What's Your Story is a series featuring commentary on video games with an emphasis on storytelling. I take a video game an examine the techniques used to tell the story, highlighting what I liked about it and what I didn't like about it, as well as various things I noticed while playing the game that either bugged me or delighted me. What's Your Story is more commentary than review and is intended for those who have completed the game, as there will be SPOILERS throughout the article.
Half-Life 2 had some pretty big shoes to fill when it was finally released in 2004. Half-Life was an instant classic, so there was a lot of pressure on the sequel. Half-Life 2 handled the pressure well, though, and has become one of the highest acclaimed games of all time.
But what's the big deal about Half-Life? That's what I was thinking going into this game a few days ago for the first time, as the only previous experience I had with the franchise was the first level or two of Half Life some six years or so ago. I don't remember why I never finished that game, but anyway, I went into Half-Life 2 expecting to be blown away by the awesomeness. For me, Half-Life 2 is all about showcasing the Havok physics engine. Aside from the physics and the physics-based weapon, the gravity gun, Half-Life 2 is a fairly standard shooter. The weapons are rather uninspired, except for the previously mentioned gravity gun and the crossbow. Any weapon that shoots red hot rebar gets my approval. Half-Life 2 also has some interesting physics-based puzzles, but for every interesting puzzle there are two tedious flip-a-switch-to-open-a-gate puzzles.
But this series is all about the storytelling. And I have seen in forums people naming Half-Life as having a great story. Having not played all of Half-Life, I can't comment on it's story, but what of Half-Life 2? How good is its story, and how well is it presented? The following is my thoughts on those questions. I am going to pick some nits here, and some of these quibbles don't really bother me at all. I'm just stating what I noticed while looking at what I consider successes and failures in terms of telling a great story. So here goes.
The original Half-Life ended with Gordon Freeman being stuck in limbo after being "hired" by the G-Man. It's an interesting ending, but I'm sure Half-Life 2 will end with more closure, right? Well not if the beginning is any indication. Half-Life 2 starts out on a train heading into City 17 some undisclosed number of years after the events of Half-Life.Apparently The Combine have enslaved humanity and the remaining stragglers are rounded up at City 17. Why Gordon is here and what he is supposed to be doing is a mystery at this point.
What you do learn about the story through the course of the game is told or hinted at through other characters or through what Gordon sees himself. Here's where my gripes start. Valve made the decision to totally immerse the player in the role of Gordon Freeman and his world. Scripted events take the place of cutscenes, and the perspective never deviates from Freeman.
And I'm fine with that. But what annoys me, and keeps me from really being immersed in the game, is Freeman's lack of character development. He can't communicate with anyone in the game and the player doesn't know anything about his personality. He doesn't talk or even make hand gestures. All the conversations with Freeman are one-sided. And the characters don't even talk to Gordon as if he responded, such as "Here, take the gravity gun. Yeah, it is kind of heavy, isn't it?" We don't even get that.
I understand, or at least I think I do, what Valve is trying to do. Put the player in the game. But there's a problem with this, at least for me. Freeman is a physicist, not an action hero. A lot of crazy stuff has happened to him. How does he feel about all this? When he goes to City 17 and sees all the human suffering, how much does he care? Maybe he doesn't give a shit about anyone else and just wants to go home and lay down for a while. Maybe it enrages him and he can't stop until every Combine is dead.
We don't know, though. And the player isn't going to feel any of these emotions because Freeman doesn't. I'm not a physicist who all of a sudden has to save the world from some unknown force, who all of a sudden has to kill things with a crowbar. I'm just this guy, you know, sitting in my room with a controller in my hands.
