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. For as much as games try to evoke this sensation, this was the first time I felt it with such unabashed, nerdy excitement. While I wasn’t exactly in tears, there was a lump in my throat and chills running down my spine. Simply put, I was moved beyond the more measured analysis I try to reserve for these essays, and that put me in a bit of a bind: Should I examine Half-Life 2 from my usual distance, trying to suss out why the game resonates both for myself and people outside my personal headspace? Or should I give in to my burgeoning Valve fanboyism, gush endlessly, and celebrate by getting the lambda logo tattooed across my chest?
Perhaps I can do both. After all, Half-Life 2 all but invites you to this reactionary crossroad, the rare product that flaunts its creators’ formal perfectionism and attention to detail yet somehow maintains its dynamic, direct attack on one’s pleasure centers throughout. Despite their design aesthetic’s famously thrill ride-esque nature, Valve certainly doesn’t skimp on ample opportunities to gawk at the craftmanship on display. It’s part of the brilliance of the introductory jaunt through City 17; before launching into the game’s more typically breakneck segments, Half-Life 2 all but demands you notice the weary citizenry, the swingsets with no children, the Combines’ believably reactionary brutality (try not to seethe with anger when you are forced to pick up that soda can!), and political stooge Dr. Breen’s endless (but only vaguely expository) televised chatter. Dropping Gordon Freeman in an unfamiliar setting forces the player to observe his surroundings’ finer details, a skill that becomes both practical (finding hidden weapons to launch at enemies) and pleasurable (noting a half-obscured scripted moment in a setting’s background) as things progress.
And progress they do, moving from the city to the coast, from run-down prisons to cavernous alien strongholds. For a game so linear it at times risks doubling as a rail shooter, Half-Life 2 packs in tons of locations with any number of disparate moods and objectives, somehow stitched together to resemble an organic, credible universe. I feel like I have explored City 17 and its surroundings just as thoroughly as Liberty City and the like, an impressive illusion created in no small part thanks to Valve’s employment of physical landmarks; the omnipresent Citadel’s distance is a constant reminder of how far I’ve traveled, and the endless ocean bordering the coastal villages causes those areas to feel downright gaping. (It is only fitting that a game lauded for its physics engine would also grant such physicality to its very setting.) But of course, it’s the details that make every alley, highway, and home feel like somewhere you’ve been rather than an enemy-spurting funnel you must walk down to reach the next Alyx Vance encounter. The graffiti of a disgruntled rebel, or the still-standing furniture in a vacant, flushed-out home; these are small design choices that seem incredibly obvious but still make Half-Life 2‘s world feel lived-in.
If it sounds like I think Half-Life 2 is some ultra-humanistic take on downtrodden life under a fascist regime, perhaps I am misrepresenting my case. Half-Life 2‘s story is firmly in the sci-fi pulp tradition, a throwback comic book take on the done-to-death Orwellian nightmare state that gains significantly more points for seamless execution than originality. It’s so comfortable and assured in its telling, though, that the cliches feel fresh, and the methods by which you explore its surfaces reveal depths unto themselves.
Being comfortable in its genre certainly doesn’t hurt, either; while there are games that reach for higher thematic brass rings than Half-Life 2, I can’t think of any that so gleefully take its supernatural, kick-butt action tropes to such a magnificent, logical conclusion. Sections of the narrative – like the infamous, zombie-infested Ravenholm – fully embrace grindhouse hyper-violence and camp, perhaps more successfully than the semi-contemporaneous Hollywood flirtation with reviving schlocky genre thrills. But despite some hit-and-miss comic relief, Half-Life 2 plays Gordon Freeman’s saga surprisingly straight, with the sort of boyish earnestness that often leads to pretension in lesser hands. It’s a difficult juggling of tones, the self-serious commingling with the inherently silly, but Valve somehow always manages to have the situation’s stakes hit home even when you’re chuckling at a well-timed, over-the-top buzzsaw connecting to a zombie’s face. The death and grimness is tangible, even when the logic behind it isn’t.
It helps that you are not alone. Perhaps it’s the creeping dread that some new horror is close by whenever you are alone, or the ego trip resulting from their pixelated personages fawning over you, but encountering Gordon’s friends and well-wishers is always a welcome relief. Even if Half-Life 2‘s characters don’t rival the deep bench ensembles of literature and film, they are such a marked improvement on the first game’s anonymous scientists and security guards that it is hard not to be floored when playing the titles in succession. While their dialogue is sharp enough to warrant some chuckles and genuine intrigue, their appeal is partly (I would argue mostly) because they don’t look entirely dead behind their eyes. In an industry so deeply entrenched in the Uncanny Valley, Valve’s attention to facial animation when creating their Source engine feels like a revelation. It’s not exactly Pixar quality (that leap would have to wait until the jaw-dropping work done on Wheatley in 2011’s Portal 2), but City 17’s population at least register as empathetic beings, stylized just enough to never be off-putting or cold.
