Amandeep: Half-life 2 has a pretty tenuous fucking scenario. And it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you stop and think about it. Though somehow it’s the more compelling of the two games, and the more together. Despite everything.
eric-jon: The scenario is kind of strange. The first half of the game is basically making up for that failed teleport. Basically, you SHOULD be getting the gravity gun right near the start. Instead, shit happens and you have to run around and take the long way. And then you mean to go straight back to the start — except you get sidetracked again, this time because that woman betrays everyone.
Basically, if everything had gone as planned, you’d leave the train station, find the lab, teleport to the other lab, get the gravity gun, then probably either teleport back or use some other speedy route back there. Then you’d head right in to the big tower thing where Breen is.
Amandeep: I think it all kind of hammers home the lack of agency you have. And the irony that Gordon “Freeman,” whom everyone considers a savior and a hero, really has no control whatsoever of what happens.
Hell, right when you kill Breen — that’s it. the G-Man just pauses everything and pulls you out of there. You can’t even say goodbye to Alyx.
eric-jon: Which, yeah, is commentary on the difference between liberty and freedom in game design. You’ve complete autonomy, within some really limited options. It’s pretty overt.
Amandeep: An interesting point of contrast is that in Half-Life 1, Gordon HAS agency. I mean, you, the player, don’t, really, since everything’s scripted, etc. But the idea is that Gordon, on his own initiative, and using his own intelligence and skill, managed to escape Black Mesa. And he went to Xen, and he fucking kicked some ass, all of his own volition.
And the G-Man was watching the whole time — so at the end he says, hey. Come with me. And if you decline — you know. He basically kills you. You have to say yes. So then he locks you away.
And in Half-Life 2, everything’s completely different. The Barneys and scientists in HL1 treat Gordon like just one of them — even though he really IS the savior and he really IS the hero there. In HL2, everyone thinks he’s a hero but he has no free will anymore.
eric-jon: He’s become trapped by his own legend, in a way. The player is meant to succeed, ultimately will succeed if he keeps playing. So the player is only inserted where he’s needed.
HL2 is one big experiment with and commentary on player agency. Between the scenario, narrative, level design, and flow — funneling the player as this detached entity who basically serves to do what the game wants done — and the gravity gun, and all it suggests.
The gravity gun is sort of the counterargument. No grand freedom, but hell if you can’t make something with what you’ve got. One of the first times in a videogame you can really reach out and screw with stuff at will like that.
Physically pick stuff up — through the concept of shooting stuff. Translating that primordial ping into an actual touch. More or less.
It’s, uh, kind of like what Gandalf says. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
HL2 is one of the first really sharp sketches of the relationship between game and player, and what that relationship might mean — both for the form and for the audience. This is the form of dialog, and these are the kinds of subjects that can be explored.
It’s kind of a tutorial. Just a starting place, really. But with the current sophistication of the tools we’ve got, this is maybe about as nuanced a discussion as we can hope for. This is where videogames are, artistically. This is the level of dialog we can expect.
I’m not thinking of any other games since SMB that really make that kind of a statement. Doom, maybe. For its part. Though not in the same way, exactly. Certainly nothing else in the 8 or 16-bit eras. Some people might say Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time. But, er.
Amandeep: Hell yeah man. Ocarina of Time. Best damn game ever.
Though actually. Ocarina of Time makes the same statement, just in a totally inverse way. It’s a game that stands there proudly and says: check this out! this is what videogames are! this is what they can do!
eric-jon: It does. That’s true. So does Mario 64. Just not, you know… um. It doesn’t pertain to anything else, I guess I should say.
Amandeep: I mean like. Mario 64 is basically a tech demo. Half-Life 2 is a “tech demo”, but not in the same sense. It is a tech demo in the sense that it’s a demonstration of technology. Whereas Mario 64 is a tech demo in the sense that it’s a tech demo.
eric-jon: Mario 64 is both a tech demo and a brainstorm of new tropes. For use in making more videogames. Here are a bunch of random ideas for you to scotch tape together and make stuff. Have fun!
HL2 is hugely existential. It’s all about the nature and purpose of a videogame as a tool for discussion. In that sense, it is artistically practical. It’s all about — okay, how are we using this medium? What’s it for?
Whereas Mario 64 is, you know. Whee! It’s-a me! I can-a do this! It’s just brainstorming about what you could possibly do in 3D space, with a limited array of buttons.
Amandeep: So, thought process behind Mario 64: “Shit, we can make games in 3d now. Hell, what can we do with that? Let’s make some rooms and shit. It’ll be great.”
