Half-Life 2 and the Problem with Fun

  • Completion Date: December 2020
  • Platform: PC
  • Completed: Main Story (57% Achievements Unlocked)
  • Score: 7 out of 10
Credit Steam

I remember one year when I was in college – in-between semesters, more accurately. It was summer, and I was enjoying a very long and idle summer break. I mostly stayed at my friend Kris’ house. We ate pizza practically every night, watched movies, and played Super Smash Brothers Melee until we passed out at 2 or 3am. I remember one rare day when I actually had to go a band practice for an upcoming show. It just so happened that they ordered pizza for dinner. After practice, I called Kris to let him know that I would be over soon, and mentioned that we had already eaten pizza for dinner. He said, “You probably wouldn’t want pizza again then, since you already had it.” And I answered, “Why not?”.

What a great summer.

. . .

There is a natural transition that happens in life. You start your life with virtually zero expectations. At first, the only expectation is that you continue to breathe. As you get a little older, you’re expected to begin going to the bathroom by yourself, and to not hit your siblings (this is a challenge for many). Eventually, you have to go to school for several hours a day, and you get homework that you’re expected to complete. Then you grow up, get a job, get married, and have children. Responsibilities mount, and there are times when you have to choose which responsibilities you’re going to pay attention to, and which ones you’re going to let slip. In these times, as is my experience, you must be much more careful about what you do with your free time, since you have so very little of it. It becomes an invaluable resource, and one that you manage with the utmost care. In fact, the reality for many of us is that we really have zero free time, and the only way to gain a small quantity is to shirk real-world responsibilities. In my own life at present, there is a sliver of time between 10pm and 11pm where I can decide what I want to do for myself. To be completely fair, I don’t count that as real, authentic free time either, because I still have to tell my wife that I won’t be spending that sliver of time with her, I’ll be spending them on my hobbies. She’s usually sitting on the sofa watching a show. I kiss her and tell her I’m going downstairs to play. She always kisses me back and smiles. I am certain, though, that given the choice, she would rather that I stay with her. When I do my wood carvings on weekends, there are many times when I have to tell my children “no”. I tell my daughter that I can’t help her get past that hard part in Zelda, and I tell my son that I can’t play a game of Pokémon with him.

This lack of authentic free-time makes the issue of fun a very difficult and delicate thing. Having fun in and of itself is an entirely subjective experience. Nobody can tell you if what you’re doing is fun. It is entirely up to you to decide the level of fun that you’re experiencing at any given time. What might be fun for one person might be extreme torture for another (camping comes to mind as one those divisive things). This unfortunate fact leaves me with an annoying question almost any time I do anything that isn’t absolutely essential to support the life of myself or the lives of the people around me: Am I enjoying this non-essential activity I’m currently doing to make it worth the price I paid for it? That price being the artificial creation of free time by saying “no” to the people in my life I care about. If I’m not, then I’m effectively wasting this invaluable resource.

This is why playing a game like Half-Life 2 is both a gamble and a step in unraveling this horrific quandary.

. . .

In Half-Life 2, you continue the story of Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist who, in the original game, had opened up a portal to another dimension through experimentation he and other scientists had conducted at the Black Mesa Research Facility. At the start of the game, you arrive at City 17, an oppressed city led by one Dr. Wallace, who is by all accounts a dictator who rules the city with an iron fist, and is most likely performing some nefarious activities behind the scenes, all of which you and your rebel friends hope to stop. Oh, there’s also a very mysterious stranger known as The G-Man who apparently is pulling all the strings, but I’ll discuss that later.

The game progression can be described as follows: there’s a bit of story explanation, and then you’re quested to go X location. You spend roughly 2 hours slogging through tunnels, sewer systems, buildings, swamps, etc. (with puzzle solving along the way), sometimes on a vehicle (an airboat through swampland or a dune buggy through the desert), and sometimes on foot. These sections of game seem to be unnecessarily long and monotonous. I found myself wondering several times why the developers made the decision to make these sections as long as they were. I could understand if the puzzles or combat in these sections evolved in some way, building on previous puzzles or combat situations that have been completed, but that didn’t seem to be the case (maybe I just missed the nuance of it – seems reasonable). On the upside, however, I do think the game rations the story and delivers it in a timely manner, never giving you too much or too little at a time. The game will slowly unravel a little bit more about the world, your place in it, character motivations, etc., as it feeds you your next objective.

As I understand it, there are at least 2 reasons why the game is considered revolutionary. First is the physics engine. The game actually touts its realistic physics by giving you a gun that can pull and push almost any object in the game, and <mild spoiler warning ON> at the end of the game, that very gun is super-powered to become the most devastating weapon in the game. This, I feel, was not a great idea. It takes what really is a very cool and new engine, but it promotes it to taking center stage in the game, and when a new technology takes center stage of a game, it is very much in danger of getting the “Tech Demo” tag. And a Tech Demo is much less about a high-quality gaming experience, and more of the developers showing off, saying, “Look what we can do! You can hit pick up barrels and chuck them at people!”. This is often to detriment of the core components of the game, such as character development and good story telling. To be fair, I think they made good use of the physics of the game as a puzzle-solving mechanic. </mild spoiler warning OFF>.

