Time Ex­tend

Why Half-Life 2’ s long­est-lived achieve­ment was turn­ing a mute sci­en­tist into a peer­less sto­ry­teller


Be­fore Dun­wall, there was City 17. Be­fore The Last Of

Us’s over­run sewer colony, there were Route Kanal’s re­sis­tance out­posts. Be­fore El­iz­a­beth DeWitt came Alyx Vance, and be­fore An­drew Ryan there was Wal­lace Breen. Thou­sands of words have been de­voted al­ready to ex­plain­ing how great Half-Life 2 is to play, but that’s only a frac­tion of its legacy. It might read like hy­per­bole, but a great deal of what we know about ef­fec­tive videogame sto­ry­telling to­day was in­cu­bated in Valve’s 2004 opus.

It wasn’t sim­ply the first: Sys­tem Shock’s SHO­DAN is the ar­che­typal vil­lain who har­ries you ver­bally while their minions do so phys­i­cally. Thief: Deadly Shad­ows’ Shale­bridge Cra­dle would pip Raven­holm to the Rus­sian doll hor­ror-game-within-agame level. The rea­son Half-Life 2 set the bar for later games, how­ever, was its in­ter­nal con­sis­tency, an achieve­ment even rarer than its su­perla­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal fic­tion, which in­duced a state of deep im­mer­sion and emo­tional in­vest­ment. There’s no mys­tery why the In­ter­net still cries out for Half-Life

3, even af­ter a glut of post-apoc­a­lypses and rich videogame fic­tions: Half-Life 2’ s world made us care what hap­pens to it.

Un­like Dr Free­man, how­ever, the game does not emerge from years of sta­sis un­touched by the pass­ing of time. To play it to­day is to ob­serve its rel­a­tive sparse­ness, and the ev­i­dence of how par­si­mo­nious its de­vel­op­ers had to be to pack in all the de­tail work they did. Great un­bro­ken planes of tex­tures are dom­i­nant in its out­door seg­ments, low-fi­delity fuzz is ap­par­ent up close, and Nova Prospekt’s tow­ers loom out of gloomy steel-grey fog­ging. Even if you in­stall a tex­ture mod, there’s no es­cap­ing that it is also, in a great many ways, Physics

Demo: The Game. Even be­fore Valve sees fit to be­stow you with the game’s sig­na­ture Grav­ity Gun, it has asked you to pause dur­ing a high-speed air­boat chase to push a wash­ing ma­chine into a ramp-lift­ing coun­ter­weight mech­a­nism, and to free a skip’s worth of wooden junk from un­der­wa­ter im­pris­on­ment so you can make step­ping stones. And that even Gor­dan Free­man’s fric­tion­less glide while straf­ing and climb­ing lad­ders can­not punc­ture the skin of this fic­tion and pop the be­liev­abil­ity of this place says a hell of a lot.

Part of what makes the sto­ry­telling so po­tent is re­straint. Ad­min­is­tra­tor Breen might have re­pop­u­larised the de­vice of hand­ing the fo­cal bad guy the tan­noy mi­cro­phone, but his ‘Breen­cast’ mono­logues run for a com­bined to­tal of 16 min­utes and ad­dress you in­di­rectly for the most part, back­ground noise un­less you choose to tune in. There are no cutscenes to yank you out of char­ac­ter, and Valve re­sists wrest­ing cam­era con­trol from your hands to show you what’s com­ing over the hori­zon. Sim­i­larly, while there are in­stances where you’re pinned in place like a but­ter­fly on cork to ob­serve key events in the plot – the tele­por­ta­tion dis­as­ter in Kleiner’s lab, your re­straint by Breen in the Ci­tadel – you ab­sorb this game’s back­story and most of its mes­sage through sim­ple ob­ser­va­tion. It’s ‘show, don’t tell’ taken to its in­ter­ac­tive ex­treme, the game be­ing so will­ing to re­ward you for pry­ing that you want to hunt out its de­tails for your­self.

