The Scientist-Hero Returns

They even get the suburbs right.I was a little nervous as I waited for Half-Life 2 (Vivendi, 2004) to start. The original Half-Life (Sierra, 1998) is one of the reasons this column exists — the game brought atmosphere and intelligence to the first-person shooter without skimping on the visceral kickassocity, and brought me back to videogames after a decade of neglect.

The sequel had been talked up in the gaming community for years, and even being over a year late hadn’t destroyed the enthusiasm. (Though coming out at the same time as Halo 2 [Microsoft, 2004] did destroy the chance of mainstream press attention — the much less interesting game on Microsoft’s Xbox console was backed by much more marketing money.) We remembered being Gordon Freeman, the scientist in the hazmat suit — a hero in glasses, for Christ’s sake — having to shoot himself out of the Black Mesa lab turned horrific by an inter-dimensional snafu. We were willing to wait.

The loading screen is a good sign. A hazy blur of colour and shapes, evocative and mysterious, eventually sharpens into a street scene with the title and menu options overlaid. It’s either twilight or pre-dawn, with cobblestones and architecture hinting at a European setting. There’s a clicking of heels and a soldier in a face mask comes into the shot, doing his rounds. Then a flying sentry whirrs by, its steady bleeping not quite breaking the ominous silence.

That’s just the menu screen. I choose Play New Game, a good deal of my nervousness having dissipated. The game begins aboard a train just pulling into City 17. I don’t really know why I’m here, and I walk around the grandly decrepit train station listening as the video screens broadcast a welcome by a bearded man speaking calmly about “relocations” and “our benefactors.” A man hunched at a lunch table throws a bag on the ground in disgust, and I approach him for information.

When I stand beside him, he looks at me. I’m a little surprised — I’m used to feeling like a pair of disembodied eyes in videogames, a point-of-view rather than a person. Gordon doesn’t really speak, so the interaction with people isn’t really a gameplay element — but it is effectively used to tell the story.

And there is a good story in Half-Life 2. Marc Laidlaw, who also wrote the predecessor, was a science-fiction novelist (Kalifornia, The Orchid Eater) before he started working with Valve. Both games have SF plots that, while not stunningly original, are told with subtlety and attention to detail. More importantly, they’re adapted to the medium. I still remember playing the beginning of Half-Life, where I was told by a senior scientist to push a cart into the centre of the chamber. When I did this, I hit something and a disaster ensued — and I remember thinking, “Shit, I should have saved the game, now I’ll have to start over” — but there’s no way to avoid it. It was a brilliant method to make the player complicit in the “things-go-horribly awry” stock science-fiction plot. Far more engaging than just explaining in a cut scene that an interdimensional rift caused yadda yadda yadda.

And while there are parts in the game where the story is advanced, they’re not the conventional sit-and-watch cut scenes. I could, for instance, run around the lab opening things while my fellow scientist explains the importance of the teleportation device to the underground resistance. The facial expressions and body language are remarkable and the dialogue is also a cut above. As he upgrades my swamp boat with a gun turret that came from the same model of ‘copter that is chasing me, my comrade says “I like a little irony in my firefights.”

They even get the suburbs right.I use the swamp boat to get to the outskirts of City 17, loath though I am to leave a city where I once glimpsed a giant H.G. Wellsian robot stalking by on towering insectile legs. But the detail lavished on the urban centre, even down to the style of graffiti and stencilled posters, is also extended to the outreaches of the city. You get a sense of the scale of the city as you speed down rivers that curve forever, flanked by electrical towers, bleak apartment buildings and factories.

My appreciation of the game will have to continue in in the second half of this article. I’m not the fastest game player, I know that for a fact: I recently ran across an announcement that David “Marshmallow” Gibbons had posted proof that he was able to finish Half-Life 2 in two hours, 57 minutes. “Speed demos,” as they’re called, are done for many games and are backed up by video proof… the Super Mario 3 one made waves last year.

As for me, I don’t want to rush. I’m planning to savour the experience, spend some more time in beautifully crafted dystopias like City 17.