The high water mark for this work in 2004 is undoubtedly fan favorite Alyx Vance, her design and expressiveness rendering her much more endearing than anything in the script. (Although Merle Dandrige’s voice work must also receive ample credit. Her calm self-confidence barely conceals the waver of self-doubt and fear that makes her compassion for and faith in Gordon transcend her role as nebulous love interest.) Despite many opinions to the contrary, I would not define Alyx as a “great character” personality-wise by any means other than comparison to lesser games’ treatment of women. True, she keeps her clothes on and is probably a C-cup tops, but while I appreciate these minor victories for non-embarrassing female caricatures in games, they do not mean we should not ask for more complexity than a woman who is more or less a moral support system. Still, it’s difficult not to be endeared to Alyx; as I said, her appeal is written all over her face. I’d be hard pressed to describe her character in anything other than fairly broad strokes, but the emotions behind her interactions with Gordon speak to a specificity rarely seen in this sort of story. I recognize Alyx’s flirty glances, her slowly rising worry, and dweeby excitement as the looks of real women throughout my life. Sure, one could argue she’s designed that way, but it works.
As lauded as she is, Alyx is in the game less than some might remember. (She definitely grows as a character in the serial episodes released later, which I will discuss on their own merits soon.) Half-Life 2 is largely a solitary affair, with bit players poking their heads in when called for. Luckily, it thrills no matter what you are doing or who you are with; I would guess that upon reading the opening sentence of this article, there would be as many guesses as to what moved me so deeply as there are setpieces within the larger experience. The aforementioned Ravenholm scenario is a mini-masterpiece unto itself. The headcrab zombies are genuinely terrifying and also sadly funny, their pathetic moans those of humans attached to unfathomably painful parasites and not the bland murmuring of most survival horror’s undead. Figuring out just how many combinations of debris you can pick up with the Gravity Gun to do away with them is a lightbulb moment not unlike getting the hang of Portal or Braid; that you are being yelled at by an insane Eastern European “preacher” with a shotgun while you get the hang of it is icing on the cake. (Speaking of Eastern Europe, steeping Half-Life 2 in its sensibility is an odd but invigorating choice. Aside from the obvious parallels between the Combine’s destruction and the region’s struggles with Communist regimes, it is explored so little in gaming that setting an extraterrestrial takeover there makes an unfamiliar place feel literally alien.) Most developers work their entire careers in the hopes of developing something as memorable as the helicopter-on-jetski showdown, or the antlions storming the Nova Prospekt prison (I also love Valve’s ability to mess with Gordon’s allegiance with his former alien adversaries), or countless others. While I had a blast storming the Citadel with my powered-up Gravity Gun, leveling enemies with their fallen comrades like gasmasked bowling pins, there is something incredibly frustrating when the G-Man pulls the plug at the last minute. When a game is this good at payoff, an anticlimax is startling, even unsatisfactory.
Speaking of the G-Man, I’m not sure if I like him, and not because of his opaque, possibly villainous agenda. Quite the contrary, actually; he’s the perfect personification of the cheap “lots of speculation for everyone!” style of storytelling that genre enthusiasts love to ponder but I could not find more dull. There is channeling the abstract and cryptic for the sake of atmosphere or to call attention to form or theme, and then there is supermarket novel cliffhangering meant to fuel internet discussion and, on the most painfully literal level, reel people back in for “what happens next”; as much as I want to trust Valve’s storytelling prowess, I’ve seen no evidence that the G-Man’s appearances are the former. His many mysteries, alluded to in tantalizing but empty cliches, exist purely as informational morsels that take emphasis off of elements that games exceed at (the nuances of craft; the strange, immediate empathy you have for your avatar and his environment) and place it on the medium’s much murkier approximation of A-to-B storytelling mechanics. Besides, much of Half-Life 2‘s resonance derives from the vagueness of its setting’s history and your ability to piece together just enough of an overarching plot from environmental clues, so teasing that the G-Man has “answers” seems entirely incongruous with the game’s appeal. Still, I’m a sucker for all-powerful villains who serve as a reminder of a game’s linearity and the limits of player choice, and on that end, the G-Man plays his part well. Plus, the decision to not update his stilted, awkward speech patterns from the 1998 original (back when voice acting in itself was still enough of a novelty that poor delivery was more easily forgiven) is somewhat genius, rendering him at once a memorably goofy antagonist and a sometimes genuinely unsettling one.
But the G-Man and the seemingly unbeatable Combine must exist as they do because the rest of Half-Life 2 makes you feel so damn powerful. The Gravity Gun is the ultimate symbol of this; at last, all the objects that surround you in every game are yours to command. Valve might be the most dichotomous of developers: they fence players into their meticulously crafted Rube Goldberg devices, then supply them with items and character interactions that make them feel a mastery over these domains. It’s written on the face of every humbled citizen you encounter in Half-Life 2: you are Gordon Freeman, possible savior of the human race. Perhaps it’s a mirage or a bit silly, but somewhere along its predetermined path, I was touched by the experience. There are very few games I can say this about, but when I criticize Half-Life 2, it’s truly out of love.
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