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Half-Life 2

Half-Life 2 breaks with some popular trends in video gaming. Now, the last new game I played before Half-Life 2 was Grand Theft Auto 3 a couple years ago, but I think the popular trends in action gaming have remained pretty much the same: open-endedness and stealth. Since Thief, practically every first-person shooter game has included a stealth component. (OK, that’s a slight exaggeration.) Unfortunately, most of them didn’t have nearly as well-developed stealth gameplay as Thief. With the exception of a few annoying levels that require stealth, it’s generally easier to run through games like No One Lives Forever without worrying too much about sneaking. Still, especially considering the recent popularity of ‘realistic’ tactical shooters, a stealth gameplay component, however half-assed, has been the cool thing to do in shooter games for several years. The recent popularity of ‘realistic’ tactical shooters is important, because much of the stealth play in recent action games is related to attempts to increase realism, meaning the classic full-frontal-assault style of play in games like Doom is a good way to get killed fast in a lot of recent shooters.

Then there’s open-endedness. First of all, you’ve got games like the Dungeons & Dragons CRPG Baldur’s Gate 2, which has something crazy like 150 hours worth of quests, many of which are available based on your character-creation and gameplay decisions so you have to play the game many times even to hope to see everything. Each play-through is different from the rest. In action games, Grand Theft Auto 3 lacks the overwhelming number of choices of Baldur’s Gate, but it gives the player even more freedom to choose what to do at any given moment during gameplay. There’s a series of missions forming the narrative core of the game, which must be played in order, but at any time you can choose to complete them, take on one of dozens of optional missions, or simply cruise around town committing the titular crime and causing other criminal mayhem. The other paradigm for open-endedness in action gaming is represented most famously by the Thief games and Deus Ex: these games have a linear series of missions for the player to complete, but present several options for completing each task in the game. E.g., in Deus Ex, the player, infiltrating a terrorist headquarters or something, might come to an electronically locked door that can be blown open with a grenade, ‘picked’ with an electronic lockpick, unlocked with a key found on a guard (whom the player could have killed or knocked out, using stealth, a full-frontal assault, or some clever indirect means), or opened with a hacked security computer. And Deus Ex’s narrative, although very similar in each play-through, has a lot of nuances based on the player’s decisions. Indiscriminately kill all the terrorists in your first mission as a police agent of the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition, and you’ll earn praise from your more hotheaded colleagues and disapproval from your colleagues who believe in following rules of engagement. Go stealthy and incapacitate terrorists with nonlethal methods so they can be arrested, and you’ll get opposite reactions. You never get a game-over based on your decision (unless it results in the player-character’s death)—even if you, say, totally bungle your mission objectives by killing a target you’re supposed to be bringing in for questioning, you can keep playing and discover the consequences of your actions. (There is a limit to your freedom, obviously—you can’t wander away from the determined narrative and become a real-estate agent in Hoboken.)

And then there’s story. Every video game arguably has a narrative—although, in the case of a game like Tetris, not necessarily a gripping one. Some genres are better known for their stories than others, particularly adventure and interactive-fiction games, and to a slightly lesser extent, RPGs, especially monster-huge games like Baldur’s Gate 2. Stories in action games have ranged from Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, whose narratives exist primarily as meager organizational structures for gameplay only mildly more engaging than Tetris, to Deus Ex, which attempts to grapple weighty (and ever more relevant as the War on Terror(ism) drags on) political and philosophical problems and is arguably as important a part of the game’s experience as is the gameplay itself. Of course, story/game is a false dichotomy, because, as I noted earlier, at least some aspects of the story are based on player decisions during gameplay. Part of what Deus Ex attempts is tight integration of narrative and gameplay.

With all that in mind, let’s talk about Half-Life. One of Half-Life 2’s goals is the same as Deus Ex: tight integration of narrative and gameplay. The Half-Life games have always gone a step farther than most games in accomplishing this integration, though—where a lot of games advance their stories with cutscene movies between game sections, the revolutionary Half-Life implemented scripted events that happened in real time in the game. E.g., the entire introductory scene, with player-character Gordon Freeman arriving at work on an automated tram, going through security, donning his hazardous-environment protection suit, and participating in the experiment that ends up teleporting in all the nasty aliens Gordon has to shoot in the rest of the game, is a series of in-game areas you have to traverse. (Lots of games have sections like this now—even the decidedly old-school Doom 3—but Half-Life was one of the first.) When characters talk to Gordon, they walk up to him and start talking, and you retain complete control over Gordon—a consequence of which is that Gordon doesn’t get any speaking lines of his own, since it would look pretty goofy if the player decided to run away or shoot the other speaking character in the middle of dialogue. It’s somewhat less goofy, although equally artificial, to have Gordon remain mute. (The modeling of scripted events isn’t so sophisticated that characters notice and complain about your rudeness if you run away from them, although I think they usually shut up if you start shooting at them. Half-Life 2 sort of resolves this problem by locking Gordon into one room whenever another character is talking to him.) Gordon’s muteness may be a necessary consequence—or maybe the designers at Valve wanted him to be mute in the first place, I don’t know—but at any rate, they’ve turned this artificial device of a mute protagonist (and to be clear, Gordon’s muteness doesn’t have any justification for verisimilitude, it really is an entirely artificial device) into one of the most brilliant aesthetic conceits I’ve seen in any game, certainly in any first-person shooter.

And that’s a brilliant aesthetic conceit I’m afraid I won’t be writing about tonight, as I’m losing steam. (And, bad me, I might not get around to writing about it till Sunday, since Rose and I are leaving for Christmas visits to relatives tomorrow.) (But the great thing about not being a professional writer is that I don’t have to act professional!) I’ll say only, as you’ve presumably guessed by now if you haven’t played Half-Life 2 yourself, that Half-Life 2 is a game with not a whit of open-endedness in gameplay or narrative, and with no stealthiness required or even much allowed. In fact, much of the gameplay consists of running through restricted paths executing full-frontal assaults on dozens of highly trained soldiers who, if realism were any concern, could instantly destroy rogue physicist Gordon Freeman. Is Half-Life 2 tragically old-fashioned, or were those brilliant folks at Valve too busy designing the worthy heir to Half-Life’s Best Game Ever throne to bother acquiescing to the dominant trends in what makes a good modern shooter? (Not that my answer to that question is hard to guess, right?)


  1. Shane says:

    Sometimes what everyone else is doing isn’t always right. I like the fact that the less open ended and more scripted games are coming back. I’m glad not everything has to be Grand Theft Auto or Splinter Cell.

    Oh, and don’t forget Multiplayer components to games. They have become very popular since Quake and Unreal came on the scene. Sometimes, as in Unreal, Halo, and Halo 2, they can even overshadow the actual single player game itself, usually the main part of the game that all the thought and development went into.

    — 23 December 2004 at 11:44 am (Permalink)