~ ~ ~

Half-Life 2 ends with a monologue by the mysterious G-Man, who’s appeared through the entire game with his distinctive briefcase — ducking into a doorway, walking along a platform in the distance — always one step ahead of you. He looks fairly human, but the way his voice sounds like it’s been spliced together (and the way he seems to be able to stroll between dimensions and stop time) suggest something more unworldly. The ending monologue intimates that he’s not above selling your services to the highest bidder, but it was the phrase “illusion of free will” that caught my ear.

As a novelist, I strive for verisimilitude: the appearance of reality. I try to give a sense of place, a person’s life, a situation, not by giving exhaustive descriptive detail but by giving just enough detail to evoke a feeling of realism. The videogame has to do this with the visuals and the narrative, but faces an additional challenge: giving people the illusion of free will.

People sometimes criticize the Half-Life series for being “on a rail” — more or less like a funhouse ride on which you’re shuttled through constructed scenarios. Having tight control like this is a trade-off for a nuanced and complex narrative. In opposition to this, games in the Grand Theft Auto series offer scenarios, rather than stories, and are often referred to as “sandbox games.” While both limit the player’s free will, they employ different strategies of evoking the illusion of maintaining it.

Pinning down the appeal of game physics.
Half-Life 2 does this through a steady diet of marvels, a lot of them based on how smart the objects are. If, in a moment of panic, you grab a nearby paint can and throw it at a zombie, the zombie will be covered in paint. If you grab a circular saw and throw it, the zombie will be sliced in two (and if you go to look, you will see the saw half-embedded in the wall behind). Shoot someone with a crossbow and they will hang literally pinned to the wall. Physics are used a lot in puzzles — if you weigh down one end of a see-saw with the concrete debris lying around, you can get up to the second level. At another part, the buoyancy of plastic barrels in water comes into play.

But the shock of recognition (my god, it’s rolling down the hill like a real tire would!) that is a big part of the appeal of physics is only one possible use of these complex mathematical algorithms. Unlike the physics in our world, gameworld physics aren’t natural laws — they’re as changeable as the visual environments. And Half-Life 2 takes admirable advantage of this, drawing on its futuristic setting to introduce the gravity gun.

With the gravity gun — a.k.a. the zero-point energy field manipulator — you can suck objects into the field, have them hover in front of you, and then fire them away at great force. The gravity gun is quite a unique weapon — even the alien weapons of some games simply exchange energy bolts for bullets and don’t really have their own character. With the gravity gun you can pick up filing cabinets and shoot them at oncoming soldiers. Need something below on the cavern floor infested with vicious head crabs? Reverse its gravity and watch it come to you. Out of grenades? Hurl a barrel of gasoline at an ant-lion and watch it explode on impact, then watch the animal thrash around in flames until it finally collapses.

Speaking of ant-lions, when you’re on the coastline, these buggers appear from under the sand and attack you relentlessly. But once you kill one of their mothers, you’re able to harvest the pheromone sacks. Now they’re under your control, and you can call them from the sands and direct them to harass your enemies.

You find a less successful variant on the pheromone-sack weapon when you’re fighting in the city, and word of your heroic actions has spread to the point that the resistance humans you meet all want to fight with you. You can direct them into battle like the ant-lions, and they’ll run off to get killed. But unlike the ant-lions I remorselessly sent into battle and watched from a distance, I felt like I had to lead the charge for my human squad. I didn’t really need their help, where elsewhere in the game (the gun turret scene in “Entanglement”), I was stuck for hours. They died very quietly and everything, but mostly they just got in the way (constantly saying stuff like, “Excuse me, Dr. Freeman,” “Let me get out of your way, Dr. Freeman”) as I plowed through the bombed-out buildings of City 17.

Dr. Freeman is better as a loner, not a soldier. This becomes apparent as you drive across the beached coastline about halfway through the game, which has a melancholy feel of a post-apocalyptic road trip. A soldier busts out of an outpost and you gun him down before he can do the same to you. You go into the little tin shack he came out of to scavenge supplies. But there’re no medkits or ammo, just the soldier’s belongings and the old mattress he slept on.

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