Brandon Lee 2011/12/13
Half Life 2
The narrative in the Half-Life series is fascinating not just because of the story itself, but because of the way it’s presented. Half-Life 2 is a game made by Valve studios that follows in their tradition of telling story completely in first-person. This allows there to be no separation between “normal” gameplay parts and “story” parts, so that in a play through there is one consistent viewpoint for the player to take in the world. Telling the story exclusively through first-person perspective provides greater immersion for the player and interesting challenges for the developers.
One of the prominent methods of storytelling used in Half-Life 2 was the idea of “Ambient Storytelling”. None of the other characters seem to be aware that you were actually gone during the events between Half-Life 1 & 2, so they all speak to you as if you are already aware of them. In much the same way I wouldn’t preface any discussion of 9/11 with a complete run down of everything that happened. So, to get any idea of what happened, you have to actually go out of your way to scan the newspaper clippings and other various articles that Valve placed on some characters’ walls. You must also connect the dots yourself regarding what random NPC’s and other characters say during the game, particularly Alyx Vance and Dr. Breen.
In conjunction with their unique story-telling methods, Valve built the source engine to allow the highly detailed faces of non-player characters to always be looking at you when they speak, presumably like a normal person would. That seems like a minor detail, but it has real impact on immersion when you are treated like you really exist the world. When Dr. Kleiner or Odessa Cubbage address you, they care about whether they are looking at you or staring into space.
Speaking of faces – particularly at the time of the game’s release, but even up until today, the Source engine renders some of the most simple yet complex facial animations out of any game. Valve spent a great deal of time and effort on making highly detailed faces, with each one being the result of a real person’s face being scanned. While each character is speaking, their mouths are being moved procedurally to match their words. The execution of these animations have to be completely in synch, or else it would look like complete shit.
Adding little details like acknowledgement can also have an adverse effect on immersion, because anytime something completely absurd happens, it will stand out more. For instance, since I’m unrestricted during scripted interactions, I can throw things at other characters, or start running, climbing and generally ignoring the character speaking to me, even as they follow me around the room with their eyes. But none of my actions will illicite any comment from them
One of the major themes in Half-Life 2 is Humanity, or what it means to be human. This is addressed in a number of different ways, notably in the issue of sexual reproduction. At the beginning of the game, as you first get to the exit of the train station, a “Breencast” comes on where he answers a letter from a concerned citizen regarding the Combine Suppression Field, which stops a particular enzyme from working in the beginning stages of embryonic development. “First, let us consider the fact that for the first time ever, as a species, immortality is in our reach. This simple fact has far-reaching implications. It requires radical rethinking and revision of our genetic imperatives. It also requires planning and forethought that run in direct opposition to our neural pre-sets.” So very early on you know that humans are currently incapable of reproducing; coupled with the fact (learned later on) that it’s been 20 since the events in the first game, you can deduce there haven’t been any human children in quite some time. That kind of knowledge can completely change how you look at simple scenes like a dilapidated playground, or a couple’s apartment with toys in it.
Once Gordon Freeman destroys the Combine Suppression Field and humans can breed again, there is much jubilation in the citizens of City 17. You can hear many human NPC’s say lines like “I’m gonna go home and mate.” There is also encouragement from different characters claiming “we all need to do our part”, including one awkward scene where Eli Vance suggests you mate with his daughter while she’s literally standing right there; it was weird for both of us.
Also brought up in Breen’s early broadcasts was the subject of the human species changing from its current form. And this idea is reenforced in many ways, including the posters strewn about City 17 showing a human brain and skull, a monkey brain and skull, and finally a Trans-human Combine brain and skull. In another Breencast, Dr. Breen specifically says “If the transhuman forces are to prove themselves an indispensable augmentation to the Combine Overwatch, they will have to earn the privilege. ” Which indicates, along with their name (which took me like 3 years to figure out), that the Combine literally combine themselves in some way with other species. Meaning that people really are becoming something that’s not human.
