloved characters like Alyx Vance, the Vortigaunts, and almost all the others. And good riddance, I say! Not even an author of Squirrelking’s obvious talent and ambition could condense such a beloved franchise’s varied iconography into a single, seven hundred word story, and he concedes to this fact. What is there, however, is fantastic. John’s encounters with the headcrab zombies are terrifyingly tragicomic, more so than any similar moments in the actual series. Full Life Consequences‘ zombies actually speak, and their unquestioned sentience adds another layer of heartbreak to these lumbering beasts’ existential torment. Gordon Freeman approached his enemies with a mute coldness, but John Freeman brims with empathy.
To reveal much more would ruin one of the most unexpected literary thrill rides of the twenty-first century. However, I must note that Squirrelking’s ending is especially brilliant. Half-Life earned its reputation as a ground-breaker through eschewing certain outdated video game tropes, such as traditional final boss battles. So what better way to end a Half-Life fanfiction — to really drive home the point that gamers only want to be indulged and coddled, and that the franchise structure exists to appease — than force John and Gordon to face the “final boss” they’ve so long avoided? Like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s deliriously meta Adaptation, Full Life Consequences‘ ending employs the most pandering and obvious of genre tropes, on one hand celebrating Half-Life‘s ability to rise above such nonsense, but on the other, clearly criticizing the franchise for not distancing itself further from the average run-and-gun actioner. That it ends on a cliffhanger as unexpected and unfulfilling as Half-Life 2: Episode Two‘s is all the sweeter.
It’s no secret that Half-Life fans are a little nervous about the franchise’s future. They’ve put up with years of radio silence about the possibility of a Half-Life 3, and many now grow impatient. Yet if video games have taught us anything, it’s that when we want more of something, we deserve it, right here and right now. Nothing captures the essence of that idea better than Half-Life: Full Life Consequences. Squirrelking understands Half-Life to such an unqualified degree that Valve needs never touch the franchise again, as it has already passed into even more capable hands. And since he must continue the ruse of artless pandering, this Faulkner of fanfic of course crafted Full Life Consequences sequels and spin-offs. I look forward to tackling them someday, as John Freeman’s adventures will surely become as iconic as his more famous brother’s. But for now, this singular attempt to perfect upon the perfection of Half-Life is enough. Sometimes, the customer truly is right.
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