There was a moment well into playing Half-Life 2 where I fell in deep, transcendent love. It was the only moment thus far in my video game excursions where I wasn’t playing a game so much as inhabiting it, invested in the world and experience so viscerally that for one too-brief heartbeat, all hints of artifice and the fourth wall dissipated from my mind. It was after returning to City 17, when Gordon Freeman and his makeshift gang of rebels commandeer a crumbling cement building in a desperate attempt to take down the last few Striders, vicious daddy long legs-like aliens that seem unstoppable on first glance. As the last Strider exploded and toppled, I turned to see the rebels’ expressions change from grim resolve to hope; I stopped in my tracks, absorbed the scene, then ushered Gordon on to the next set of teeth-gritting horrors.
Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed Half-Life 2 up until this moment, but it was enjoyment born more of appreciation than passion, and I sorely missed the first game’s dark humor and trickier artificial intelligence. The Strider battle was something else entirely, though; not only was it the most challenging section of the game for me, but when seeing my squad cautiously start to celebrate as the music (so sparingly used in Half-Life 2 that its entrance is an instant jolt to attention) swelled victoriously, I felt like an actual soot-and-sweat-covered hero. Continue reading