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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Overthinking Half-Life 2 [spoilers]

During my morning crawl, I came across this via UnrealOps. It's more or less a literary deconstruction of Half-Life 2.

It also reminds me how easy it is to write bullshit academia. I mean, take this:

As Freeman, we have to enter a casket and move onwards and upwards to confront and challenge those who've managed to decide what happens directly below. Yet through such change of environment, it becomes evident that the cold sterilised factory portion of the building, which harshly sits on the surface of City 17, is also cut off from the clean, pristine look of the upper floors. There almost appears then to be a clear fragmentation too within the Combine partnership and where the hierarchy and foot soldiers fit in with each other.

Funny, I thought that part of the game was merely a poorly contrived game mechanic to force a relatively non-existent plot forward. Here is our man Freeman, mysteriously dropped into a mysterious city, finding himself in the Citadel of HorseHead Evil or somewhat, having eluded capture a dozen different ways ... and he willingly places himself into constraints and gets delivered via crane not once ... but twice.

C'mon people, I like Half-Life 2 as much as the next guy ... but let's be honest. The story was seriously lacking. Gordon, having just spared Black Mesa and swept away by the bizarre G-Man is dumped ... into the future? A future where the aliens of Black Mesa have taken over the world in a time about equivalent to Freeman's escape from his lab and the administrator of this lab, now responsible for countless deaths and the inevitable downfall of mankind ... is somehow charged with running the whole place? The whole Earth that is?

Putting aside for now that much of this is told through a single bulletin board in the game, since none of the main characters seem to bother with actually explaining to Freeman what's going on, this smacks heavily of trying far too hard to make two completely divergent story lines appear connected. There is nothing particularly logical or realistic about that premise, it just makes it seem more like a sequel since they can rehash characters.

Half-Life 2 had some interesting mechanics. As Penny Arcade pointed out, it's unabashedly first-person, even when third person might serve better, which works to a good effect. It's got some of the best design in video game history. It does not, however, have a story meriting thinking like "As such, if her first and second betrayals are so close, both from decisive calculation to heated indecision, what does that say about the lack of instinct over our fundamental grasping of it?".

The article does, at the end, make some interesting points about game design in general - basically exploration versus expedition, but it takes way too long to get there. Let me make it simpler for you. Valve does good level design.


Ariel Wollinger said...

I tottally agree! the game leaves the story in the air. no one explains a thing, no one tells what year it is, and worse, you cant kill the other characters!!! I would have killed that bitch scientist the first time i saw her.

A. LaMosca said...

I have as little patience for self-indulgent academc analysis as the next guy. I do think there's a bit of genius, however, in the the way Valve built a tightly scripted, first-person game around a plot whose primary themes center around authority and control. I'd be interested to see what you think of my article on the subject, published on at:

I agree that HL2's story didn't deliver the goods, but I thought the overall feel and atmosphere of the game were incredibly powerful.

(blogging games at

Josh said...

Good article. I wouldn't disagree with any of it. I think Valve should be winning design awards for HL2 for a while. Thematically speaking, it was a home run.

From a real story POV though, it was pretty flat. I wouldn't say bad, just very thin. It's a very style versus substance thing, but the style is so gosh darn purty that it's hard to be annoyed by it. So reading a deconstruction of it that would make Virginia Woolf blush. Well, it was a chuckle.

Stevie Nipple Squeezy Poo said...

This is the most uneducated and completely preposterous assumption of Half Life 2 I've ever read in my life and I wouldn't post a rebuttal if I didn't think you were 100% wrong. Half Life 1 & 2 had the most well thought out story I've seen in a long time and you're trying to disprove its crediblity just because you didn't understand it. So before I take my arguement further, I first suggest reading this so you DO understand it.

Now you have a basic outline about what the game's about without having to research it. I think the genious behind Half Life's story is HOW you don't know very much about it. That's basically the whole point. Gordon is left in the dark about a lot of things for various reasons so he only knows as much as you, the player. That's just plain genious if you ask me. Most games came with a tight little package of a story, but Half Life 2 had the balls to be different and try something no other shooter ever even attempted: to tell a story where the main character is passive and only as wise as you are. Isn't that why we play video games? To be immersed in the role? And the absolute genious is that even though you're supposed to be kept in the dark, Valve didn't use that as a convenient plot device so they could leave the story paper thin. All the elements in Half Life 2's story ARE explained in some way or another but it's up to YOU the player to piece it together. So sorry buddy, but you're wrong and if you still want to argue against this your just TRYING to hate the plot.

Josh said...

Yes, that paper thin quality that's left up to the reader to interept is always a true sign of genius.

stefan2411 said...

ariel wollinger...
they leev it open for the next game to come out!duh.
its obvious that there not going to let u kill some of the main people!duh.
and i agree with a.jacobson.
its suppose to be puzzling at the end!