Saturday, July 1

Half-Life: Episode One



This feedback is dedicated to HL2:EP1 and is divided into five sections.
(Episodic Content, Character Relationship, Weaknesses, Strengths, HL3).
FYI: I have completed EP1 along with all other Valve products.

Even though Half-Life has already been episodic with it expansion packs and the sequel, it's first formal episodic content has delivered brilliantly. Well done.

But as exciting as this new step forward has been for the HL franchise, my only concern is what side effect being formally episodic has to its content. Particularly in regards to innovation. Whereas true sequels require innovation, formally episodic content can fall quickly into a steady pattern of only meeting a perfunctory list of basic criteria, and little more. For example: each new episode of any episodic content (of any franchise) will need to deliver on a set of basic requirements to make it a valid and worthwhile iteration of the series (and purchase for the customer):
- A technological tweak (HDR Bloom)
- A new enemy (Zombine)
- A new weapon (flares)
- A memorable experience (Being thrown across the chasm)
- A reveal of the greater plot (Destruction of the citadel)
- A teaser for the next episode (A glimpse of the Hunters)
- All our favourite characters (D0g, Alyx, etc).

HL2 obviously delivered in all these areas. It was not an advance in terms of leaps and bounds from what we have seen before, but it was a sure and steady single step forward. Opposing Force on the otherhand, a mere expansion pack, went far beyond what Episode One did in the context of the above criteria. (And was hailed accordingly).

However this seems to be the true role of episodic content, to dole out the excitement of a franchise in measured steps leaving the role of innovation to the mod community and its official sequels. Is this measuring down also a watering down, or does the industry work better for a franchise in more manic bursts? Time will tell.

Personally I was hoping for one of two things: either a stronger story-driven game, or more new content to compensate. It should be said here that, in my opinion, the atmosphere and experience of HL2 was very satisfying when valued at its parts, but I couldn't appreciate it in the context of the whole because I felt there was a lack of story telling prowess that the first Half-Life excelled at. I go into this later (under the section Weaknesses). So even as I still had a geat time playing both HL2 and EP1, it did end up being a series of exciting events, rather than a cohesive whole experience. For example, being thrown across the chasm was a fun idea, even if the "roller coaster ride" that came diretly after it seemed a tad corny, but essentially this was part of what you paid your 20 bucks for. The other reason was to battle some new enemies and gain more insight into the story left behind from HL2, which had left me with more questions than answers.

This really is enough to sustain episodic content, but the player will always know that any dramatic improvement to the engine, or even gameplay, must come from a completely new game, like HL3 for instance, and not the episodes following HL2. I personally believe you will successfully reach EP3 before players tire from the abscence of anything substantially new (beyond the above mentioned criteria at least) and start moaning for HL3.
The fact is though, that's exactly what I hope you do.


If you were to read only one section in this letter I hope it is this one, as I think this is the area you place most importance on when crafting a game, and it is what I'm most concerned about when playing a game. It might not be what attracts me to a game to begin with, but it's certainly what keeps me there.

It's true that you reinvented character relationships in the FPS genre with the original Half-Life by using the rudimentary stay/follow command, not to mention the clever use of the NPC's idle banter and their recognition of you as a person in their world, but you certainly accelerated the idea in HL2, and refined it even more with EP1.

You may be slightly disappointed to hear that my greatest character relationship experience during the entire HL story arc was actually from your first game. You may be further disappointed to hear that it was also an experience unintended by your designers. It happened about half-way through the original Half-Life story where I had to get to a main elevator that led me to the surface. The areas just before this had several stranded or hiding scientists scattered here and there and I took it upon myself to rescue these people, each and every one of them, from all of the areas I had access to at the time. I ended up with a group of eleven people behind me. 7 scientists and 4 guards.

It was a great feeling to feel in charge of a group whose safety I was responsible for, and who were trusting enough to follow me and, in the guards cases, even to lend a hand. I had to organise them in stages by grouping them in safe areas while I cleared the area ahead. I also felt a bond with these people, like I was really helping, and I imagined what it would be like if they were bantering with each other, becoming friends and enemies within the group, and each one acting on whatever strengths they had to help- like in classic disaster movies. The opportunity to have real drama in this circumstances was clear. At the end of my rescue adventure I reached the elevator hoping to bring them up and lead them to safety, but alas this never happened because it was never intended for me to rescue them in the first place, let alone all of them. I was hoping that by rescuing a total number I would be rewarded by them returning with back-up, perhaps during a tough boss fight, or even to activate something that would grant me access to a secret area, or make my progress easier in some way. This experience, although unintended, was the most compelling character-based interaction I felt during the entire HL series. It may be of interest to you that I felt the same type of emotional bond in the PS2 game, Ico, only much much deeper.

The kind of emotional bond you're trying to achieve for players with Alyx is not only very different to this, but I'll assert: impossible. The problem with Alyx is that you're not really helping her. She can look after herself. When you do "help" her reach a switch to open a door, you're actually helping yourself. She doesn’t really enter into the player's "need equation". The player must care about Alyx's safety before we can even start thinking of Alyx as a real person (in the context of an action-themed adventure).

The other game, besides Ico, that had a strong character relationship for me was Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. In this game the Prince would bicker to himself about what an ingrateful and annoying woman his female counterpart is (when she wasn't there of course) and that she needed to be tamed like all women, and then he would drop his chauvenistic bravado and admit that he admired her in some way, and then snap himself out of it. Beyond being a hilarious insight into the character's mind, the believable relationship that slowly built up between the two created a relationship that you soon became emotionally attached to, and then wished to preserve in how you played the game. Being a well-scripted, well-paced and well-acted unfolding of events allowed for most of this emotional work to be done for you however. Essentially, the player was forced to follow the motivation of the character they played, not their own, but how much you wished to do this was determined by how much you were affected by its story.

