Technical Difficulties: The Curse of Half-Life 2

[For his Monthly Musing, Nathsies takes a different approach when he talks about difficulty — how hard it was to actually sit down and play Half Life 2 to completion. If you want to participate in this month’s topic and potentially see your work on the front page, head over to our Community Blogs and get your post done before the month is over. — JRo]

It started over … seven years ago. I was perhaps talking about my first encounter with playing Half-Life 2 in my little piece, but I was well aware even back in my childhood. I’m young by the way, at the age of 16 now, so I must’ve been eight or nine around the time the actual game came out. I was busy with Halo 2 to even notice the importance of it all. I remembered playing the original Half-Life on the PS2 but I honestly did not care in the slightest whenever I saw Gordon Freeman’s face in the GAME shop window.

I do however remember seeing the footage of the game for the first time. It was probably the first time that the graphics of a video-game had reached that ‘next-gen’ level, and this was 2004. I remember watching parts of Water Hazard (the Half-Life 2 chapter) on this cheap gaming television show or something, watching it all just go by my eyes. I remember seeing it everywhere and hearing about this magical thing called ‘Steam’ that would revolutionize everything. This was back when I saw games as toys to be played with, not experiences that might have an impact on your life, that came the very next year with Shadow of the Colossus.

I went from my little junior school to high school (over here in the UK our education system is all traditional and weird) and barely anything changing. I saw this Episode One release prop up at my GAME store but it didn’t phase me. I didn’t care, I hadn’t played the first and for all I knew it was just a pretty game. As the years wore on, I found this strange feeling to sort of leap out of the sand every-time I heard mention of Half-Life 2, that there was some strange deity in the sky compelling me to play the thing.

I played Bioshock and Call of Duty 4 throughout 2007, along with many other titles in the greatest year in video-games ever. Right at the end of the year this strange little Orange Box started appearing on store shelves. I decided to wait for the PlayStation 3 version because I was a young idiot, but I was anticipating this thing to be full of some good value. A puzzler, a massive multiplayer game and all current three games in one of the most celebrated franchises of all time.

I remember getting that disc, going home and waiting for it to install. There was something weird. For over three years of my life this ‘Half-Life 2‘ thing had been haunting me. It had cropped up everywhere and found it’s way into my life. I now see the parallels between the G-man’s haunting of Freeman and the game’s haunting of my life. By ‘my life’ I literally mean over seven years of my life. When the install finished, I did a stupid thing and skipped straight to Team Fortress 2.

I think that’s where it began; the curse. The first-person juggernaut saw my attention spur elsewhere and it got all jealous. It decided to infect the world and turn mine upside down until I had completed it. I began playing Team Fortress 2 almost religiously to the point of which I ended up setting up a community clan within the PlayStation 3 space. This was back in around 2008, when the PC community was raging ahead with the 360 in tow.

Us PS3 lot were treated to one patch throughout the whole of our existence. For the first few months there were tens of thousands of people playing and then, suddenly, just hundreds. I feel that PlayStation 3 Team Fortress 2 community was one of the best gaming communities of all time because it was so intimate. We all shared our stories, we were all from all across the world and were in this tight network of people we all knew.

I remember playing Half-Life 2 for the first time, being bewildered and confused and quite.. well… bored. I remember going through Water Hazard and just skipping it entirely because I got annoyed. I went back to Team Fortress 2, but not for long, as I’d completely ignored the mammoth of an FPS, it now started to come to terrorsome fruition. To put it bluntly, it started to hurt me. It’s quite sad to say that those people who played a video-game with me were some of my best friends, but they honestly were. I knew their lives, I was a little boy talking to forty-something men and it never felt creepy. We were all bezzy mates.

Naturally, nothing lasts forever. After over hundreds of hours of playing Team Fortress 2, Half-Life 2 decided to stick a stake in my heart. Portal had got some attention and I’d even played through some of the episodes because my friend told me to. It felt neglected and I felt guilty. At the end of 2008, troubles arisen and personal issues started to fuse together until boiling point came suddenly and quickly. Our community had a few fights in one night and all of us blocked each other, to this day, I don’t know the full picture. It was something to do with the arguments against the PC lot and vice versa, but I felt something breathing down my neck. I lost a lot of my friends that day, I only know a handful from those days, I decided then to turn my full attention to Half-Life 2.

The problem was that the game still felt bitter about me. I tried to play it throughout the whole of 2009, which was a pretty good year for gaming really, but there was always something poking me and telling me to stop. I got terribly sick as I neared the end of the game, at one point shivering and sweating so much I vomited. I ended up seeing the doctor and, creepily, I was alright as soon as I went into the waiting room. I stopped playing, but I could feel Freeman watching me.

It had been over five years since I’d seen those Half-Life 2 posters in my GAME store and completely ignored them. At this point I was now writing about games on my blog and even writing for Platform Nation part-time. I was getting on well and that worry of Valve’s monster was at the back of my mind. I let my guard down, just as I started playing the game again and getting ever so closer to the ending (literally just about to enter Breen’s office) I was struck with family issues. I’d rather not talk about them, but they were awful. I wasn’t the victim myself, but a bystander as I watched them devolve into something inhuman. I stopped playing all video-games for a long time, only picking up ones that I needed to do for Platform Nation.

