In 1998, Half Life came out for the PC. It was an exceptional first person shooter that focused on storytelling as well as gameplay. It presented itself through the protagonist's eyes (Gordon Freeman) and never let the player out of that experience. There were no cutscenes that took the player out of the game; everything unfolded in real time in front of the player to watch and interact with. However, 6 years later Valve (developers of the game) created their real masterpiece with Half Life 2. They took their interactive cinematic experience to the next level. It was much more polished and stood alone as its own game even though it was a sequel. Half Life 2 is one of the most loved PC games of all time, and there are many reasons for that.
I went into this a bit already with my post on Silent Protagonists. Gordon Freeman is essentially an every-man. He is not physically built and looks somewhat average. He was just a scientist at Black Mesa when everything went wrong (an alien invasion). He gets his strength and power from 2 things; his suit of armor, and his personal drive. Valve does everything in their power to make Gordon Freeman a believable character. They want the player to feel that they could be in Gordon's situation and pull off everything he does. This is also highlighted by making Gordon silent through the whole game. He never talks but many characters talk to you. Gordon's response is essentially the players response. There aren't many characters in video game history that have a greater player-character connection than Gordon Freeman.
Before Half Life, first person shooters were still somewhat built on the "Wolfenstein 3D" blueprint. This school of level design led first person shooters into a very particular gameplay type. FPSs usually entailed going through a room clearing out the enemies and then picking up a key that led to the next room, repeat this over and over again. This did lead to fast paced gameplay that bombarded the player with multiple enemies forcing him/her to think fast. There were some games that did deviate from this gameplay type but none did this as much as the original Half Life. In the first Half Life, Black Mesa felt a lot more open to explore, and even though you were sent down a linear path it never felt that way. The game unfolded organically and there was a reason to move from one location to the next.
City 17. Where Half Life 2 starts.
Half Life 2 built upon the concept that the original layed out. Now that Gordon Freeman was out of Black Mesa and in "City 17" the world was a much more open place. There was a sense of the area you covered when you went across from one location to the next. Again Valve was leading the player down a set path but it never felt that way, and there was a real motivation to get from one area to another. Half Life 2 feels like going through one big level rather than exploring many smaller levels with breaks in between. Each section of the game blends into the next. This intensifies the experience Valve is going for, which is an unbreaking game from beginning to end, and thus really connects to the player.
You will be spending a lot of time in Half Life driving from location to location.
One area of the level design that some players found grating was the long vehicle sections. Half Life 2 is about a 12-15 hour games (can be longer or shorter depending on skill) and when the game plays like one big level without breaks it really gives the game a sense of time passed. Valve decided to break up the action in the game by using vehicle levels. During these parts of the game Gordon Freeman is driving for long periods of time in order to reach a far away destination. Many people felt bored by these sections of the game and Valve has addressed this issue in later games. However, this misstep was so minor in a game full of so many new experiences that it really didn't drag the game down that much.
Half Life 2 wasn't just a game it was also a showcase for Valve's Source Engine. This engine not only gave the game clean visuals but also fairly robust physics. I mentioned this way back in my post about Super Mario Bros, and how the physics can help make the game feel more real. Simple things just reacted the way they do in reality in Half life 2. For example, you can pick up and drop things and they would bounce on the ground as the real object would, and you can throw things with your gravity gun each having their own weight and velocity. The gravity gun in particular was a really fun addition to gameplay. No longer did the player need to worry about finding ammo for all their weapons. If Gordon Freeman was out of bullets he could use his gravity gun to pick up and throw things at enemies. Part of the fun with the gravity gun was seeing how everything reacted to it, and each item in the game did behave differently. These measures Valve took in their physics engine added a new layer of depth and gameplay that was unseen by players before. After Half Life 2 came out, many developers started to get their own physics engines working in their new games. Today most action games have realistic physics and if they don't the world feels more stiff because of it. Half Life 2 and the source engine changed the way games played. Gamers could not go back to a game world that lacked this new interactive gameplay. It also says a lot about Valve's Source Engine that it is still used in games today (even though it has gone through some updates the foundation remains the same).
When you first get the gravity gun you practice with it by playing catch with "Dog." It's a fun little experience and one of the first times you really get to mess with the physics engine.
The other thing that Valve really revolutionized was creating a new way to tell story through the video game medium. Valve is against the philosophy that grand pre-rendered cutscenes are productive in the video game artform. Rather than taking the players out of their game (even for a second) they have all the story beats play out in front of the players eyes. If a character is speaking to you, you can walk away from them and their voice will fade and you can wait until they are done rambling, or you can stand right next to the character and listen to everything they have to say. In order to avoid players running around and missing key points they have amazing set pieces that the player cannot help but watch. Even the simple dialogue between characters has superior voice acting and writing that is hard to ignore. But the fact remains that you can ignore everything and look at a rock instead of watching the citadel explode. Since you are in control of the character and thus in control of the camera every player sees the game differently. It is a brave choice and one that Valve pulls off perfectly. Throughout the game you are immersed in the story without ever having to sit back and listen to it unfold. You are an active member in the game rather than a passive one.