The Prince's love interest, Farah, was very much like Alyx in her tone and temperament and is closer to the type of relationship you're aiming for with Alyx and Gordon. The main problem in creating this kind of relationship though is that Gordon isn't actually a character. He's a ghost without personality, or expression, or voice. Essentially, he is a gun with eyes, and because the gun element isn't valid when relating to Alyx we can simplify it even further: Gordon Freeman is merely a floating set of eyeballs. Period. To ask the player (Gordon) to have a relationship with Alyx is weakened by this degree of minimalism because all a floating set of eyeballs will do is look at what it likes and dislikes and approve or disapprove. And that's as far as the relationship can go. Fairly superficial, really. This may explain why a lot of players approved of Dr Breen's lab partner, Judith Mossman, over Alyx because of simple physical preferences. Eyeballs, it seems, are rather fickle.

So how do you solve this?

I have some suggestions in the last section (HL3) for advanced solutions, but in practical terms (particularly with the limitations of episodic content) my key suggestion is to think like a woman.

Put yourself in Alyx's shoes: Imagine the guy you were interested in wasn't giving you any of the kind of attention you really wanted from him. He's distant. Cold. He has never touched you with his hands, even though you've hugged him. And as much as you try you can't get a word out of the guy. So you do the only thing you can do: You make him jealous.

Why not make Alyx fall in love with another NPC? Anyone but you. Make her new sweetheart a pathetic, but endearing peacenik. An emotionally sensitive guy (everything you're not) and who is a mouthpiece for the soul of the resistance (another thing you cannot be, since you have no mouth), yet he is conflicted with himself because he detests violence (Okay, you hate him). And then engineer events so that, not only do you bear witness to the blossoming of this forsaken love, but you are put in a position where you actually have to protect the guy you now hate. Ha ha ha ha haa… Have Alyx choose whether to go out and help her fancy pants new boyfriend, or to stay on and help you- And get her to choose him. That's got to hurt. But why stop there? There is so much more you can do with this new guy. At the end of the game, kill him, just after the player has approved of the couple, and even begins to like the guy. Be cruel. It works. And in doing so the player is now more emotionally closer to Alyx because they've experienced a wider range of emotional with her. It requires a stepping back in order to move further forward.

Personally I was never truly emotionally invested in Alyx, or her father (even though I had many fond memories of the tv show- Benson). But I did get very emotionally invested in the plight of the citizens of City 17, which made me disappointed that there wasn't an emotionally satisfying conclusion to their plight at the end of HL2. On this point, I also was very opposed to the way these citizens were used as cannon fodder during the game. It cheapened the experience of fighting with them, knowing they have been assigned to my squad with the pre-arranged purpose of dying in battle. This also obviated any emotional response I could have had to them. At least when I rescued those 11 people in the original Half-Life I could be happy knowing I left them alive.

Even though I expected casualties with the citizens of City 17, I didn't like being put in a position where I had to use their lives in order to preserve my own. I realise the scenario in HL2 is that of a civil war, but I wanted to know the people I fought with longer than a transition between chapters. I wanted to know their names, form opinions about them, to remember them next time we met and appreciate their different personalities. And I wanted to ensure that the people who fought with me all survived. Just as I felt during my experience of rescuing the group of 11 scientists and guards in the original Half-Life.

As an example of this in play, imagine there are 4 citizens of City 17 whom you've given names to. Tom, Dick, Harry and Rosanna. If you choose to, they can fight with you during the entire game, right to the end even- if you can ensure their survival. They all have specific dialogue that is recorded for this perfect-score scenario, enhancing the story without being crucial to it. There may even be a specifically orchestrated scene in which one of them dies (Dick) or close to it, simply for drama's sake. But this is a scene that a player, who hasn't bothered to preserve their lives, obviously wouldn't see.

If any of these four dies they are replaced by a no-name stand-in (like the current citizens of City 17) who spout their regular occasional phrases, and the rest of the game is played in this way. If you're a fun junkie you'd lose your core team in the first few battles and the big explosion at the end will be enough to satisfy you. If you're into being immersed in the experience then you'll see that your team survives to the end, and the emotional reward is the enhancement to the game that you've worked to achieve.


The story of HL2 and EP1 both suffer from a disunity of ideas. To explain what I mean by this phrase I'd like to refer to the original game, Half-Life, which had a strong unity of ideas. In the original HL I was introduced to its world (with a train ride) so that I could have a strong understanding of how much things will have changed after the disaster. This meant that I had a contextual starting point to work from. I then made my way through what was causing the disaster, and finally to it's source. It is a clear journey, and the elements along the way make sense to each other, and even strengthen each other in their interactions. I start at one world and end at another, but the elements between make it clear why.

The story of HL2 and the Episode One lack this clear exposition of ideas (and events). It's as though I started reading a book half way through and put it down before I got to the end. For example:

When I arrived at City17 I soon realise it has been invaded and subjugated by the Combine. The problem is I have no idea what it looked like before, so I can't have any emotional response to what it looks like now, apart from my immediate response. Nor do I have much response to what happens to it from this point on. The same applies to its citizenry. I am compelled to help them because they are clearly oppressed, but I don't know what they've been through, nor how much they've changed, nor even who they are as a people. This helps support what I mentioned before about creating a bond with the people you fight with. If more of the NPCs could have been given more lasting personalities, instead of being disposable, it would have provided an excellent opportunity for story exposition and the evolving emotional ties which would have helped deepen the experience of the game.

