Note: This series is a correspondence between fellow writer Anthony Taylor and myself about one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time, Half-Life 2. There have been enough volumes of html created about this Valve classic to fill Gabe Newell’s swimming pool, but one fact remains: neither of us have ever played it from start to finish.
When it comes to video games, admitting that you neglected to play through a monumental title like Half-Life 2 (or even the first Half-Life, in my case) is something akin to being branded with a pixelated Lambda symbol, forever marking you with the burnt orange of shame. However, for me it’s a bit more odd than for others. Many of you on GamerSushi know that I spent quite a bit of time in the past making videos in the Source engine which required me to edit Half-Life 2 maps, arrange Portal turrets and facepose lengthy monologues of the G-Man model. As such, I’ve acquainted myself with the lore of Valve’s celebrated sci-fi shooter series, but have never donned that H-VAC suit myself. I’ve always wanted to, however, but time always seemed to slip away from me. Recently, after talking about games we haven’t played, Anthony brought up Half-Life 2 and suggested we both tackle it. Inspired by the brilliant FFVII Letters, we thought we would document the process as we did it.
It’s for this reason that Anthony and I decided we would undergo a playthrough of Half-Life 2 together, and see what happens when we look back on a game that still manages to cast its shadow on gaming storytellers and worldbuilders, even 7 years later. Hopefully you’ll enjoy the result.
From: Eddy Rivas
To: Anthony Taylor
Subject: Summer in the City
I suppose it’s best to start from the famous train sequence, eh?
I remember seeing the G-Man monologue that Valve first used to debut Half-Life 2 all the way back at E3 2003, and being amazed at the smoothness of the facial animations. It’s funny that I finally witnessed the similar monologue in its intended format on the eve of E3 2011, when I watched the G-Man open the game earlier this week. Funnier still is that it managed to mesmerize me just the same, pulling me into the shoes of Gordon Freeman.
While I’ve only played about half of the original Half-Life (I’m sure there’s a juicy pun in there somewhere), the most memorable thing about that game for me would have to be the open on the tram car. At the time, I had never experienced anything quite like it. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the fact that I was asked to be patient while the game let me settle into its world like sitting into a worn leather chair, feeling it take on a shape around me. While the train ride into City 17 is no less iconic, there was something special about experiencing it as an invested player all these years later.
I don’t know about you, but I refrained from looking up any information about Half-Life before I started playing that sequence, so as not to be sullied by that information (I’ve since gone to familiarize myself). It was fairly remarkable to go into it blind, not quite understanding that while Freeman was in stasis (presumably for decades) after accepting the G-Man’s offer of employment, the Combine forces came to Earth because of the events of Black Mesa in order to enslave everyone in the brutal and decisive Seven Hour War.
The game starts in City 17, an anonymous ghetto in Eastern Europe with all the trappings of an Orwellian distopia. Oddly enough, the whole sequence played out like a JRPG, where the player is given the opportunity to talk to each citizen on the train and in the train station beyond. It really seems like Valve designed it in this way, too, letting you fill in bits of the world through all of the little details: the vortigaunt sweeping the trash while the Civil Protection soldier watches with disinterest, the welcome video of Dr. Breen and the woman clasping to the fence and waiting on her husband.
It’s actually startling not to have a shooter that doesn’t kick you in the face with its story and tell you to take this gun, soldier, the war’s-a-here. In fact, over the course of the first two chapters, I was surprised that there was no shooting at all. I mean, I understood that the crowbar is Gordon’s batarang, but I never expected I would do more running away than firefighting, even in the early chapters. I seriously got nervous during the apartment raid, which I’m sort of embarrassed to admit. Also, Barney was kind of a dick for not giving you a gun at that point.
Where most modern shooters would throw you into a lame tutorial experience or bog you down with exposition (or both), Half-Life 2 dumps you into the role of Gordon Freeman, and lets the characters bring everything to life. The cast is shown to you right from the get-go, and these aren’t your typical FPS stand-ins. I could wax on and on about the super-charming sequence in Kleiner’s lab, complete with the silliness of Lamar interrupting the teleportation, but I’ll let you jump in and talk about your thoughts.
Were you as taken away by the atmosphere as I was? What about the characters? Am I being overly cynical in dumping on modern shooters after seeing the atypical way that this game starts off in? And how big of a dick was Barney for that crowbar thing?
Read Anthony’s response on the next page!