Thought process behind HL2 is more like: “So we know how videogames work — what can we do with that? How can we make something interesting out of that?”
eric-jon: What’s kind of hilarious, sort of, is that within two tries id made something pretty damned virtuosic in (effectively) 3D space. Which borrowed heavily from Miyamoto’s earlier ideas, then, you know, used them to do something of a sophistication that no one else really matched until Valve came along. In terms of the use of space.
Amandeep: And Half-Life 1 is kind of a remake of Doom. Almost overtly. Though it expands on Doom and does all the stuff with it that wasn’t possible four years before. I think the difference is that Valve, in cribbing from id, didn’t literally take Doom and graft more shit on top of it, which is the way EAD works.
eric-jon: Something else fun: Half-Life came out the same time as Ocarina. Which is kind of artistically ridiculous, put side by side. Especially since most of what Ocarina had to contribute was more convoluted brainstorming.
Amandeep: Yeah, the philosophy of z-targeting is: “We can’t figure out how to get this combat stuff, that worked out so well in Link to the Past, to work here. Let’s find some way to fuck with the camera such that it’s always facing the right way instead of rethink the way combat works.”
Like, Doom, probably one of the most stereotypically “boneheaded” games in history, is fucking light-years more intelligent than like, Ocarina of Time is. First-person shooters are boneheaded in the sense that literally every single one of them save Half-Life 2 comes down to killing shit with your gun. That’s a valid form of expression. It’s just got limited range.
I mean, if you could reach out and touch things with something other than a gun — speaking metaphorically here — that’d be great. If the interaction was a little more nuanced than KILLING SHIT. We have the technology to move a little past that. To figure out some new verbs.
eric-jon: Right. Thus, Portal. A bit of Mirror’s Edge, maybe. Though it has guns in it… hum.
Amandeep: Yeah. Yeah, Portal, exactly. Portal is a natural extension of this.
eric-jon: Hell, even the concept of a portal gun is a natural next step from a gravity gun. Well. It’s not a logical progression or anything. It’s a lateral jump. But, well.
Okay, Step one: How about a gun that, instead of just killing shit, lets the player pick stuff up. Send out a SONAR ping, that lets you actually physically touch what you ping.
Step two: Well, how about we just cut out the space between you and whatever you’re reaching for.
HL2 is having a remote control for your TV. Great! Portal is not needing the remote control. Albeit… through a slightly byzantine process. Like, you reach into the couch beside you and your arm comes out across the room to turn the knob on the TV.
Amandeep: The gravity gun is great, symbolically. Like, it’s the gravity… GUN. It lets you touch things and pick them up and shit, but, you know… Valve’s still admitting that… still the only real end to that means is using that shit you picked up to kill shit.
It’s a hell of a start, though. I mean, there are those physics puzzles, which are nice, but they’re… you know. They’re just kind of there. They’re cute.
eric-jon: But yeah, as you say. HL2 is a start to something. What’s dumb is that it’s still basically not been followed up on. Aside from Portal, which is tentative itself, and maybe Mirror’s Edge to some extent.
What Mirror’s Edge does is it gives the player a body sense. A sense of actual being. Whereas HL2 and Portal are very much about the floating intelligence of the player.
Amandeep: Yeah, what kind of bothers me is that even though I have more faith in Valve than probably any other game developer out there right now, they’re not… really doing anything. Like, they hired the kids who made Portal and gave them a budget, but the fact that they’re doing those Half-Life 2 episodes kind of disappoints me.
eric-jon: Yeah, their whole job is basically to analyze what’s been done so far, and then make a statement. But… I guess since no one else has done anything since their last summary…
Amandeep: It kind of says something about how dire the industry is.
And I mean… I don’t think they’re BAD or anything. It’s just kind of disappointing that they caved to all the fans saying MORE HALF LIFE 2 ALSO WTF WAS THAT ENDING ABOUT
eric-jon: It’s kind of End of Evangelion, yes.
Amandeep: And I feel like they’re kind of dangerously close to that American developer billions of expansion packs and incremental sequels mode.
eric-jon: It would be nice if there were more interesting things to do in a videogame than break shit. HL2 does a great job of elevating the significance of breaking shit. And breaking the boundary between player and game in the breaking of shit.
But as you say, you’re still just throwing plates against the wall. A mute man, even, doing this.
Amandeep: Valve’s summary of videogames circa 2004: “A mute man throwing plates against the wall.”
Postscript: Meanwhile, the role of the game is to steer the player to new walls and dole out new kinds of plates, at a satisfying pace and as invisibly as possible. Too slowly and the player starts to look down and ask “Wait, what am I doing?”; too quickly, and the player feels overwhelmed and asks the same question. Make your presence too obvious, and the player feels manipulated and again asks. This is why game design demands so much psychology; it’s all a big con.