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Errant Signal: Half-Life

By Shamus
on Tuesday Jan 3, 2012
Filed under:
Video Games


If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, it’s probably obvious that I enjoy analyzing and discussing games at least as much as I enjoy playing them. I sing the praises of games I like as a way of spreading the joy, and I criticize games that annoy me as a kind of catharsis. I think games journalism is very much lacking in this sort of careful introspection, and I’m always glad to see someone new join the ranks.

Here is a guy who is doing this in a big way and deserves a lot more attention than what he’s getting. His analysis of Grand Theft Auto IV is the most incisive I’ve seen. You may remember I did a side-by-side review of GTA IV and Saints Row 2. I pointed out these problems, but Campster’s review gets into why they’re problems and how they are at such odds with the core gameplay. As of this writing, Campster’s GTA review has less than 2,000 views, and that’s a shame. Please do your best to remedy this.

I first discovered Campster when a reader forwarded me a link to his review of Half-Life (the series) and his position that the game is “overrated”. As an admitted Half-Life 2 fan, I think some people are hoping I’ll jump in here and defend Valve’s flagship title. My defense is probably going to be much milder than most people might imagine, but I’m willing to offer it.

Here is Campster’s take on Half-Life. My response follows.

Link (YouTube)

Overall, I’m not sure how to approach his thesis. It depends on what he means by “overrated”. If he’s saying that Half-Life is praised as flawless when it shouldn’t be, then I agree. The game is not perfect and I can see those flaws despite my fandom. There’s lots of room for criticism here.

If he’s suggesting that Half-Life is rated above other, better games in the same genre, then we have grounds for a debate. It’s not perfect, but Half-Life 2 stands above every first-person shooter that’s come out in the seven years since its initial release. (Excepting the episodes. I actually think the original Half-Life has aged poorly and suffers from a lot of pacing issues by today’s standards. I recently played through it and found it to be a bit of a slog. Most of my praise is aimed at the sequel. His own points are spread across the entire franchise, so let’s not get too picky about the particulars.)

Here are my responses to his major points:

Gordon Freeman is a Mary Sue

A Mary Sue is an author insert character, so that she can live out her fantasies through her protagonist avatar. It seems like that should be different than a character created specifically so that the reader (or in this case, player) can live out their fantasy. The writer didn’t create Gordon for himself, but for the player.

In any case, I think this is an unavoidable by-product of having a silent protagonist. Gordon is an empty vessel for us to inhabit, and by design he doesn’t really have a personality. No personality means no character flaws. Giving him flaws would require giving him dialog. If he’s going to have dialog then we probably need to move the camera to third person for the cutscenes so that we can see him emote. And if he’s going to emote then he needs to have a personality and a clear set of motivations and goals. Now we’re talking about making a very different sort of game.

Yes, the other characters do eventually elevate Gordon to some sort of messiah, and the reasons for their praise and adoration always seem to come from off-stage. This is one of those quirks of the series. I thought it was pretty understandable in Half-Life, and inexplicable in Half-Life 2. In either case, Campster’s point stands that the game spends a lot of time clumsily stroking the player’s ego.

Alyx Vance is a masturbatory aid for the player

I never got this vibe from Alyx. I never got the sense that she was flirting with me. (At least, not in Half-Life 2. In the Episodes? Maybe.) She didn’t feel engineered for wish fulfillment to me. I’ve always seen her as a natural and practical character who fit perfectly into the gameworld. What would the writer have needed to change to make her less so? Should she be stupid? Ugly? Annoying? A coward? Selfish? I don’t think Alyx is any less valid a character than most intelligent, attractive, sympathetic, and brave heroes in fiction. Yes, she’s not as fleshed out in her motivations as Breen, but he’s the villain and she’s a supporting character.

This reminds me of the criticism of Avatar, where the Na’vi were so blatantly engineered to be sympathetic characters that it felt cheap and manipulative. Some people in the audience detect this manipulation and reject it, and so the whole world falls apart for them. As with allegory and propaganda, you need a gentle touch or you’ll incite backlash rather than empathy. I think Alyx trips that alarm with some people, which is where the distaste comes from.

Ironically, I think this comes from the very thing that Campster mentioned: The nearly universal awfulness of other female support characters in games. Our standards have been dragged so low that when someone reasonable is introduced it feels like the developers are cheating. If we had more decent female characters, Alyx wouldn’t stand out so much.

“The Content Muncher”

This is where I really disagree with Campster. I don’t see the combat as “stupid, time-wasting bullshit”. It’s rewarding all by itself. Half-Life 2 constantly feeds us information about the world without forcing us to sit still for exposition. It’s the gold standard for environmental storytelling, and I can’t see what Campster thinks the game should be doing. His point about “Do, don’t show” is a brilliant one, but since Half-Life 2 is better than almost all other shooters when it comes to this, I don’t see how this could be improved without changing genres.

Even when you’re in the “stupid, time-wasting bullshit” gameplay, the environment around you is still telling you a story. The section of Half-Life 2 where you fight through the underground railroad tells us volumes about how the resistance works, how the overwatch operates, and shows us how the Combine have been treating the planet since the previous game. No other shooter has even come close to this level of environmental storytelling. Okay, I’m sure it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s particularly fair to hold the game to a standard that doesn’t even exist yet.

You don’t want a game of all cutscenes, and non-stop combat will become tiresome after a while. Combat. Puzzles. Cutscenes. Exploration. The game regularly shifts between these states to keep things fresh. This isn’t a mark against the game. This is something other games really need to get right.

Let’s Completely Change what the player is doing every two hours!

I’ve always seen this changing gameplay as a feature, not a bug. A feature which is lacking in just about every other shooter out there. Would the game be better with less variety? I liked Crysis 2, but by a third of the way through the game I’d basically had my fill of its gameplay. It was just more humanoid foes to shoot with the same (or similar) guns. More than anything, that game would really have benefited from some physics puzzles, a “gravity gun” (but please, not really a gravity gun) section, some secret stashes, and a [good] vehicle section. It would have been very welcome to encounter some small foes (like Half-Life’s manhacks) some big foes (like Half-Life’s hunters) some swarms of dumb cannon fodder (like Half-Life’s various flavors of zombies) some huge foes (like Half-Life’s striders and gunships) or something else to break up the monotony of shooting various flavors of “dudes” with guns. (Some of the dudes were aliens, but they were still man-sized bipeds with firearms.)

Half-Life 2 is a theme park ride.

He’s 100% right about this one. You usually don’t cause the events, you witness them. Even when you do technically cause them, it’s not by choice. I didn’t actually know what would happen when I destroyed that bit of combine machinery. I didn’t do it because I understood what was going on, I did it because it was obviously the next thing to blow up in this Combine-shooting funhouse. I didn’t open the door because I know where I’m going, I opened the door because it’s the only way I can go, and if I shoot all the dudes then I get to the next level where I’ll find more doors and dudes.

The player is a child with a gun: You don’t know what’s going on, you don’t understand what the adults are doing, but darned if you aren’t going to make a big mess and a lot of noise while your betters point you towards your next playground.

We haven’t gotten any closure on anything yet.

This is another valid point, and unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to change in the next game. The ending of the original Half-Life set the tone: It’s all a mystery by mysterious aliens and their mystery-plan! I doubt we’ll get any inkling of who the G-man is or how all of these elements fit together. I predict that the next game will end much like the original did: With the G-Man walking out, saying some cryptic stuff, and then we fade out. Earth will be saved, but we won’t know what the aliens wanted from us, what the G-Man wanted, how the Vorts fit into this conflict, or why the G-Man is employing such indirect means of accomplishing things.

I suppose this is the cheap, easy way of avoiding plot holes: Avoid explaining anything. No information means no contradictions.

Wrapping up…

My take on Half-Life is that it’s the pinnacle of a genre that could be a lot better. Yes, more player agency would be very welcome, and a stronger story could lead to a bigger payoff. It’s by no means a perfect game, and I get that there is a great deal of hype backlash surrounding the title. How much praise it deserves is based on how we’re judging it. If we’re looking at it in an abstract way, analyzing what it is and how it could be even better, then there’s plenty of room for discussion. But if we’re comparing it to its contemporaries then it deserves all the praise it gets and more. What faults it has are worse in other titles. Most of the criticisms of the title boil down to a criticism of the genre itself.

In fact, it seems like the shooter market is moving away from the very things that made Half-Life so beloved: Gunplay has become ceaseless and monotonous. Set design has been reduced to “places blown up and caked with dirt and concrete dust”. Storytelling is now quarantined into fixed-view cutscenes that deliver exposition in bulk doses. Characters fall in the spectrum between “macho” and “very, very macho”.

Other games can’t even manage to attain Half-Life’s thin illusion of agency, sticking us in linear corridors and feeding us wave after wave of scripted guys to mow down, after which we follow the GIANT BLINKING ARROW to the next encounter. In Spoiler Warning we recently discussed how even our combat agency has been removed, and we’re often compelled to beat an encounter in a particular way. (Like in games where you’re forced to use the turret. Or in Homefront, where the game wouldn’t shut up about grenades until I’d thrown enough to make it happy.)

I’d go so far to say that a lot of my praise for Half-Life 2 is less a celebration of the title and more a celebration of the core design philosophy and principles that I wish other developers would embrace.

Is Half-Life 2 overrated? I don’t want to name names or anything, but see a lot of other titles in the same genre that rate higher, sell better, and show far less artistry in their construction. Is Half-Life 2 more linear than Fallout 3? You bet. Is it shallower than Deus Ex? Without a doubt. But that kind of criticism strikes me as disparaging a Porche because it’s not a helicopter. Yes, I’d love to see a few more of those kind of games on the market, but if we’re talking about shooters then I think Half-Life 2 has always stood above its contemporaries.

Comments (352)

  1. Infinitron says:

    Heh. I discovered Errant Signal a week or so ago when I was randomly following links on reddit. I then posted a link to his Half-Life review on a certain prestigious forum. I wonder if your reader found him that way.

    I file this guy in the same category as the Extra Credits crew, only he talks about specific games in-depth instead of general topics.

  2. Joshua says:

    Personally, one of my favorite things about the series was its variety and willingness to change things up. Listening to the developer commentaries, I can really appreciate how they’ve playtested the games extensively and therefore just seem to have an instinctive knack for when to change things up to avoid fatigue or boredom.

    That was my main criticism with Portal 2. Although the puzzles were fun and the storyline was awesome, I’d get worn out after playing for an hour or two from doing the same kind of thing and wanted a bit of a change up.

    • Grampy_Bone says:

      The problem with Half-Life 2’s “variety levels” is that they are so spastic and inconsistent. Typically a game will (or should) focus on a core set of intrinsic gameplay mechanics and themes that they expand on an add complexity to throughout the game. When the developers try to “change things up” it typically is an attempt to obfuscate the shallow or weak nature of the game’s core gameplay. Shamus has a good example with Crysis 2; the game is about shooting aliens in a city and he got sick of shooting aliens in a city. Fair enough, but would the game really be improved by adding a forced stealth level, a forced escort level, a forced lame vehicle level, a forced zombie level, a level where they take all your guns away and make you use one weapon the whole time, etc? Shamus says the developers could have shaken things up with more gameplay variety, but that’s really a complaint that the core shooting mechanics are boring and weak.

      For another example of a game which both maintains excellent gameplay consistency and also manages to totally bork it at the same time, consider Deus Ex Human Revolution. From start to finish that game is a brilliant open-level stealth-infiltration game, with the notable exception of the Gears of War-style boss fights. The biggest complaint anybody has about the game is the fact that the boss battles completely ignore and are totally inconsistent with the rest of the gameplay. Instead of trying to “change things up” they developers should have concentrated on what the game does best and maintained consistent gameplay mechanics.

      So in the case of Half-Life 2, what are the consistent gameplay mechanics? There are none! Other than “vague sci-fi shooter” Half-Life 2 is as shallow as you can get. Every level completely reinvents the game and abandons everything that came before. There is no consistency and there is no building of complexity. It really is just one random sequence of time-wasting crap after another.

      • Nick says:

        Oh look, another person who doesn’t know that Eidos outsourced the boss fights in the game.

        I mean, not that it excuses the dissonance between them and the rest of the game. But still, “what the developers were thinking” was that they weren’t the same people making the rest of the game.

        • Grampy_Bone says:

          Um, what? Yes I was aware the boss fights were outsourced. That doesn’t excuse a thing. They are in the game, correct? I mean, its all one game, so I’m allowed to criticize all of it aren’t I? I don’t care if Bob made the good levels and Alice made the crappy levels.

          That was kind of my *entire point.* You should make sure your whole game is thematically and mechanically consistent from beginning to end. This means keeping the project in line and not allowing people to just add random crap in wherever they please. That’s why Half-Life 2 sucks; it wasn’t made according to a core concept or vision, its just a collection of mods and minigames that run in sequence.