From the perspective of Gordon Freeman the world of HL2 seems like an alternate reality. I don't know if the Ant Lions are part of this world, or part of the Combine's world, or even if they are related to the incident at Black Mesa. I've never seen the Ant Lions before, even on Xen. Does any character in the game ever explain where they come from?

Another story element that passes without explanation is the dried sea bed. I don't know if this was a result of Black Mesa, the invasion, or global warming.

Essentially, the HL2 and EP1 story elements are floating around without relation to each other. Each element is cool in their own right, but they're not working together. It makes for a great game, but tough to write a story with an engaging narrative.

It's ironic that HL2 is set in a European city, because it provides a wonderful metaphor to encapsulate my overall impression of the HL2 world: It comes across as foreign, and at the end of the day my experience of it is that of a tourist, not a resident. This is the crucial difference between my enjoyment of the original HL, a game that is one of my top five favourite games I've ever played, and HL2, a game that was a stunning achievement, a wonderful and thrilling experience, but just not as emotionally gripping as the first.

(Judging by one of Alyx's anecdotes, the world of HL2 could very well be an alternate reality: Just as I was about to crawl into an air vent, Alyx spoke about how "some days" Dr Kleiner, Barney and I (Gordon) used to race each other into an empty office room via air vents and other means. This never happened. I didn't spend a single day at work with either Barney or Dr Kleiner for this to be possible. The Black Mesa incident happened on my first day on the job. What exactly was she talking about?)


I've definitely been very honest in my feedback. As honest as I can be. But I also hope I've been fair, and not harsh. The strongest thing I can praise about HL2:Episode One is that it's more of the Half-Life 2 that I've enjoyed so much in the past.

Or to put it another way, it's more of Valve. The quality of this product is incredible, and Valve has never let us down. Not once.

My personal favourite moments during Episode One are:
When I saw my first glimpse of a Hunter.
When I saw the beautiful pulsating sphere that was the Citadel's core.
Being thrown across the chasm by D0g.
After the crash in the Stalker train.
Seeing the advisors close up as they were being evacuated in their escape pods.
Watching the citadel collapse at the very end.
Blocking antlion hives with car bodies.
The list goes on and on. Each scenario had a signature of cool. It was exciting, tense, and fun. Everything we've come to expect, but with a little bit more.


In HL3 I want it to open up to a very blurry image of Gordon. He moves his glasses into frame and puts them on. We see ourselves as him looking into a mirror. We get closer and see the detail of our face. Our hand wipes over our eyes and rests at our beard, scratching it. The face is war weary and heavy with emotion. Gordon says: "You look like shit". We turn a little to see behind us the G-man. The mirror shatters. The room fragments. White light fills the space and we are now hurtling fast through a dark void. We look down at our hands. We see our body, slowly spinning in the air. The player gains control. Pieces of the room float around us. We are drawn to a powerful light. We come to our senses in a steel room. The G-man sits opposite us, "Hello, Mr Freeman". We look down, we are strapped to a chair. We listen, and wait.

Basically I would like Gordon to have a body, and therefore a real-world presence. I want to be able to feel like I really am Gordon Freeman and that when a player hugs me (like Alyx did) it actually means something in relation to the player. Or when I'm on a thin ledge I want to look down and see where my feet are and how close I am to falling off it. I want to push open doors, pull levers, type in codes- with my hand. Even to have Gordon's shadow be cast over the keyboard, or lever, or door handle, that I am operating.

Let's say I'm in a thin corridor and Alyx is just ahead of me. My gun automatically drops when my crosshairs go over her. I get closer- within touching distance. My hand touches her back and she then presses against the wall knowing that I want to pass. And I pass.

To continue the example, we reach an open room. I stand infront of a console that she needs to get to. I'm facing the console. She turns me around by my shoulder and says, "Excuse me, Gordon, but I need to operate this thing." I stand there confused, not sure what she wants me to do. She pushes both her hands on my chest, politely pushing me backwards, out of the way.

Stuff like that. The Namco game, Breakdown, has begun this trend. What this would mean to the implausible idea of Gordon carrying around his entire arsenal is another thing entirely. Personally I think the character elected gun limit is a proven idea, thanks to Halo. Imagine the gravity gun has been modified into a glove. This would allow for, say, a three gun limit (plus grenades) to envigorate the combat experience. When the ammunition is out the default becomes your hand/gravity gun. I like the notion of carefully hanging on to particular weapons, and using Alyx to hold two of my less used ones. This creates an extra dependency on her and keeps things believable. It also provides excellent opportunities for drama when Alyx is separated from me and I'm left with my minimum number of weapons to survive.

And, yes, I want Gordon to speak. Not a lot, but enough to know his personal motivation.

This begs the question however: If Gordon is a full-bodied, speaking, thinking individual, then is this still Half-Life? Or is it an altogether new product? Can the fundamentals of HL evolve with the game's success and still maintain the integrity of the original product? I believe it can. Obviously there are some lines that can't be crossed, for very specific reasons, but I believe the ability to speak does not harm the experience of the game, but enhances it. In fact, it would make the balancing act between story-telling and the action that much easier. Afterall, the in-jokes of Gordon's silence can only stretch so far.