It be­gins the mo­ment you step off the train into City 17. You walk from your car­riage onto the cen­tral con­course as Breen’s welcome mes­sage plays out on a screen in­stal­la­tion over­head, a sym­bolic el­e­va­tion over his fel­low man. This dis­patch con­cludes with a half-truth: “It’s safer here.” No one need in­form you that Breen’s be­ing weaselly with his lan­guage: it’s ev­i­dent in the cat­tle cages you pass through and the smat­ter­ing of down­trod­den hu­mans fil­ter­ing past the watch­ful lenses of Civil Pro­tec­tion in these echo­ing halls. Like­wise, there’s no sense in a cutscene to dis­play the Com­bine’s au­thor­i­tar­ian grip on daily life when the de­sign­ers can in­tro­duce you to this per­son­ally. Be­fore you’ve tasted fresh air, an of­fi­cer men­ac­ingly uses his stun stuck to knock a can off a bin and onto the floor. Later, you’ll be ha­rassed by alien zom­bies, antlions and shock troop­ers, but this is an ex­er­cise in hu­mil­i­a­tion: whether you sub­mit to his will and place the can back in the bin or not, there’s no mis­tak­ing the dis­re­gard for your dig­nity in the act. Al­ready, we have Or­wellian word­play, a toady face to blame, and our oc­cu­py­ing force. The Breen­cast fo­cused on the Com­bine’s re­pro­duc­tive sup­pres­sion field

merely re­in­forces the ex­tent to which we’ve fallen un­der the thumb of ‘our bene­fac­tors’.

It would be a con­ve­nient fab­ri­ca­tion to sug­gest that ev­ery tex­ture from here on tells a story – yet clearly false, since ground and wall fea­tures are reused count­less times – but what the game does re­tain is that eye for mise-en-scène and lay­er­ing in crit­i­cal de­tail with­out feel­ing any need to high­light it. Other games might put a glow around the pic­ture frame of the Vance fam­ily in Black Mesa East, or give you a prompt to lock fo­cus on the board of news­pa­per clip­pings in Kleiner’s lab that with just a few bold head­lines fill in the Seven Hour War, Earth’s sur­ren­der, and Breen’s el­e­va­tion to Ad­min­is­tra­tor. Valve is aware that you prob­a­bly came for the shoot­ing, and is happy for you to to ex­er­cise your trig­ger fin­ger as soon as pos­si­ble.

It’s not just singing Vor­ti­gaunts or G-Man sight­ings you’ll miss out on here if you don’t keep a weather eye on your sur­round­ings, though – you of­ten won’t even be able to progress, so min­i­mal is the sign­post­ing. And yet this en­forced re­liance on read­ing your en­vi­ron­ment only in­creases the op­por­tu­ni­ties for Valve to weave in be­tween the lines its tale of a world be­ing gleaned of hu­man life and en­croached on by alien forces. City 17 fa­mously ce­ments this los­ing bat­tle in its clash­ing ar­chi­tec­ture, where sin­is­ter, faintly iri­des­cent me­tal­lic ap­pendages im­pose them­selves on dis­tressed brick, but High­way 17 pro­vides sev­eral per­fect ex­am­ples of the theme in its road­side struc­tures. Ob­serve the per­fectly or­dered kitchen with the ket­tle still on the hob, and the worn mat­tress up­stairs. In a nearby room is the poor soul who once owned this palace of earthly trea­sures, now a liv­ing nest of ven­omous head­crabs. The de­tails are fuzzy, but the pic­ture is clear: this was a man at­tempt­ing to cling on to life on the fron­tier, who made a good go of it un­til the day our planet’s new ecosys­tem forced it­self ra­pa­ciously upon him. You may see the same stoves, ra­dios and bath­tubs in a dozen dif­fer­ent dwellings, but Half-Life 2’ s level de­sign­ers some­how man­age to make each domi­cile look lived in with­out stacks of as­sets to clut­ter about the place, and they say as much with their ar­range­ments of the mun­dane as the game does in its se­quences of the fan­tas­tic.