In all likelihood, the Combine do intend to transform every human to fit into their network of conquered species. As that’s what most of the Combine forces are. You can see it the organic nature of the Dropships and the Striders. They are obviously remnants of past lifeforms and civilizations, and a recurring reminder throughout the game of what you’re trying to stop from happening to humans.
Another parallel form of humans losing their humanity is the unique form of zombie present in the Half-Life universe, the headcrab zombie. Headcrabs are parasitic lifeforms that, as the name implies, jump on your head and try to take over your body. This is a more extreme demonstration of the loss of humanity, as the human loses control over their own actions, something that presumably doesn’t happen if one becomes a trans-human Combine. While the original Half-Life introduced the simple headcrab and it’s respective zombie, Half-Life 2 adds several new forms of headcrab and zombie. The ultra fast headcrab zombie seems to show a an even more advanced loss of humanity as the person becomes completely monstrous. There is also a hive based zombie that throws poison headcrabs at you.
One of interesting differences between the zombies and human Combine is that when you kill a zombie, they scream and die in pain. You can even see the human face frozen forever in agony. However, if you kill an Overwatch soldier all you hear is the radio in their suit cutting out. An implication could maybe be drawn that the zombies are actually more human since they lost their identity involuntarily, whereas the soldiers gave up on being human.
The last, and probably most horrific, form of a former human is the Stalker. They are encountered deep inside Nova Prospekt and the Citadel. It is known that they are the result of the Combine forcefully removing someone’s humanity. They are hideously deformed, with massive physical and mental alterations; including, but definitely not limited to, having their genitalia removed (another clue that sexual reproduction is tied to identity). The game makes clear that Stalkers cannot reproduce, and are instead manufactured. The initial experiments for this combination can be seen in some of the rooms at Nova Prospekt. It is unknown if Stalkers are just an alternate form of combination, or the ultimate goal for all humans.
If the theme of Half-Life 2 is Humanity, then the tone would have to be Oppression. What really sets apart a video game by Valve, is the use of atmosphere. As soon as you start the game you are given a taste of what to expect, with the infamous G-man “waking” you from stasis and implying that you have work to do. Once at the train station, Dr. Breen beautifully sums up the situation you now find yourself in with one line “Welcome to City 17. You have chosen… or been chosen, to relocate to one of our finest remaining urban centers.”
Another display of ambient storytelling lies with the random citizens that give you warnings about drinking the water, and ramblings about the trains arriving with no passengers and only picking up passengers or only arriving with passengers and not taking any passengers. As mentioned earlier, there are many posters that litter the streets of City 17. These are an iconic way of presenting information about the people in the city, without them having to actually say it out loud.
There are parallels here with the Jews in Nazi Europe, from the forced containment, to being shipped around on trains, the Overwatch masks, the look and feel of the ghettos, and the fact that the setting is literally eastern Europe. One of the more disturbing forms of Oppression is the slow genocide that the human species will suffer by not being able to reproduce. There’s also the small touch that Dr. Isaac Kleiner is a Jewish name.
It’s the seemingly frequent abuses that really exemplify the overwhelming oppression. From the ever present floating cameras, to the routine home search/invasion. And who can forget the greatest act of oppression ever, in the scene where a security guard knocks a can off a trash bin and says “Pick up that can.” Such a total disregard for you as a person, with such an arbitrary show of power; it’s because they know that you don’t even have enough power to fight them back about it. Of course, since this scenario teaches you how to pick up and throw objects, you can commit your first act of rebellion.
Since there are no cutscenes or awkward tutorial sessions, Valve has to teach the player how to play the game in a more subtle fashion. This can usually be done with scripted events and cleverly placed items. The first being when Barney intercepts you at the train station, he tells you to move some boxes around and climb out the window. Unless the player is already familiar with the game, picking up objects is a hidden affordance. The box also shows the upper limit of what you can move, while the can “accidentally” dropped by the guard shows the lower limit. The guard also lets you know how to throw things.
