Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Half Life 2

Approximately 2 minutes into playing Half Life 2, I was already in a bad mood. As part of my job, I spend so much time evaluating games, picking them apart, critiquing them, ridiculing the bad stuff, admiring the good stuff (and then trying to figure out how they did it), that it is rare for a game to reach beyond that analytical filter and actually suck me in. Suck my MIND in. I'm not immersing myself in it, it's enveloping my psyche.

It becomes my context.

And so here I am, grappling with this conversation in my head. I'm not "playing" the game, per se, but the following is a transcript of my thoughts as I walk around this dingy, depressing train station. A small, flying, electronic sentry-like thingie flies by as the doors to my train car open. At the last second, it turns to me, flies over, and peers into my face.

What is that? Why is that thing in my face?

FLASH. I'm momentarily blinded by light.

Ow! Did it just take my picture? What the hell?

The thing hovers above me as I regain my sight, hovers with me a while as I cautiously move forward, and then floats away.

But I...I didn't do anything.

I'm on edge.

A white-bearded, intellectual type is talking down to me - both literally and figuratively - from a huge monitor on the wall.

Who is this talking? Dude on the monitor...god, I already hate him. Wait, what did he just say? "Our...benefactors?" What is this, 1984? Jesus.

As I listen to his speech, my skin begins to crawl. He's got this expression...his eyes seem to say that he feels my pain, sorta like a post-apocalyptic Clinton, but I can tell he's full of shit. Smug bastard.

I'll just keep walking. I'll follow that guy, he seems to know where he's going.

A guard violently pushes the guy I'm following, smacking him into a cart full of moldering suitcases.

Jesus. What's up, martial law? Stormtroopers have more compassion than this thug.

The guard walks towards me. I don't move. He pushes me and mutters something. I can't understand him...his voice is distorted and short, like a CB transmission in another language.

That motherfucker pushed me.

Without thinking, I walk over to him. He whirls around and pushes me again. This time, he turns on some sort of stick weapon, which crackles with electricity.

OK OK OK're the boss. Jesus.

I walk away and through a gate. A desperate looking woman asks me if there was anyone else on the train. She glances at me nervously, then looks beyond me again. She'll be looking for a long time.

There's no one else, sister.

Wow, I can actually feel my natural propensity to give a shit about other people draining out of me.

As I meander through the train station, I encounter muttering fools, conspiracy-theory-spewing old men, and other assorted layabouts. One guy sits at a bench. His arms are crossed. He seems to be hugging himself, like a child waiting to be swept up in the arms of maternal comfort. "They can't get away with this for much longer." he spits bitterly. I have a feeling he's wrong. Very, very wrong.

Beyond chain link fences, I see more of those horrible looking guards, and what is clearly a checkpoint.

This place sucks.

That is all that's going through my mind right now.

I stop for a second. I look around. I stare at the ceiling.

Oh, fucking hell that TV asshole has started his spiel again!! Christ, I gotta get out of here. Post haste. I...well...I, just gotta go...over there. Where they're going to search me.

I have nothing on me...nothing to hide...

So why am I so afraid to go through?

This place sucks.

I move towards the guards. I know what I need to do. Yeah, this place sucks, boo hoo. But I remember something. I'm Gordon Freeman. Gordon Fucking Freeman!

"They can't get away with this for much longer."

That dude's right. They can't. And they won't. Because I, Gordon Freeman, have arrived at City 17. They won't get away with this much longer. They don't scare me. These guards, these little cowardly fascist puppets...

I know something bad's going to happen to me as soon as I approach that checkpoint. But on the other side of it, I have a feeling I am going to kick a tremendous amount of ass.

So I walk through the maze of chain link fences, and my whole world turns upside down.

So starts Half Life 2. The beginning of what some some people call the greatest game ever made. Even though I am prone to such hyperbolic pronouncements myself, I don't think it matters whether it's the greatest game EVER...but it's certainly got top honors for so swiftly sucking me in. Few games do it so successfully. There's what game journalists and marketing people like to call "immersion." And then there's what I call "becoming my context." HL2 achieves the latter, so much so that I didn't even notice until I had been playing for hours and hours and it was time to go home.

The first Half Life's introductory sequence was a landmark in game design...a slow tram ride into the heart of a mysterious high tech facility. Ostensibly, it was a credits sequence, but what it really did was slowly ease you into the world you were to inhabit for the duration of the game. Rather than force the player to figure out the who, what, where, and why while they were busy learning the how to move, shoot, jump, etc., the tram ride helped you get your bearings. Scientists walking on a platform, a maintenance worker twisting a wrench, a freakish looking mechanical robot lumber below you. By the time you reached your destination, you had at least an initial notion of where you were, who you were, what you were doing, and why you were there.

Half Life 2's introduction banks on the fact that you have played the first one, and assumes that you know that you are Gordon Freeman, MIT-scientist-turned-hero. And that the world is not a great place to be right now, even after what you managed to accomplish in the first game. (For anyone who hasn't played the first Half Life, please, just run out and get the damn game, you're missing out on that which all first person shooters that came after it have been judged.) But whereas Half Life's laconic tram ride helped immerse the player slowly, Half Life 2's arrival at the train station in City 17 doesn't waste any time, plunking you smack dab in the middle of a fascist police state. Everything you see and hear contributes to the feeling of tension, anger, despair. And fear. A guy sits down and taps his foot nervously, looking towards the checkpoint. He tells you he's "working up the nerve" to approach. One man scoffs at the bearded Big Brother on screen and another tells him to be quiet.

