I only completed Half-Life 2’s Episode One and Episode Two now, playing them back to back during one weekend. As everyone who cares must know by now, this is first class entertainment, but let’s recap what sets these 6-hour first person adventures apart from your average FPS.
What it all boils down to is story.
The Half-Life story is not very deep nor complicated. You blow up things and fight with the human resistance, against alien incursion. What Valve has realized is that when it comes to videogames, what you’re doing is much more interesting than what you’re told. Coming away from the whole Half-Life 2 experience, it’s easy to recap what’s gone down, because it’s so simple. But compared to most games, you feel a much stronger tie to the whole.
Valve tells its story through place, characters and action. All of these are very understated. There is practically zero exposition – you’re never forced to sit through a lengthy explanation of anything, the game’s developer counst on the player piecing together what he needs. Leaving things completely or relatively open to interpretation is alright. Mysteries keep us coming back.
City 17 and its environs is not a fantastic, imaginative place. Rather, it’s all very drab. But it’s believable and everything you come across feels like it’s telling a part of the story. Clearly there’s been a catastrophe and all the people are gone, but when you stumble across an empty home, you look at all that remains and try to imagine what’s happened. In a sense, you care more than you would if someone told you what happened – it’s the age old letting the audience’s imagination run wild trick, used with excellence.
The characters are used sparingly. The only one you see much of is Alyx and the more she hangs around, the less she does or says. However, the little peeks you get into her character are all perfectly realised. The way she moves, talks and comments on your actions all make her more believable. The parts of her animation that you admire are not feats of super-powered athleticism – it’s the way she sits on a sofa, looks at the people she’s listening to, climbs into the car. But what’s most impressive is the way she’s used to build up a tension, a bond between the protagonist Gordon Freeman and herself, one that is only advanced in a very, very minor way over the course of these three games. It keeps the player interested, leaving him to make up his own mind about what he thinks about her. There’s still plenty of room for imagination.
But the reason you’re so attached to the story of Half-Life is because it’s your story. It’s about what you do and how you save the world. The protagonist never speaks, never brushing the player’s image of Gordon Freeman the wrong way, yet it never feels weird. Instead of relying on conversation and explanation and cutscenes, the game is content to leave the player solve the situation and be the hero. When I think back to Half-Life 2, I don’t think about the overall story. I think back to what I did. It’s not just a case of leaving enough room for the player, outside of cutscenes – it’s a case of making sure that everything the player does is interesting. There is not a single repetitive or overlong scene in the three games. Every time you go into a situation, it’s something new, something you’ll remember doing. It’s never just slogging through another corridor, like in so many other shooters, masters of the genre included (Halo).