I finished Half-Life 2 today for the first time (yes, I really did wait until the Orange Box until I bought and played Half-Life 2 — I’m a very patient man) and I have to say that was easily one of the top five games I’ve ever played.
I have a friend that didn’t like Half-Life 2 as much as the later Episodes 1 and 2 (which I have not started yet), and, if I remember his opinion correctly, it was because there was “no story”. I am assuming what he meant by that was that he didn’t feel there was enough explanation as to what was going on. I can see his point; there is no narration, and little dialog directly explains key elements. But I think the reason people like HL2 so much is because of what is not explicitly said — what you get between the lines.
There are lots of little things you can pick up if you listen to all of the dialog (4-speaker audio helps, so you can separate distant/soft dialog from environmental sound effects) and keep your eyes peeled, and while they may not offer direct answers, they give you something much more powerful: Empathy. Gordon Freeman is not Duke Nukem; he’s a scientist who has been thrust into a situation where he’s just as disoriented as everyone else. To the resistance, he’s almost mythical, able to survive and accomplish what no other person has done. Being confronted with that while at the same time being partially in the dark really gives you a sense of what he must be going through. He’s just as confused as everyone else, and only quick wits and the luck of having a hazard suit is what keeps him a hair away from death.
For example (spoiler alert), there’s one place you can look at before the bridge area where there is a series of oil tanks behind a chain link fence. There is a part of the fence that is damaged that you can climb over. There are no supplies, ammunition, or new weapons in this area; there is no reason to go to the trouble of entering it. But if you do, what you find is a person slumped in the corner, dead of a self-inflicted shot to the head, revolver still near his hand. Marked on the wall next to him are three side-view anatomy illustrations of the heads of a monkey, a human, and a human with a Combine soldier mask on. It is after a few seconds of looking at these that it dawns on you that the soldier is not merely wearing a mask, but that the mask is physically part of his anatomy, along with other subtle modifications. That completely changes the tone of the game: You are not only made aware of something insidious and quite disturbing, but worse, the people you meet later in the game don’t know this, and are assuming that the soldiers are simply “police”, or otherwise people on the wrong side of the conflict. They’re fighting what they think is some sort of a civil war, when you secretly know the truth. It’s those kinds of moments, extremely powerful moments through very subtle delivery, that immerse you in Gordon’s situation.
I became more emotionally involved in Half-Life 2 than I have any other game. I was (sometimes simultaneously) surprised, shocked, disgusted, anxious, angry, determined, vengeful, and awestruck. And, I’m not ashamed to admit, I got so worked up sometimes that two nights last week I had to go to bed early and sleep for 12 hours, having made myself quite sick through sheer concentration and stress while playing.
I’ve been a fan of Roger Ebert since the early 1980s, but he is truly mistaken when he has declared, several times, that video games are not art. I think just two hours with Half-Life 2, the same time he spends watching a movie, would change his mind.