Sim­i­larly, you’ll find your first cross­bow on a grassy knoll over­look­ing a Com­bine out­post, near the man­gled corpse of a re­sis­tance fighter. Again, care has been taken to tell a tale, even at the ex­pense of the devel­oper en­sur­ing you will no­tice one of the game’s most ef­fec­tive guns. And much like Metro’s in­ter­twined skele­tons, these snap­shots of fallen hu­man­ity sub­tly drive home the pre­car­i­ous grasp we have over our cir­cum­stances and fates.

All that is ac­com­plished with­out a line of di­a­logue too. But while Half-Life 2 is for great tracts only frac­tion­ally more talk­a­tive than its mute lo­cus, its script is as strewn with mem­o­rable lines (“We don’t go to Raven­holm”) as in­ci­den­tal de­tail, all lay­er­ing


new nu­ances onto the fic­tion. With so lit­tle time to de­velop each char­ac­ter, the main rea­son it all holds to­gether is their in­ter­play, the writ­ers happy to rel­e­gate Free­man to third or fourth wheel to sell a scene. Maybe it would be harder to buy short-range tele­por­ta­tion if Bar­ney and Kleiner weren’t quib­bling over the sci­en­tist’s pet head­crab; Cub­bage’s rocket-launcher brief­ing never seems made for you, though it un­doubt­edly is, be­cause you’re de­liv­ered to him mid­flow, and he asks you to wait while he ad­dresses his troops. Many peo­ple are hap­pened across in situ, the fram­ing so rig­or­ously thought out that while in one sense the world clearly re­volves around you, it never feels like it would stop ex­ist­ing if you sud­denly van­ished for another 20 years.

Fi­nally, Half-Life 2 tells its tale through the one thing games do that other medi­ums can’t: in­ter­ac­tion. When you fight along­side the re­sis­tance, they’re more than mere pup­pets danc­ing to a script, cow­er­ing be­hind sen­si­ble cover and mak­ing dy­namic sprints to you to sup­ply you with ammo, or patch you up. Sure, they don’t get a lot of lines, or much in the way of per­son­al­ity, but flow be­tween them and the il­lu­sion of be­ing borne aloft by the com­mon man is wa­ter­tight. Again, it’s let­ting ac­tions do the talk­ing, and cre­ates a more ro­bust il­lu­sion of hu­man­ity’s des­per­ate fight than any num­ber of off-cam­era ref­er­ences ever could.

Half-Life 2 is the master mould for ob­ser­va­tional sto­ry­telling, and the games we most re­vere to­day for their nar­ra­tive grace have learned its lessons well. Dis­hon­ored’s Dun­wall shares its prin­ci­pal artists with City 17, so it’s lit­tle won­der that it too frames the trans nat­u­ral with the hum­drum, and im­bues its sky­lines and tchotchkes with their own Hem­ming­way six-word tales.

Bio Shock’s Rap­ture gen­er­ally paints with a larger, more colour­ful brush, but knows the value of putting egos larger than the player’s in their ears, and of let­ting you hap­pen upon an ecosys­tem in mo­tion. The Last Of Us, mean­while, ab­sorbed the no­tion of show­ing you the im­pact of hu­man­ity’s wan­ing grip over na­ture, rather than yam­mer­ing on about it, and of find­ing hu­man warmth in the in­ter­sti­tials be­tween pop­ping alien growths off heads. In Half-Life 2, we find all of these and more. Now all that re­mains is to find out how the story ends.

Alyx Vance is easy to re­spect as a com­pan­ion, but then so are all of Half-Life 2’ s guest part­ners. It helps that they can han­dle them­selves in a fight, even if Dog us­ing cars as mis­siles is a very dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion of that than Fa­ther Grig­ori’s Annabelle

Free­man’s HEV suit ex­cuses his heroic re­silience, but Half-Life 2 hu­man­ises the good doc­tor by show­ing how de­pen­dent he is on oth­ers. Re­sis­tance troops arm, heal and even die for you

Earth’s food chain has got a lot more com­pli­cated, and hu­mans are no longer top preda­tor. Even the Com­bine ap­pear un­able to fully con­trol the coloni­sa­tion of our home by alien fauna, though they are bleed­ing the planet of its re­sources and so may sim­ply not care to try

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