Thursday, May 30, 2013

Belated Praise

I'm going to say something that could very well earn me death threats - I never liked Half-Life. It never gripped me, never really stood out, and kinda looked like ass. Granted, I didn't play it until 2004 and at the time I liked Halo more. I still like Halo - for all its faults, it's a solid game that's both fun to play and not loaded down with insultingly reactionary politics. That puts it head and shoulders above the current generation of shooters.

So I never gave Half-Life or creator Valve any real thought until a few months ago when I heard about Steam Box. Being a fan of DIY digital technology - I've been running Ubuntu for the past five years - and a bigger fan of indie games, I was intrigued to say the least.

But as much as I like me some indie platforming fun, my first love has always been the first-person murder-fest. So, expecting they'd load this new little gadget with Valve's back catalogue, I picked up a copy of The Orange Box and played Half-Life 2.

And it blew my fucking mind!

Cool guys don't look at... uh, bloom?

I know I'm late to this party, but Half-Life 2 has got to be the greatest video game of all time. And not just because there's a whole stage where you launch saw blades and flaming cars at zombies, though that doesn't hurt. Okay, it's about half the reason I'm giving it praise but indulging in slapstick violence only gets you so far. What makes Half-Life 2 transcend the Grand Theft Autos and Calls of Battlefield is that it can still tell an engaging story without interrupting gameplay.

So you all probably know the plot - aliens take over, better kill them. There may be no new stories out there but execution is everything and Valve tells this rather standard story in such a way that nearly ten years and a whole console generation later it still feels fresh. The characters are developed but never overshadow the actual playing of the game, the environments are expansive and somehow more interactive than you find in the latest "Triple A" releases, and the whole game is peppered with little blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments hinting at a truly epic story of interdimensional conspiracies and spooky beurocrats.

It always feels like he's watching you...

Or you can ignore all that and focus on getting some laughs out of the ragdoll physics. Valve took the bold move with their carefully crafted narrative of permitting U the player to ignore it entirely. Everything takes place in a first-person perspective and set pieces will play out whether you're in the right position to admire the destruction or off in the corner trying to do a simultaneous teabag and rocket jump off a fallen foe. It's a watershed moment in video games as a legitimate art form and to this day it stands alone.

For better or worse, video games are a defining aspect of the Millenial generation as much as rock and roll was for the Boomers. And right now, video games are going through their hair metal phase. Call of Duty and its many clones dominate the market but aside from some hectic, passing fun offered by the multiplayer they're all "sight-seeing tours" where the player goes from checkpoint to checkpoint watching drones vaporize buildings and bad guys alike. The sense of agency for the player - you know, the whole flippin' point of a game - has been gradually ironed out so that no expensive pixels have to be wasted on such vulgar whims as, say, turning a fallen foe into a makeshift projectile.


Look for an alternative and there's pretty much sandbox games with paper thin plots or RPGs - MMO and solo - with paper thin Tolkein cribbing. I've been pretty dismissive of the storytelling in video games but that's because traditional storytelling in the sense of movies or books - the format being used today - are utterly incompatable. It's an interactive medium, which presents both limitations but also greater narrative freedoms.

Half-Life 2 exemplifies those freedoms. Valve could've made something bog-standard and still scored big just off name recognition back in 2004. Instead, they crafted something that is not only a joy to play but an excellent story. That they're still alone in this ten years later doesn't bode well for the medium...

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