One of the most praised and mildly criticized FPS titles of the past decade is 2004’s Half-Life 2. At the time of its release it was far beyond what any other FPS title had delivered in terms of narrative, graphics, and sheer physical interaction. Five years later, certain things have come under fire and certain things are still praised. Many of the conventions of the game, such as the silent protagonist, have been adopted by countless games since the Half-Life 2 was published. Others, such as the narrative techniques a silent protagonist requires in an FPS, are still being developed.
At the core of the Half-Life series are a variety of carefully planned action sequences mixed with more passive experiences. What could almost be called an old fashioned game design of health, armor, and the ability to carry every weapon is combined with the unlimited potential of having the drama unfold firsthand for the player. For the purpose of this critique I played the Xbox360 version and decided to only examine Half-Life 2 without the subsequent Episodes factored in. Given how much they alter and experiment with the original formula, it seemed best to look at the game in its original form.
One of the intrinsic themes of the original Half-Life was the breakdown of technology when confronted with a hostile yet unintelligent alien life form. When your character opens a dimensional rift, the dozens of species that plow through it are quick to rip apart all of the modern wonders of the Black Mesa facility. Yet with the exception of the final foes, this is generally not an organized takeover but rather just wild animals that are far more powerful than anything on Earth. Once the military arrives and begins to exterminate the “mistake”, the game’s theme is that man himself is still the worst monster of all. It’s a basic story and one that the second version expands on significantly.
The world of Half-Life 2 depicts the alien species, most of them still unintelligent, overtaking our planet and destroying the norms of civilization. Giant ants burrow in the ground, head crabs make zombies out of people, and barnacle creatures make even the most populated areas dangerous. Our benefactors to this natural invasion, the alien Combine, are able to create order and stability through superior technology. They have cars that don’t require gasoline, force fields, and the ability to generate power from Dark Energy. Just as in the original game, the people sent to help soon become worse than the invasive foreign animals.
When the player arrives at City 17, deposited in a train by the mysterious G-Man, the game design creates a sense of helplessness by only allowing us to move, talk, or pick-up items. A floating droid takes our picture and we are quickly corralled through force fields by masked guards with tasers. Throughout this exchange are immersive details, talk to a man on a bench and he rambles about the water being drugged. Talk to a woman looking at the train and she asks if you’ve seen her missing husband.
Without the ability to fight back we’re helpless against the soldiers and forced to obey their orders. When the tutorial is showing you how to pick-up objects, it does so by having a guard knock a can to the ground and tell you to pick it up. If the player refuses, they are beaten.
A character from the past game, Barney, intercepts you and is quick to intone what will become the mantra of countless characters: “Gordon Freeman!” The act of both giving the player a name and incessantly repeating it is an interesting strategy because not all games follow this course. Numerous games let you name yourself or just assign you an arbitrary title like Hero or Nameless One. It’s the technical issue of having the voice actor be able to address you but still not by whatever random name you picked. The strength of naming the character and giving them a background is that it gives you more of an identity to inhabit.
Barney reminds Gordon of his previous heroic exploits and how excited everyone is to see him. There is a purpose or role to work toward instead of just a blank slate. When combined with the fact that Gordon never talks, it makes it so that identity is still highly malleable in the player’s mind. Some people have even gone so far as to make a joke out of what he might really be thinking.
The only required aspects of the identity are certainly accessible, as well: you’re a Ph.D physicist who has already saved the world before. After the beginning sequence almost every person you meet will recognize you, hailing Gordon Freeman as a messiah and repeating your name incessantly. In this way the game is not just giving the player a role to assume, they’re giving you space to make your own tweaks to the identity by having it be a broad one.
The tour of the city continues as you witness a variety of other crimes against humanity. An arrest, raids on apartments, and even being shot at are experiences arranged for the player. Outside the train station we encounter an enormous screen featuring Dr. Breen, who is the leader of City 17 and serves as ambassador to the alien Combine. One of the interesting things about Breen is that he has a distinctly “Mr. Rogers” kind of voice, one that calms and supplicates a person. Breen announces that the citizens of the city can no longer reproduce because of a suppressor field. He explains, “We should thank our benefactors for giving us respite from this overpowering force. They have thrown a switch and exorcised our demons in a single stroke. They have given us the strength we never could have summoned to overcome this compulsion. They have given us purpose. They have turned our eyes toward the stars. Let me assure you that the suppressing field will be shut off on the day that we have mastered ourselves.”
He urges his citizens to inhibit reproduction itself and offers only a slow death until they do so. Goading this slow death on is Breen’s offer for eternal life through technology, preying on the fear of death that the morbid circumstances create daily.
The Combine’s presence is also presented aesthetically by creating a contrast between their buildings and humanity’s. The choice of an East European City to set the game in is key because many of the structures are old fashioned using mortar and brick. In contrast are the Combine’s platforms and other bits of technology, which are a metallic black and curvy in shape. When you see a guard post, it is often bolted onto a human structure. When you see a Combine lock, it is distinctly attached to the door and alien looking. We are constantly made aware that a foreign presence is in this city by the aesthetics, the immersive details, and in the very presentation of the game’s world.
The player’s helplessness continues throughout this tour of an oppressed society, culminating in his being rescued by the game’s female interest Alyx Vance. Leading us to a secret lab, we are quickly introduced to the human resistance to the Combine. Yet the battle they are waging is not one necessarily with guns, but with technology. Vance brags that they are able to teleport while the Combine hasn’t perfected this machinery. The doctor of the lab has debeaked one of the head crabs, making a pet out of one of the most dangerous aliens to infest the planet.
