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The Memory Card .50: A shocking loss

4:30 PM on 01.08.2009 // Chad Concelmo

This being the landmark 50th edition of The Memory Card (wow!), I decided to focus on something special. And by “special” I mean a videogame moment that affected me more than any other in the last five years. Now, I know I say that all the time (see: Lost Odyssey), but, in this case, I am not exaggerating.

While I originally suspected the severe emotional punch in the gut this moment gave to me resulted from its surprising development, looking back that is not giving the sequence enough credit. By combining traditional, highly effective storytelling techniques with the advanced technology of videogames, moments such as this prove why the unique interaction of a videogame can exponentially heighten the emotional investment of what is happening on-screen. In this regard, videogames can easily be even more powerful that any other form of art.

But enough with all this pseudo-intellectual mumbo jumbo; let’s get to this week’s moment, shall we?

Hit the jump to celebrate this gold installment of The Memory Card by reliving an unbelievably tragic and haunting moment from timeless classic Half-Life 2: Episode Two.

The Set-Up

While all the episodes of Half-Life 2 are exceptional, the most recent Episode Two -- while short -- offers the most gameplay variety and shocking revelations of any other in the series. Because of this, most gamers -- including me -- rank it as the best iteration Half-Life 2 has to offer. (For more detailed information of how Half-Life 2: Episode Two unfolds, you can check out one of last season’s Memory Card moments.)

One thing the Half-Life series does well is feature shockingly deep characters in the context of a first-person shooter. And not just any first-person shooter -- the Half-Life games don’t have normal cutscenes that most gamers expect. Instead of cutting away to show a third-person view of the action, the cutscenes in Half-Life all occur in real-time, with everything being viewed from main character Gordon Freeman’s perspective. A videogame that produces characters so amazingly well-rounded using a technique like this is beyond impressive.

Two of the most popular characters in the Half-Life series are Gordon’s companion Alyx Vance and her father, Dr. Eli Vance.

While Dr. Vance plays a much bigger role in the first Half-Life, his presence is definitely felt in Episode Two, mostly through Alyx -- Gordon’s partner during most of the game -- and her passionate urge to reunite with her father.

After an epic adventure that involves a train crash, a journey through a dark, complex cavern, and even Alyx almost dying (click here for that hardcore scene), the two allies eventually meet up with Dr. Vance in a place called the White Forest. In addition to Eli, Alyx and Gordon also reunite with Dog, their robotic friend and one of the most popular and incredible characters in the Half-Life universe.

Here in the White Forest, Dr. Vance informs Gordon that his small team of scientists is working on a giant rocket that will be used to close the Combine super portal that looms over the horizon. (For the Half-Life virgins, the Combine is the evil alien race that is hell-bent on taking over the world.)

While the rocket is being prepared, the White Forest facility comes under attack by an army of Combine forces. What occurs now is almost a Memory Card moment unto itself, an open-world battle that involves Gordon taking on, literally, more than a dozen giant spider-like Striders and fast-moving Hunters all by himself. It is truly a jaw-dropping sequence and one of the most impressive action set pieces in videogame history.

After a (very!) tough fight, Gordon emerges victorious and returns to the confines of White Forest. With the army wiped out, Dr. Vance launches the completed rocket and Gordon and his companions watch as the Combine portal is successfully closed!

Before celebrating, though, Dr. Vance informs Gordon that some mysterious cargo aboard a ship called the Borealis has disappeared. This cargo, Eli suggests, could have the power to destroy the world if obtained by the wrong hands. Dag.

With this news, Gordon, Alyx, and her father Dr. Vance head to a nearby hangar to board a helicopter and head off to find and destroy the Borealis.

What happens next rightfully earns its place as the 50th Memory Card moment.

The Moment

After the epic battle outside White Forest, it is pretty evident to the player that Episode Two is coming to a close. Everything -- from the story to the triumphant music -- suggests Gordon’s victory.

But, strangely, no closing credits commence.

Instead, the player is rewarded with a beautiful, although simple, sequence involving Gordon, Alyx, and Dr. Vance walking towards the hangar to continue their journey aboard a waiting helicopter.

As they walk to their destination, Dr. Vance pulls Gordon aside and tells him how proud of him he is. He even mentions that he loves Gordon “like a son.”

The three continue closer to the hangar, stopping once to watch the Combine portal explode into the cloud-covered sky.

Dog suddenly joins the group. Even though he is a robot, Gordon can tell from his metallic expression that he is happy that the portal has finally been destroyed.

Alyx hugs her father as the two celebrate as father and daughter. The rocket is a success!

As the group takes their final steps towards the hangar, Dr. Vance can be overheard telling Alyx how sad he is to see her go. Even though he is proud to see his own daughter showing the courage to find the Borealis, he is depressed that they have to say goodbye once more.

Dr. Vance enters a special code and the door to the hangar swings open.