          • While I understand that a game should stand on its own and be held accountable for its actions, your argument infers a developer intention that I don’t think is correct.

            In my opinion, the boss battles played the way they did because the developers simply didn’t have the time necessary to properly integrate them before release. Certain pieces of evidence bear that out:

            – As was mentioned, they were outsourced.

            – The DLC was developed in-house, featured a ‘boss’, but didn’t feature this design.

            Not that the core point isn’t valid, but it shouldn’t be based on assumptions regarding the intent of the makers. Judge the game, not the developers.

            • Grampy_Bone says:

              Well, I still don’t really buy that, because even if they farmed the boss segments out, that doesn’t mean they would be totally outside the main developer’s control or input. Either the developers wanted to “mix things up” with some alternate gameplay sequences, or they didn’t care enough to actually check to see if the outsourced work was consistent with their game.

              In any case, my whole point was that adding “gameplay variety” for the sake of variety is usually a bad thing to be avoided, except apparently when Valve does it. The same way a short game is bad, unless it was made by Valve. Maybe people enjoyed the boat ride or the Sim-Antlion sections in HL2, but to every other developer that means they need to take time away from polishing up their core mechanics to add a half-baked vehicle segment, out-of-context puzzle, or poorly implemented stealth or escort mission.

              • Zukhramm says:

                Wait what? Short games and variation are considered bad when done by someone other than Valve? All I seem to hear when talking about games is complaints about repetitive and pointlessly padded games.

              • “Either the developers wanted to “mix things up” with some alternate gameplay sequences, or they didn't care enough to actually check to see if the outsourced work was consistent with their game.”

                This is flat out wrong. It MAY be those reasons or it MAY NOT. Life is not binary AT ALL. There are multitudes of reasons that could have facilitated the way the game was made, but you don’t have the authority to speak to ANY of them, let alone declare that it’s only one of two possible answers. You don’t even provide any evidence to justify it. When I disagreed with you, I at least backed it up with facts.

                You don’t even factor in the most likely and genuine real world factors of time and money, factors they would have significantly less control over.

                • Varil says:

                  News flash : No, we don’t factor in things like time, money, or other factors. Otherwise Duke Nukem Forever would be a 5 star game with a 100 metacritic review.

                  What people care about is how the game plays. Doesn’t matter if you had to program it using a magnetic needle and a steady hand, if the mechanics failed it’s a bad game.

                  Obvious, DE:HR isn’t a bad game, but no matter their reasons the boss battles cost the game points on the sliding scale of awesome.

                • Roll-a-Die says:

                  Basically what happened was when the cut out the upper china level, they also cut the side storylines for the boss characters. But kept the bosses around because it wouldn’t be easy to extricate them from the code. More than that, ENTIRE chunks of content were leading up to them. Levels, NPC references, etc.

                  What ended up happening is that they ended up making the bosses seem like they come straight outta the left field, and as tack ons to the game itself. The novel they made elaborates on exactly who theses people are. Essentially MJ12/Illuminati’s super superior cyborg terrorist/assassination squad. As well as their methods and motivations, it’s a mediocre and rushed read, but much like their game, pretty decent regardless.

                  As it is, Deus Ex HR, is a decent, game that tried to do too much with too little time. It’s got a strong core gameplay, but lost track of the message that original Deus Ex had about Singularities, Transhumanism, and Governmental System Theories. It tries to be a lot, and fails at some, and genuinely succeeds at others. It’s as close as we’re going to get in a true successor to Deus Ex. Which was as close to a perfect blend of that era’s stealth, RPG and FPS games that there could be. Just wish it would have spent more time on philosophy and genuine character building as the original did.

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                What are you talking about?Or more precisely,what is everyone talking about with hl2 building the mechanics from the start every few levels?You are introduced with simple puzzles first,then some basic weapons,then with a basic vehicle.From there on,you get these three only tougher and tougher every time.Then you get introduced to the gravity gun,and this one builds along as well,with more and more advanced uses all the time.Theres plenty of stuff to build on with these four elements:Puzzles with gravity gun,puzzles without it,puzzles with vehicles,shooting with vehicles,combat with the gravity gun,etc.The only thing that gets introduced and quickly forgotten is the antlions and their lure,which is a shame.

                There is,however,one other thing that gets introduced almost constantly until the end of the game:Enemies.And this is something that no matter who does it,is almost always praised.Introduce new enemy type,and people will like it.Have the same 3 enemies from start to finish,and people will hate it.Thats not something unique to valve.

                Its not variety for the sake of variety alone,its variety for the sake of interesting and varied gameplay and world.If you only had guns,1 metrocop and 1 headcrab,the game would be boring as hell.Just like modern warfare.

                And who says that short games are bad?There is a plethora of(mostly indy)titles out there that can be finished in a day,and people are praising them.

              • EmmEnnEff says:

                Some of my close friends are game developers – some of them working for studios that hop from contract to contract. And, from all I gather, outsourcing is very much a crapshoot. If they had the schedule to make sure all parts of the games right… They probably wouldn’t have outsourced in the first place.

                Hell, given what typical studios go through, it’s a wonder games ever get finished.

        • Maldeus says:

          I like Errant Signal’s theory better.

      • Destrustor says:

        Nothing, ever, could possibly be improved by adding a forced escort mission. EVER

        • Nidokoenig says:

          Not even if it was underwater and timed?

        • Jakale says:

          I understand the sentiment, though I’m not entirely sure that it’s true. I’ll grant that the average escort missions of today are annoying, but that’s largely because suddenly most of your success isn’t tied to how well you play as it is to how your new Primary moves, how much damage they’re allowed to take, and how stupid, or smart, the AI is.
          Theoretically, it’s a great way to up the tension by introducing someone who can’t soak up bullets and blows like a human shaped sandbag and forcing you to prove your skills by keeping them alive. When you fail because they aren’t smart enough to take basic precautions and whatnot they become annoyances, especially when you have to do the same mission through no lack of skill on your part over and over just like with the worst quicktime events.

          Consider the game Ico. The whole thing is roughly one giant escort quest, but it wasn’t a bad game, though the AI there could also have been better. If you want to stretch the definition a bit, every game with a party is a giant escort mission. The difference for those usually being the usefulness and allowed expendability of the characters who aren’t the main PC turns potentially aggravating groups of NPCs that you have to cart around the whole game into valued team members(putting aside other story related qualities that make some aggravating).

          So yeah, I think escort missions could add something, but they need to be done well, and presumably have a real purpose in the story, because there are tons of pitfalls that can, and do, ruin it.

      • Blanko2 says:

        I agree. The shooting sections in half life 2 are also really annoying half the time since the main weapon (the smg) is a shit-pile that fires all over the place and the best gun for regular combat (the ARG or whatever) has about three bullets per clip and only three clips. Just sort of adds to that, really, they spent all the time working out the different mechanics and didnt really work on how well the shooting bits worked.

        Shooting things isnt even too satisfying in HL2

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          Except smg is the main weapon only if you are new to the genre.If you are not,youll use pistols and shotgun far more often.And,if you are replaying the game,youll use gravity gun lots of times as well.

          • Blanko2 says:

            the pistol is a crap-pile, the revolver has no ammo for it and the shotgun is also not fun to use. did i miss anything?
            not exactly new to the genre, no.
            HL2 offers a lot of ammo for the smg and the smg is the only weapon that does a reasonable amount of damage at a distance and has ammo readily available. the Xbow is better at long range, but is slow and has little ammo, the revolver is the best gun in the game but is also slow reload and has a small ammo stockpile and little ammo for it, the pistol is a pop-gun during the latter half of the game and lacks any impact, including its terrible little staple-gun shot noise and the shotgun, while a good weapon, has low range, also not a massive amount of ammo and is only really good for zombies.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              Funny,but Ive used the revolver about third of the time,despite it having low ammo.But if you are going to miss with every second shot,then I guess you wont be using it.And while the shotgun is most effective at close range,it is quite effective at medium range as well,and there arent that many long range fights,so I used that one a lot too.And the only zombies you would use the shotgun against are the fast ones,that arent really that common.The rest can dispatched without a single wasted bullet.

              Is ammo being scarce a problem?Yes.Does that mean that all the weapons except the smg are ineffective?No.

              “and the shotgun is also not fun to use”

              That has nothing to do with its effectiveness,and is only personal opinion.Some(Josh)like it a lot.

              • Felblood says:

                I always found the shotgun the most fun weapon to use, myself.

                But then, I never really used the smg for anything other than the 40mms or fighting manhacks, and I hardly ever felt a squeeze on ammo, even though that was essentially one of my first FPS’. Even the basic pistol is a better weapon

                The trick is to use ALL of the “good” weapons in rotation, so that you can pick up any ammo you find for any of them.

                I’m pretty sure the SMG sucks on purpose because it’s supposed to be your fallback weapon for when you run out of the good stuff. Valve wants to reward you for playing with all your toys and using situational weapons.

                I remember being impressed with how shotgun ammo caches tend to come in pairs. One right before you need it, and one right after, so you have shotgun ammo for the close fight, but you don’t have to feel like they forced you to use up all your shot shells if it’s also your medium range weapon.

              • Blanko2 says:

                … of course its a personal opinion. all of what i said is subjective. why are you getting worked up over it if its all my opinion of the design choices for the game?

  3. kikito says:

    “Gordon Freeman is a Mary Sue”

    Bilbo and Frodo were both Mary Sues. (Ha! Deal with that!)

    • Robyrt says:

      Bilbo, I can see, but Frodo is just an archetypal hero. He doesn’t have any special abilities or great personality, he needs constant backup from allies, and other characters have only a vague idea of who he is. It’s always “Oh, you’re the guy with the mission to save the world, right? OK, take these boats.”

      • Thomas says:

        I mean in the end Frodo sucks, he isn’t strong enough, lots of people don’t trust him, he doesn’t make anyone feel good about himself because the ring basically takes him in and spits him out. He’s not a Mary Sue, Mary Sue’s don’t end the story so broken they have to leave the world.

        Even Bilbo is a bit stupid and lackadaisal. He doesn’t change other people’s world views, instead they tend to change his

        • Atle says:

          Frodos “super power” is simply his ability to withstand the ring longer than anyone else.

          While everyone else would try to use the rings power, for good or bad, he simply hangs on and suffers through it without getting tempted before in the very end.

          Maybe more an archetypal English man than anything else. “Hanging on quiet desperation is the English way”. – Pink Floyd

          Or maybe the archetypal English hero, who hangs on, keeps going through all pain and suffering and does his duty without getting any great reward.

          • Klay F. says:

            I’ve always thought of Frodo as the very pinnacle of Stoicism.

            • nerdpride says:

              How could you think this when the very same story contains the monster that is Tom Bombadil?!?

              The man-thing that felt the One Ring was a trinket that young punks were playing with these days. That, and he married Goldberry, the daughter of a RIVER. While some monks are thinking of chastity, he’s like, “I can just be with a mysterious personified being instead of a woman; it can wash my bright blue jacket and yellow boots”.

              • Klay F. says:

                Probably because I don’t think of Bombadil as a character, more as just a distraction. He has absolutely no relevance the the plot, theme, or premise.

                Its my least favorite chapter in the entire series for this exact reason. It makes no lasting impression on the hobbits and is immediately forgotten afterwards.

                • Falcon says:

                  I gotta disagree. He doesn’t really serve much relevance to the plot, but does to the world. The impact he has on the plot is to teach the hobbits that they are in over their heads, and be more careful. The wights that nearly killed the hobbits were almost a joke to him, so they were more careful, after all there are forces much beyond their understanding.

                  As for the world he gives it a sense of mystery. What is his power? Where does he come from? Why is he not involved? These all give a depth to the world by showing that the ring is not all important, that there are forces far beyond the comprehension of Frodo, and that not everything is going to automatically join the fight. Without Bombadil, and hints of Valinor, the ring would seem more powerful, the quest more hopeless. Those elements show the ring is not the most powerful thing around, and it can be defeated.

                • Winter says:

                  Actually he’s relevant to the plot in that he is a “dead end”. He’s powerful enough to resist the ring, but has no respect for it because it does not have power over him. He’s the sort of “supernatural solution” to the ring that gets ruled out.

          • Simulated Knave says:

            I forget who it was said that the reason for the success of the British redcoat in the late nineteenth century was not that he was braver than others, but that he was braver a bit longer.

          • False Prophet says:

            Right. LotR is a story of sacrifice and the dividends paid by kindness. Frodo treated Sam with kindness, in contrast to similar relationships on the other side( Morgoth-Sauron, Saruman-Wormtongue, etc.), and Sam aids him stalwartly to the end, even taking up Frodo’s burden. Frodo is kind to Gollum, and as a result Gollum lives long enough to finish Frodo’s quest, even if out of the wrong motives.