Throughout the early months of 2010, I fought back. After over six years now, I started a new game of Half-Life 2 and felt the full thrill. This was when I joined Destructoid, when I found Anthony Burch’s Rev Rants and just took in the full awe of what our medium could accomplish. I found beauty, I started writing about it and it started to blossom into something I could do forever. I wanted to work in video-games, I wanted to realise their potential, I wanted to get angry whenever someone did something stupid. I felt the rage, I felt a medium rising up and spreading its legs waiting to birth out something beautiful.

I got sick, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote as I went through Half-Life 2. The world turned slower, the days wore on and I felt Freeman’s breath. I felt him breathing louder and louder, that heartbeat becoming my own, the combine being my sworn enemy. I leapt through levels and put crowbars to faces, I stood at the final boss battle of Half-Life 2. I zoomed in straight on Breen’s faces and began a virtual duel of the fates. I would defeat this curse.

It decided to strike me again.

In March 2010, I decided to take my Xbox 360 with the Orange Box and Modern Warfare 2 (for my cousin) to my step-fathers. I tried and failed that boss battle countless times before we all went out to celebrate my step-grandfather’s birthday. It was a joyous time full of food and anecdotes, of watching an old man watch his younglings smile and celebrate his life. I felt happy.

I remember getting this pain in my gut, going to the toilet and looking in the mirror. I felt something terrible had happened. That certain scene in that certain sci-fi epic where that Old Man goes “As if millions of voices had been suddenly silenced.” like that. Or more like…

Prepare for unforeseen consequences.

We came home to a burglary. The house stripped of its wealth, of tears from my stepsisters and family. My laptop taken with my writings aboard the hard drive (thankfully backed up). My 360 was taken with my HDD, which housed my 100s over hours into the Mass Effect duology. You know what was still there, do you know what I still own? The Orange Box for Xbox 360. The robbers had left it behind but since they’d come from the backdoor, there was mud all over the case as if they were about to take it. There was one little bit of the cover still visible there, Gordon Freeman’s eyes. They were just looking at me, like a cat in the dark.

For the rest of 2010, I compelled myself to write a book and do some of my exams (I still have over ten to complete this year). I went through Kubrick’s works and Hitchcock’s films, I read the greats and left Platform Nation. I started writing game critique corner, joining two new sites to write on and gaining an appreciation for video-games as a powerful medium. I felt involved and enthralled in a movement… but then 2011 came.

I remember listening to LCD Soundsystem as my first track of 2011, specifically ‘Get Innocuous‘. As the song blurred out and I saw the fireworks, the joy and celebration of beginning anew, I felt something. I felt all seven of those years come at once, as if the G-man had one final message for me. I looked across to my gaming collection, I flicked through the cases. Shadow of the Colossus, Bioshock, Fallout New Vegas, Mass Effect 1 and 2, Far Cry 2 and many more that had changed me in some way. I came to the end of the cabinet and saw an orange binder, I took it out of its placing and looked straight into those eyes.

I wrote the ‘Curse of Half-Life 2‘ piece over a year since I’d been burgled. I wrote of having the Orange Box screen playing on my television, that temptation coming again. Over seven years of my life compelling me to begin again. My hand felt over the 360 controller once more, I felt it. For once in my life I felt my childhood and all of those times I’d spent tormented with this game. How it had tried to murder me, tear my family apart, tear my friends and apart and steal my wealth.

I began Half-Life 2 minutes after publishing that piece. I ran through the streets of City 17, I felt once more in the moment. Ravenholm didn’t scare me, the Combine didn’t scare me, Half-Life 2 didn’t scare me. For once I was enjoying myself once more, feeling this world lap over me as if I was in this world. Obviously, the curse tried to hit me again with almost an annual reminder. It was March, 2011. A year since I was last burgled.

I was burgled again, but it was my house this time and not my stepdad’s. They destroyed the locks while we were asleep, took my mum’s laptop and some of other bits. They took away my sense of security in my own home, I felt stripped of something again. Again. Always again, as if I’d tried and failed to begin something. I spent many nights sleepless, I still do, waking up to those littlest of noises including (at one point) the quacking of a duck.

Did that stop me playing Half-Life 2?


I knew how to beat it now.

I started playing every single day, getting through whatever I had to review for Screenjabber (whom I had started to write for) and then loading up the Orange Box. I was diving into City 17, going through the Sandtraps and Entanglement. I went through Follow Freeman and then…

I can honestly say that completing Half-Life 2 has been my life quest. Just two days ago I was greeted with four ‘B’ grades on some exams I took in January. Disappointing for me given how I am greedily academic. Nevertheless with Japan in peril (perhaps thanks to me) and my life going through some ups and downs, I still played the game everyday for the past week and a bit. I felt the sleeplessness get to me every so often but…

After seven years, countless illnesses, thousands of pounds taken away from me, friendships broken, family ties broken, sites left and sites joined, books written and films watched, articles written, essays written, work done and work left incomplete, exams failed and exams whitewashed, a middle-eastern democratic revolution, the large hadron collider, countless natural disasters and many of my life quests still in sight…

I did it.