For all its grimness and despair, for all the death and malice that finally creep past City 17’s anonymous citizenry and zero in on Gordon Freeman’s closest friends, Half-Life 2: Episode Two is attempting a celebration. It’s an insiders-only affair, a product created by and for those with such boundless affinity for the franchise that it is comfortable risking moments more brazenly comic and outright tragic than any found in the rest of the series. It’s “fan service” to its core, not just trotting out easy references and beloved characters expecting us to cheer in mere recognition, but also using its established toolkit and bond with the audience to strengthen and stretch its universe’s connective tissue. Simply, this is Half-Life at its most comfortable with just being Half-Life, and for every lateral step that entails, it also allows for some leaps forward and maybe even a little self-reflection. Even the original Half-Life‘s nuked microwave casserole returns as the crux of an antagonistic relationship.
Valve’s employment of this insular fan club shorthand is, for better and for worse, a result of its full embrace of the serialized storytelling required by the episode format. Speaking purely of plot, Episode Two is at once Half-Life‘s most emotional entry and its most cliche, perhaps even trite. That “Two” has a lot to do with it. This is very much a “middle book” in a modern geek fantasy series, cribbing its emotional beats and encroaching darkness from the likes of The Empire Strikes Back and the adolescent Harry Potter entries. Yet Episode Two doesn’t even quite pull off this simple blueprint; at times, its sequencing is so paint-by-numbers that it makes any second-rate Hollywood actioner look like Meshes of the Afternoon, while at others, the inherent messiness of video game structure intervenes and spirals it off on some disruptive tangent. The Half-Life series made its name rendering its actual plot’s contents nearly irrelevant through jaw-dropping immersion and execution, so to see the game’s writers try to nail down a more concrete structure is fascinating but often groan-inducing.
Take the death of Alyx’s father, a scene that should be gut-wrenching not just in context to the characters, but as the last image of Half-Life seen to this very day. Although Eli Vance never transcends his existence as a Morgan Freeman caricature (an archetype that Erik Wolpaw, I believe not coincidentally, wanted to mock in his next Valve project, Portal 2), he is a likeable presence and just the sort of good-hearted, pure-souled figure a climactic death scene must sacrifice to inform the audience that everything is officially fucked. Yet something gets bungled in the execution and his murder feels like an arbitrary necessity, a plot point that transpires because it must and not because of a character’s actions or even chaotic happenstance. It’s also depicted with such brutal, straightforward violence – indistinguishable from the sort used against every other character in the game – that I can’t help but wonder if the moment would be more shocking if it employed some restraint and distance. Indeed, Eli needs to die – as did Ned Stark, Sirius Black, a graveyard’s worth of Joss Whedon characters, and countless other genre-nerd bastions of hope and righteousness before him – but it’s as if Valve never quite parsed out how to translate the “Eli’s Death” notecard on their plot flowchart into a resonant, fully fleshed-out scene.
But you can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, and Episode Two’s most transcendental moments – some of the best in the entire series – also result from this shift toward a more carefully plotted, character-driven (relatively speaking) ongoing narrative. The thing is, you have to really like Half-Life to get the most out of these moments. (And if you don’t really like it, I doubt you bothered playing through to the numerically baffling Half-Life 2: Episode Two.) Pity the poor kid who installed his copy of The Orange Box and for whatever reason booted up Episode Two first; he had to wonder why it was such a big deal to save this Alyx Vance chick, aside from it was what the game told him to do. Racing against time to save the mortally wounded Alyx is the sort of excursion that really does work best in a long-form, serialized narrative; it builds upon the player’s established relationship with the character, the joy one experiences watching Alyx go from flirty acquaintance to trusted partner over the course of several outings. (It also successfully raises the game’s stakes, showcasing the Hunters’ deadly intelligence and officially rendering anyone fair game in the mounting battle against the Combine. Valve’s writers use Eli’s death as this newfound sense of dread’s obvious payoff, and on that level it’s effective, if still rushed.)
Valve’s employees speak endlessly about the pains taken to evolve Half-Life‘s supporting cast over the series’ run, an effort that begins to show its dividends in Episode Two. The game’s story-heavy sections would be a total slog if not for entertaining new dynamics like pairing the flaky, fussy Dr. Kleiner with no-nonsense blowhard Arne Magnusson. (He’s the one who still hasn’t forgiven Gordon for the infamous “Black Mesa incident” where Gordon fried his casserole.) Even the Vortigaunts get a star turn, standing at the exact intersection of goofy and wise to render them spiritual successors to the likes of Yoda. Seeing these psychic, all-knowing aliens performing janitorial duties is one of the series’ most entertaining visual quirks.
Magnusson’s ruined lunch is indicative of Episode Two‘s willingness to riff on its series’ extensive and storied history. The extended venture through an antlion colony – where Gordon and the Vortigaunts must travel to obtain medicine for Alyx – feels like a return of the funny-gross homages to ’80s sci-fi horror (think Carpenter and Cronenberg) that populated the original game. Half-Life 2 and Episode One maintained the franchise’s flirtation with horror, but the ant colony’s squishable larvae and decaying, half-devoured bodies is an alien unpleasantness reminiscent of Gordon’s time on Xen. More importantly, the final Strider battle builds upon the rooftop shootout in Half-Life 2 and might even top it. For one, the objective is clearer: Gordon must protect the rebel base and his friends, making the fight a more personal endeavor. And for as much as I complained about the Zombines in Episode One, the Hunters – Episode Two’s new enemy type, which operate like mini-Striders – are a work of brilliance. They are programmed with astonishing personality, able to communicate anger, pride, and even a catlike curiosity. They make for incredibly satisfying adversaries, and the maddening forest trek to dispose of both them and the Striders is, when pulled off seamlessly, the sort of bravura setpiece that gets the blood pumping like nothing but a great video game can.
So the Half-Life episodes flesh out and stitch together Freeman’s world; they deepen the comic and dramatic potential of the game’s cast… but what are they actually about? In brief, it’s my opinion that Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are incredibly pulpy but emotionally satisfying takes on power and free will. Both plot Gordon Freeman’s journey from helpless weakling to super powered messiah, but both contrast this evolution (through gameplay as well as story) with all sorts of limits and restrictions within the game’s world; they are games that make the player feel in full control, but always wary that there are greater forces at work. The unfinished episodic trilogy is still a master class in game design and an immersive environment to visit, but I can’t help but feel that by prioritizing “furthering the story” above all else, Valve abandons some of the subtextual forces that made Half-Life so special. I sincerely do not fault Valve for attempting a more frequent, less taxing development method; even if the episodic structure proved an interesting failure, I can’t pretend I was unhappy during my extra time in Freeman’s shoes. I’m glad these games exist and look forward to re-experiencing them, but never has an appreciated gift felt more like a compromise.
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