            I’m not the biggest fan of LotR, but I’ve always respected those themes. Meanwhile most of Tolkien’s successors and imitators replaced stoic Frodo with the typical Campbellian messianic (and quasi-fascist?) hero, who gains much more than he loses in the struggle with ultimate evil. It’s the difference between a man who’d lived through some of humanity’s darkest hours, and those invoking a juvenile power fantasy.

            • swimon says:

              I don’t really think it’s Frodo’s kindness towards Gollum that allows Gollum to destroy the ring. Even if Frodo had been cruel Gollum would have survived just as a tortured slave rather than a friend. Really the story is more about evil being destroyed by it’s own destruction. In the end Gollum destroys the ring by accident because the ring had broken him to such an extent. It’s Gollums torterous obsession with the ring that destroys it, what frodo’s kindness does is that it lets him survive. It lets him survive Gollum’s obsession but it’s also what allows him to resist the ring. Frodo’s kindness is essentially a coping mechanism for a man pushed to his limits, it’s what lets him soldier on but in the end it’s the instability and destructivity of such a concentrated power structure that destroy’s evil not really anything the “heroes” does (Sauron wouldn’t have fallen without the pressure put on him by external threats sure but what did him in was his treatment of Gollum and everyone Gollum represents).

              Also Frodo and Bilbo are not Mary Sues, clearly not. Both are pretty much useless and Bilbo especially is just a lazy layabout that has to be both lured by greed and rather sternly pushed to start the adventure at all. Also the climax of the Lord of the Rings is Frodo being to weak and giving in to evil essentially failing the test the story was building towards. Then it ends with him being worn out with wounds time will never heal not stronger from his adventures but broken by them without any hope for being fixed. Leaving this world and giving up. Trust me on this: no Mary Sue ends the story metaphorically committing suicide because they can’t go on living anymore.

        • Eärlindor says:

          Yes, Bilbo’s view of the world changed, but all hobbits live in ignorance of the outside. The Dunedain are constantly protecting their borders at their own expense, for example, just so the hobbits can live happy, content, and clueless.

          On a suicide quest (and everything in between) like Bilbo’s, of course his views of the world are going to change, as is the natural outcome of being exposed to Faerie, as Tolkien himself would say.
          But you know what? He DID change the view of the dwarves. They (Thorin in particular) where so focused on reclaiming their gold that it was an unhealthy obsession and revenge fantasy. And when it came into the possession Thorin was so protective of it, it nearly resulted in their own destruction.
          It’s not when the goblins attack that the scales fall from the dwarves’ eyes, as it were, and doubly so when Thorin is on his death bed.

          “Farewell, good thief,” he said. “I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed. Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship from you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the Gate . . . There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world”

          By simply traveling with them, Bilbo changes the world view of the dwarves. They learn that material wealth is not all-important, and that there’s a very fine line where revenge becomes destructive. This view may come late for some, but Thorin leaves the world a better person because of it. Bilbo is essential to the salvation of Thorin in this story.
          Bilbo didn’t entirely do nothing, not by a longshot.

      • Dovius says:

        Not to mention that in the end, he doesn’t really win, which tends to happen with Mary Sues.
        He succumbs to the Ring and only succeeds because Gollum bites his finger off to take the ring, then falls off a cliff into the lava of Mt. Doom.
        Granted, he got a sweet retirement plan out of the ordeal, but that doesn’t take away that he was permanently scarred and mind-raped by the whole thing.

        • Bryan says:

          A “sweet retirement plan” for a very, very short time, before he died, anyway.

          Yes, Frodo died. Mortals don’t survive very long on the last island before Valinor; it’s too blissful. Nice way to go, but he’s definitely dead.

          • SyrusRayne says:

            So what you’re saying is that the trip on the ships over the sea was a metaphor for death and the beyond? SHOCK.

            • thebigJ_A says:

              No, he was correcting the misconception (one I had myself before I started visiting The Tolkien Professor’s site) that Frodo went to live eternally with the elves in bliss.

              He didn’t. He went there to know joy for a short time, then, while there, he died the normal death of a mortal and went “we know not where”, as the elves would say.

    • BeardedDork says:

      No, Tom Bombadil is the definitive Mary Sue.

      • Harry says:

        Yeah, I can see that actually.

        • Thomas says:

          But even then, Tom Bombadil doesn’t have an affect on the story and they suggest that in his way, he’d be unable to affect the story. He would be a Mary Sue if he came in and turned everything upside down, but Tolkien suggested he’s no more a Mary Sue than the sun is, it shines bigger and brighter than everybody around and is completely affected by the most magnificent might of mortal man, but in it;s unchanging position have no say over the affairs of those under it

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Frodo is a way bigger marry sue than gordon.At least gordon did something that is worth of praise(fought a plethora of aliens and soldiers,and freed an entire race from an uber-baby),but frodo only bitched and whined while his companions did all the work.Yet both were praised by all around them.

      • Eärlindor says:

        You’re thinking of the film Frodo, not the book Frodo. Completely different characters. The Real Frodo was a strong character who did what he had to do even though he didn’t want to do it. He never complained, he faced the problem head on. He is the epitome of self-sacrifice in Tolkien’s story.

        The movie Frodo in contrast is a total wuss who self-destructs the moment the pressure is on. It’s the one change in the films I cannot forgive Peter Jackson for.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          Well I thought there was no need for saying which one because those who saw the movie will know who I meant,and those who just read the book but didnt see the movie dont exist.

          • Eärlindor says:

            Hahaha! Okay, just making sure. :)

          • Andrew_C says:

            I’m a great fan of LOTR and the Hobbit, the the LOTR movies bored me to tears and annoyed me no end, even though unfortunately they are probably they adaptatons that will be made of the books. I never bothered to watch the final movie. So I had no desire to see the movies of Hobbit even before I learned it would be dragged out to 3 or 4 movies. So people who have read the book but haven’t seen the movies do exist.

        • Jonathan says:

          The movie Frodo in contrast is a total wuss who self-destructs the moment the pressure is on. It's the one change in the films I cannot forgive Peter Jackson for.

          You mean like Faramir taking the Ring to his father instead of being a man of integrity? Or Aragorn needing encouragement to avoid wussing out of being the King?

          Peter Jackson (or the scriptwriters) had problems with strong characters who had integrity and confidence who weren’t “also, he’s a ___ (elf, dwarf, Istari, etc)..”

          • Eärlindor says:

            Yes! Those changes too! Gah!

            Though I can kinda see why he did what he did with Faramir.

            • Thomas says:

              Their reasoning for it was good. If everyone was so strong and shrugged of the ring so easily it would feel false to the audience when what little time else they had they spent telling them how big and bad the ring was. I love Faramir, but I think what they did with him was right, and the same with Frodo. Frodo was good, but not because he was strong, but because he was weak and a hobbit and did it anyway. A cripple dragging himself over mordor and hating every minute of it is a bigger hero than someone who strolls into Mount Doom. That was a pretty big theme of the book even

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                Thats not good reasoning.If you cannot adapt a book in such a way that wont completely destroy the characters,dont adapt the book.Make an original story that only hints at it.

                Oh,and while it was the big theme of the book that frodo was fighting the ring constantly,it was completely absent from the movie,where frodo ended up being just a whiny brat.

                By the way,if they wanted to change all the characters who came in contact with the ring so that they could portray it as a really bad thing,why the hell did they keep sam as the strong one?And you know what,he ends up being as one of the best characters in the movies.They shouldve made a movie about him.

                Also,what was the reasoning behind destroying gimli and denethor?

                • Thomas says:

                  Dude, I loved the films and I think I can safely say that at least one other human being loved those films. That alone justifies their existence because you know, you can just watch those films and enjoy them. I hope you did and I’m sad if you didn’t because you missed out on a feeling of great joy that I got to experience.

                  And I just disagree with you on the film not developing the theme of struggling with the ring, I hope you were just caught up in the debate a bit when you said it, because it’s really a huge focus of most of the film and I’d like to think that maybe if we both stepped back we could agree on that.

                  Sam being the strong one is important because whereas Bombadil was ancillary and Faramir was a nice little reflection of the weak-but strong theme, it was really key that Sam was strong, because he was also a hobbit and in all ways weaker than Frodo, his moment of courage is a climax rather than an aside and by the time they get to that part in the film and because every other character has failed up until that point it was safe to establish that Sam was stronger. They couldn’t have added another character in and since they had space for one, Sam was the right choice because it’s fundamental to Sam’s ending that he only has strength to resist it all. It even highlights Frodo’s misery. But as in the book, the reason Sam is strong is because he’s the supporting character in the end, his strength comes from his unassuming nature and you and I both know that he was always _the_ supporting character, in both formats.

                  Gimli… Jackson wanted some comic relief. You are fully in your right to call it character assassination. I guess it gave the film some tone but it seemed to sacrifice too much depth. Of all things, Gimli makes it a film rather than pure story

                  • Daemian Lucifer says:

                    I had mixed feelings about the movie*.If I hadnt read the book,I probably wouldve liked it more.I liked some of it(the ents,for example),but overall I felt it lacking.It is a good movie,I get that,and I know people like it,but I dont.I feel as its not a good enough adaptation of the book.

                    But that thing about frodo being a whiny bitch,even my friends who didnt read the book shared that thought with me,and considered that it wouldve been better if sam was the lead.And thats what I consider a character assassination.

                    And its not that I have some impossible standards.For example,I dont like stephen kings books,but I do think that movies based on them are much better.So its just that in this case I dont agree with the majority.

                    But hey,at least the movie did something good for its source material,unlike some pieces of shit like I,robot.

                    *I like to think about the trilogy as a one 12 hour long movie.

    • ACman says:

      I think the May Sue argument is pretty valid. The first game strains credulity a little. Let’s face it, a 27 year-old Physics PhD and combat specialist is a little absurd. It manages to negate this this by pointing to his magical science suit.

      The second game shreds that and throws that into the bin with the suit being ignored by everyone until Gordon’s return; If it’s the suit that made Gordon a hero why not just get someone else to put on the suit? Gordon does nothing remotely sciency in HL2, they could have put the suit on Barney and gotten the same effect. This is not the only way that the second game pushes things.

      It always bothered me that Gordon was venerated by those who knew of him to the point where he is exulted as salvation on his return. In the first game he was treated with professional distance and the social politeness of people sharing a workspce. In the second he is greeted with warmth and appreciation by everybody.

      If I turned up after precipitating a cataclysmic event and disappearing for 20 years I would be expect to be greeted with suspicion and possibly some scientific interest. Instead everybody acts as if they were waiting for him to show up and save them.

      While one can understand Barney saving Gordon in the train station one would expect the resistance to be curious rather than joyous at his return. It becomes especially amiss with Alyx’s warmth towards a person she hasn’t met and has never known except possibly as a young child. Why should she care about one of her father’s workmates that has been missing for twenty years?

      • thebigJ_A says:

        Because, ever since the occupation, stories had been told of “The One Free Man”, who’d fought the Combine to a standstill.

        Since the entire military of the world folded in like six hours, the people looked to that one successful act of defiance, and a messianic legend was born, helped by the reverence the Vortigaunts have for him.

        • ACman says:

          Nope don’t buy it.

          I can see how the Vortigaunts might venerate you seeing as you freed them from slavery and they seem to be telepathic; but thats aliens.

          I’d expect most of humanity to be indifferent or at most vauguely interested in your magical science suit.

          Your ex-workmates however Id expect to be cautious, suspicious or outright spooked when you appear on a train out of nowhere.

          • thebigJ_A says:

            You don’t buy the story they wrote?

            What exactly doesn’t make sense about it to you? You are the only human on the planet that’s had any success at all against the oppressive aliens controling everyone, strolling around in a freakin’ superhero costume.

            If Captain America were real, and had defeated the Nazis in a big battle before disappearing, then the Nazis went on to take over the world, don’t you think people would recognize him in his Captain America suit if he showed up later to try and save the day? Wouldn’t people have talked about that one and ONLY guy who was successful against them whilst wearing wings on his head and a bullseye shield?

            • ACman says:

              You haven’t had any success against the Combine aliens.

              Xen aliens yes, but they are different. The Combine are a completely separate force from a different dimension. The Vortigaunts might be interested because they were slaves to Xen but to humanity you’re at best a guy who fought aliens once and now you’re back from the dead or at worst you are the harbinger of the apocalypse.

              If you look at HL1 you’re essentially a guinea pig. Dr Kleiner and Eli Vance didn’t give a fuck about you. You get thrown into the test chamber with a hand wave of an explanation, you get sent to the surface to brave hostile marines, hazardous areas and alien monsters because you’re young fit and healthy and able. You get teleported to a different dimension and see the corpses of the researchers that were sent to Xen before you.

              Then in HL2 you’re Jesus himself, long lost hero come to save all.

              Not buying it.