The group walks forward and gets closer to the waiting helicopter. It is time for Alyx and Gordon to part ways with the wise old doctor. Eli Vance leans forward, kisses his daughter on the forehead and says: “Your mother would be so proud.”

Suddenly, as the friends are within feet of the helicopter, there is a loud crash. Gordon, Alyx, and Eli are knocked to the ground.

As they shake off the jolt, Gordon looks up and sees a pair of Advisors -- the most powerful of all the Combine -- floating towards them from a broken window at the back of the hangar.

Using their mind control powers, the Advisors pin Gordon and Alyx against the wall as Eli remains on the floor, completely helpless.

One of the Advisor swoops down and picks up Dr. Vance.

Eli looks up at his screaming, pleading daughter and says two lines that will haunt me for the rest of my life:

“I love you sweetheart. Close your eyes, honey.”

Before a paralyzed Alyx can even return an “I love you,” the long sharp tongue of the Advisor pierces into the back of Eli’s skull.

Dr. Vance dies instantly.

The other Advisor grabs Alyx and moves her closer to receive the same, violent fate.

Suddenly, Dog appears at a window on the roof and dives into the hangar. He immediately begins to fight with the Advisor, causing the horrible alien to drop Alyx to the ground. Because of Dog’s jarring intervention, the two Advisors turn around and fly out of the hangar, leaving the body of Eli Vance behind.

As Alyx uncontrollably cries over her dead father and a mourning Dog lowers its head, the game fades out and Half-Life 2: Episode Two ends.

You can watch the tragic final chapter of Episode Two right here:

The Impact

I am not going to lie: I just cried from watching the YouTube of this scene.

“I love you sweetheart. Close your eyes, honey.”

That part gets me every time.

While it is obvious the subject matter of this scene is one of the saddest thing to ever happen in a videogame, let’s get to the bottom of what really makes this moment so emotionally effective.

First off, the tried and true, revolutionary story presentation prevalent in all of Half-Life makes a flawless appearance here. It goes without saying that viewing all of this from Gordon’s perspective makes the scene that much more heartbreaking. The fact that Gordon (and, in turn, the player) is paralyzed and can do nothing to stop what is happening is almost too much to handle.

But besides this glorious cutscene presentation, a lot of other brilliant stuff happens during this tragic sequence.

When the player defeats the Combine army, the game ingeniously leads Gordon back into the White Forest facility to reunite with Dr. Vance and Alyx. By extending this scene, the player gets a sense of security and truly feels that everything is going to be okay. In a way, the player is coming down from the previous adrenaline rush and metaphorically putting down their controller in anticipation of a calm, rewarding ending sequence.

While in White Forest, Dr. Vance informs Gordon of his next mission: to find and destroy the ship Borealis. Fine. Even now, the player assumes this will be the goal of the next game. Everything is still okay. The closing credits will soon roll.

But the credits don’t roll.

Brilliantly, the game follows Alyx, Dr. Vance, and Gordon as they make a seemingly simple journey to the helicopter hangar. Small details that other games wouldn’t even think about adding -- like the muted dialogue between Alyx and her father -- are added to make the upcoming powerhouse plot point all the more dramatic.

Essentially, this extended “build up” to the awful event is what makes the moment so horribly sad and so shockingly unexpected.

Even the actual moment contains some of the best direction I have ever seen in a videogame.

If you can emotionally handle it (I can’t!), watch the scene again and notice how everything is composed perfectly on the screen. Notice the way Gordon is placed against the wall so he has the perfect view of the helpless Eli and the screaming Alyx. When he falls and is pinned to the floor, observe the brilliant way Dog pops up into the shot right before he jumps on top of the Advisor.

Every beat is perfectly planned out and every camera angle is expertly composed.

I don’t know if there will be any other moment in this current generation of videogames that emotionally affects me the way this one did. I still can’t get Dr. Vance’s final words to his daughter out of my head. Wow. Dr. Eli Vance is such a likeable, helpful character; I was genuinely shocked when he was killed in such a shocking and violent manner.

Although tragic, this scene truly is a work of art.

Half-Life: Episode Three cannot come soon enough. Gordon and Alyx have to get their revenge on those Advisor bastards. They just have to.

Dr. Vance’s death will go down in history as one of the most memorable videogame moments of all time. Rest well, good doctor. You will always be in my thoughts.

The Memory Card Save Files

.01 - .20 (Season 1)
.21 - .40 (Season 2)
.41: The tadpole prince (Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars)
.42: Pyramid Head! (Silent Hill 2)
.43: Waiting for Shadow (Final Fantasy VI)
.44: Solid vs. Liquid (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)
.45: The birth of the cutscene (Ninja Gaiden)
.46: Insult swordfighting (The Secret of Monkey Island)
.47: A castle stuck in time (The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker)
.48: 'That's the magic flute!' (The Wizard)
.49: Saving Santa (Secret of Mana)

Chad Concelmo,
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