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Discussion Friday: The "Valve" Touch

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Discussion Friday is a segment in which I look at either a recent news story or an always relevant issue and discuss my personal opinion on it. I try to stay objective, but overall, this is about me and my experience as a videogame player who spends most of his time either playing or discussing videogames.

Valve is a name synonymous with quality, almost more so than any other developer on the planet. If I had to choose a single greatest American developer, it would probably be them. More than any company, they "get" it; whether it be gameplay, game design, humor, or just plain incredible writing, it seems that Valve can do no wrong. From reinventing the way we buy videogames with Steam to way we think of the word "deal" with The Orange Box, Valve has been one of the most important videogame developers of all time. So let's take a closer look at some of the things that go to make Valve the company it is; the greatest First Person Shooter developer of all-time.

When you talk about Valve, the first thing you have to mention is Half-Life, the game that reinvented PC gaming and First Person Shooters in general. Released in 1998, Half-Life was a complete departure from anything ever seen on PC or consoles at the time; it was an FPS that did things differently. No more arena rooms of mindless respawning enemies, no more cutscenes or pre-level briefings; hell, no more levels! The entire game was one frantic set piece moment after the next, with only a translucent text to tell you when you reached the next checkpoint. It was one whole experience. There were no "levels" or "missions", just the one, constant journey where you are firmly planted in the ever-silent Gordon Friedman.

Yes, that's right. Friedman. Not "Freeman". Just "Friedman". See, many people forget that in the first area before the accident that destroys Black Mesa, Gordon is simply a Theoretical Physicist. So when you're tasked with grabbing the Hazard Suit from the locker room, you see about 2 dozen lockers with different names on them, all locked except for the one labeled "Friedman". So his name, for the last time, is Gordon Friedman, not Freeman. But wait, the Wikipedia article is "Gordon Freeman". In fact, his PhD is labeled "Gordon Freeman" as well. So is it "Friedman" or "Freeman"? The only time for his name to appear on anything is the locker in Half-Life labeled "Friedman". Well, already we have a conundrum. For the sake of familiarity to the majority of readers, let's just bite the bullet and call him "Freeman".

Half-Life was different from anything ever seen on PC and Consoles mainly in it's design philosophy: You are Gordon Freeman, thus you will never leave his shoes. This means that there are no cutscenes, but instead scripted moments where you are free to watch and listen as Freeman himself would. Not only does this create a perfect immersion factor, but it also forces the player to become a part of the action: no longer is he/she the ever present, yet non-existent camera that simply watches the action, but instead their Gordon Freeman, who is having the absolute worst day of his life. This air of struggle and disarray is present throughout the game, which really accentuates the frantic nature of the dilemma Freeman, and thus you, are in.

Along with the excellent scripting with NPC's that responded to Gordon's presence, Half-Life brought the idea that FPS puzzles didn't have to be Doom-esque "Red Card Key to Red Door" affairs. They could be a struggle to cut the power in a drowned room where stepping into the water means a slow, painful death. No longer were they simply a roadblock either; they were emphasized as much as combat was. See, the true beauty of Half-Life is that it really isn't much of a First Person Shooter as much as it is simply an Adventure game in a First Person Perspective. Follow me on this: unlike any game before it, it blended elements of different genres into a FPS mechanic. There was First Person Shooting, Puzzling, Platforming; you can even say it had incredibely light RPG elements with the way you progressively gained new weapons to use in a Zelda-esque fashion. Yes, it's a stretch, but the point is that Half-Life could do it all: Set piece moment after set piece moment, brilliant puzzles, great scripting and writing, and atmosphere that pervaded throughout.

However, this was not the end of the Half-Life legacy. You see, where Half-Life revolutionized the Single-Player FPS, it also revolutionized the Multiplayer FPS, with two little mods called Counter-Strike and Team Fortress Classic. The influence Counter-Strike had on the way people look at the Multiplayer FPS cannot be understated. More than Quake before it, Counter-Strike gave players an incredibly tense fragfest that was not simply "Get Rail Gun, Win Game". It was about strategy, working as a team, and learning the feel of each weapon. Unlike any other FPS on the market at the time, Counter-Strike emphasized skill over choice of weapon, where anyone could take out a rifle-user with a sidearm. Other lessons Counter-Strike taught us would include that working as a team was always better than individual action, camping was punishable by death, and you always run faster with the knife out. Though the largest achievement of Counter-Strike is it's user base. Since release, Counter-Strike has attracted millions upon millions of users, and even to this day, original Counter-Strike servers are still up and running.

