See = Sick

Half-Life makes me sick.

This is not a euphemism. I am not commenting on its enviable sales figures, smart-arse physics engine or nauseatingly accomplished level design. No, in a departure from my standard blogging format I’m cutting through the metaphorical flim-flam and asking you to accept the words as written.

Half-Life makes me physically ill. When I play it, spew comes out. True story.

A couple of months back I borrowed The Orange Box from a friend with the intention of playing through Portal. It took me an afternoon to complete and a month to stop gushing about it. Having already conquered Half-Life 2 on an old PC I opted to give the Xbox 360 port a miss. Another friend had kindly entrusted me with her Gamecube (just call me ‘Fingers’ Gilmour) so I took the opportunity to dive headfirst into the chronologically confusing corridors of Eternal Darkness.

While this was by no means a bad move I recently realised that I had missed something. In my haste to poke around yet another haunted mansion I had overlooked two important chapters in the Half-Life 2 canon: Episode One and Epsiode Two. The last time I saw Gordon and Alyx they were frozen in time on the edge of an exploding reactor. Since then their stories had progressed but I had not. I racked my brain but couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t already zipped up my hazard suit, grabbed my gravity gun, re-grown my goatee and picked up where I left off. I loved Half-Life, didn’t I? Why didn’t I finish what I had started?

Forty-five minutes into Episode One it all came flooding back to me. Along with my lunch.

Half-Life 2: Episode Spew
Half-Life 2: Episode Spew

I have never suffered from motion sickness in real life, nor experienced similar symptoms whilst playing any other game. I love my first-person shooters and can happily explore the halls of Rapture or the wastelands of post-apocalyptic Washington DC with absolutely no risk of acid reflux. So what is it about Half-Life specifically that causes me to jettison my chunky cargo?

Experiencing nausea whilst playing video games is actually referred to as ‘simulator sickness’, gaining its moniker from symptoms reported by pilots using military flight simulators. It shares the principles of motion sickness, with both conditions being triggered by a contradiction between signals from the inner ear and visual stimuli. Motion sickness occurs when the body senses movement but the eyes disagree (think of staring at the floor when you’re in a moving car), while simulator sickness is triggered by the opposite: the eyes detect movement but the inner ear doesn’t. The theory regarding both conditions is that the clashing signals make the body believe it is hallucinating. In its infinite synaptic wisdom the brain attributes the cause of this apparent hallucination to a psychotropic poison and promptly induces vomiting to purge the body of the offending toxin.

Anyone who has ever felt dizzy or developed a headache after protracted periods of gaming can testify to the very real physical effects that virtual realities can have on our physiology. But why is it only Valve’s terracotta wunderkind that leaves me yodelling into the porcelain canyon? Unsurprisingly, research suggests that first-person shooters are the principle offenders where simulator sickness is concerned, with the Unreal and Quake engines in particular cited for their stomach churning effects. Specific causes vary from player to player; some are upset by bobbing cameras or quick panning, some by the counter motion between gun and camera. Regrettably, the end result is the same: tossed cookies and unfinished games.

Half Life 2
"Stand back Alyx, I think I feel a Jackson Pollock coming on…"

I don’t know what it is about Half-Life’s use of the Source engine that makes me want to spill my guts, but I do know one thing: I will not be beaten. I completed Half-Life 2 in several thirty minute stints, pausing for breaks to re-orientate myself with my surroundings and remind my gullible brain that it was not actually running away from aroused ant lions on the beaches of a dystopian future-earth. Episodes One and Two will be bested with the same effective (if somewhat irritating) technique. Trouble is, with a game as immersive as Half-Life 2 it’s very easy to get carried away with all the combine-harvesting (zing!) and lose track of time altogether. I shall prevail though. With one eye on the screen and one on the clock, victory will surely be mine…

Urgh… I don’t feel so good…






6 responses to “See = Sick”

  1. Susan avatar

    It sucks that such a thing gets in the way of enjoying a long stint of playing a game. I’ve experienced it too, it’s horrible and almost makes you not want to play. Bad times.

    You should be commended for finding so many different ways to refer to vomiting in one post! XD

  2. newcartnewstart avatar

    Don’t know if you have an HD TV to connect to, but doing that and sitting further back could be a big help. You could also try fiddling with the FOV, as I know that can be a trigger for some people regarding motion sickness.

  3. John avatar

    This is exactly the reason I can’t play FPS! It TOTALLY ticks me off that I’ve not been able to enjoy the majority of the great shooter games of the last few years because of a simple medical condition! BAH!

  4. James avatar

    @ John – What a drag. I consider myself lucky that it’s only Half-Life that seems to have this effect on me. BAH indeed sir!

    @ newcartnewstart – I’ve been playing Episode through a HDTV, but the first time I experienced nausea was playing the original Half-Life on an ancient PC through a 14″ CRT. It seems to transcend sequels and display devices. It’s oddly specific – I’m unaffected by Portal, even though it’s built on the same engine. I just wish it was Shellshock 2 that set me off. There’s no danger of me playing that for more than 30 minutes. Or seconds… 😉

    @ Susan – I tried not to make it too gross. You should have seen some of the images Google threw my way! Not even Safesearch could have saved me from those horrors. :S

  5. Rou avatar

    I remember this also happened for a lot of people in Mirror’s Edge, and that’s why they added a crosshair. Seems if your eyes can focus on a point or object that’s fixed the signals aren’t that confusing to your mind. Maybe you could use this information.. in some way 🙂

  6. Van-Fu avatar

    That’s an interesting piece of info, Rou. I wish I had known that before. I had the same problem with Turok 2 and Timesplitters. I still persevered with the games, but I wish I hadn’t.

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