I would also like my second monitor to be a complimentary screen for the action happening in the game. To explain: As I'm playing the game on one monitor, in first-person, on the other monitor I can see a variety of related images. These may take the form of: a roving camera (as if an invisible movie director is filming me); or seeing through the eyes of another character that I send off to get help (like D0g); or it could be a map of my surroundings; or the view from my recently-fired guided missile, etc, etc…

I'd like to be able to drag this view into my main screen as a smaller HUD window (on my suit's visor, if you will)- because I also want people who don't have an extra screen to enjoy this concept. My reasons for requesting this extra screen for the action primarily comes from the need to identify myself as a character existing in and interacting with the HL2 world, and to also act as a constant visual reminder of who I am, what I'm doing and why I'm there in the first place.

Secondary to the reasons for this request are the possibilities it opens for new types of gameplay. With a second screen at my disposal obviously teamwork can be incredibly enhanced. Timing your actions to the other characters behaviour. Even using the map to assign the other character/s to new locations. Or even... to hack a Combine security system and use the sentry guns and other equipment against the Combine soldiers allowing you, by proxy, to navigate Alyx safely through the building. (This is an idea stolen directly from one of my favourite Amiga games: Interphase).

I'd also like to see the ragdoll physics on humans less like a ragdoll, and more like a human. For instance when a Combine soldier dies they fall to the ground in an immediate and discracefully floppy spectacle. I'd like to see a gradation of control if even over a second or two between the point of zero health and the time they hit the ground. I'd also like to see them maintain some elastic tension of their limbs that can keep them in a relatively believable position once limp. Too often I see the bodies of the Combine twisted in positions that are simply not believable, and therefore breaking the illusion of the moment.

It would be wonderful to see the Combine get hurt and limp away, retreating to a med-unit. (Afterall, they were put there for them. Weren't they?) To have the Combine work as a squad more, like the marines did in the original. This was incredibly challenging, and very rewarding when successfully defeating them. Even if the Combine can convert humans to their ranks, it would still make for very interesting combat to see the Combine rescue their wounded.

It's very difficult, extreeeemely difficult for me to stop writing down these ideas, as you have probably already noticed, but I'll fight the urge to continue and stop here.

Gabe, for me to write as much as I have should be an excellent indicator to how much I appreciate and admire your work. Thank you for providing us with such a wonderful experience.

My highest regards,
Mat Brady


callouspenguin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
callouspenguin said...

Wow, a very well written and insightful blog post. I am in wholehearted agreement with many of the things you said. One thing did catch my attention though, and I think maybe a little insight from another person might give you some more appreciation for the setting of HL2 (or, of course, I could just be talking out of my ass, who knows?)

Mainly, I would like to propose your main problem with city 17, that of an emotional disconnect with the city, is intentional on Valve's part. In the original Half Life, as you have noted, the player saw the Black Mesa complex before the disaster, and therefore saw the ruin which the resonance cascade brought upon the complex. You also spoke of a journey through the complex to the source. I would just like to suggest the idea that it is possible we, the players, are experiencing that idea in the reverse with Half Life 2. We are starting with a city that is destroyed, and with clear view of the problem. Our journey may well end with the city again in a glorious state, problems corrected. I believe, however, that this journey, a reverse from the journey of Half Life as defined by your blog, is slightly hurt by the episodic delivery of the game, as we are left in confusion and asked as players to extend our attention spans from a couple hours of gaming to reach a resolution to a couple of years to reach a conclusion.

Of course, I could just be giving Valve too much credit, but in my opinion, they deserve as much credit as I can bestow.

Great post, by the have some very innovative ideas which I sincerely hope newer technology and forward thinking developers will latch on to.

bbot said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the "on rails" feeling of the fight through the city, or the pod ride to Breen's office at the end of HL2. Both completely broke immersion, both were poor decisions.

Personally, I would have liked a little latitude during the city fight, like we're supposed to get in EP2. Like in BF2142, I would have like to been able to consult a map, to see an objective, to have a concrete idea why I'm going somewhere, and what I'll do when I get there. HL2 relies far too often on "well, I'm bored, I think I'll keep going forward."

In contrast, the flight from civil protection at the very start of the game was completely different. I knew where I was going (Elsewhere!) and what I was going to do when I got there. (Find a gun, or a health pack.)

As for an emotional disconnect with Gordon and the citizens, very true. There's probably technical limitations preventing extensive interactions with the environment, but the squad dynamics could have easily been improved.

QmunkE said...

Okay, a couple of things:

At what point in the games is it established that the resonance cascade occurs on your first day? Everyone knows who you are as you arrive ("Morning Dr Freeman! Looks like you're running late!") so that would imply you've met them before...

Secondly, I don't see how you can't be emotionally invested in Alyx. The scene in the pod chamber is pretty much unique in showing another character's pain - the Source engine's unique gift for facial expressions is demonstrated amazingly here. And she is vulnerable - she can die, although she is tough - for example when you're waiting for the lift to arrive at the end of Lowlife if you leave her alone she won't last long.

Finally Gordon should never, ever speak! That would completely destroy the sense of ownership of the character - if Gordon has his own voice, you've just been a puppeteer for three games - how can you not be more immersed in a character whose characteristics are determined by your own actions and not pre-programmed by the developers?

Admin_Reeg said...

This is a very interesting discussion, one that I couldn't possibly not post on! I think that it would be too risky to allow Gordon to speak. It could work, but it HAS worked as it is all this time, as "qmunke" said, it might take away from the sense of ownership of the character. However, I don't think that playing a character who is not you, does not look like you and does not talk like you is necessarily a bad thing, e.g. in "Deus Ex" you are JC Denton, i have never been more emotionally attached to a character in any other game, i still felt like i was playing as me. This could have been due to the choice of dialogue in most conversations, which would not be in keeping with Half-Life, but I think that Gordon should at least have a body that you can either see when you look down, or see in reflections, as this would secure him as something tangible in the world.