Next to Counter-Strike, Team Fortress Classic almost looks tame in it's popularity. But don't let the over-shadowing fool you; Team Fortress Classic is an absolute online juggernaut. It was one of the first games to be based around the team-based class dynamic, where every class counted in the success of team. You had the Heavy who sprayed ammunition like a mad man, the Spy who covertly stalked behind enemy lines, the quick Scout who could uncover the hidden Spy by running into them, and others that all went to make the game the blast it was. Along with each individual class were class-specific grenades that had different effects for each class. It was great, if a little unbalanced, and really advanced the way people approach class-based multiplayer games. However, more on that later.

However, all of these games look puny compared to the juggernaut of Half-Life 2, which is possibly the greatest Single Player First Person Shooting experience ever crafted. It all began with a close-up of the omni-present "G Man" telling Gordon that it was his time to shine, telling him to "Wake up, and smell the ashes..." It was an auspicious start, one which is rarely forgotten by anyone. The story followed Gordon as he is brought out of the stasis that he was put in at the end of Half-Life. He is brought by train to the place known as City 17, where Black Mesa administrator Dr. Breen has been put in control by the alien race simply known as "The Combine". It's darkly ambiguous, and as soon as you arrive, the atmosphere takes you in. Quickly, you are entering paranoia, which the game expertly crafts around you: Guards stare at you intently, harass you directly, and at one point take you into a room for no reason. It's a brutal and terrifying situation that is quickly relieved by an old friend; the Combine have a spy in there ranks named Barney, a friend of Gordon's from Black Mesa.

Barney instructs Gordon to get to Dr. Vance, who is part of a secret rebel faction against the Combine and Dr. Breen, and as quickly as you escaped your ordeal, you are shoved right back in as the Combine find out whats going on. You are given your trademark crowbar soon after, and what follows is a 12 hour trek through a dystopia where your only friends are those who would risk there lives in order to even know you. More than anything, Half-Life 2 succeeds in creating real, believable characters that you grow attached to. Barney is a reckless run-and-gunner who prefers the direct approach to taking down the Combine, and he is written in a way that makes him endearing rather than annoying. Dr. Vance is a brilliant scientist who cares for his daughter more than himself, and his tragic character is so brilliantly understated that you really sympathize for him without even realizing. Dr. Kleiner is a distracted yet competent man who really reminds me of every Rick Moranis character ever. However unlike him, he is not a doormat to other characters or an annoyance to Dr. Vance; he's a respectable man who has actual quirks as opposed to gimmicky annoyances other videogames would call idiosyncrasies.

But more than Barney, Dr. Vance, or even Dr. Kleiner, one character truly stands out as the single greatest female character ever written in a videogame; Alyx Vance. She one of the only female characters in games that is shown to be an actual person with a real personality that isn't simply "bubbly big-chested vixen". She doesn't have an ample bosom, a skimpy outfit, or even so much of a trace of stereotypical feminine traits. She's an intelligent, useful, and most of all, likable sidekick to Gordon Freeman. Valve had to have made a conscious effort to subvert every female stereotype in the book, and because of this, Alyx becomes a real person and not an interactive ragdoll. Apart from being the greatest female character ever in videogames, she also is one of the greatest black characters in a videogame. (I refuse to use African American, as not all black people are from Africa and not all black people live in America) People seem to forget that she's black, or at the least bi-racial, because unlike 90% of black characters in all mediums, she's not "the black chick". She doesn't have any stereotypes ascribed to her and she's speaks in a way that shows her intelligence instead of her color.

Now let me clarify the previous statement; that is not a racist sentiment. Let me give you an example of what I mean; in Gears of War, the only black soldier seen in the entire game is Augustus Cole, or "Coletrain" for short. He's loud, abrasive, foul-mouthed, a showoff, and more than anything, he is absolutely racist in his excessive stereotypes. I'm not sure if it is just an attempt by game developers and Hollywood, but every black character in a videogame or movie has to be this way, as if we wouldn't get that they were black. It's ridiculous, considering that almost every black character in anything is a racist caricature. I realize my last article was on how much Detective Washington from House of the Dead: Overkill is great, but I excuse him on two counts. For one, he's actually funny and memorable, and two, he's not a caricature of black characters, but instead the male powerhouses. When will developers learn that not every black character has to be a "Coletrain", but they can be just as intelligent, thoughtful, and memorable as every other character in the narrative, or even more so in the case of Alyx Vance.

