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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Few (More) Notes On Half-Life's Story

A while back, like when CT first got rolling, I wrote this bit about how Half Life 2's story is best not really thought about and it's since been something of a centerpiece when I talk about narratives in games and what constitutes storytelling.

Having now finished Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Portal, I kinda started thinking about it again. Sorry.

And you know, I'm not even going to put in my normal positive bit about Valve's ability to create sets and environments. First of all you know all that and second if you don't get that for a decent play you need more than a decent stage, just stop reading now.

First, let's dismiss something that is being commonly talked about right now. If you want to go listen to Portal's credits song and you haven't played the game or don't actually own it, well you just go right on ahead and do so. Seriously, people are playing up the spoiler thing way too much here. Hey, the good guy kills the big boss at the end and gets away. Oh, I'm sorry - did you honestly not expect that???. Honestly you should play the game first simply because half of the humor of the song will be a little lost on you - but it's not like song tells you Buffy's mom dies or anything. Portal doesn't have much of a plot to speak of - and hence, not much to really spoil. There's about one "twist" in the game, the song doesn't mention it and you pretty much see it coming soon in the game anyway.

"Still Alive" is one of the best video game songs ever written and it's a lot, lot funnier if you get through the game first (not to mention more rewarding) - but don't let that stop you from listening to it at all.

OK, that said, let's get back to Gordon.

So does anyone else find it odd that Black Mesa is still such a prominent aspect of the future when it was blown off the face of the earth by a thermonuclear bomb? Not to mention being the entry point of a full scale extradimensional invasion because Gordon kills some big baby alien thing. And not only did this band of mad scientists manage to essentially destroy the entire planet - they still seem remarkably well funded and still inventing?

And my favorite bit? The fact that at the beginning of Half-Life 2, the guy who was running the whole facility not survives the nuclear blast, survives the invasion - but gets promoted to ruler of the planet. Yeah, I know HL fanboys like to say that just proves Breen was in cohoots with the Combine from the beginning - but my two word response to that is stupid retcon. For one thing, explain to me why an uberpowerful race of conquerers needs a frontman in the first place. What, they were afraid of the bad PR from a seven hour war? They were afraid it might last eight hours so they just went and found the nearest guy under a rock and said, hey - sorry about all this, how about ruling the planet for us?

Not to mention the fact that quite honestly, a seven hour war seems like a little bit of an overkill. Bit of a stretch there. I'd maybe a buy a seven day war ... maybe. But any organization that can conquer an entire planet in seven hours and yet still has a teensy weensy little resistance problem two decades later has a serious case of short attention span.

The thing is I think the Episodes are really moving ahead. Honestly, the best thing the story can do is just move foward at this point and try and build on itself. And it is - and I think its about time we all thank Alyx Vance for this. Let's face it - Alyx is the main character of Half-Life 2. Sure, Gordon is the player's viewpoint ... but he has no lines of dialogue, no real relationships with other characters and can't even move the plot forward without Alyx literally opening doors for him from time to time.

I'm hoping Valve gives her some depth in Episodes to come, as she's about the game's only chance at character development. Yes, Valve can make some great sets and in Alyx they've made a great character. Episode 2 actually brought out some interesting dynamics with her dad, her past and what's coming down the road. I'm hoping Episode 3 does even more.


Patrick said...

The thing is, the strength of Half-Life's original storyteller was in the ambiguity; there was no way you could interact with a complex political/logistical unfolding with 3d movement, shooting, and box breaking mechanics (oh yeah, and switch flipping) so in order to keep things from being too assymetrical the writers and level designers very carefully showed you just enough outside the field of play to suggest something might bigger, but explication demands further means of interaction. I can crowbar a giant alien baby to death, but I can't really fight a global resistance battle with the same crowbar and some hackneyed bots, hence the imbalance. Its kind of a shame, in my not humble opinion I think they should've just left Half-Life be and spared the sequels, but thats not how the business works is it?

Josh said...

I'd tend to agree - I never really questioned that Half-Life was trying to stretch itself much wider than being a set piece. It was an environment with some solvable puzzles and some enigmas best left just wondered about. And the first sequels, Blue Shift and Opposing Force - worked fine because they were the same thing.

Half-Life 2, though, created the presumption of a story - except the backstory doesn't quite work, the main character is mute and the rest of the ingame plot is shaky at best.

Honestly though, I'm ok with ignoring the presumption. I do still think it's a great game in the long run.