In games or movies or books, whatever, we connect to the story vicariously through the characters. We sympathize with the character's predicament, we feel for them. But how can we do that with Gordon Freeman? I have no idea what this guy is like. Is he scared at all or apprehensive or confused or what? Do he like Alyx as much as she appears to like him? The player can supply these feelings because he's just sitting there playing a game. And I am reminded by that constantly because of Freeman's silence. So rather than pull me into the game, Freeman holds me back. It would be different if I could, for example, type in something or select a phrase from a list and have Alyx respond to that. Instead, all I get is what the characters say to me, or really, at me, since there is no response. And for me, that is a big flaw in the storytelling; it really keeps me out of the game.
I'm sure there are many people aren't bothered by this at all, but I hate it when the main character doesn't talk. That kept me out of Far Cry 2 and Dead Space. How can you say, as the developers did, that Isaac Clarke of Dead Space is an everyman, and then not have him talk or respond to anyone around him? It just doesn't work for me.
The other problem with the method of storytelling in Half-Life 2, is that all your information comes from other people. So whenever someone talks, you'd better pay attention, because they don't repeat it. You can't go up to the character and hit a button and have him repeat what he just said like in an RPG. There's no map you can refer to except in a couple different places, but you can only look at it while you're there; you can't take it with you.
I actually like not having a map though. It makes sense, because how is Freeman going to have a map unless someone gives him one? And no one does, so there's no reason for him to have a map. You don't really need a map anyway. The level design in Half-Life 2 is pretty good, and it's also linear, so you know most of the time where you need to go. But you do have to pay attention when people talk to you, because it's the only way to know what's going on, and even then it's pretty unclear.
Dr. Breen is the bad guy, though he seems, at the end, to be subservient to someone else. It isn't clear who this is, but maybe we will find out in another sequel or in the other episodes which I haven't played yet. But what is the point of this game? What's it all about? Freeman escapes City 17 and has to go to City 17 to rescue Eli Vance, who keeps getting captured.
Cheap plot devices litter this game. Alyx is with you, she introduces you to Dog, and then something happens and you have to escape Black Mesa. Now, this makes sense because the Combine are looking for Freeman, so they probably tracked him to Black Mesa. But throughout the game there's always something unexpected that happens or some cheap way to get you all by yourself.
The roof collapses separating you from Alyx. She says she's going to get her dad out and you need to go through Ravenholm. Dog lifts the door but doesn't bother to go with you into Ravenholm. Why not? Where does he go? Dog shows up later, but we don't know how he got out of Black Mesa.
The driving plot of the story is rescuing Eli Vance. Dr. Breen has captured him. From my understanding, Dr. Breen wants Eli to help him with research. SO he kidnaps him in hopes of convincing him. I may be wrong about this, but this was what I thought while playing the game. If this isn't the reason for capturing Eli, then I don't know what the reason is. So you have to save him, Fine. This is when it would be nice to know how Freeman feels about all this.
Alyx shows up every now and then and helps you out, but she only hangs around for about five minutes before leaving again. She apologizes for taking so long and leaving you alone, as if you couldn't take care of yourself, yet she still expects you to do everything. But wait. Towards the end, Alyx says she didn't expect you to help save her father, so thanks for that. What? If she didn't expect Freeman to save Eli, then why did she tell you to go to Nova Prospekt?
The people of City 17 see Freeman as a hero, and rightly so. It improves their morale and after Nova Prospekt, the people are inspired to stage a large-scale revolt. But does Freeman consider himself a leader? Maybe he's like Charles Barkley and doesn't want to be a role model. We don't know. Freeman does whatever anyone tells him to do. He's a pawn. And Dr. Breen says just that at the end, that he is available to the highest bidder. How does Freeman feel about that?
So ultimately, you get to the Citadel, where apparently there are human experiments being conducted. Dr. Breen is talking about transhumanism, but he doesn't go the cliche villain route and explain his master plan. I get the feeling that Dr. Breen is wanting to make humans more compatible with the Combine, or maybe he wants to join the Combine, or maybe something else. Half-Life 2 doesn't answer these questions. Maybe the episodes do, or maybe another sequel will. You rescue Eli and while you're there, why not destroy the dark energy core, even though you don't really know why it's there. Or at least I didn't. So you destroy it, and then the G-Man takes you back into limbo like in the first game. Not much closure in this game.