I'm three paragraphs into why Half-Life 2 is amazing, and I haven't even scratched the surface. In short, Half-Life 2 is an achievement in almost every area of game design: narrative prowess, atmosphere, graphical design, character development, art direction, gameplay and design, and facial animation. With over 40 Game of the Year awards under it's belt, Half-Life 2 sits atop a throne that no other FPS, PC or Console, has been able to take over. All of these sentiments also apply to Episode 1 and Episode 2; when I think of Half-Life 2, I refer to them all as one entity. I didn't even mention the incredible puzzles, well-designed vehicle sections (Which were a bit long, but that's one of the few complaints you can levy at the game), incredible set piece moments like the end of Episode 2 or the "boss fight" at the end of Half-Life 2. Enough gushing though, let's move onto everyone's favorite modern puzzler: Portal.

Portal is, in short, a phenomenon. It really is the biggest surprise hit in videogame history. Why is it such a hit? Put simply, it's perfect. There are no complaints to levy against it; it has great puzzles that utilize it's terrific technology, it's absolutely hilarious, and at around 4 to 5 hours, it's the perfect length for a puzzle game. The short length allows it to make an impressions, have a perfect difficulty curve, and then leave before it overstays it's welcome. The strongest aspect of the game isn't even the brilliantly designed physics puzzles, but instead is the writing. It's the funniest videogame of all-time, and I hold no reservations saying that. There have been funny games, most by Tim Shchafer, but never has comedic writing ever been so blackly humorous, and surprisingly so. Prior to release, it was never revealed that the game was actually a dark comedy. This had to be intentional by Valve, after all, the unexpected always leaves the biggest impression.

However, in the same box as Portal and every Half-Life 2, lied Valve's greatest Multiplayer accomplishment yet; Team Fortress 2. Taking the gameplay of Team Fortress Classic, Team Fortress 2 advanced the art and tweaked it enough so that the game is the most balanced Multiplayer game on the market. The 9 classes no longer have specific grenades that dominate player matches, and no longer did Spies dominate a Scout-less team. Along with the grenades, Team Fortress 2 dumps the old art style, instead going for a cel-shaded cartoon look that is absolutely perfect for a game with as much personality as Team Fortress 2. That's right, personality. Unlike the browns and grays of Gears of War and Killzone 2, or the armor-clad soldier vs. the differently colored armor-clad soldier of Halo, you had classes with individual personalities that make them the greatest ensemble cast in videogame cast ever. The Scout has the personality of a tough guy, yet the body of a 15-year-old boy. He spouts lines like "MAJOR LEAGUE!" after batting someone into oblivion and it it's lines like this that truly typify his character. The Medic is polite and charismatic (One of his taunts is a gentle bow), yet he is a complete Mad Scientist type ("This next procedure will be EXCRUCIATING!").

Although, as much as I love Team Fortress 2, I have talked about it before(http://www.destructoid.com/blogs/Canti-sama/post-mortem-monday-team-fortress-2-updates-144653.phtml, and won't waste your time with more gushing. So moving on to the next Valve masterpiece, we have Left 4 Dead, one of the best Zombie games ever put out. The word to describe this game would be "spartan"; not the Greek type. I mean that the design of the game is very simple. You and three others play as one of four characters and run your way through a zombie-infested stage to a finale chapter where you must last wave after wave of infected to be rescued. However, this is why the game succeeds. There is pre-game story or ending cutscene; there is only what surrounds you. The walls are scrawled with messages from other people who have attempted to make it through the city alive; some call for euthanasia on the part of the military, some write messages for loved ones, yet others choose to play "4chan" and treat the walls like an internet forum. It's hilarious and it really gives the game personality, something that each main character has plenty of.

