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The illusion of free will

OK, Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2’s greatest strength is integration of gameplay and story, with the deceptively simple method of presenting story as part of gameplay instead of as more traditional cutscene movies (or their ancestor, the introduction text). Half-Life pioneered the now popular practice of taking story events out of noninteractive cutscenes and implementing them as scripted events within the game. The difference this can make is surprising: walking into the test-firing chamber in “Blast Pit” to see a huge tentacle smash through the window and grab a screaming scientist five feet from you is more viscerally intense than a third-person cutscene of the same thing could ever be. It’s simply more immediate. Lots of games use extensive interactive scripted events like Half-Life’s now, but most still also have cutscene movies—probably because few developers want to deal with the consequences of doing all story as in-game scripted events. The most obvious consequence of Valve’s decision seems pretty nasty at first glance: because the player remains in complete control of Gordon for the entire game, the player cannot participate substantively in any scripted event that must occur one way. That means Gordon can’t talk to any other characters. Half-Life 2, with a vastly more complex story than Half-Life, hedges the player’s freedom a little by generally locking Gordon in one room whenever another character has to tell him something important, and for two scenes restricting the player’s movement entirely. Still, Gordon can’t talk. There’s no diegetic justification for his silence, it’s simply an artificial device. He doesn’t even have implied dialogue—most of the other characters’ speech is structure subtly to acknowledge that Gordon doesn’t reply when they talk to him, and nobody ever says anything to him that would require a response. This seems superficially like it would necessarily make the game into a shallow shoot-em-up with a characterless bad-ass protagonist (albeit a bad-ass theoretical physicist protagonist), but Valve cleverly turns Gordon’s silence into one of the driving engines of the game’s narrative.

The behind-the-scenes book Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar suggests that earlier development versions of the game gave the player a lot more context information, like that it’s been ten years since the Black Mesa incident of the first Half-Life and that the mysterious alien Combine that’s conquered Earth arrived several years after Black Mesa. The published version of the game doesn’t give you even that meager information: at the beginning, the G-Man appears, informs you it’s time for your first assignment under his employ, and teleports you onto a moving train. You figure out Earth has been conquered by something called the Combine and that your former Black Mesa administrator is the head of a collaborator government a few minutes into the game, and after a few more minutes you meet up with some old friends from Black Mesa, now leaders of a resistence movement, who don’t seem to wonder where you’ve been for the last several years. You’re sort of appointed the new leader of the resistence movement, and you set off to overthrow the Combine, which seems to be the mission the G-Man sent you to complete.

By the end of the game, you have learned almost nothing more than that. Half-Life 2’s ending is even more audaciously anticlimatic than Half-Life’s—I expected a cliffhanger because I’d already heard Valve is working on Half-Life 3, but the game never gets around to explaining what’s up with the Combine or filling any of the mysterious Black Mesa backstory, and it doesn’t even hint at the biggest question, namely, what’s up with the G-Man?

There’s a scene late in the game in which the evil Admistrator jokes about Gordon’s mercenary employment status, which prompts one of Gordon’s allies to ask worriedly, “What’s he talking about, Gordon?” This scene comes a few minutes after a several-minute sequence in which Gordon, strapped into a restraining harness, is taken on a ride through the depths of the Combine Citadel. During the climactic scene in the Administrator’s office in which he reminds Gordon that he’s a mercenary employed by the G-Man, not a genuine resistence fighter like his friends, Gordon is also locked into a harness. This is the point at which I looked back and said, “In retrospect, I’ve been in a harness all along, haven’t I?” It’s true, Half-Life 2, is strictly linear—there’s one path through the game and you don’t to make any decisions that affect the narrative substantively (you have control over your strategy in battles and that’s about it)—although Valve have gone to great lengths to obfuscate the game’s linearity with some amazing map design, so you can easily forget how straight and narrow your path through game has really been until the harness ride and the Administrator’s sinister jokes remind you.

And what does Gordon think of all this? Does he know any more or less than you do about what’s going on or what it means that he’s working for the G-Man? He certainly can’t let you know what he knows. Can his friends really trust him as the leader of their resistence? Should they? Should you? Gordon’s silence is a distancing, ironic device that shines a spotlight on the central dilemma of the game. Gordon is alienated from the rest of the world as you are alienated from him, some mysterious force has usurped his free will—or was it ever more than an illusion in the first place?

Most artistically ambitious video games have, I think, focused on increasing the player’s decision-making power and adding moral weight to the player’s decisions. That’s an endeavor doomed to fail at some point, as any increase in thematic/moral entertainment value of a game based on increased decision-making power must be undermined by the necessity of placing some arbitrary limitations of the player’s decisions to keep the game’s size from exploding into infinitude. Valve wisely chose to focus on another trait of video games that distinguishes them from other art forms: the immediacy of the player’s role as actor in the game world. Valve CEO Gabe Newell suggests this when, in the foreword to Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar, he writes, “A single-player game is really a movie that you create in cooperation with the player, where the lead actor [i.e., the player] doesn’t have a copy of the script.” As I said above, watching something through your “own” (really the player-character’s) eyes in real time is fundamentally different from watching a third-person cutscene movie of the same event—and Half-Life 2 would be a fundamentally different experience if it were a movie. The game’s entire experience (in both aesthetic and gameplay contexts, which ought to be the same context in a video game) is built on the tension between the player’s role as lead actor (in all senses of the word) and the ironic devices of a silent player-character and a linear-path game world that seem superficially to make the game shallower.


  1. Shane says:

    Do you think you would get the same feeling from Half Life 2 if it was in 3rd person perspective? I tend to get more involved in a game when I’m forced to first person as you have to turn (turn your head in game) to see to the left and right and it makes things more immediate. Nice write up of the game. I’d be curious to know what other games you’re currently into.

    — 31 December 2004 at 8:48 am (Permalink)

  2. Steven says:

    I don’t think 3rd-person would work as well for Half-Life, for the reasons you point out.

    The only recent game I’ve played lately is Doom 3. I’ve been playing the old Half-Life games and a lot of other older games I couldn’t play on my new computer before I got a better video card, mostly Grand Theft Auto 3 and Deus Ex.

    — 8 January 2005 at 5:01 pm (Permalink)