Another feature of the game that was new at the time was feeding the player the story bits without switching over to a cutscene, i.e. an FMV-less (Full Motion Video) story. Games up to this point would have you fighting dragons, robots, gods, etc., and upon entering a certain area, would cut away to a video, which the player had to watch. With Half-Life 2 (and Half-Life 1 as well, as I understand it), the player would enter a new area, and the NPCs (Non-Player Characters) would seamlessly begin their dialogue. Unfortunately, I’m a massive fan of cutscenes. A cutscene is a reward for doing something challenging, or for slogging along through portions of the game where the story was not progressing. It’s a point where the story takes center stage and gets a much-needed shot in the arm. The player is not responsible for anything during an FMV (until they started doing those wretched Quick-Time Events, that is), except to enjoy the story as it unfolds. I remember playing Resident Evil: Code Veronica. The Resident Evil series is a horror series, and one of the goals of the game is to terrify the player until they can play the game no longer, and quit, never to play the series ever again. . . Okay, that’s not quite it, but still, the series does like to scare its players, and I’m not immune to it. In that game, though, for whatever reason, I was really obsessed with the cutscenes, and I think one of the reasons is that I knew that during a cutscene, I was safe. It’s impossible to “fail” a cutscene. It was a much-needed break from running away from zombies, managing your ammo and herbs, and wondering if something terrifying was going to jump out at you when you turned the corner. And of course, the king of FMVs, the Metal Gear Solid series, absolutely adores cutscenes, so much so that a player is watching Metal Gear Solid almost as much as they are playing Metal Gear Solid. And I, for one, find nothing wrong with that. I’ve discussed before what I think a single-player game should accomplish, which is one of two things (preferably both): 1) Deliver a fantastic story, 2) Create satisfying game loops (i.e. complete objectives, upgrade your character or equipment, and repeat). Cutscenes help to achieve one of those goals, and I really hope they don’t go anywhere anytime soon.

. . .

Now let’s turn to what I consider the worst part of this game by far. The ending. Actually, let me clarify. The lack of an ending. <spoiler warning ON> In the last scene of the game, Gordon and Alex have managed to take down Dr. Wallace, but soon after, an imminent explosion threatens the entire city. Gordon and Alyx are discussing a plan to escape, and everything just . . . freezes. The mysterious man (aka The G-man) appears and says some nonsensical line about how you’ve “performed very well for him”. <spoiler warning OFF> Valve, do you understand what a story is? Let’s get back to basics here. Characters, Setting, Plot, Conflict, Resolution. Sounds about right. So what happened here? I happen to have a transcript of a very important meeting that Valve had on this very topic. Here it is:

Doug: Okay, okay, let’s get the record straight on this story thing. Terrence, walk us through it.

Terrence: Uh, uh, yea, sure Doug. Ooookay, let’s see. Characters: Gordon, Dr. Wallace, Alyx, Dr. Eli. Check. Setting: Dystopian, not-so-distant future in City 17. Check. Plot: Gordon and team attempt to overthrow the overlord in charge of City 17. Check. Conflict: You beat the bad guy, but now your life is being threatened with an imminent explosion which threatens the entire city. Check. Resolution: Uhhh…

Doug: Yea, yea, thanks, Terrence. Let’s get this ball rolling. We gotta get this thing out before Christmas. Investors, am I right?

By the way, did anybody else want Gordon and Alyx to get together? Cute couple. Cute kids, probably.

If you don’t know, the lack of a conclusion is an extremely common complaint among the Half-Life community. In fact, it’s pretty much a running joke. Valve did release a Half-Life 2: Episode One and Half-Life 2: Episode 2, and to be fair, it does pick up right after Half-Life 2 ends. But guess what. The ending of both those games also end in cliff-hangers! Oh, but don’t worry, because now Half-Life: Alyx is out, so everything’s all good, right? Wrong again, my friend. Half-Life: Alyx is actually a prequel to Half-Life 2, so it does not wrap up the story in a nice little bow and give it a proper send-off. What’s the deal, Valve? Can you just give the gamers what they want? Actually, Valve has already released a transcript of what Half-Life 3 would have looked like if they had made it. So clearly, they are not going to make it. Ever.

. . .

So, did I enjoy the game? Well, that’s a great question. I can tell you this. I am extremely happy that I beat the game. And I say that for a few reasons. First, it’s one of those games in my backlog that I really felt guilty about not playing. Like I said, it generally appears on most “best games of all time” lists. As a gamer, I felt it was necessary to play, and I am relieved that I can put it in the done column.

But there is another reason I’m glad I played the game, and it’s this: I get to talk about it. I get to talk to other people about it. I get to blog about. I have already had conversations with others who have played it, and whether we agree or disagree on how good the game is, we have had great conversations.

I’m convinced that, many times, our hobbies are less about the activity itself, but more about bonding and building relationships with the community of people who also enjoy those same activities. And building relationships will never be a waste of time.

Game On, friend.

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