Kieron Gillen's workblog




In a typical case of always being last to the party, I've finally finished Half-life 2. Am scanning a few friends old blog posts to compare their impressions to mine. I read them at the time, averting my eyes from spoilers, but with the benefit of actual experience I wanted to see where we divulge and where we come together.

Great game, randomly. And that "Great" would keep its capital even if it wasn't at the beginning of the sentence. Valve aren't just at the head of the class in terms of first person shooters, but rather have been put ahead several years and are doing their degree at 15 like some kind of wunderkind while their abstract peers are still choosing their GCSEs.

It's not my favourite game, but like the original, I can see exactly how important it is for the future. Admitedly, it's not as greater herald of the future as the original - unless we're talking in its assorted array of technologies, in which case, yes, it is - but it's still a considerable prophet.

And, yes, it can inspire a certain fanboy timbre when talking about it. Excuse me.

(It shares its main fault with its parent. Namely that as long as you're making forward progress along its linear path, it's almost perfectly atmospheric. The second you can't work out which direction you're meant to be going, it breaks. This is most obvious early in the game, in the extended motorboat chase sequence. As long as you're trundling along, it's as if you're being pursued by an unrelenting foe. When you hit a puzzle or just get lost, it's as if the Combine got bored and wandered off to do something else.)

What most strikes me is that, more than virtually any other single-player game I can think of, it best fits the "Travel Journalism to Imaginary Places" idea. In terms of being a place, City 17 has few peers. In fact, as a Fictional entity, Half-life 2 constantly excels.

I say "Fiction" rather than "Story" to avoid preconceptions. Not all Fiction has to work along a what-a-ripping-yarn! axis. Lots of people have played the But The Story Is Shit card, but I'll link to Richard's, as he was the first - and one of the best - I read.

Essentially, people who say things like this seem to be looking for one of two things. Firstly, exposition. They want to know why all this is happening - which isn't actually a need for story, but a need to know more about the workings of the world than the developers have chosen (Tim Fletcher, over at AB's forum, seems to be among these). Secondly (like Richard) it's because they believe they're lacking motivation because there's no clear objective or reason for you doing it (Not that I agree: your motivation's fairly clear. At first, survive. Secondly, help the revolution.)

I've got a bit more sympathy for the first than the second. Some people just want to know more. Conversely, the "Where's my motivation" is just bizarre.

A couple of months ago I found myself in Spain, seeing Pyro's new Commandos game, Strike Force. Rather than the Squad-RTS/Puzzle game of lore, it's gone into a first person world, with new characters and a proper plot. So instead of just being soldiers, the characters have motivation. As an example, the developer mentioned the Spy's Father was killed by one of the Nazi officers you're fighting against.

We accept it at the time, but it re-emerges at around 1am in a Madrid bar where (despite the game actually looking fine) we suddenly drunkenly decide it's actually the Worst Game Ever. Specifically, the plot stuff. What? Motivation? Why does the Spy need motivation? They're fucking Nazis. We imagined the recruiting session:

"Right, Spy, we want you to help stop the Third Reich"
"Pah. Why should I?"
"Er... the Holocaust?"
"Jews, Schmews"
"They killed your dad"

Similarly, Half-life 2. You're placed in a world which reiterates, at any opportunity, exactly how brutalised the populance is. Through the actual acting made possible through Valve's tech, we can see in the facial expressions and how they're standing how the world operates. On the other side, the Combine are repressive monsters. Much has been made of scene which introduces the interacting with objects, where a guard knocks a can onto the floor then demands you put it in the bin. While you can obey, what the game actually *wants* you to do is throw it right at him, in an act of rebellion. What a shit, you think.

If placed in that world and given the power, who *wouldn't* want to help overthrow their oppressors? So, no, you don't know why Gordon is in the city or why the Combine have such hate for him. Why does that matter? Rather than taking the line than human life is purely about our pasts and how we got to where we are, it posits that we're more about the situations we find ourselves.

You recall the amusing short IF piece 9:15, which started with you waking up on a bed, with the phone ringing. Someone asks you where the hell you are, as you're meant to be at work. You get ready, washing off the mud and find your way there, only to discover that you're not actually the flat's owner. You're a burgular who fell asleep. The game's simple gag makes the point - we respond to contexual clues which establish our actions. Even with no prehistory, if put in someone elses world with all previous knowledge of what's gone before removed, you'd find yourself acting in a logical way. Half-life 2 takes that insight and runs with it, entirely sidestepping the usual issue of backstory exposition which haunts anyone who attempts to do a more narrative lead game. It realises it doesn't matter how you got there. All that counts is what happens to you when you are, and that you recreate yourself every second by your interactions with the world. In many ways, we're all water flowing down pipes.

In fact, this means that Valve have entire embraced their technological structure on a philosophical level. Half-life is a linear shooter, so at any point there's only one way to go. This is also true on both the physical and emotional planes. If placed here, and presented with certain stimulus... well, there's only one reasonable way to go, yes?

Half-life 2 doesn't do something as simple as telling a story. It doesn't need to. It does something unique to the form of games, which no other form can attempt to match. Rather than trying to ape other linear narratives, it teaches that there's more than one kind of linear narrative, and other types are far more applicable to games than the most obvious. It certainly creates for itself a strong position in my continuing "Games' best method for imparting narrative is Context" theory.

Essentially, how the Combine came to power is of far less interest than what you see them doing after there. After all, imagine a game set in Iraq with you as a Bedouin whose village has been bombed to shit. That game isn't going to be about the globalpoltical reasons why your Uncle or whoever has been blown into pieces: it's going to be about your reactions to the events.

The shotgun is also good.




Kieron Gillen's Workblog, foo'.