              • Joshua says:

                Personally, I think the reason for the “deification” has nothing to do with Valve wanting to stroke the player’s ego and all about giving you a reason to get involved.

                After all, despite Gordon’s abilities as a fighter/hero that he presumably learned in the first game, he has nothing to really recommend that he be the one doing all of heroics in HL2. He doesn’t really possess any special knowledge that others don’t have -quite the opposite: virtually everyone who has naturally lived through the last 20 years or whatever of the occupation knows more about the Combine and any quirks.

                So, given that, why would anyone be interested in having Gordon be involved if it were not for the constructed legendary status? Would it make the game better to have everyone treat Gordon as a big liability that’s clueless and ignorant of the Combine’s capabilities that’s constantly getting in their way?

                HL1 created the character that was a non-typical action hero in that he was put into the role of hero due to circumstances rather than special training. HL2 needed to have an excuse for that character to be the one doing all of the dirty work, or they would have had to start off with a new character.

                • ACman says:

                  But Half Life 2 already has an agency to ensure that Gordon Freedman is the central protagonist: The G-Man.

                  I personally preferred it at the start of the game where none of the civilians know who you are.

                  It would be more reasonable if instead of the entire resistance knowing your name and who you are and treating you like the Messiah they kept a certain level of cynicism and scepticism. Maybe you catch up with some resistance members and they are unsure as to your loyalties until you help them kill a bunch of combine.

          • Felblood says:

            Personally, I always assumed that the G-Man was behind this. By making Gordon into a legend, he can start an anti-combine revolution anywhere he wants, just by dropping Gordon onto the right train.

            Judging from his dialog, that’s exactly the kind of resource he would want to cultivate.

            Though the Vorts seem to know about the G-Man, and they still revere The Free Man, so maybe Gordon is the hero because Destiny Says So, and both the Vort and the G-Man are scrambling to put that destiny to work for them.

    • kikito says:

      Woah. I didn’t expect this many comments.

      Before this derails further, I think I must clarify what I meant.

      My point was that “Mary Sue-ism” is not a defect in itself. Tolkien compared himself with hobbits in a number of sources, so it’s not unrealistic to assume that Bilbo and Frodo are based, at least partially, in older and younger versions of Tolkien. But that doesn’t make them bad characters (other things might).

      Granted, most Mary Sue characters are bad. But that’s because the authors that use them most often are really bad and most of their characters are shitty anyway. Basing a character in oneself (or the reader) is … difficult to pull of right, maybe, but not inherently “bad character design”.

      The “game continually stroking the player’s ego” part, however, was very right. I had conveniently forgot about that, and the video bits on the commentary refreshed those moments. They were embarrassing.

      • Thomas says:

        I still don’t think you’re right. Mary Sueism isn’t quite about the author insert, but about what it means when they do that. There have been many great tales from authors dredging from the tragic and difficult parts of their life, and good tales about the everyday. It’s Mary Sue when they use instead as a validation of themselves, which is not the case with Frodo. Robert Langdon of angels and demons fame is a professor and middle-aged man but a superhero despite it not making sense and it makes literary minded middle aged men feel good about themselves. I don’t see that with Frodo

        However there is one example of a certain ‘Doctor Sue’ who is _the_ example of a good Sue and that’s because the whole show revels in it. DrMcNinja is another Doctor Sue who succeeds for the same reasons. HL is not the same thing

    • MrWhales says:

      I will post this here because it is slightly related and I rather it not get lost in the 300+ comments.

      What Shamus, and what was said in the video even, about Alyx can apply to pretty much the entire game to some degree. With Alyx, the female role in games is basically a sex themed ride. They’re there for their boobs, nothing really more. So when she comes along it’s off-putting. Like if you walked into your house and suddenly there was a clown painting on the hallway wall.

      With the rest of the game, it’s that it is a different sort of game than the other shooter. There is something to it. It may not be the best something. In fact there is probably very much a better something somewhere. It is just that in games, we practically have nothing in HL’s field. It’s like if you were a renaissance scientist in the middle ages. You will be leagues ahead of your others, but a far cry from the best there was in other fields.

      In the genres, it is somewhat like a 1-10 scale. 1 is lowest shovelware shit. 10 is Citizen Kane, Magnus Opus tier stuff. In games comparatively we have been at most getting 6’s and maybe some 7’s. The half life series is about a 7.5 maybe. That isn’t bad. Much better than the normal 5’s and 4’s we deal with. But a long shot from other genre’s that have regular 8’s 9’s and 10’s

  4. Pete says:

    “No other shooter has even come close to this level of environmental storytelling.”
    Im just hoping thats an exxageration for comedic effect, because otherwise… seriously?!

    • Shamus says:

      Do you have any in mind?

      I don’t pretend to have played all shooters, and my focus is mostly on the PC, but if there is someone doing it better then I’d like to know about it.

      • Pete says:

        Off the top of my head? Metro 2033, Singularity, arguably Bioshock. Maybe they didnt do it better, but definitely on par with HL2.

        • Shamus says:

          Hmm. Bioshock I can see. Haven’t played the other two. (Josh actually gifted me a copy of 2033. It’s on The List.)

          • zob says:

            Deus Ex, System Shock 2, I don’t know if anybody remembers it but Strife.

            • peter says:

              could be argued that both of those are more ( or rather something other) than straightforward shooters, though. there’s the first person element, yes, and you shoot stuff, but that’s not nearly all you do.
              the gunplay, grouping of enemies, most mechanics in fact, aren’t focused on giving the best shooter experience you can get. the game is focused on giving a broader selection of possibilities, killing from stealth, avoidance, even finding entirely alternate routes, making other agents do your work for you (bots, turrets). it has choice, and a (especially for its time) large amount of freedom.

            • Shamus says:

              I was trying to keep the comparisons contemporary. I’d say Half-Life, SS2, and Deus Ex are all pretty close and all of them have great atmosphere and environmental storytelling.

              But moving forward, Half-Life 2 really stands out. (Along with Bioshock, as someone pointed out above.)

              Possible this goes back to the “golden age” I’ve talked about before – That brief period where graphics were good enough to be articulate but before they became too expensive to say anything with them.

              • ps238principal says:

                That’s something I don’t quite get. I’ve heard you say things like a Deus Ex would be “too expensive” today, but I don’t know how that works.

                I mean, take Human Revolution. I’m sure the grapics, design, modeling, etc. cost quite a pretty penny. Does it cost that much more to add larger areas, a few more puzzles, etc.? Isn’t getting the engine and its elements the more costly part (the “sourcebooks,” to use a tabletop RPG term) than the actual game (the “adventure module”)?

                I’m not challenging your assertion; I just don’t get why game developers couldn’t, say, take the Human Revolution engine and (relatively) cheaply turn out a “remastered” version of the original Deus Ex using it. I mean, it’s what modders are doing for tons of existing games every day. Granted, they’re doing it for free, but it’s possible, right?

                • False Prophet says:

                  I can’t speak as to how difficult your proposal would be from a purely graphical standpoint. But wouldn’t you need to update the dated voice acting and audio as well? If you went to see a Digital IMAX film with cutting-edge special effects, but the audio came from a hissing 40-year-old analogue reel-to-reel tape, wouldn’t that be really jarring?

                  • ps238principal says:

                    I have to admit that other than “stereo,” I don’t pay attention to sound at the movies much. I only notice of a channel is on the blink (putting a buzz or a “hole” in one direction). Sound effects would be more of an issue than voice work, I think. There are a lot of really clunky files out there that were used for footsteps and what have you.

                    The voices could be run through some filtration software to help a bit, and adding some kind of background noise track (traffic, air conditioning, etc.) would probably take the edge off of the flaws for some. Still, your mileage may vary. I’m fine with most MP3s, but a friend of mine can’t stand them since he hears all of the distortion from the compression.

                  • ps238principal says:

                    It also occurs to me: It depends on what the studio does with its audio tracks when the game is done. If they’re archived somewhere in a higher quality (Valve my very well have these tracks for all of their games; it’s not like they can’t afford the storage). If you’re talking about a remake from nothing, then it would, indeed, be harder and more of an issue.

                • Shamus says:

                  The major cost is creating content. The engine is a one-time, up-front cost. It’s a lot, and it used to be most of the expense, but at some point in the late 90’s we crossed the point where the art began costing more than the tech, and it’s gotten much, much worse since then. Understand that a single set-piece room can now represent WEEKS of person-hours. Someone has to make the place, someone else as to make all the furniture. Someone has to make the textures and bump maps, which is a multi-stage process that I don’t even understand in these newer games. The scene has to be lit, and the scripts need to be written for all the moving parts. (Doors, windows, elevators, and anything else that might be interactive or dynamic. ) Pathing points need to be created so that AI understands how to move around the room, where to go for cover, and how to go through doors. It takes time to light the scene, to make the space match the tone set by the art director, to make sure light is cast from the apparent light fixtures, that it’s light enough and dark enough in all the right places and that there’s enough contrast so that the place looks interesting.

                  And God help you if there’s supposed to be a cutscene in this room. That’s going to be months of people-hours.

                  As far as “remastering”. That’s an interesting question. New engines are built on entirely different assumptions than those old BSP-driven deals of yesteryear. (Aside from Valve, but that’s another story.) In the old days, polygon control was everything. Your #1 threat to framerate was having too many polygons.

                  Now it’s a really, really complicated problem where you have to worry about everything BUT poly count. (Texture usage, fill rate, number of animated characters on screen, number of active light sources, and probably a dozen other things I don’t even understand.) City streets like those in Deus Ex: HR are pretty much a worst-case scenario: Lots of textures, lots of people (unless the city is supposed to be deserted) lots of light sources, lots of complex shaders (like depth of field) that impact performance in spacious scenes like this. There are lots of different active shaders and many rendering passes.

                  “Remastering” the game would be an interesting problem. You could probably kludge in some shaders and get bump-map working easily, but those old characters might look really bad with sharper textures. So then you’re adding higher denity models, and you’re going to run into all kinds of limitations in that ten-year-old engine.

                  Crap. I should have made this a post.

                  Actually, I might do that anyway.

                  • ps238principal says:

                    Thanks! That makes a lot more sense to me now.

                    And a post on that subject would be a great topic.

                    If you take requests for paragraphs, something about how/why some games seem to be easier or more commonly modded (Fallout, Oblivion) for more content than others could be informative, maybe.

                  • Adam P says:

                    Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath was recently “remastered”. Pretty cool.

                • Pete says:

                  Now this is all just a guess on my part, but Id say its actually not the engine thats the costly part these days. I mean, you can throw more programmers at it, sure, but what you need to make an engine is TIME. Models, textures, and other assets, on the other hand, take raw manpower to do, and these days it takes a ridiculous amount of it – and you buy more manpower with more money. If you need more models done, you can always throw more people at it, but you can only add so many people working on an engine at the same time and not hit diminishing results.
                  Also, note to self, typing messages while playing Civ IV tends to produce sub-par results.
                  EDIT: Also ninjas.

                • Alan De Smet says:

                  These days the engine is relatively cheap; you can license quite good ones at reasonable prices. AAA games spend the bulk of their budget on content: models, level design, textures, and audio. High quality engines can be purchased and used with relatively little modification. But unless you want a truly ghastly looking game, you need custom textures, models, and levels. Assuming you won’t want your world to be highly repetitive, every new area you add requires new textures. The textures need to be high resolution, which takes more time. The world models need to be more detailed, taking yet more time. Character animations are expected to be more fluid and natural, requiring a skilled artist and possibly motion capture. Everyone is expected to talk, so you need to add a voice actor budget.

                  Put another way, iD apparently thinks their engine is worth a 5% royalty. The other 95% of your budget has to go somewhere.

              • zob says:

                HL2 stands out because it has that unique position between old days of chunky graphics and new days of consolitis. I dislike it but it’s a good game with a cool gimmick. Still, I refuse to accept that it’s the best that can be done in this genre.

        • Packie says:

          Metro 2033 is a good choice but suffers from the occassional silly dumb AI and some pacing issues. All in all, a really good game and definetely one of the better examples of environmental storytelling.

          Singularity… Eh. didn’t like it overall except for some cool weaponary. I didn’t pay attention to the storyline so it’s probably good.

        • peter says:

          much as i love metro 2033, i wouldn’t say it got as far with its environmental storytelling as half life 2/episodes, it’s great, certainly, but too much is explained not by seeing, but by being told, there is a lot less exposition during the combat sections, and the divide between where you’ll find combat and where you’ll find a rest stop is much bigger than in the half life series.

          bioshock relied a bit too much on the diaries, i think, so i’d still pick half life 2 over it.