For me, Half-Life 2 was one step away from being absolutely perfect, and this is due to what Mat said about feeling emotionally unconnected with the world and all of it's inhabitants. Going back to Deus Ex, you start off working for Unatco, thinking that everyone working is on your side and they're all friends, so you have an immediate sense of bellonging to and fighting for something. Then there is a huge twist where you join with your brother to fight against Unatco because they're actually the bad guys, so you have a huge bond with your brother (The best part is that when most people think he dies, you can keep him alive through the entire game!).

Anyway, Half-Life simply needs to set the scene better, just like in the first one, it also makes the game more replayable, if you were actually emotional changed by a game, chances are you'll play it again, and again.

Great ideas Mat, keep it up!

Berjan said...

A very interesting read. I've enjoyed it thuroughly. Many things you said are things I agree with.

However, I don't remember it being your first day. Clearly people are familiar with you and I doubt you would just start right away, the first day.

And though you do not know how the city looked before the combine, there clearly is an evolution to the city in the game. In the beginning the city operates under 'normal' conditions, but through your involvement a war begins which changes the face of the city. This is carried on in Episode One with your destruction of the citadel and how that changes the city.
It is however true that in the beginning you could have done with more talk from the citizens. Overhearing their stories and tragedies. This would have added to the feel of the city and made the subsequent change more significant.

Furthermore I love the idea of having and using a body as gordon. Just seeing your own feet adds a certain feeling of reality. Let alone actually opening a door with your hands and what not.

Busky3 said...

Excellent analysis just all around. I don't agree with you on a bunch of stuff but really interesting read. I was so engaged I spent the last few hours commenting on what you said. This is long; I hope you enjoy reading it though.

First, I personally disagree with the claim of a lack of emotional connection in Half-Life 2 but I think you make valid points. I, for one, had very little to no emotional connection with the NPCs in the first game. The only moment I had any sort of feeling for them was in leaving behind the ones right after the attack. Not coincidentally this is most likely the most any NPC gets to talk in that game and, in that short monologue, he expresses regret over scientific hubris and a realization that he can't make it to the surface. Powerful stuff. The rest of the scientists/guards are doomed to complete caricatures, spouting off ridiculous lines that keep the experience light. How can I take the death of a character, who still clings to asinine thoughts like "I'd love to get that under a microscope" in the face of abject horror, seriously? The voice acting left much to be desired as well. Hearing over exaggerated cries of "Oh my god, we're doomed!" elicited more laughs than pangs of concern from me. I probably killed more scientists in the game than any of the Xen creatures or marines did simply because they weren't real to me.

I also doubt that your highest level of emotional experience in corralling a group of scientists/guards to get them to safety was unforeseen by Valve. It seems obvious that that was one of their main goals in including friendly NPCs in the game, to instill in players a feeling that humans worked at Black Mesa and create a sense of connection to them. The lack of a reward for getting them to safety seems to indicate that you feel the game must provide justification or a reward for you to do good deeds. I think any impetus to do something good should originate from yourself and, if so, it will provide a more positive gaming experience for you if you so choose. The highest form of heroism is one who asks for no benefit for the deed done. This goes into the much more philosophical debate of why we do charitable acts but that's something for a much larger discussion.

I think your point about Alyx being able to take care of herself is interesting but also limiting. Why does Alyx have to be a recipient of the player's assistance? The thing I most admired about Alyx was the very lack of her needing me to save her from anything. I've grown tired over the years of NPCs that only serve to make my character seem like a god and have an obsessive need to be saved by me. I don't think I'm in the minority on this one. It seems like tons of games have been criticized from Star Fox to Goldeneye to Daikatana to Resident Evil 4 to Max Payne 2 and so on for having “babysitting sidekick syndrome.” I enjoyed that HL2 had Alyx actually rescue me; it set me off balance and basically said "You are not invincible, you do not know everything. And this character (Alyx) is an equal, not a child." I don't think we need to be responsible for a character's safety to value her, any more than we need a loved one to pathologically need us to care for them.

My emotional highs in the saga have all been with Alyx: her expressing appreciation for me coming to rescue her and her father, her wishing me good luck as I went to destroy Breen, the moment when she became trapped under the Stalker pod. The last had her in no real danger but in fear that I rescued her from. I think what Valve has done much better than any other video game maker is creating a character I actually want to save rather than one I have to. That stalker pod scene comes after Alyx has been built up as a three dimensional rounded character and only because of that did I actually rush over to help her rather than just amble along. I see her in the new trailers in mortal peril and I actually care what's going to happen to her. Not because she has a pathetic need for me to rescue her but because she is simply an interesting character.

Saying Gordon is merely a pair of eyes is to remove the player from the equation entirely. Gordon is my beating heart as I get pumped up for a battle. Gordon is my hands on the input devices that allow him to fight. Gordon is my feelings about a totalitarian police state. Gordon really is nothing without me. And thus I have no need to know what Gordon is thinking because it should be exactly what I am thinking. Deviating from that only lowers immersion.