Bill is a Vietnam War veteran who is the self-established leader of the group. However, this doesn't make him the usual unlikable, power-hungry dictator or the crazed, post-traumatic stressed lunatic; Bill is a tough old man who doesn't take crap from anyone. He's very independent, but he's understated; after getting picked up off the ground, he says "That wasn't necessary...but thanks." It's brilliantly subtle, and other lines like "I'm gonna miss that guy...and his gun." really show off his personality. Francis is the sarcastic funny guy, but he's also the tough biker guy. However, when he's near death, he'll silently whisper "Momma..." It really gives you an idea of what he really is past the sarcasm and the running gag that he hates everything ("I hate Vans." "I hate Hospitals." "I hate Airports."). Louis is an overworked electronics store worker who wears an unmistakably similar outfit to Shaun from Shaun of the Dead. He's the normal guy out of the group, with a normal job and an optimistic outlook on things ("I've got a good feeling about this guys!" "You've gotta stay positive guys!"). Since he isn't as experienced as the other characters (Bill is a veteran, Francis is a hardcore biker, and Zoey watches enough zombie films to know what is up), he's the most panicked. He's the first to become overly-positive or negative and his child-like optimism is really showing of how stressed out he is. As for Zoey, in short, she's the college girl who has seen too many zombie movies, spouting lines like "They shouldn't be allowed to run that fast, you know? I'm calling zombie bullshit on that!" and "Game over man! Game over!" right from George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead.

I know this one ran a little long, but it's very hard for me to not go on for ages about Valve. What it comes down to is that Valve is a company that understands videogames and the people that play them more than any other American company. In fact, a little anecdote that has recently made it on the front page of DTOID; Valve flew two of the most vocal supporters of the Left 4 Dead 2 to their headquarters for free and let them play the game first-hand, just to show them the improvements they've made to the game. Your feelings about the boycott aside, what other company would do that? Let's think about this; how many copies of Left 4 Dead 2 are going to be sold? Millions for sure, especially with the already established audience of Left 4 Dead. So why do this? It's because they know that some of their fans are not satisfied with them and have chosen to react to it in a way that no other company will do. That kind of care and honesty is something we don't see in the videogame market, and for Valve to be so forthright about an issue that wouldn't even effect the sales of a game is absolutely heartwarming. The games, the attention to detail, and the unwavering support for their community all make Valve what they are; the company that makes games for the fans, not the money.
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About Canti-samaone of us since 9:47 PM on 08.03.2009

Hello, I'm Trevor Johnson, also known as Canti-sama. I like to write about things including videogames (that should be paramountly obvious at this point...) music, film, and anime, so what you see in this blog is just one part of my pretentiousness! I'm a nit-picky bitch when it comes to basically everything, so excuse me if I seem like kind of an elitist, even though I try not to be. If I had to sum up who I am, I would do it through top 5 lists, so how about we a do a few right now! But before that, since DTOID tends to remove frontpage posts from my c-blog, here's the list of my frontpages, which I thank everyone very much for!

Frontpage Posts:
1. Monthly Musing - I suck At Videogames: Nostalgia's Curse, 8/12/09
2. Promoted Story - Suda 51 and the "Art" of Videogames, 9/6/09
3. Monthly Musing - Nothing is Sacred: Videogames, 10/7/09

-----FAVORITES-----

Top 5 Favorite Videogames:
5. Fallout 3, PC
4. Mega Man X, SNES
3. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, PS2
2. Braid, PC
1. Shadow of the Colossus, PS2

Top 5 Favorite Albums:
5. Death From Above 1979 - You're A Woman, I'm a Machine, 2004
4. Radiohead - O.K. Computer, 1997
3. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92, 1992
2. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam, 2007
1. Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation, 1988

Top 5 Films:
5. Brazil, Directed by Terry Gilliam
4. Fargo, Directed by Joel Coen
3. Fight Club, Directed by David Fincher
2. Shaun of the Dead, Directed by Edgar Wright
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Directed by Sergio Leone

Top 5 Anime Productions:
5. Spirited Away, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
4. The Big O, Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama
3. Cowboy Bebop, Directed by Shinichirō Watanabe
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Directed by Hideko Anno
1. Fooly Cooly, Directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki

----OTHER STUFF----
Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks
PSN Name: MetalLink1979
Wii Friend Code - 8089-7286-5497-4717
XBL - Metal Link 904 (Note: My Xbox 360 is in possession of my brother, so this is no longer technically my XBL Tag)
Xbox LIVE:Metal Link 904
Steam ID:MetalLink1979
Mii code:8089-7286-5497-4717


 

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