        • Congrats on seeing into my future head :D
          I was about to post about Metro 2033 !!
          Metro is my all time favorite shooter

          I have not played any of the Half-life games…I own them (thanks to steams numerous sales) but have never had the inclination to install and play them
          Hearing this review of the series has me almost in the mood to play it…almost
          I’ve played PC games since before Half-life but when it came out I really wasn’t into shooters, I liked point and click adventure games (pausing for ridiculing laughter)
          I never caught wind of the series until after Half-life 2 and by then it was long past the point where I could get my hands on the first game
          Then I discover Steam and can have all the games at my fingertips…with one problem…I’ve become inundated with praise and heraldings of this game
          When something gets this much positive responses, I immediately become suspect
          Now if I were to play it I’d start looking for flaws right off the bat, it’s not personal it’s just how my brain works
          I’d end up playing for a few hours and get frustrated that I can’t enjoy this game like everyone else, and I’d go play something else
          Hearing some negative feedback makes the game feel a bit more approachable, not enough negative to really get me to PLAY the game, but enough to make me WONDER if I should play it
          When I play a game I want to experience the good points on my own, I don’t want them to be dictated to me
          And hearing a bit of the bad lets me know what I can expect and I can glaze over them since they’ve already been pointed out

          On an Personal aside:
          A game is often given higher praise when compared to contemporary titles, but I never think of other titles while I’m playing
          My thoughts while playing are not “wow, that bug is way bigger then the bugs in Bug Hunter 2:The Picnic Massacre” or “This rocket launcher is lame, I had bigger explosions in Bullet Soldier 3:Now With More Bullets”
          I try to never compare one game to another, and I try to personally stay away from sequels
          What works for me in a game is what WORKS, not what it does better or worse then another team of completely different designers with completely different goals

          So basically, if you are a fan of Half-Life and you want ME to play it…
          Tell me EVERY bad experience
          Bugs, Plot holes, Broken designs, Nonsensical characters
          If you want me to play your favorite game, just tell me it’s good despite all that

          • Felblood says:

            Yeah, I needed somebody to to say, “Yeah, it’s the best shooter ever made, but it’s got this this and this that still needs to be fixed,” before I could bring myself to give it a try.

            Hype Aversion is a great way to miss out on something good for a few extra years, but we are who we are.

            –and lest I have praised the game overmuch: The textures in the canal level make my eyes hurt.

          • Teldurn says:

            I might totally play Bug Hunter 2: The Picnic Massacre, but I might pass on Bullet Soldier 3: Now With More Bullets. That seems like a snore fest.

          • Darkness says:

            2033 was good. But it was very limited in what the player can do. It shines as an example of appearing to have choice when really there is very little. It does have several areas where one can solve the problem a number of ways (stealth or rambo). But all the problems must be solved in order and one cannot backtrack. So don’t miss X or it will mean restarting the chapter.

            The story is actually told by exposition. Over and over. The environment aspect is back fill. Which I mean as the little things are used to expand the world but the story is still told to the player, bit by cut-scene bit.

            I did enjoy the game. I am only missing an achievement or two so I obviously played through twice. I am pre-purchasing the next one and I have recommended the original to several friends.

            Compared to my uncompleted HL2 journey 2033 is very pretty and has some great gun fights as well as several parts that can be solved by different means. HL2 falls down for me only because I dislike puzzle games. When I put it down for some other game for months at a time I go back and surprise! I had stopped at a puzzle. Again. Boring puzzles. Bleah.

            • ps238principal says:

              I found Metro 2033 to be decent to good, with good atmosphere and a compelling story.

              As for puzzles, most of the game was a puzzle: Find the safe path. The jumping got really tedious once you found the surface and the giant demon-gophers started appearing in numbers. Trying to tell where it was safe to jump to and what debris was or wasn’t passable/stand-on-able became an exercise in frustration.

              It also did something that annoys me in a lot of shooters: It made loot a trigger for more dudes to appear out of nowhere. This makes sense if you’re in a military base and there’s a booby trap or something, but how do spawn from the nether regions know you found a cache of bullets and should be made to use them immediately? In this day and age, I don’t mind a lot of dudes in one area that have to be stealthed/fought, but making them just show up without even having a door for them to enter from is kind of lame. It’s like when the DM makes a bunch of extra orcs appear so your characters don’t get away too easily even though you completely cleared out the dungeon. You both know it’s BS, but they do it anyway…

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          Ill agree with you about metro 2033 and bioshock(even though I didnt like that one),but singularity?

          • Pete says:

            Im not going to argue that Singularity was an all around good game (even though it totally could have been if the devs didnt make a few …unadvisable decisions), but I do personally think that it made the envivorement feel very abandoned-doomed-island-laboratorey. Its one of those games (for me, anyway) that you hate while youre playing it, but only have fond memories of afterwards.

            • SyrusRayne says:

              But is that environmental storytelling, or just plain ambiance?

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                This.I do remember the scenes being nice and spectacular in some cases,but not really telling a story(other than time erodes stuff).Thats what all those written and recorded stuff was for.

                • nerdpride says:

                  Yeah, WTF is “environmental” storytelling? Can we use sensible terms? It’s great that videogame designers are making up their own terminology, but I’d like it to be plain.

                  From LPs I watch, I’d guess environmental storytelling in HL2 is about the Combine being in charge of the Earth. I think that would be better described as “setting”. Yes, well-developed and implemented fictional settings are great. And I’d guess it’s part of storytelling too, and more interesting than the usual hero-stories like with Gordon and maybe the G-man and maybe Vortigaunts versus The Goons.

                  • Shamus says:

                    “environmental storytelling” is telling the story through the environment. Instead of stopping the player and explaining that the economy is bad, simply show it to them by making the streets run down. Have NPC’s talk about being out of work, or talk about how things used to be better just a few years ago.

                    This is different from plain old exposition, where the player is forced to sit still while a character spells everything out for them. It’s also different from the “flavor text” approach, where the player gets the story through audio logs (BioShock) diaries (Sryrim) or things written down on a PDA or newspaper. (Doom 3, Deus Ex, etc.)

                    • Abnaxis says:

                      nerdpride makes a good point though. Making streets run down and NPCs bemoan their poverty isn’t telling a story. There’s no arc, no narrative and no conclusion (at least not until you start getting into the diaries, journals, or other sorts of exposition which you have explicitly excluded from being “environmental storytelling”). You’re only fleshing out the environment your character is acting in.

                      Looking at it this way, “environmental storytelling” is just another phrase for “establishing setting,” and seems kind of extraneous an misleading. Playwrights, authors, and directors have been establishing settings for centuries, millenia, even–if that is what we are really trying to praise here, maybe we should try to be more clear so the powers that be can do it better?

                      Gonna have to think about this idea a bit more…

                    • Shamus says:

                      The term “environmental storytelling” was not coined by me. I’m just using it as I’ve seen it used. If we stopped a conversation every time we have an ambiguous or misleading term, it would be impossible to discuss an “RPG” at all.

                      Actually, I guess that’s already sort of the case…

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:

                      But there is an arc,narrative and somewhat of a conclusion.For example,lets take the nova prospect.You get all that talk about full trains going full there,but coming back empty.And thats as far as the story goes by telling you anything.Then,when you reach the place,it starts of in the night,showing how something sinister is going on there.When you finally enter it,you see that it hasnt been changed at all.Its still a prison.But,all the cells are empty.So why are all the metrocops there?Once you reach the new part of the facility,you finally see that its actually a converting facility,and not a prison anymore.There,a complete story told by (almost) nothing more than visuals.No audio logs,no written journals,nothing.Thats environmental storytelling.

                    • Pete says:

                      I always thought of environmental storytelling as the kind of thing like walking in on a scene of a child skeleton holding onto a teddy bear in a caved-in tunnel, or other things like that that tell a story of what happened in a place with no words.

                    • Blanko2 says:

                      I think a better example would be like in FO3 where you’d have a family of skeletons in a house wearing party hats or something. Thats telling a story with the environment. HL and HL2 are not that great at it, in my opinion, since most of the things you could qualify as that are just set pieces that happen around you in present time, rather than being a fully-fleshed out story that is told via the environment.

                      In HL2 you’ve got ravenholm, whichd be a great place to have a lot of environmental storytelling, but you end up with just puzzles and the setting itself. Instead of doing the portal 1 thing and having, say, scrawls on the wall, and then maybe culminating with a corpse in a closet or something, theres just an abandoned city that a priest rigged with traps. There is no characterization of the previous residents, nothing denoting that people actually lived normal lives there, its just Grigori and the city filled with zombies.

                      In contrast, the car parts in HL2 do a bit more work in that regard, though even then its not usually a massive amount of it. The houses do occasionally have bits and bobs that suggest that people mightve lived there and such.

                      I think that bethesda is the best environmental story-teller out there, as FO3, Oblivion and even Morrowind tell more via the little tidbits you find lying around the world than any other game i have seen, with the possible exception of bioshock.

                    • Abnaxis says:

                      @Damien: I would argue that what you are talking about isn’t a story. It’s an elaborate setpiece that is vividly brought to life through images shown to the player, but it isn’t a story any more than a panoramic view of Mount Doom or an elaborate description of the circles of Hell in Dante’s Infernno is a story. Nova prospect is a place, which illustrates the nature of the conflict between the Combine and the rebels, reveals truth about the nature of the Combine themselves (and their leaders), and brilliantly sets the tone for the story trying being told in Half-Life, but it is not in-and-of-itself a story.

                      To illustrate my point with movie media, take Saving Private Ryan. The movie goes more than a full half hour without the first iota of exposition, but the first sequences tell us reams of information. We see an old man walking through Arlington cemetery, wordlessly stopping in front of a grave. The scene cut to the landing at Omaha beach, a chaotic affair where people die in gruesome battle. The movie set the tone for the rest of the story, gives us messages about the nature of war, does some foreshadowing (we know someone at least survives), and does an artful depiction of both sides in the conflict, without explicitly telling us any of these things. However, the actual story of the movie–a squad of soldiers being sent to rescue one man–is told almost entirely through exposition and dialogue, using the imagery this setting these images evoke as a backdrop.

                      I realize this seems pedantic, and I almost didn’t say anything. But I think it is a really important point–none of the stuff you are talking about Valve doing is new, or unique to video games (though there are challenges and techniques present in video games that don’t apply to other media, like allowing the player to control the camera). Whether “environmental storytelling” is already an accepted term within critical circles or not, it is a misleading term that obfuscates what we really want–a rich, well-developed backdrop for our characters to interact with (also known as “setting”) without an exposition dump. This is not a new issue, it is one artists have been wrestling with for a long time, and we would do well to look beyond video games to see what people have come up with in the last three thousand years to counteract excessive exposition. FPSes have new issues to deal with, but there is wisdom to be taken from old media, if we can clarify what it is we are talking about.

                    • Abnaxis says:

                      @Blanko: I can see what you’re saying there, and it makes sense. Those little scenes you find are like a minimalist sort of story that you fill in yourself, sort of like Hemmingway’s shortest story every told. I could see calling that “environmental storytelling.”

                      But still…that is something completely separate from what we Shamus praises in HL2, as you said above. Hence my being an annoying pedant.

                    • swenson says:

                      And THIS is why I love HL2 so much and disagree so strongly with the “content munching” assessment. There’s just so much storytelling going on aside from the setpieces/scripted sequences, if you go off and poke around a bit. Your reward for exploration is story. If you want to rush through and not try to understand stuff, you don’t learn anything, same as how in real life, if you never look outside yourself and what you’re doing, you’re never going to learn anything about others or how the world works.

                      Cutscenes are not the be-all, end-all for expressing setting and story, game developers! Please figure this one out!

                    • Blanko2 says:

                      @swenson: The argument being made, i think, is that in HL2, the story-telling bits that are hidden away are also just set-pieces and scripted sequences.
                      Like the begining to HL2, you have the playground.
                      Essentially its a rund-down playground which couldve been used to exemplify that there are no more kids around because of the reproduction suppression field but, really, they didnt do anything about it, they just put in a playground that looks slightly run-down. It looks more like its just not been used because the combine are doing constant checks and searches, rather than because theres no one to use it. THAT is a squandered opportunity for environmental storytelling.

                  • Raka says:

                    So only phrases and concepts you’ve been exposed to or just intuitively understand are “sensible”? Environmental storytelling is just what it says on the tin: telling a story with the environment itself. Everything has a setting. Environmental storytelling is using that setting, as well as the behavior of other characters and elements to tell a story.

                    As Shamus explains, “the environment around you is still telling you a story. The section of Half-Life 2 where you fight through the underground railroad tells us volumes about how the resistance works, how the overwatch operates, and shows us how the Combine have been treating the planet since the previous game”.

                    I don’t know how to make that much clearer, but I’ll try. No one sits the player down and says “the Combine are slowly assimilating the decaying remnants of humanity and its works: here are some examples”. You see it happening with weird alien tech grafted onto dilapidated buildings, and this tells you a great deal about how the world has worked since the invasion, and what the Combine are doing. You don’t find an audio diary explaining how the resistance cobbles together fragments of discarded consumer goods and military supplies to communicate and fight. You don’t have a long cutscene where characters explain to one another that all the resistance can do is hide in the outskirts and junkpiles of the cities while working to gather information and sneak people out. You see it and are allowed to make those inferences yourself.