I approached the civilian NPCs in HL2 as a unified representative of the remaining human race. Their lack of separate personalities didn't bother me because I saw them as stand-ins for a much larger entity. I felt the weight of their deaths not in the loss of a unique individual (as I would if Alyx or Barney died) but in the sheer number of them. At the end of HL2, I felt like I had just gone through the Normandy beach landing scene from Saving Private Ryan. It was emotionally draining to see so many people get killed. Their dialogue and voice acting convinced me that the world had hardcore gone to shit and that they had lived through it. I think they were given just enough personality to convince me they lived in this world and not enough to distract me from their dispensable nature. If I had become too attached to one, I would start to lose the larger picture. I would have liked more visual differentiation though.

As for the world of Half-Life 2, I disagree wholeheartedly with your points about needing to see the world before the Combine came. I think the first game needed to establish the world we were going into because a secret research facility is so much more foreign to us than an approximation of a real city. I don't need to see the HL2 world before the invasion because I live in it now. I felt much more connected to the game world because it played off the real world by having slight variations on familiar objects. The Citadel is a perversion of skyscrapers. Nova Prospekt is an appropriated prison used for darker and more arcane goals now. The scene at the eerily vacant playground with the grotesque doll and the rusted swings makes the palpable absence of children just absolutely chilling. I got the same feeling from the school house scene in the film Children of Men which reminds me so much of Half-Life 2 at times. The scenario with the crazed Russian priest; I don't need to see Grigori before he went mad. The glimpse we get of him is more than enough to fill in the back story. All of these don’t require us to see the before because we’ve already seen it. If you haven’t seen Children of Men, do so because it does the exact same thing though far more powerfully and cogently.

I never thought about the Ant Lions' origin because it seemed like just a question to get in the way of enjoying the game. If the Ant Lions were more than just another enemy, if say they had some real story significance, then maybe I would have wondered more about them. As for the dried sea bed, I thought most would assume that this was an effect of Combine resource consuming. That it wasn't even mentioned kept the world more mysterious and I enjoyed that.

I'm not opposed to Gordon having a visible body so long as he does nothing that I am not in control of. As for speaking, that would completely ruin the cohesive experience for me. I agree that the in-jokes about Gordon not speaking have reached their apex but to suddenly have him start talking in the next one is going to be about as jarring as Spider-Man not talking at all in the third installment of his movie franchise. Thinking that adding speech would make balancing story-telling and action easier belies a lack of imagination. The constraints we place on an art form are what makes us rise to the challenge of creating something amazing. Valve made the conscious decision to have Gordon not do anything you do not have him do. So unless you have a large control over what he says; it's going to be aesthetically jarring to have him say anything. Why do we need Gordon to say something like "I hate the Combine?" Isn't enough that we, the players, hate the Combine?

Earlier someone mentioned in the comments criticism of the on-rails sections in the fight in the city and the ride through the Citadel. I concede the first point but the second was one of the best parts of the game for me. Forcing me to surrender all control combined with the enormity and alien nature of the Citadel's interiors made me feel small, insignificant, and frightened, perfectly setting up the end battle.

j said...

Gordon did not show up to work for his first time in HL1. In OP4, there is a picture in the administrations' offices of Gordon Freeman and it says Employee of the Month. He had to be working before that. It doesn't say how much time past between the letter in the manual and the start of HL1. Also, Barney Calhoun had to have known Gordon for a while because in HL1 and in Blue Shift, Calhoun and Freeman only see each other; they never talk.

Starstriker1 said...

I think you've got some really interesting ideas here, though I don't agree with all your criticisms.

I do think that the NPCs of HL2 could have been developed more. At one point, I'd had a specific group of rebels following me for quite some time, one of them more than once. I'd begun to like them, but I knew that eventually they'd be going down... the big strider scene was coming up. Sure enough, the NPC I'd been looking after for so long was looked at sideways by a Strider and blasted into the dirt.

I'm not sure if that was a good effect or a bad one... I was certainly dismayed to see this person go down, but I felt helpless to protect her or any of the other members of the squad. They'd all eventually take enough hits and die. What I am certain of is that connection could really have been developed more. For instance: if that person who had been following me for so long had, instead of just falling to the ground with an empty look in her eyes, got wounded and gave the whole "Leave me behind, I'll only slow you down!" thing, that would have been a far more satisfying ending.

Same thing with any circumstance where rebels you were leading couldn't follow where you were going... it would have been nice to get something like "Take care!" or "Thanks for the help, Gordon!"

I'll agree that Gordan needs to be able to communicate and have more of a presence, but I agree with Valve's philosophy of not having him do anything the player doesn't want him to do. The player needs more options for communication... having NPCs clue in on what he's looking at is an excellent start, but aside from that, Gordon can only "use" NPCs and order squadmates around... and that isn't really enough.

What if, for instance, the player could use mouse movements to communicate... basically, the video game equivalent of body language. Looking at a weapon, and then looking at an NPC, and then having them do something context appropriate (like picking up the weapon, or, if I need the ammo and they don't want it, tossing it to me) would be awesome, as well as expanding on the manipulation of the environment. We can already grab objects with "use"... why not have it work on people as well? Being able to, for instance, grab an NPC and shove him out of the way, or force him into a crouch and have him recognize I'm trying to force him to take cover... that would be excellent.

Having the NPCs dislike you for being pushy would be just icing on the cake.

Nightcabbage said...

WARNING: LONG. If you read anything, skip to the bottom on the subject of Gordon talking.

Wow, this is just one of those great collections of thoughts that will make you remember why you love the game so much. I love to see other people in this much contemplation over the story and game that I too feel a personal relationship with… at times I feel like I own the story and memories. Great job Mat. I do have a few thoughts of my own, and a few disagreements.

