Content of the article: "Half Life 2: action, subtlety, and emotional storytelling"
Half life 2 is a game that I have a very strange relationship with. By all accounts I am a fan of the Half Life series. Half life 1 was the first game I ever played that truly immersed me, and that's saying something because I am by no means an old school gamer. I played The half life series for the first time in 2020, starting when they were on a temporary 100% sale during the rollout of Half Life Alyx. When I first played Half Life 2, I loved it but thought the combat was slightly underwhelming (before this I mostly played games like doom 1993 and quake 1, so adjusting to the somewhat more cover oriented combat of half life 2 was a bit of a challenge for me).
Before I could finish the game the sale ended. I officially bought it a few months later, and for some reason I just couldn't get into it. The game's combat was annoying me so much, and the storytelling that the game is so universally praised for was simply falling flat on its face for me. I don't want to get into spoilers (even though the game is pretty old at this point), but by the end of episode two I felt so little connection to the characters that the famous event that ends episode 2 hardly fazed me.
And yet, for some reason, I kept thinking about it. I would find myself going back to play half life 2 every couple of weeks, and I would encounter these brief stretches of time during which I enjoyed the game more than I'd enjoyed any other game in my life. There were these moments in which it just felt like everything "clicked" for me, and I'd hurl an exploding barrel at a group of combine soldiers, turn around and shoot a rocket at a Strider, all while the pride of leading a human resistance against fascist aliens pushed me forward. But eventually I'd find myself getting pulled out of the game for seemingly no reason, and I just couldn't seem to focus on the game. I'd get frustrated, and the immersion the Half Life series is so famous for would cease to affect me.
As I played the game on and off for some length of time, I began to notice a pattern. The times when Half Life 2 most frustrated me were the times when my mind was at its most rigid. By that I mean if I had previously been engaging in an activity that required strict rules and imposed harsh consequences for failing to operate according to those rules (a calculus test, for example), I would enjoy the game less, both in its gameplay and story. I spent some time thinking about why this was the case, and I came to the following conclusions:
Approaching Half Life 2 in a purely logical and cold manner will transform the gameplay into an absolute slog. This isn't to say that the gameplay doesn't demand logic from you – it certainly does. You need to learn new mechanics throughout the game, and the whole experience is chock full of puzzles. These components all require a great deal of logic. However, a person playing Half Life 2 in a purely logical manner will eventually begin to encounter problems, because at it's core Half Life 2 is an action game. In order to succeed, you must not only understand the core mechanics, you must be able to apply them under stressful and intense circumstances.
This is no different from most action games, but what makes Half Life 2 unique is the extent to which the different mechanics the game introduces interact with one another in the level design, and lack of obvious signposting of such interactions (i.e. the player is meant to deduce the nature of the interaction without some sort of tutorial popup or HUD indicatior). The physics system adds to this complexity by allowing for unexpected scenarios, such as a grenade throw accidentally triggering a chain reaction of explosive barrels that unexpectedly kills you. These physics interactions are analogue in nature, and much of the time you have to intuitively predict how they will play out. You cannot logically predict the exact pixel coordinates a sawblade thrown by the gravity gun will land on, but you can make general intuitive assumptions about how the blade will behave when you launch it. On top of all this, first person action games are inherently continuous in their movement, and the very act of aiming requires a lot of muscle memory and intuition. Together, all these elements of half life 2 create an experience which is not only packed with complexity, but which is also incredibly subtle in its complexity, demanding that you pick up on any and all patterns you see within its systems and utilize them to the fullest extent. The problem with the logical mind is that, while it is excellent at coming to rational conclusions with a high degree of certainty, it is not very fast, and it is rather limited in the number of things it can process at once. Half Life 2 asks you to use your logical mind to make large scale decisions, learn new mechanics, and solve puzzles. But to master these things, you need something more too. You need intuition. In fact, you might even say you need emotion.
As with the gameplay, the story in Half Life 2 might frustrate you if you approach it purely logically. This is because the actual beats of the plot are somewhat predictable, simplistic and underwhelming. The characters hardly develop in any noticeable way, and much of the worldbuilding can be written off as 1984 meets generic alien invasion. Of course, fans of the series know that this is nonsense. While it is true that the story is, on paper, somewhat scant compared to a novel, the fiction works perfectly in its role as the driving force behind the gameplay, propelling you from one encounter/locale to another. If you look beyond the surface level, you will find an incredibly creative world populated with well realized characters. But because Half Life 2 is a video game, the story is written to avoid interrupting your engagement with the game's core mechanics too much. The characters convey their nuanced personalities through subtle remarks that you might not always even notice. Their facial expressions often say more that a thousand lines of dialogue ever could. Their voice acting, while in my opinion sometimes a little off due to timing errors., feels very natural and real most of the time. The world itself is communicated to you through environmental clues, dialogues heard over radio announcements, and rich yet desolate soundscapes.
The problem is, this is a lot to deal with. If you try to capture all these details purely with your logical mind, you will find yourself frustrated. Instead of making the internal connections that give you empathy for the characters, you will notice the graphical flaws and stilted animations that stem from Source's revolutionary but now outdated tech. Instead of entering Dr. Kleiner's lab and being charmed by his intelligence and goodwill, you will only be able to grumble about him simply being a retcon of one of the nameless scientists from the first game. The kind of complexity Half Life 2 presents certainly does require logic, and can certainly be appreciated in many ways on a logical level. But in order to fully experience the game itself, with all its story and characters, you need something more than pure logic. You need empathy, and the ability to find meaning in things. To truly experience the story of Half Life 2, you need emotion.
To me, this emotion is the thing that makes Half Life 2 such a cohesive experience. The game's fiction and it's mechanics are beautifully united in their reliance on you being able to feel as well as think. The gameplay promotes this mindset, and the story rewards you for adopting it at every step of the way. My one problem with this in execution is that there are times in which I wish Half Life 2 demanded a greater understanding of its subtleties from the player. One example of this is the way the game handles barnacles. Barnacles are often added to levels to force the player to pay attention to their surroundings and tread carefully. They provide a welcome dose of tension to what would otherwise be simple exploration segments. However, they are ultimately very unthreatening, pulling you up slowly and dying in a single hit from the crowbar. Things like this turn Half Life 2 into a game which can be beaten without being truly mastered, which means some players might not experience the sort of emotion that I have described in this post. I know I certainly haven't always experienced it while playing the game. But even with these minor flaws, Half Life 2's use of subtlety, emotion, and action truly demonstrate the potential of video games as Art. The game has helped me to better understand myself and my emotions, and for that I will be forever thankful. Please play it if you haven't yet 🙂
- The mechanic is the message
- After all the backlash with TLOU2’s story, it made me think about what makes a video game story “good”
- Looking for long, immersive modern game after a few years break
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