                    It’s not the same as ambiance. Silent Hill 2 had great ambiance and a wonderful setting, but it didn’t really use the environment to tell a story other than “you’re not in Kansas anymore”. This is a choice, not a failing; Silent Hill 2 was about experiencing the moment and explaining backstory would have only interfered with that (as later games demonstrated, unfortunately). Good films and TV shows know how to help tell a story with their environment; less good ones rely exclusively on various “As you know, Bob…” expository techniques. Valve is one of the few companies to take those lessons from film and incorporate them into games.

                  • Zukhramm says:

                    I know I’m late but I’d just like to point out what I see as different between the terms “setting” and “environmental storytelling”.

                    “Setting” is a word that describes what is being told, the world, situation and the background. “Environmental storytelling” instead describes a method, how to tell something, of course, it can be (and is probably mostly) used to tell the player about the setting there are other ways to describe the setting as well (dialog, descriptions).

                    While maybe not unique to games it is due to the interactivity something I think both works very differently is more important in games than other media.

      • Dovius says:

        Maybe not better, but I’d say that Deus Ex: HR does a good job by putting so much information and detail into the enviroments you visit, just to illustrate things further.
        Hell, that gets extra points because it avoids the whole “OMG WE HAVE TO MAKE PLAYERS FIND EVERYTHING OR ALL OUR WORK WILL BE WASTED”-angle that many companies have these days. “So you’ve only got Level 2 Hacking? Tough luck, no pc access for you!”

        • Zagzag says:

          I find in general that the developers’ attitude of forcing me to find everything in their game is actually a negetive. Is someone really going to go back to your game if you made absolutely sure you showed them everything the first time? Deus Ex and Human Revolution are good counter examples of this, because of how clear it is that there are parts you are missing out, but that this is because of the choices that YOU, the player made, rather than the developers forcing you to. This means the player wants to play through again to experience the whole thing.
          Granted this doesn’t actually make the devs any more money, so there is no real incentive to do it I suppose..

          • Felblood says:

            Are you kidding?!

            Those same developers who force you through every minute of content are the same ones who desperately wish they could unlock the secret of replay value.

            You develop just a little extra content, and players will play through the whole game three times just to see it.

            See also: Way of the Samurai 3, E.Y.E> Divine Cybermancy

            • krellen says:

              I recently replayed Dragon Age: Origins as a male human noble (instead of a female human noble) just to see myself become king instead of queen.

              • Felblood says:

                How many hours of extra playtime were added to your purchase for that?

                Granted, I’m sure that not all of it was as fresh as the first time, but still: You develop a little more content, and the player gets a lot more playtime. That’s efficient use of the art assets already at your disposal, without forcing every player to sit through recycled content.

                It’s not perfect. It is worlds better than making a level with 40 identical rooms with hordes of identical soldiers rushing at you in mindless waves. I’m looking at you Imperial Base level from Dark Forces II.

      • evileeyore says:


        That game sold me on the environment. You undertood the story and what was going basically through the environment (and a handful of dialogue sequences).

        It took everything SS2 and Half-Life did right and carried forward. Granted, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has it’s own flaws (often retarded AI I’m looking at you).

      • Adam P says:

        Console games that that do environmental storytelling are:
        Gears 3, but it offers vignettes rather than anything to support the plot.

        Halo: Reach is a gorgeous game and there are lots of details, but the only three things I can think of are in the first 5 minutes of the game. Everything else comes from cutscenes. The only other piece comes late in the game, where it looks like stuff has happened since the last visit; I’m almost certain that the reason for the change is explained to the player through dialogue in that mission’s opening cutscene, though.

        • Darkness says:

          Gears 3 lost all credibility with me based on the worst voice acting ever. Growly, poor-boy lost his brother when the world has damn near been lost. Jeez, at least BulletStorm was funny.

          When seeing G3 from a newby perspective (mine) it was almost all stupid thugs doing stupid thug activity with stupid thug guns. And the gamer must be stupid as well because we have to explain every mother fracking thing to him. Out loud. At length.

          So, I vote no on Gears of War 3.

    • Confanity says:

      Although not a fan of shooters myself, I can believe that he was serious, yes. If you care to disagree, well, we await your counter-argument.

    • el_b says:

      one thing that i really hoped would be mentioned in SW was that in nova prospekt, the cells are all empty. the problem with this is the trains are always going there full. the fridge horror of that was lost in the episode. i thought it was like in the original v, some kind of meat packing plant, and the earth is simply a free range human farm. sadly, as was mentioned in the article, valve hates backstory so we may never know NPs true purpose.

      • Bentusi16 says:

        It’s to turn humans into Overwatch, the white-suited soldiers.

      • Pete says:

        I think thats because the Combine doesnt need cells. They have those human coffin pods instead. Much more space efficient.

      • NonEuclideanCat says:

        Nova Prospekt is both where they take humans that they’ve dubbed threats to their order, and where they take humans to convert them into the various flavors of Combine soldier. The Metrocops, Overwatch, Elites, Stalkers, those are all humans that have been modified.

      • PAK says:

        That NP’s purpose was to create the transhuman forces was a major point of discussion in one of the SW episodes, actually. They did a couple episodes on NP, so maybe you missed one of them…?

        • el_b says:

          you only see a screen with a maskless combine on a bench and eli in a tube, it didnt really convince me that it was all the place was used for. if youve seen the original v youd get what i mean with the pods.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            But that is all you need,after all.You get a bit of exposition in the beginning about people going in,but no one going out.You get a ton of metrocops guarding it,despite it being mostly empty.And you get short glimpses of humans being turned into transhuman forces.Anything more would simply be superfluous.

  5. ACman says:

    Needs to be done in the Plinkett voice.

  6. Oliver says:

    The only thing that stuck with me after playing the first Half Life (many years ago, shortly after it was released) was my disappointment with the ending.

    As I recall it came down to “stay here and the screen fades to black” or “get teleported into a room full of enemies with all your weapons removed … and the screen fades to black”. I thought I had missed something that would give me the real ending.

    After that I now have little interest in re-playing the game as there is no appeal in reaching such an unsatisfying conclusion. It is on a par with the ending of Neverwinter Nights 2 for me.

    Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the gameplay as I was playing and was having a great time right up until the last 5 seconds. After those 5 seconds however, upon completion of the game, the entire experience was soured for me by what I saw (and still see) as ineptly lazy work by the developers.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Minor nitpick,if you stay you get the monster ending,if you go through the portal you get the “hired” ending.

      I had a completely opposite experience with it than you.I didnt see it as a simple curtain call,but as “this weird alien looking like human who has showed up in the most impossible of places is congratulating me and insinuating that he had something to do with the shit that happened,yet now wants to employ me?Screw that,Ill gnaw my way through the enemies!Oh shit,I shouldve thought this through!!”I still maintain that dying at the end of 1 is the real ending.Its also quite reminiscent of the doom 2 ending.

  7. Mersadeon says:

    Wait a second – Alyx is, in Campsters opinion, too much defined through Gordon, yet he says that she has only a bit of daddy issues not relevant to the main protagonist (Gordon!), and that her problems thus are somehow not making her more life-like? So the one big thing about Alyx not defined through Gordon is suddenly not good? I am confused Oo

    Edit: Also, the whole content chunks thing and lack of free choice.
    Not every game can be a massive, open Sandbox. Yes, Half-Life2 has you going on rails, with the only decisions you make being if you want to explore a house at the side of the road. That is not a bad thing. This is like saying “I think all Action-Films should incorporate Sci-Fi!”. While I love Sci-Fi, I wouldn’t want every Action-Film to be full of it. And while I LOVE open-ended, free-choice-y Sandbox games, not all games can – or even should – be like that. It’s ok to railroad the player in a videogame, because it is a videogame.
    Scripted events are a tool, and one that Valve uses pretty well in my opinion. See, you normally need a few scripted events. To show the player something they could never know themselves – look, people step on sand, Antlions come out and attack. Scripted events are not only not bad by default, they are also quite necessary in certain types of games. you don’t want the player to constantly reload and think “damn, how was I supposed to know that kills you?!”, and you can’t tie everything to an optional trigger for the player – like that huge industrial chute crashing down. Scripted events are part of games and part of gameworlds, and we have to finally grasp that they are not inherently evil methods of railroading, but tools, and quite good ones at that – just imagine Valve would have used cutscenes for EVERY scripted event. Yeah. See.

    Otherwise, I have a few criticisms with Half-Life (2), butt Campsters doesn’t really hit the ones I was thinking of.
    Though I did enjoy watching him – it’s always good to see things from another perspective.

    • Atarlost says:

      I’d go so far as to say you can’t have good storytelling and open ended gameplay in the same title without strong AI.

      Story relies on the writer knowing what’s going on. You can write a length of track, or you can write a switching yard, but there are always going to be rails, and the more choice the shorter the story is for a given quantity of steel.

      With a good live GM in a quickly written medium running the story in chunks with days in between for the GM to build more world you can get actual freedom. To get the same freedom in something like Half-Life would require an AI capable of performing the labor of a writing staff and level design team in real time. We can sort of do the latter at the expense of environmental storytelling and good puzzles, but no progress has ever been made towards the former.

      If you want freedom you have to leave the storytelling genres for almost pure simulation. Unless you mean the freedom to dick around and ignore the plot. Wandering around looking at scenery is great, but someone has to either make that scenery or write a program to generate it. Absent a good procedural city generator that’s not an option for a civilized setting. When Shamus updates Pixel City to do convincing interior spaces then we can talk about letting the player out of the tunnel.

      • Paul Spooner says:

        Absolutely. Doing the procedural city generation is conceivable. The real trick is convincing character AI and the “AI GM” to tie it all together. I’d pay a lot to play a game like that.

        • Tzeneth says:

          I’ve always wondered if anyone was actually working on creating AI capable of story generation or whether the industry saw that as a dead end for current technologies and simply kept with the current form.

          • Paul Spooner says:

            I am working on it, but I’m by no means a professional. I would love to know if there is anyone else working on this kind of thing… either to team up or race them to the finish line.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Not really story generation,but there were projects in civilization 4 that dealt with the ai learning the tactics used against it,and finding counters for them.

            The problem with stories,however,is that your ai not only has to adapt to your actions,but it also needs to learn how to tell a story.Its easier for combat games where it only needs to learn to work better in the confines of the rules,instead of inventing new rules along the way.

  8. Falcon says:

    About Alyx, yes she is flirting with you in HL2. At least towards the end. The thing us, it didn’t feel gratuitous at all. You did save her and her fathers life, plus you go through hell together. It feels like a natural progression of her character arc.

    The gunplay is rather unsatisfying, the exception being the gravity gun. The plot feels forced, the g-man is a bit too cheap IMO, and the whole oppressive regime thing veers a bit too far at times. Plus in this world nobody has invented mirrors. It’s a good game, perhaps even great, for a shooter. It’s also got some serious flaws, and only holds up as a shooter because other shooters have stagnated or moved backwards as a genre.

    • One of the things I really like about how Alyx is portrayed is how she never feels like she’s throwing herself at Gordon’s feet, but they’re clearly becoming close friends over the course of the series. It’s done tactfully enough that when she makes suggestive comments it feels like she’s almost trying to playfully get a rise out of Gordon because he’s so completely stoic all the time. Particularly in Episode 2 when one of the rebels thinks you’re her boyfriend, which she denies immediately before calling you ‘boyfriend’. Any romantic elements are done so subtly if at all that if like me you think making her a love interest would be inappropriate for the series, she can still come across one way or the other and it doesn’t feel like the game’s forcing it on you.

      The difference between Gordon and Alyx’s relationship versus any given Bioware romance is staggering.

      • Jarenth says:


        • Dovius says:


          • Irridium says:


            • Jeff says:

              I think the only realistic romance arc in the Mass Effect franchise is from Tali (if you actually follow her story arc).

              In the first you basically save her life, help her achieve her Pilgrimage goal, and basically is a big dam hero in her eyes as you save the galaxy and discover ancient secrets. Not to mention you give her access to the most advanced ship in the Human/Turian fleet, which is a pretty big deal for the Quarians.

              In the second game you met her when she’s trying to rescue a friend, and when she’s in trouble you can hear her hero worship in her logs. She wishes you were there, and you show up to save her again! After that you go help her deal with her family again, and validate her choices.

              I think, possibly simply because of the length of her story arc (across two games) her romance is the most appropriate. You keep riding to her rescue, playing the white knight, being a big dam hero, and being nice to a member of an outcast race. Even if you’re female (and not an eligible romance partner) she’s pretty darn taken with Shepard.