First off, let me just say that through most of the beginning of your blog I would see each point, take it with a grain of salt, and then end up agreeing with most of it by the time you had finished explaining. The point about the fact that episodic content might never “blow us away” like the original titles of HL and HL2 did was superb, and I hope valve works more toward this goal if they continue with the trend. I liked your last statement on it: that you believed valve will successfully reach EP3 before players tire from the absence of anything substantially new. I see this happening as well… but after EP3, I think it will be time for the big guns again.

While I understand some of your points on the “cohesive whole” of the storyline, when all is said and done I actually think that the story of HL2 was more of a cohesive whole, and this is due to the complexities that wrap up so well together (like a Seinfeld episode). Let’s face it… HL was BROAD. Sure everything fit together fine, but that was because the storyline didn’t have anything too complicated in it. When you have a lot of little complexities that fit together well in the end, that makes the world and story more concrete. It isn’t something that can be explained in about 5 different ways by the speculations of fan boiz because it’s a broad idea that is left open ended; it’s something that can be explained by the story valve gives us! In fact, valve had to go back and tie up some loose ends to the HL storyline in HL2. There could have been many different ways to do this because they left HL so open ended… they just happened to pick the best ways to take the storyline in the direction they wanted to go in.

About character relationship: for every point you make about the lack of character relationship in HL2 that make it fall backward, I can point out five more that push it forward ahead of HL1… which is why I don’t understand why you have more of a character relationship with the pawns in HL than you did with the emotional characters in HL2. busky3 made the point perfectly clear here: “I don't think we need to be responsible for a character's safety to value her…” which was really your only argument for your increased response to the characters in HL. One of the major leaps valve has made with the HL2 series is that they FINALLY have NPCs that do more than just get in the way or need to be saved. These people kick almost as much arse as you do, and I am so happy to have them around. And it would make perfect SENSE too, since from the beginning of HL2 they have had more experience with the combine and environment than you do. However, your scenario with the 2nd love interest for Alyx would still be an excellent idea (brilliant actually), and only further the emotional bond.

HOWEVER, I think that what you’ve pointed out between Alyx and Gordon is a limitation that will SOON arise. So far I don’t think the “limitations” of Gordon’s interactions in the virtual world has hurt the emotional bond with the other characters… but the PROLONGED absence soon might. There’s only so much Alyx can do or say to you and going beyond that will seem odd without the added interaction you provide back. Alyx might end up seeming like a tramp! This is probably why the “Alyx/Gordon love interest” will always be only a hint and the game will never establish an actual love story between you and another character. But let me ask you… do we really WANT that in our FPS? There would have to be a LOT more involved for me to actually feel what you’re describing for Alyx, a virtual character. It’s easy for me to relate to our current relationship and the potential, but I never see myself “falling in love” with a character from a videogame. And let’s face it, I AM Gordon Freeman. So while I agree that there might be a point in the future that will hinder this emotional development, I don’t think your suggestions would help it actually come to fruition anyway and probably harm some other elements (discussed in a bit, particularly talking). More than likely, the relationship will end up in another direction or won’t develop further in that particular way.

Now your scenario of the 4 citizens: I agree that I would have liked to see a bit more development of some of these characters. However, hasn’t that already happened? It’s not like the other main characters in the storyline aren’t “citizens of earth”, going through the same struggles the other “citizen” NPCs have gone through. It would have been nice, however, to have some half-way, smaller development of these characters during level durations when you know one or two will be with you for a while. Something to set some of them apart from the rest. You can’t really do the scenario you’re asking for though. Say valve did this… took the time to develop 4 standout characters with the voice talent and story integration to actually make them believable. First off, they BETTER get their due time in for the majority of players, otherwise all that work was for naught. Secondly, what happens to the storyline after the episode or a few levels are up? You have two sets of players: those who have kept them alive and those who haven’t. What happens to the storyline for the two sets of players? It can’t just split off. And there are PLENTY of places where Gordon is or needs to be alone and you can’t just have them tag along and only “add” to the experience where needed… they would actually have to fit more deeply into the storyline to continue. So really there could only be the half-way development I talked about above. I have no problem with the ability to save a more developed citizen NPC player through a shorter scenario and have some sort of reward, even if just a thank you, at the end of the run. Eventually though, we have to leave them, and we can’t see them later in the story… in case “John Smith” didn’t save them and sees their ghost later.

On the disunity of ideas: I think “disunity” is a bad term. I think the unity of the ideas CAN fit together. A lack of EXPLANATION of one idea, and not currently knowing where it all fits exactly, doesn’t mean the ideas are not connected. We may just have to wait a bit before we see it all. The HL2 story isn’t over… the entire HL series storyline isn’t over. There’s stuff from HL left unexplained as well. Frankly, if the storyline didn’t have that partially open ended, drive us insane wanting to know endings… we wouldn’t love it as much. I absolutely LOVE the “mystery” of the HL series. Also… again I loved busky3’s point when he said ” I don't need to see the HL2 world before the invasion because I live in it now.” Great point.