Valve does a fantastic job of slowly introducing you to new concepts via carefully scripted events. For example, in one of the first scenes with headcrab zombies, one of the zombies will always launch a barrel at you. This is not something that will happen every time you see a zombie, but it will happen every time you see “this” zombie, so that you can know they are capable of doing it. Even the classic headcrab has to be introduced properly to new players, and thus we have the adorable and lovable Lamaar (who has been de-fanged). Lamaar shows off the jumping capabilities and the identifiable sound of future headcrabs.
The only real tutorial-like moment occurs when you first earn the Gravity Gun, but that is an admittedly different kind of concept, even to experienced players. It’s only because of the profound importance (and sheer novelty) of this item that Valve felt it necessary to train you on the basics. This scene also serves to break up the action which had been pretty heavy just prior, and will be heavy again right after. But the more advanced lesson isn’t until Ravenholm. This is the first area to really require the Gravity Gun, as such there are lots of fun saw blades and exploding barrels, but almost no ammo. Even the idea of chopping a zombie in half is cleverly introduced, as you see a torso pinned to a tree at the beginning.
Half-Life 2 did an amazing job at creating interesting characters. Right down to the character imbued into the enemies. As soon as you step off the train at the beginning, you’re flashed in the eyes by that goddamn floating camera. It’s just an inanimate object, but you instantly hate it, and learn to avoid getting your picture taken (I always played the game assuming that getting my picture taken would reveal my position to the enemy). And speaking of inanimate objects, who doesn’t just love Manhacks? While not terribly difficult to take down individually, these bastards actually seem to know how to use group tactics, as one of them will always try to get behind you (never let that happen).
The human characters are interesting as well of course. In particular, there is Father Grigori, a man of the cloth who tends to his flock with no mercy. He has a rapacious laugh and seems to be losing his mind. But there is a cold hard reality that he is the only remaining survivor in Ravenholm, and that the zombies you see really were people he used to know. I think that Father Grigori kills zombies out of love. He feels it is his duty to wipe out everything in Ravenholm, so that his people may find peace. He also has that adorable Russian accent.
Another important person is Dr. Isaac Kleiner, chief scientist and genius extraordinaire for the resistance movement. Kleiner is one of the few remaining links to Black Mesa from the first game. He represents the genius absent-minded professor, and is like an uncle to Alyx Vance. Much of the groundbreaking teleportation work can be attributed to him (the Gman may have also guided him in the right direction). Kleiner becomes a great foible early in the game as Barney and Alyx try to talk to him. Kleiner also has a “pet” headcrab, much to Barney’s chagrin. As mentioned earlier, Kleiner could also represent the Jewish scientists that were invaluable in assisting the Allies during World War II, since most of the scientist integral to the founding of quantum mechanics were Jewish, and Kleiner’s work is on quantum tunneling. Also, his name is of Jewish origin.
The character of Barney Calhoun is another holdover from Black Mesa. As one of the former security guards, he received his own spin-off game titled Half-Life: Blue Shift. The character is quick with a joke and handy with a gun, and provides a certain amount of muscle to a resistance that is primarily composed of nerds. Despite the excellent voice acting, Barney as a character felt a little flat. He supposedly owes you a beer (in reference to a line from the first game), but other than that not much is really divulged about his character. All we know is that he’s not a brainiac like everybody else (as one of the few characters not named Doctor), but is still completely willing to die for his cause. His personal life is a complete mystery in comparison to everyone else; even just a line about missing his family or the intervening years between now and Black Mesa would have been enough to give him some depth.
Dr. Wallace Breen serves as the Administrator of City 17. He was also the administrator of Black Mesa at the time Gordon worked there, though he did not appear in the first game. Breen is first presented during a “breencast” welcoming you to City 17. At first he seems like an affable guy just saying hello, but it quickly becomes clear that he is both the face of and puppet of oppression. His face is everywhere, and he even has his own line of drinking water (drugged for sure). At the same time, he clearly acts on others’ behalf, “our noble benefactors”. One of tidbits of information floating in the game is that Dr. Breen was the one who surrendered on behalf of humanity in the Seven Hour War. It’s also implied that he may have colluded with the Combine prior to the events at Black Mesa.