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                “(if you actually follow her story arc)”

                And why wouldnt you?

                • X2Eliah says:

                  Inability to pay attention to such despicable fan-pandering and lack of character?

                  No, seriously.. Tali is so obviously crafted to appeal to the male-nerd stereotype that it’s difficult to take anything with her seriously.

                  • Irridium says:

                    That’s actually why I’ve more or less ignored Tali. All that praise she heaps on you just puts me off. Which is a shame, because she really does have the most “realistic” romance arc. For a current-gen Bioware game, at least. Meaning it doesn’t take only a couple of conversations before she completely falls in love with you, it takes two full games.

                    Personally, I liked Ashley more. More interesting character I thought.

                  • Daemian Lucifer says:

                    Yes,yes,and morte is so obviously crafted to appeal to the snarky dark humour loving crowd that its so difficult to take anything with him seriously,and hamlet is so obviously crafted to appeal to nerds with family issues that its so difficult to take anything with him seriously,et cetera,et cetera.

                    • Vlad says:

                      Frodo was engineered by Tolkien to appeal to the underdog nerds. Now we will all hate on Lord of the Rings because it tells, not shows.

              • Eärlindor says:

                An interesting point.

                As much as I like Tali, I actually felt that her crush on you felt rather sudden and forced–as nothing more than gratuitous fan service. :/

                • Klay F. says:

                  Whereas “Ass-Shot” Lawson (as I like to call her) is totally okay, because Tits and Ass.

                  • Infinitron says:

                    Fan service or not, Miranda’s character works as the ambitious, lonely-at-the-top, “work hard, party hard” type of office lady who would be open for some casual sex with her commanding officer.

                    Let’s face it, the notion of “romances” in a video game is ridiculous. There just isn’t enough time to develop them. If you try to make these relationships actually romantic, they always seem seem forced. But they can work when they’re just frantic, sweaty rutting between two attractive people who might be going to their deaths.

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:


                    • Klay F. says:

                      Yes there is plenty of time for characters to form romantic relationships in the time frame of a game. Its just that videogame writers don’t understand how human relationships work and are therefore absolute, ABSOLUTE shit at writing them, especially Bioware.

                      Pixar and classic Disney can make believable romances in a fraction of the time frame, often within a few minutes. Its just that videogame writing is pretty much universally shit and sophomoric.

              • Robyrt says:

                Garrus also counts as believable, since it’s clear you are not the Love Of His Life, and it is entirely reasonable for his new, competent ME2 incarnation to be more attractive to FemShep. They have common interests; they are both respectable, competent characters in a storyline full of solving people’s minor problems; they’re both so undersexed that members of other species are looking pretty good right now.

              • Darkness says:

                Tali actually went through the entire dialogue tree with my FemShep including the “share a suit with you” but didn’t progress because of the Fleets anti-gay views. A hoot none the less to actually get that far down the tree. Running as a male that far gets you in the sack.

                As far as not being able to get it because she is obviously nerd boy attraction. BS. Utter and total BS. She and the BlueOne are the only two valid options to me. The human male is dumb as box of hammers, ash is bigoted beyond measure, garus is all scales, miranda, ouch (I have met and avoided mirandas in real life). So retiring to raise blue babies in ME was good and having to run a male Shep to get the chance at Tali were the only real choices. Oh! Jack! Never stick in the crazy rule stops that one cold.

                • swenson says:

                  I always read that “share your suit” thing as fairly innocent with FemShep, to be honest. Tali talks about it in an entirely nonromantic way in another context (she mentions Shala’Raan did it with Tali’s mother for Tali’s birth), I interpreted it as a similar thing. But you could easily interpret it either way.

                • Daemian Lucifer says:

                  “garus is all scales”

                  Mordin has a cream that can help with that.

            • swenson says:

              And this is why I actually kinda like Jack’s story. If you DO take that option the first time she offers it, she justifiably points out that you’re using her just like everyone else she meets and you only pretended to be nice to get sex.

              …still doesn’t change the fact that no matter which option you take (with the exception of Tali), you literally go from total strangers to LOVE OF MAI LIEF in, at most, a few months.

        • krellen says:

          To be fair, I’m generally a lot nicer to people that shower me with free stuff I like (the problem most people have is they try to bribe me with stuff I don’t want.)

    • JPH says:

      “Plus in this world nobody has invented mirrors.”

      Why is this considered a bad thing? If you ever encountered a mirror in Half-Life 2 you’d be forced to see your character staring and moving awkwardly and artificially, like a robot in human skin. Just one mirror included in the game would completely hurl the player out of the experience.

      • Falcon says:

        Actually the lack of them hurled me out several times. Ok the animation level isn’t there when HL2 rolled out, but I’ve played games where there is a mirror and it worked great. It’s just going through the apartments, no mirrors. Going into dozens of bathrooms, no mirrors. Heck a two way mirror in one of the combine facilities would have been a great enviromental storytelling element. Two way mirror plus dead/ mutilated body= interrogation room/ torture chamber.

        It was the plot collapse point for me. Too many absurdities ladeled up, and as soon as I caught on to the lack of mirrors (about halfway through) *BAM* I am yanked out of the game every time I walk into an area that would normally have them.

        • Bentusi16 says:

          For me it’s bathrooms, which is actually mostly handled in HL2.

          Like, if I’m playing a game and I’m moving through residential areas and there’s no bathrooms, or no outhouses, or anything like that, it really stands out to me.

        • Klay F. says:

          You know what really takes me out of fiction? When characters don’t floss after they brush their teeth. I mean JEEZ, do they know how many bacteria they are leaving behind? So unrealistic. I call bullshit on this entire franchise.

      • Eärlindor says:

        Well, I thought the mirrors (and other reflected surfaces) in Deus Ex were a nice touch. I guess I wasn’t expected that from a decade-old game like–I don’t know why now that I think of it–but I was impressed.

        • JPH says:

          I played Deus Ex last year, and that was actually what made me conclude that mirrors don’t belong in an FPS in the first place. Seeing how JC Denton moves around only serves to underline the fact that you’re in a video game, since his movements seem incredibly awkward and phony.

          Also, if you go into first person mode in Hitman: Blood Money and look at a mirror, it looks horribly fake.

  9. Portal 2 felt like a BIG step backwards from Half Life 2 in terms of player agency. In Half Life or even the first Portal I often felt like I was approaching and solving any given encounter my way, within given limits (ie, the physics engine, or the level design). With Portal 2 however it really feels like a theme park ride – there’s only ever one solution and the game actively attempts to stop you from finding others. For example – you can’t crouch jump in that game, even when it would make sense and let you have an alternate solution. At the same time the walls are all black with obvious panelling where they want you to put Portals. One of Valve’s great tricks with Portal 1 though was figuring out an ideal solution then removing as many ‘road cones’ as possible so that while obvious was hidden in plain sight, making it rewarding to find, instead of just figuring out how the puzzle pieces fit together.

    Basically, that’s a philosophy that Valve has employed in all their games – they build a railroad then make the tracks as wide and vague as possible to give the illusion of agency.

    Basically, that’s how Linear games should be done – with the subtlety of a magician forcing a card choice.

    Which is why you never see it happen outside Valve.

    • Lanthanide says:

      This is a point I’ve wanted to make, so I’ll jump in here rather than reply at the bottom.

      If you compare HL2 to the episodes, particularly Episode 2, I think they’ve dumbed everything down too much because of their focus groups. They’ve taken a lot of the real challenge out of the game. Portal 2 suffers from this as well – I get the distinct impression that they came up with 1 single ‘solution’ to each puzzle and did everything possible to prevent non-ideal solutions. I actually did solve one of the later wheatley puzzles improperly and it was a big lot of effort to do it. In doing so I knew that my solution was incorrect, just based on how difficult it was, and that I must have solved it the ‘wrong’ way. The multiplayer is much better in that regards. Portal 2 doesn’t have much replay value, I think any replays are just to re-capture the storyline rather than to experience the puzzles again.

      Anyway, back to HL2, Episode 2 in particular is *very* set-piecy. The final battle is the epitome of this: introduce a new gameplay mechanic that is only used for the final section. All of Episode 2 really feels like set piece after set piece. HL1 didn’t really feel like that, at least not in the first playthrough (of course I was much younger and less experienced with games back then). In HL1, I really got the impression that it was a huge facility and I was just seeing parts of it, but it somehow felt like I was choosing where to go. Funnily enough a lot of the puzzles in HL1 were actually where you tried to get from A to B but the way was blocked so you had to go on a vent-crawling detour. But I remember actually feeling ‘clever’ solving those puzzles, in a way that HL2 never really managed to replicate.

      I think part of it comes down to the technology as Shamus has said, but even HL2 compared to HL1 falls down here. In HL1, you simply didn’t feel like you were On A Rail (pun intended!) because the graphics and environments were so low-tech. In HL2 you never get the feeling that there’s some giant room or area that you missed, or some area that isn’t strictly necessary to play through because there’s always fairly obvious boundaries to the play area. HL1 had them as well, they just weren’t as obvious due to the low-tech look of everything. I think the air boat section is the most obvious for this: narrow little channels, lots of places that are blocked off that you can’t go down. Now a large part of this is to do with preventing the player from getting lost, but I can’t help but feel that it’s somehow been done at the expense of immersion and makes the environment feel less realistic.

      • Vlad says:

        I haven’t yet finished the original HL1, but as I understood it a large part of it takes place indoors, contrary to HL2’s mostly outdoors environments. There would obviously be more apparent limitations on where you can go if you’re outdoors and not planning to make an Elder Scrolls game.

        But just so you know, I managed to miss many places in my first playthroughs of HL2. Sure, they were mostly houses, warehouses or caches, but I’m finding more stuff each time. But sure, linear games will always need to have closed off sections and I think it’s like Shamus said: everyone has their own threshold above which these boundaries break down your immersion.

        At least they didn’t just put chest high walls all over the place over which you can’t jump.

    • Having actually watched the video properly now that it’s not early morning, I’ve got to say I agree with a majority of his criticisms, and I’ve found myself wondering about a great deal of the same things myself. I’m still not convinced Gordon is a Mary sue if only because I consider him a void where an actual character would be expected to be.

      I’ve often wished certain things were avoidable or branching or something, and frequently been annoyed at the complete lack of closure for anything.

      I’m always aware of the railroading when I’m playing, particularly after this many playthroughs but I’ve never considered the variety of what you do to be a bad thing still, and I’m really not sure how you’d fit more story progression into them beyond the environmental stuff they already do.

      Final thought: What if they let us nod or shake our head whenever we were asked a yes or no question? I think that would be cool.

      • Tzeneth says:

        This is one of the reasons why I still love my tabletop RPGs. I’ve played as a character who didn’t know what was going to happen and stumbled through everything. I’ve GMed games where I knew some of the story (half the time I just make things up as I go along) but I didn’t completely know what was going to happen next, nor what the players were going to do. Sometimes, the responses were worth their weight in gold. Sometimes, I wish I’d given more hints about the character that was betraying them the hole time, man that character was able to kill half the PCs group of NPCs. Led to a fun confrontation at the end where they didn’t know exactly who the bad guy was but they did know a bad guy was there :P

  10. Cruyelo says:

    “But that kind of criticism strikes me as disparaging a Porche because it's not a helicopter.”
    I liked the article as a whole but it was strange seeing this come right after you linked to an article toward BF3 sales (with mention of MW3), since that’s what it looked like to me.

    I liked Campster’s video about the GTA series, I’ll have to look for more of his stuff.

    • Darkness says:

      GTA 4 was bad because you didn’t get scores for rampages? Yeah, that was insightful. GTA San Andreas and Vice City were okay for PS2 level games. GTA 4 expanded on the story aspect quite a bit. I think it was significantly better for it. As far as rampages go I would routinely start playing a mission and go completely nuts when cut off by some driver. Then the wanted stars just started up and things got busy. I never felt mistreated because I didn’t get an arcade score for the ensuing fire fights. If you want a score just check your stats. They kept lots of stats.

      After the finish of GTA 4 it was obvious Niko never stood a chance. Fate had him in their sights and I liked the story. It had some weak spots but overall it was a good video game story.

  11. MrCompassionate says:

    Genuine bad points about HL2: The player is a directionless powerhouse of destruction with no idea what effect his actions are having on the overarching story.

    Good points: The visual style is original and well realized the music and audio design is memorable the level design is thoroughly play tested and refined to maintain flow the characters are relatively interesting the gameplay is varied and satisfying the pacing is good and last but not least its a long game without resorting to repetition

    It sets a bar that has not been surpassed (at least by linear first person shooters, which are abundant) enough said.

    • Klay F. says:

      Your bad point doesn’t really strike me as being bad, given the nature of Half-Life 2’s story. Shamus directly says that you have the illusion of choice in the game, not actual choice. This very same thing is echoed by the G-man in both Half-Life and Half-Life 2.