Frankly, the section on HL3 just lost me. I didn’t like a lot of the ideas (like the 2nd monitor one). Even the point about you looking into a mirror, and here is why: yeah, we know what Gordon Freeman looks like from illustrations or playing the HL expansion packs as other characters. However, we kind of forget when we are playing the game don’t we? It creates this “meld”, where even though I know I’m me in this world, and I know Gordon is Gordon in that world… when I play Gordon I AM Gordon. It is during this point in my life, when I play the game, that this “meld” happens. As you might have noticed, ever since we started PLAYING as Gordon, we’ve never seen Gordon. The whole “image” thing is lost when playing, and seeing a face that isn’t actually yours, even if it is a face we already know as Gordon, will definitely remind me that Gordon isn’t me. He’s a 3D character… he’s the guy that I see illustrated on the boxes. I like to know what Gordon looks like, but when I’m Gordon, I don’t want to see it. It doesn’t matter. Heck, if I was a little less constrained by society, I’d never look in a mirror in real life. Who cares right? :)

Seeing Gordon’s body: I have no strong standpoint on this, other than the fact that I don’t believe it will add to the realism as much as just be another gimmick. Plenty of games have done it: Halo series, Dark Messiah… it never really made it feel more like me. There are plenty of much better ways to do that.

MOST IMPORTANT DISAGREEMENT: GORDON CAN NEVER TALK! This is an absolutely horrible idea. Sure it makes some limitations to the emotional development between Alyx and Gordon, but check out my other points above on that. The benefit of being able to develop that relationship further (and it’s my belief it would only be a bit further anyway), would not outweigh the destruction of hearing myself speak something I didn’t want to speak in a voice that isn’t mine! I would most certainly think “no no no, that’s not what I would say” or “what the heck, I don’t sound like that”. Even if we don’t expect Gordon to sound like our voice in real life, everyone’s imagination of what Gordon’s voice would sound like has already been set I think. It could only end in the thought of “NO, THIS IS NOT GORDON’S VOICE!” The CLOSEST I could see coming to (to help some character interaction in the game) would be having voice recognition through a microphone for basic commands to squad mates. “Go over there” (cursor sensitive) or “look behind you”. The technology is there and it could be implemented. It would also make you feel like while Gordon is a silent kinda guy, at least he didn’t have his tongue cut out. Even speaking a simple “yes” or “no” in cut scene dialogue might be possible. But then again, we’re messing with the script aren’t we. This isn’t an RPG, it’s a finely tuned FPS storyline. Valve does a great job of making us feel like we WANTED to see something or we figured out how to do something on our own, but valve is actually directing us the entire way. It makes us feel cool, but that’s what valve wanted. Directing us without letting us know we’re being directed. It’s why everything always turns out perfectly and you feel like you did it all by yourself. NO other game dev does this like valve.

Despite what it may seem like, I actually loved a lot of your points. Thanks so much for everything Mat!

Westenra said...

So... You're a professional game designer?


Then why should I care?

Nothing funnier than some douche talking to himself about video games for 20 pages straight. ROFL dude. Thanks. I haven't belly-laughed in a while.

Busky3 said...

And of course the only people who should be able to have credible criticism on films are film makers and the public shouldn't be able to express opinions about politics because they're not politicians. And the next time you don't like the food at a restaurant, be sure to remember that you're no chef and it's probably really great. Seriously, his comments were backed up by well informed logical thought and cogent examples and they were motivated out of passion and a drive towards improvement. Just because they came from a non-expert doesn't make anything he said less valid. And obviously, he wasn't talking to himself because people have answered his well formed critique with an equally high level of further discussion.

Kingpin said...

It wasn't Gordon's first day on the job, he was employee of the month =\

Phillip said...


Alls I want to say is, I think alot of your views are very good, my personal opinion differs in just a few areas; one being that Gordan speaking would alienate many players from their previous experiences because naturally everyone has imagined their own Gordan.

Like everyone who has ever read a book seeing the movie version... You can't please all the people all the time, and invariably some people will be pretty upset to find that Gordon sounds like "a nerd" or a "jock" or something they didn't want.

There were more points but I've forgotten them now... Damn my insufficent brain! But I will say you'd be surprised by some of the positions the human body meets when brain functions cease, I can't really fault the rag doll pysics for the most part because like I say, the human body does amazing things when it's dead. The game ain't quite right, but removing set animations for death and allowing things to take a calculatedly natural look I say is the way to go.

Brain dies, body drops. Not flies backwards, etc. If it looks silly, cool, better him than you.

Adam said...

I believe it was Gordon's first day with Anomalous Materials, actually - I think he got transferred.

A quick google turns up:

Black Mesa really was Gordon Freeman's first day on the job. ...

Players assume the role of Gordon Freeman, an entry-level research assistant arriving for his first day of work in the Anomalous Materials laboratory

The game opens with a great intro that inserts the player into the role of Gordon Freeman on his first day of work at the Black Mesa research facility. ...

Half-Life puts you in the shoes of Gordon Freeman, a young physicist who was recently ... It's your first day at work,

Etc. I also recall Barney saying 'Late on your first day, huh?' when you got off the train.

Raphael said...

Great article, and I agree with most of your criticism and ideas. I do think that Valve has forced themselves into a corner with Gordon's lack of voice, although they make it work, and having established that as one of the tropes of the HL games, it would be wrong to break it. However, I suspect there are many days the Valve guys wish they hadn't locked themselves down that way, because you are right in that it's extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) to create very compelling relationships (ones that resonate with the player) between NPCs and Gordon because he can't interact in any meaningful ways. This will be a glass ceiling for HL3, unfortunately.

Of course, HL2 still remains the benchmark in presenting believable character interaction, thanks primarily to Alyx and how interesting she is as a character. I would argue that Alyx is really the hero of HL now, and you are simply there to see what she does. :)

PS I am a professional game developer, which doesn't mean I have all the answers, but hopefully adds some credibility to my thoughts.

PePa said...

Thank you all for an excellent reading. I hope Valve reads this. All posts.

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