Dr. Breen represents the face of the Combine to humans, in part because actual Combine faces are hideous, but also because puppet administrations are another hallmark of the Nazi/Combine regime. In Half-Life 1, Gordon traveled to an alternate world/dimension called Xen. There he killed Nihihanth, and essentially freed the inhabitants of Xen from Combine rule (though it’s never really revealed what happened afterwards). On Earth, Breen is the new Nihilanth. But unlike the former queen, Breen is not the natural leader of his people. He is seen as a “collaborator” with the enemy by humans, and a temporary placeholder by the Combine. Off-camera, Breen disposes of his charm, guile, and “respect” for the Combine, and becomes blunt with the protagonist. He appears to be the only person aware of the fact that Gordon Freeman is under outside employment, even going so far as to clue you to the fact that your “contract” is for sale to the highest bidder. He seems unabashedly selfish and self-serving, a coward that refuses to stand by any beliefs, the complete antithesis of every other character you meet.
Not to go to far outside the realm of Half-Life 2, but Breen can also be seen as the archetype for GLADos in Portal. Both are just voices for the majority of the game, egging on the player via sound system that was apparently installed into every corner of City 17. Voice becomes the main weapon of these villans, who otherwise don’t interact with the world or the player. This can be seen as the opposite of the player in the role of Gordon Freeman, as you can only interact with the world physically, and lack any ability to speak. Breen and GLADos are both completely arrogant and overly assured of their power and control of the situation, which a silent character slowly works to undo.
Last on the resistance side, but certainly not least, we have Alyx Vance. Alyx serves as a sort of side kick and Deus ex Machina. She is a woman that is actually competent and doesn’t need any saving (except when she does). She has the ability to open every door or lock that the Combine throw at you, and she helps to guide you through some of the more complex level designs (such as the prison). On more than one occasion she will appear out of nowhere and change the course of events.
Alyx presents a weird conundrum for players, on the one hand she’s obviously meant to be cute as she still has a young face with freckles and everything, on the other hand she is the daughter of a coworker and unidentifiably young, though probably in her twenties. If there is supposed to be romance between the two of you, it is fundamentally one-sided as Gordon lacks the ability to say anything. Never the less, she does seem have some feelings for the character. As mentioned by one of the girls in class, having a female character that is supposed to be of “interest” to the player (wink wink) can be off putting for literally half the population that will be playing the game.
The most obvious character to talk about is most certainly the legendary G-Man. The suit and tie wearing, briefcase holding, mysterious “man” that haunts you throughout the game. He is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. It’s not even clear whose “side” he is even on; though popular opinion is that he works for himself, he mentions that both he and Gordon have the same employer. G-man will pull you out of danger almost as many times as he puts you in it. The G-Man has a characteristically non-human persona. His voice is raspy, and his speech pattern is both robotic and maniacal, he will often use metaphor and double entendre when speaking with you. He also has a mastery of space and time, but can be acted against by at least vortigaunts. The fact that he interacts with other characters, but that almost no one mentions or acknowledges him makes him even more mysterious. At least half the story in Half-Life (sorry about that) revolves around this character. Frankly, the series wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing without him.
In conclusion, Half-Life 2 is a game that redefined first-person shooters and videoganes in general almost as much as the original did. You can play the game and not look for any story, deeper meaning, or subtext, and you would probably still enjoy it. But the layers of narrative deeply intertwined with the original gameplay aspects make this a game you want to learn more about. Half-Life exemplifies the best qualities of Science Fiction, by using Science as a means of proposing philosophical questions. An entire paper probably could have been (and should be) written just about Valve’s fascination with traveling through time and space with portals, and how the story in Half-Life revolves around some actual theories regarding the possibility of doing so.
Half-Life 2 was also a major technical achievement for Valve. Thanks to the modular design of the Source engine, the game can age gracefully as the video card generations come and go. It’s hard to believe from looking at it that Half-Life 2 came out over 7 years ago; ancient in technology terms. Yet the gameplay is still revolutionary compared to modern offers, and people are still eagerly clamoring for more.
Post script: Seriously, when the fuck is Episode 3 coming out?