Monday, September 08, 2008

Do not fear the Large Hadron Collider

Above: I am the man who will fight for your honor.

Gordon Freeman is on the case.

But just in case, I recommend stocking up on crowbars and batteries.

(By the way, do you remember how mindblowing the opening sequence of Half-Life was? If there's a better way to start a game, I haven't seen it yet. The introduction of Black Mesa is perfect. Then the interactive sequence in which the resonance cascade opens up and Gordon is temporarily transported to Xen. And then, everything that had seemed so familiar and safe is changed forever.

Really, the whole game was one brilliant, sustained dramatic sequence. Valve never relied on cutscenes or lazy storytelling. They used in-game, scripted events and intricately crafted level design to ensure that the player's attention was always focused in the right place. That's why you caught glimpses of the G-man through windows and around corners. It's why the scientist dangling off the ladder screamed just long enough for you to locate him visually before losing his grip and plummeting down an elevator shaft. It's why facehuggers leaping out of dark places was just as scary the fiftieth time.

Don't even get me started on the propulsive nature of the level design. After the dimensional breach, all anyone wants is for the military to bail them out. All you want is to reach the surface. Finally, you reach sunlight in time to greet the military -- and they open fire on you. So you plunge right back the way you came, back toward the hideous creatures below. Going forward is terrifying, but going backward is even worse.

Excuse me, I have some business to attend to on Steam.)

(Yes, nearly this entire post was a parenthetical.)


Mike Johnson said...

Yeesh. Never played it, but now I really feel like I'm missing something.

Mitch Krpata said...

You really, really are. It's top 10 all-time for me.

mtvernon said...

@mitch: Now, I know you're not talking about Half-Life 2, but I'm curious -- have you heard Jonathan Blow's "conflicted design" lecture ( If so, what do you think?

(The Brainy Gamer's "Narrative Manifesto" post provides a good synopsis

I'd argue that the narrative of Half-Life is less explicit (and more implicit) than the narrative of Half-Life 2, but that's probably pretty shaky ground. Does it make for a better game? Perhaps marginally so; I seem to remember feeling more of a personal connection with Gordon the first time around.

Ed Borden said...

I agree.

(I blogged about how awesome of a job Valve did with HL in comparison to Mass Effect a little while ago:
The whole point I was trying to make was exactly what you're talking about here. Mass Effect screwed up everything HL did right.)

Most of my response was parenthetical, just to keep some consistency.

Mitch Krpata said...

mtvernon, I haven't yet listened to it, just seen it referenced in a few places. Your post has inspired me to download it. I'll try to find time to listen sometime soon. I do feel like, great as it was, Half-Life 2 had a few too many sequences in which you were trying to get somewhere else in order to do something important. In Half-Life, each moment was important on its own.

Ed, excellent points about the connection to the character. I'd add Mass Effect was also messy and not fun. :)

Dave said...

Yes, yes, yes. Half-Life remains one of my all-time favorite games for precisely the reasons you mention. (And I'm really not even a FPS fan, generally -- it's the narrative that sold me.) I particularly enjoyed the way the objectives of both Freeman and the NPCs evolved through several stages as the game progressed (and in some cases, as a result of Freeman's actions). And of course, that intro was perfect.

(You know, I just recently finished playing Shadow of the Colossus, and found that its intro also added a ton to my attachment to the story that followed. Same goes for Ico. I wonder, is the scene-staging intro an underused tool for game developers?)

But enough with the annoying parenthetical asides. :) What continues to confuse me is that I typically hear your sort of gushing praise applied to Half-Life 2, a game which I didn't care for at all, and apparently just didn't "get". I continue to wonder: did I totally miss something? The game seemed simultaneously plotless and incomprehensible to me. Freeman's objectives were just to go from point A to point B, only to discover that now he needed to go to point C, never with any broader purpose. As a fellow admirer of Half-Life, do you think I missed the point of the sequel?

Mitch Krpata said...

Dave, I agree with you to some degree. The sequel seemed to have more filler than the original as the story goes, but I don't think the story was Valve's main concern. It seems like every time they make a game, they have something different in mind for their main goal. With Half-Life 2, they seemed to be more interested in the possibilities of vehicular missions and the gravity gun. And, probably, from a pure gameplay standpoint Half-Life 2 had more going for it.

In other words, I think the purpose of the first game was to try to tell a story in a first-person shooter without relying on the usual crutches. I think the purpose of the second game was to experiment with more dynamic gameplay within the linear environments. From my perspective, that makes the first game slightly better.

Not sure if that accurately expresses what I was thinking, but there you go.

Dave said...

Thanks Mitch, your differentiation of Half-Life 1 and 2 makes me feel less like I just didn't "get it" with the sequel. If the popular appeal of Half-Life 2 was due primarily to its achievements in vehicular gameplay elements, gravity gun, etc., then it makes sense that it didn't resonate with me, as I'm more thrilled by achievements in story (as long as the gameplay meets a certain low bar of adequacy). Glad to know I didn't just miss the point entirely...

Mitch Krpata said...

The funnier thing about that is that I'd argue they didn't really get the vehicular stuff right until Episode 2 -- when they nailed it.

mtvernon said...

@mitch: I completely agree that "Half-Life 2 had a few too many sequences in which you were trying to get somewhere else in order to do something important." And that, where Half-Life is concerned, "each moment was important on its own." Unfortunately, the trade-off seems to present itself in terms of scale: Half-Life has that clich├ęd One Man Versus kind of feel, whereas Half-Life 2 gives players the feeling that they're an important part of a much larger world.

The latter lends all kinds of narrative weight that wasn't there before, but I do kind of hate just staring at the NPCs like some weird goon.

James Wu said...

One of the best games ever, but pretty scary.

I remember one of the HL games I ran out of ammo and had to wards off a flock of monsters with a damn crowbar.

I never finished that game.