It is in this lab that the player is finally given their own piece of technology: the Hazardous Environment Suit. As soon as it is put on the player is empowered: they can see their health and shields, they can sprint, and they have a flashlight. From here on out they will be receiving weapons and other abilities. Human ingenuity and technology is what gives the player the means to fight against the Combine.
And from here the game takes off. Initially equipped with a crowbar, the player is able to begin undoing the Combine’s power by fighting back. One of the first acts we’re allowed to do is interrupt an arrest in progress. Gun battles and a high speed chase across the city’s canal system leads the player to Black Mesa East, named after the original human lab that opened the rifts for the aliens. Once there we encounter what has become one of the game’s more controversial elements: waiting around for the NPC’s to stop talking.
Given how enraptured their characters are around you, the NPC’s each become a sort of plot butler. They walk around you, wait for you, chat with you, and slowly serve you the plot. Jonathan Blow referred to this as the disingenuity problem. The game design, which is an old school FPS model reminiscent of Doom, encourages constantly moving and collecting items. The plot butlers, with their constant chatter, are slowing down what is otherwise a fast-paced and twitchy game.
The fact that we slowly begin to think of them as servants rather than friends makes this more problematic. These are people whose sole function is to tell us what’s going on and little more. Given how many details the game leaves up to the player to discover (photos, Breen’s lectures, etc.) taking away the choice by having these butlers block doorways or hold the keys is a bit problematic. It’s not that their story is bad and most people enjoy taking a break to listen, it’s just that it becomes awkward when the player has no choice in the matter.
While at Black Mesa East we are equipped with another piece of technology that will empower the player: the Gravity Gun. Later during the final confrontation the lack of appreciation the aliens have for the device contrasts how useful it is throughout the game. We can now move large objects, rocket items at enemies, and are generally able to control the game environment through it.
The second half of the game begins when this Lab falls under attack and we’re forced to retreat through one of the abandoned human cities. This portion is concerned with making the player confront the wild aliens as opposed to the advanced ones controlling society. Ravenholm is a city that has been infested by headcrabs, a species that attaches to a host body and turns it into a mindless beast. In previous levels it has been shown that the Combine even goes so far as to use them as weapons, launching rockets full of them and letting them take over buildings full of resistance members. Still screaming and feeling pain as human beings, the zombies are both disturbing and numerous to deal with in the later portions of the game.
After we finally escape this town, the player must then engage with another hostile species called ant lions. As the name implies, they’re giant ants that swarm the player as they move along the coastline. This culminates in the beach level where you cannot even walk on the ground without being attacked by a seemingly infinite number of the creatures. Yet just as the Combine is able to use the headcrabs against people, the player can use pheromone pods to control the ant lions against the Combine. Coinciding with the theme of a technological struggle is creating a game design where the player has actual mastery over the aliens that forced humanity to accept the Combine in the first place.
The player’s destination while traveling through this wild landscape is to rescue one of the key scientists in the resistance movement, Ely Vance. After this attempt fails they are whisked back to City 17, the place we arrived at the start, except now we are fully equipped with every weapon and technology possible. The last portion of the game is thus a showdown between the fully equipped player and the Combine revealing their final advanced weapons. Giant walking tanks, satellite lasers, and anti-matter grenades are thrown at the player for the first time.
Struggling through the war torn city shows that the Combine’s structures, the ones that aesthetically conflict with the human structures, have even begun to move themselves. They are slowly crushing and replacing the human buildings. The central building for the Combine is the Citadel, a towering structure that was always in the distance while traveling through City 17. From a distance this building shines bright blue and shifts sections of itself around constantly. Once the player finally draws near, however, the stark reality is present: the building is dirty and crusted. Breen himself, still equipped with his “Mr. Roger’s” voice, is revealed to be as disappointing as the alien’s technology when up close. He is petty, full of bad jokes, and sure of his intellectual superiority. The veneer, the reality of the Combine’s advanced technology, is revealed to be far from perfect.
As you explore the interior of the Citadel, more and more of the Combine’s way of life is revealed. Just as the original Half-Life and this game began with a train ride that introduced us to a new way of life, the game’s final level takes us on a train ride through the alien civilization. Mechanically altered humans, hibernation pods, and hulking machines fill this cold and lifeless world.
In the end, it is the gravity gun that saves us. This purely human technology reacts strongly to the Combine’s, resulting in the gun becoming immensely more powerful and capable of wielding anti-matter. As we beat the final level and the teleportation device that Breen intends to escape with explodes, time comes to a halt and the mysterious G-Man who placed us in City 17 reappears. His words are cryptic as he extracts us again for his own uses, demonstrating a power over time and space that neither faction in the game possesses.
The mystery of the G-Man is somewhat discussed in subsequent episodes and yet unless Episode 3 intends to have a massive reveal, his ultimate purpose still seems to be a reminder about science’s limitations. The G-Man’s speech is bizarre, his mannerisms oblique, and his full abilities are never explained. In a game about a technological dystopia, the presence of G-Man is a reminder of the unknowable, the uncertain that exists in any scientific endeavor. That the player is controlled by this force is a testament to what both the Combine and humanity has learned: no amount of technology can give you total power.