The story in Half Life 2 is deep enough that it is something the player wants to involve him/herself in it, but not too deep and drawn out that it gets in the way of playing the game. The storyline revolves around a basic alien invasion, but there is a bit more to it than the standard affair. There is always a sense of mystery and intrigue about why these aliens are here and what their true intentions are. Another part opf the mystery is who exactly Gordon Freeman is and what makes him so special. The game hints that there may be a reason why he is in the situation he is in. Both of these plot threads are still playing out and have not had their final pay-off yet.
As I stated before Valve relies on the player witnessing the story rather than straight out telling the story. This is a creative use of the video game medium and one thing that video games bring that other art forms cannot. One of the prime examples of the mystery aspect of the story and the player interaction is the G-Man. The G-Man is a strange person who talks to Gordon only on the rare occasions. The first game ends with Gordon Freeman being taken on a train with the G-Man and Half Life 2 starts on that same strange train trip. The G-Man also appears at random moments throughout the game but it is up to the player to catch him. You can never appraoch the G-Man but you may see him in the background of certain areas. It is obvious that this character has all the answers to the questions the player has, making him even more elusive and interesting.
The strange ending to the original Half Life. It was abrupt and odd but set the tone for the games to come.
Some examples of the G-Man's appearances throughout Half Life 2.
Valve takes great pride in their storytelling technique and it really shows off how to effectively use video games to tell an engaging story.
After Half Life 2, Valve started work one a semi sequel to the game called Half Life: Aftermath. However, the developers quickly changed their plans and split up Half Life:Aftermath into 3 episodes. So far only Half Life 2: episode 1 and 2 have been released with no real date for the arrival of episode 3 (Valve is known for taking a long time on their games). These episodes are shorter experiences than the first two games (episode 1 is about 3-4 hours while episode 2 is about 5-6 hours). Since the episodes are much more condensed than the other games, they play much differently. The long driving sequences of Half Life 2 are completely removed (there is still driving but it is much more fast paced) and the story line is not so drawn out as set pieces are unfolding constantly. The Half Life 2 episodes are very focused and deliver a fast paced experience. They are the best part of Half Life with all the filler cut out and the action and story ramped up.
In Half Life 2, Gordon Freeman befriends Alex, a daughter of one of his friends. Alex is a lively character and brings a lot of charm to the game. She fills the silence that Gordon Freeman brings and gives the player someone to care about. In Episode 1 she is by Gordon's side for nearly the entire game and the player gets attached to her. It helps that she is animated realistically and her voice actress is near perfect. On a gameplay level Alex's AI is about as close as a game designer can get to perfect. In many games computer controlled characters end up causing more of a problem then a positive addition to the game. There are many games in which the player has to spend more time worrying about the computer controlled allies than his/herself. Sometimes AI characters rush into a situation blowing the players cover, while other times they stand in the corner doing nothing. Alex on the other hand, can take care of herself and reacts to each situation in a way that helps the player. It was the first game I have experienced where the AI character caused me no problems and in fact was an all around positive addition to the game.
One of the best uses of Alex and the AI is a section of the game that has Gordon controlling a flash light. All the player has to do is shine the light on an enemy and Alex will shoot it. It is a neat way to help control Alex while still leaving her as her own seperate character.
Episode 1 is also the first time that Valve got to show off their new interactive cutscenes. As I stated previously these set pieces were standard fare for the series, but since the episodes are much shorter games they appear much closer together allowing the story to move faster. Also since the episodes are newer games Valve used their updated source engine making scenes more polished and exciting.
An example of the very start of Episode 1. Already Valve is exploring new ways to tell the story through interactive cutscenes. This sets the tone for the faster paced Half Life 2 episodes.
Episode 1 had Alex by your side and she still has a presence in this game, but she gets hurt early on and Gordon Freeman has to go through the game mostly solo. While the first episode was about teamwork and growing the personal connection between Alex and Gordon, episode 2 deals with the invasion and creating the fastest paced Half Life yet. This episode revolves around trying to get to the science lab and helping them launch a rocket. It is non-stop action from where you start off to the very end. Even though it is almost double the length of episode 1 it feels more chaotic. The story really moves forward (which is especially seen in the ending). The game also introduces a new mystery with the missing Borealis. This is an Aperture Science research vessle that disappeared (you may remember Aperture Science from Portal). Since the game is finally giving the player some slight answers and a new storyline the plot of Half Life is finally getting some payoff.
The greatest challange in the game comes near the end where Alex and a small army have to protect the base from large intruders, called Striders. The teamwork and gameplay here is unlike anything done in Half Life before. It combines driving, fighting against giant eneimes, and working with AI. Even though it is hard at points it is an extremely rewarding experience when completed.
The last battle in the game is fast paced and takes all the skills learned in Half Life so far to complete.
The ending to Episode 2, do not watch this if you haven't played the game. The ending originally looks like it will finish off happy but a twist leads the player down a dark path and wanting to play the next game.
Sadly, Half Life 2: Episode 3 is not out yet. Valve takes their time making sure their games are near perfect and it shows. No matter how long the wait is there is no doubt that it will be a piece of art that will stay with gamers for a long time. I have complete faith that once Half Life 2 and the 3 episodes stand together they will be remembered as one of the best video game experiences of all time.