If you linger a bit and explore the world, you find that you can pick things up, throw them, smash them. But throw something at a person, and they'll curse at you. Throw something at a guard, and he'll beat you senseless. Kinda like real life. So many games are only as interactive as the designers are able to make it given the constraints of technology, time, and budget, that you can almost always intellectually detach yourself from your character in the game. In real life, if you walk up to a chair, you should be able to pick it up. In most games, the chair is just a thing to look can't even move it, and in the cheapest games, sometimes you can walk right through it. With Half Life 2, you can interact with nearly everything you see. Walk into a chair and it'll bump out of the way. Pick up a box and throw it and it'll bounce off the wall and tumble over other objects. Throw it enough times and it'll shatter.

Everything that follows the raw, emotional verisimilitude of Half Life 2's introductory sequence is consistent with the quality of that first sequence. Every interaction in the game is top-notch. You meet a lot of people on your journey. And, in a refreshing departure from most first person shooters, you don't simply kill all of them. In fact, it is, at time, staggering just how many friendly faces you see as you make your way through City 17 and beyond. Old friends greet you warmly. Unexpected allies emerge and foist their help upon you. Admirers fawn over you as words of praise catch in their throats. As the game progresses, you realize that you, Gordon Freeman, are a living legend. A folk hero. It's fun to be on the receiving end of so much admiration. But it's not all warm fuzzies. You are, after all, within a matter of minutes, the most wanted man in City 17. A lot of people are out to get you. Most of them guards.

But you forget that they are "AI." AI is the bane of the computer game's existence, usually. Experienced gamers can recall with dread the countless times they've seen computer-controlled AI doing stupid, implausible, impossible, or otherwise erroneous things on screen. From soldiers who rapidly jitter between two stances, to squads that run at you with the tactical skill of special-ed students, to the most frustrating of all - ├╝bermensch AI that can shoot with pinpoint accuracy across the whole map and kill you in a cruelly swift volley of unfairness - AI can ruin a game. It has ruined some games that otherwise rank among the finest of their craft. Not so with HL2. (Now, I'm not going to lie to you. They're still AI. You can still exploit their weaknesses. You can still see them occasionally do stupid things. Until there is processor power sufficient to execute complex AI systems and still keep the game running at acceptable performance levels AND deliver all the ridiculously detailed graphically hoo-haa you degenerate ingrates demand, AI will continue to get the short end of the development stick. That being said, HL2's AI is pretty goddamn good.) Soldiers do some pretty smart stuff. They attack in groups. They use suppress-and-flank tactics. They use grenades. If you try a frontal assault, they execute you with breathtaking speed. And that's just the guys on the ground. The assholes in the helicopters and other assorted flying machines...those guys will ruin your day in no time at all. You will have to think tactically. Plan your approach. Keep your head down. It reminded me a bit of the Call of Duty games, where you always have to consider WHERE you're going to get shot at from, and take cover accordingly. But the cover is there...almost always. There are a few times where you are almost totally exposed. But as soon as you get into a groove - taking cover, maintaining situational awareness, practicing good fire control (especially at higher difficulty levels, where your weapons are less effective) - you can bring the ass-kicking to the people. You become a world class expert in the art of ass-kicking. If ass-kicking were an Olympic sport, you'd be the coach! Get the picture? And all the weapons are just brilliant.

I could spend ages talking about every little magic thing in this game, but I'm only going to mention one for now.

It's is a very subtle and unexpected little bit of sound design. When fighting the black-armor-clad stormtrooper-lookin' guards - who are clearly human, but also devoid of humanity - you can always hear their radio chatter. It bounces off the walls and echoes through the halls, staccato clips of unintelligible chatter - like listening to a Martian police scanner. You get used to the chatter, and start to recognize it as a sign that the bad guys are nearby, which is cool, but it's not the really cool part. Whenever you kill one of these motherfuckers, there's this high pitched, whiny drone - sort of like a flatline alarm from the heart monitors they use in hospital dramas - that broadcasts over the radio chatter for a few seconds. Oh my fucking GOD, I cannot tell you how satisfying it is to hear this sound. It elicits a Pavlovian response in me...especially since I'm the kind of guy who takes cover and tries to suss out enemies I can't see with grenades and such. I'm behind a wall, broken glass my feet, heart pounding like a jackhammer, and there's...two? Did I see three? Guards around the corner. I can hear them chattering. I get up the nerve, switch to 'nades, rise, toss one, it banks off the wall...tink, tink, tinktinktink...the clipped chatter suddenly becomes a little more frantic and then BOOOOOOOM! The glorious chorus of 3 redlines chiming in over the radio. Scratch three bad guys. On one hand, it's just fun to hear. On the other hand, if I hear no more chatter, I know I got the job done. They're dead. Gordon Freeman is not. I grin without even thinking about it. I've gotten my little hit of aural crack...that little sound validating my efforts, comforting me, congratulating me. But it also pushes me...urges me to move on...I gotta make that sound some more.

I gotta make more of that music.

Silence the chatter.

Turn up the whine.

Symphony No. 3 in Badass Minor.

Every game developer and publisher everywhere should sit down and really look at Half Life 2. And learn from it. Not so they can be cheesy dorks and steal stuff to put in their shooters, but to take in the totality of the experience, the attention to detail on ALL fronts. The layers of subtlety and nuance that build upon each other to create one of the greatest games of all time. Anyone who dismisses this game does at their own peril.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


This is a place about play. All kinds of play.