The story in this game is unfocused. The game never makes it clear what is going on or why. The game definitely feels like part two or a three part series. The story certainly isn't the reason to play this game though. I enjoyed Half-Life 2 because I like shooters and this one was a pretty good one. The Havok physics engine was a great addition, some of the puzzles were interesting, the platforming aspects are handled as well as one can when you can't see your feet, and the gravity gun was a lot of fun, especially at the end when it becomes more powerful. I just didn't understand enough about the story to care about it. Maybe part of this is because I haven't played the original Half-Life all the way through. I did read its story on the internet, but that's not the same as playing the game and experiencing the story first hand.
But Half-Life 2 is a standalone game. It must stand on its own merits. It has its own story arc. It's just not made clear what that story arc is. What is the big picture? That question barely even hinted at. Also, I though the atmosphere really worked against this game. It does fit the game, however.
This game's atmosphere is very dull. There's hardly any music, and what music there is is forgettable. But this fits with the presentation of the game, of putting you in a world and keeping you there. And it is a dreary world. Most of what you see has been abandoned and there is a desolate feel to the game. But the lack of meaningful contact with other people made me feel isolated from the world, which is probably how Freeman would feel, but I'm not Freeman. I'm playing a game, and the game just isn't exciting. The world may not be exciting, but in a game, I should be excited playing it. And I wasn't. Half-Life 2 is highly beloved by many, so I know many won't agree with me, but that's how I felt.
Now a few other quibbles to wrap this up. These things didn't make me enjoy the game less, but I did notice them.
What's the deal with Dr. Mossman? The world is falling apart around her, humanity is enslaved, and all she can think about is continuing her research. Somebody needs to explain to her that there is very little humanity left, and that maybe scientific research isn't the highest priority right now.
Also, the force field barriers. Are these not the most ridiculous barriers ever? The enemie's bullets can pass through. Even the enemy can pass through them. All right, maybe it's permeable from one side. But my bullets can pass through the force field also, as well as anything I can pick up and throw with the gravity gun. But I can't pass through it. What sense does that make? If I can throw a 50 gallon drum through the field, and I can unplug the cable powering the field using the gravity gun, then why can't I just walk through it?I don't understand why they made it this way. Just make it a regular force field, where nothing can pass through when it's turned on.
And the bridge. You know, where you have to make your way across the support girders to get to the other side in order to push a button in order to turn off the force field that's keeping you, but not everyone else, from passing through. But what are those shacks doing there? Who built those underneath the bridge, and why are there guards there? What are they guarding? And how did they go to and from those shacks? the catwalks along the side are broken. The only way across is straddling the girders like Freeman has to. But the Combine have to do this too? Ridiculous.
These shacks are here to give you enemies to kill and items to pick up, and it's nice to have a place to rest on your way across, but I've read people say that the world in Half-Life feels like it could really exist. Well, what about those shacks? That just doesn't make any sense. But then, it also doesn't make sense that I can't just walk through the force field barrier since everything else can, or at least let me shoot the cable connected to the barrier emitter. I tried to sever that cable but couldn't. A lot of times, though, the gameplay would suffer if you were realistic about everything, so I don't care. It's just something I noticed.
If you were realistic, you couldn't do that puzzle where you have to drop the washing machine in the cage in order to raise the ramp. What is a washing machine doing up there anyway? Who put that there? Why can't I just pile up drums and concrete blocks and other objects and put them in the cage? What is that cage there for anyway? What does it do? Someone had to install that, but it serves no useful function. The cage doesn't go anywhere.
It's just a game, that's why, and Half-Life is a game that should be enjoyed because of its excellent physics-based gameplay. But the story? Well, I'll let you know when I figure out what it is.
Hope you liked this. This is my first blog post on Destructoid and the first in this series, so I'm still learning what is a good and not so good way to go about commenting on a game's story. Any and all feedback is welcome.