      • Felblood says:

        The G-Man is more of a justifying lampshade than actual change, which is what it would take to satisfy those still complaining.

        For all his mysterious mysteriousness, G-Man’s real function is to tell the player, “Don’t bother fighting the rails, just enjoy the ride.”

        –And if you can do that, it’s a great ride, but some people will never be able to accept that that’s just one of the mechanics of the game.

        Now, giving the player more choice would screw up the tightly tuned pacing of the series, by making them spend more time wandering in circles, so it’s never going to change. “There is only one door, you just have to find it,” is actually one of the core game mechanics of Half Life, and we’d miss it if it was gone.

        • Klay F. says:

          This exact point is why I just can’t enjoy Arkham City. I can’t even walk down the damn street without some piece of shit sidequest crying for attention. They turned the awesome game that was Arkham Asylum into some crappy Batman villain shooting gallery/collect-a-thon and just like that, the story loses all meaning. Instead of feeling like Batman, I feel like a fucking magpie.

          • Peter H. Coffin says:

            Now you know exactly how Batman feels, in a city full of crime. How do you think his night go?

          • Paul Spooner says:

            If you are given a choice between two different actions, shouldn’t you be able to weigh the options and choose the more important one? If you’re forever chasing side-quests instead of perusing the main story line, what does that say about you?
            On the other hand, maybe it was a bad story to begin with if, when the alternative is collecting shiny things, it consistently comes in second place.

            • Klay F. says:

              While I don’t have a problem with sidequests in and of themselves, I certainly have a problem when said sidequests are partially responsible for turning the entire game into some shitty Batman villain shooting gallery. Not a single villain is fleshed out, and thats another reason I’m playing the game in the first place: because Batman is the least interesting character in everything he’s ever appeared in.

  12. Thomas says:

    Okay, I’ve never played the Half-Life’s and the best I can say is that I’ve watched some Let’s Play’s, but I do think I agree some of his points (and if his clips were highly selective, he did manage to select clips that agreed with what he’s saying) but I would like to put forward that Deus Ex: Human Revolution, does almost everything that he says Half-Life doesn’t and it’s a better game for it.

    I’ll start with that Deus Ex does just as wrong. Alex Vance. You disagreed with him, but essentially I think he was right, Alex Vance is still their as gratification, but a much more subtle gratification. In all those clips she was flicking her hair and making shy enquiries about you, it’s flirting and Faridah Malik flirted in the same way. She was strong, bold (and maybe a little more real, her thing about the sister and her emails about her being a partying girl were some touches of genuine characterisation) but if you look at the character, most of what they do in the end pleases the player. It’s all ‘I’ll help you out here Jensen, nice job Jensen. The only redeeming thing about Faridah is they use that to nice emotional weight at the end and give you a genuine choice about it.

    But Jensen isn’t a Mary Sue in the way Freeman is. Even if you took out all his dialogue and all his interactions it wouldn’t be, because in the DE world, very few people adore Jensen, they all want to use him, or see him as a part of their general world view, or disagree with the things he stands for, or see him as meer confirmation of what they think. In Half Life it’s ‘well done super-soldier physicist Freeman’. In HL they’re congratulating you, because in all honesty a human couldn’t do what you do and so it’s unrealistic and the people pick up on it and worship you, in DE there is a cost to what you can do and instead of congratulating you for being super human, they ask what it cost you to be that. And people have natural resentment towards you because you’re better than them. Rather than ‘wow thank you for coming along and doing what I’d never be able to do myself’ which is the logically correct option, they take the human option, ‘stupid super-humans, I didn’t need you, I could have done it if you didn’t come along and spoil things’

    And most of all Deus Ex: HR isn’t a content muncher whereas Half Life is. Because whilst you can gather stuff about the environment in gameplay during HL, you are powerless to do anything about it, and all you’re really doing is doing some fighting and then reading some information they gave you. Even the environmental story telling isn’t integrating gameplay, because rarely in a firefight do you have time to take it in. Instead it’s just very subtle hidden cutscenes that you have to work to discover.

    Whereas in DE the gameplay is the story-telling. What sort of person has augmentations made you? What affect does it have on what you do? How do the people in the world react to you? The enemies mean something, whether they’re augmented punks or maybe someone you’ve seen earlier in the game. Are they brainwashed drones? Manipulated child-soldiers? A sign of the powerful tech the enemy shouldn’t have access to? The fighting will give you something and whats more there are results, the decisions you take in the fighting change the story and at the end, instead of giving you the conclusion, which will confuse you if you haven’t picked up on any of the drip fed information, or be unavoidable if you have, they tell you, that it’s all down to you. You’ve seen the world, you’ve learnt about it. What do you do?

    I even prefer the emails to a scrawl on the wall. It’s more telling than showing even, but in truth, in all mediums it’s a balance between them, not one or the other. It’s less showy, but it’s direct and tells you more important things, more quickly, without bogging down the pace and confusing the message. Almost every Jane Austen novel starts with her telling you exactly who the character is and how she behaves and they’re some of the best novels in the world.

    I mean Deus Ex is even essentially a tunnel, you can’t really do much non-scripted, it’s just a tunnel with wide walls. The joy doesn’t come from doing things the designer didn’t work for, but that there is a meaningful impact of everything you do and see

    • Mathias says:

      I agree with most of this, though I want to add that Adam Jensen nicked the “people are jealous of his transhuman super powers” angle from the original Deus Ex with JC Denton.

      Also, I honestly don’t bother with people who label a character “Mary Sue” these days because the definition of the word has gotten so broad that basically any character who isn’t an antihero falls into one category or another (and even some anitheroes, I’m looking at you, Geralt of Rivia) and the whole thing just becomes a convenient way of slapping someone in the face saying “YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER IS A MARY SUE AND THUS BAD WHY DO YOU LIKE HIM/HER/THE PROPERTY HE/SHE STARS IN”, like with Revan from Knights of the Old Republic.

      A great example of two characters that get a lot of flak for being Sues is Daenerys and Jon from A Song of Ice and Fire, in the pre-Dance with Dragon days where they both took a huge slap in the face. They aren’t really mary sues in any way, they’re just the blandest characters in a spectrum of really interesting ones, and they don’t really start to develop up until Dragons because they essentially act as viewpoint characters that only serve to act as just that, viewpoint characters for a specific event. Up until then they just kind of do what the plot needs them to do.

    • Jeff says:

      The progression of Jensen and Malik’s relationship is really nice, and not necessarily in a romantic way.

      By the end, after all the stuff they’ve been through (and Jensen helping Malik with her personal quest as well as saving her life) the “Thanks, Spyboy.” “Anytime, Flygirl.” exchange was so casually affectionate, it was just perfect.

      • RPharazon says:

        I don’t think Jensen and Malik can truly be defined as being in a relationship, seeing as how they seem to be embroiled with other people or are in other relationships. Malik is a special case, though, depending on how you interpret one quest in Heng Sha. The relationship there seems to be more of a mutual eternal friend zone kind of a thing.

        It works, though.

        • Jeff says:

          Well yeah, I didn’t mean a romantic relationship, just their uh… relationship with each other? Going from work acquaintances to friends?

          …hang on, I need a thesaurus.

  13. Lupinzar says:

    I don’t think it’s really fair try and apply literary terms and concepts to a game series that started in 1998. Back then first-person shooters typically didn’t have rich stories or strong character development. It just wasn’t there. Half-Life (1) at least incorporated some elements not seen in many FPS games before.

    • Falcon says:

      Why not?

      Really, why not?

      The form can only improve through introspection and comparison. Saying ‘it’s a video game, the characters don’t have to be good’ is an utterly short sighted view. Saying books do characters better because they do/ don’t use this device is an absolutely valid and good criticism.

      Give me a game with Asimov level concept, Stephenson level detail and technical info, Ender’s Game level characters, and literary love and understanding of Tolkien. I want it all. Any game that can do that will have my undying love and money. Anything short of that will earn critiquing. Does that mean it’s not great? Nope, but great can become better.

      • Peter H. Coffin says:

        Heh. Asimov’s style of concept has everything of interest happening offstage, and all the narrative is people sitting around and talking about what happened. It’s got all second-hand mood, which is excellent as a literary pattern but it’s going to be paint-dry boring as a video game. Imagine that Sherlock Holmes game Rutskarn was playing the other week. Now imagine that you’re not playing Holmes. You’re not even playing Watson. You’re playing that police Sergent in the Whitechapel station, and you get to play the game by asking Watson questions about what happened. That’s Asimov for you, as much as I love the man. Then Holmes pops in and says civilization will collapse for 10,000 years and you should be writing all this down.

        • Klay F. says:

          Asimov’s worst offense for me was in The End of Eternity. I can’t express in terms that don’t involve summoning some Eldritch Abomination how much I hated the ending.

        • Falcon says:

          Heh, I’ll grant you that he does have a tendancy to do that. His characters are flat at best, his dialogue stilted, but damn if he didn’t have some interesting ideas. Really his best works IMO were his short stories. He was able to boil an idea down to it’s essence, tease the interesting things that could happen out, and create an interesting and plausible ‘what if’ out of it.

          Heck even Foundation was essentially a series of vignettes from a shared universe, and worked better before introducing the Mule. That point he slowed the time frame down to focus on a select few characters in a limited enviroment and it kinda falls apart for it.

  14. TGN says:

    I have to agree with all his points here, especially the one about the lack of closure on anything. Half Life 2 is a good game, but there have been far better games before and since. I spent most of the game getting increasingly annoyed by the constant refusal to explain anything about what the Combine were doing or what most of your missions were supposed to accomplish, to the point that I couldn’t care about the characters and certainly couldn’t project myself onto Freeman because any sane personality I could imagine would be asking questions here.

    Admittedly, much of this comes down to the Hype Backlash Shamus mentioned. I went into the original Half Life more-or-less blind and enjoyed it (except for the rubbish jumping bits on the alien planet), but only played Half Life 2 after about a year of hearing how it was a work of flawless genius. I still think it gets way too much praise for very minor things (when I played the first game, or GoldenEye for that matter, it never occurred to me that I was supposed to be impressed by the ability to move while people were talking, but apparently that is an incredible design decision that removes cutscenes completely. The slightly different kind of pre-scripted, non-interactive talking bits seemingly don’t count as long as you can watch them from a different angle. This parenthetical statement is way too long) and conversely is given a pass on things that any other game would be ripped apart for (the bit in the Evil Tower of Evil where you strap yourself in to the cage on rails only to be saved by a complete Deus Ex Machina. Twice).

  15. Piflik says:

    You usually don't cause the events, you witness them.

    Actually I wouldn’t say that this is a flaw. Modern games are so centered around the player character, it is aggravating. Everything in the world is caused by or aimed at the PC…it feels like the whole world was created just for the PC and if he was absent, nothing would be happening (Solipsism anyone?). It makes the world unbelieveable and gamey.

    (my favourite dungeon in Skyrim is the one where the first few puzzles are already solved by some NPC adventurers, who you find later lying around dead…it makes me feel like I am part of a real world, where other people do stuff, even if I am not there, and not like I am imagining a universe that is centered around me)

    • Abnaxis says:

      I actually thought it was funny that he says that the main character is a Mary Sue, yet makes the “you don’t cause events, you witness them” argument. These two points seem at odds with one-another. Is the world too centered around Gordon, or isn’t it?

      • Joe says:

        Honestly, I think the point is that the whole world exists for the player to feel awesome (which is inherent to this kind of game), via the whole world making the PC feel awesome. Breen’s monologue in Nova Prospekt comes to mind, as does the messianic status you get before you even arrive on the train, after being gone for… I don’t know how long. At the same time, though, the stuff you’re doing doesn’t really seem to matter. You escape via the Underground Railroad, which coincidentally is being simultaneously and systematically eliminated by the combine. So you shoot a bunch of dudes, but really don’t save it. You feel awesome shooting dudes, and the rebels are always complimenting your awesome dude-shooting skills, but no matter how many dudes you shoot, you still haven’t really fixed anything. The world exists to mention how awesome Gordon Freeman is, while making everything he does, all the challenges and the shooting of dudes, and the gravity-gunning, fun as it all is, doesn’t really affect the world.

      • Thomas says:

        I think this is probably the major flaw. It’s a design discrepancy. The world is focused on you, yet you window shop it.

  16. uberfail says:

    The problem with calling Freeman a ‘Mary Sue’ is that the concept of ‘Mary Sue’ is broad and ill defined.
    And should only apply to fan-fic anyway…

    • Simon Buchan says:

      It’s any author-insert wish-fulfillment character, so it isn’t defined exactly by traits. Generally it’s someone who literally is incapable of doing wrong (even when they “screw up” it turns out to be for the better), and everybody loving them for no reason, or against any reason.

      Since pretty much every game protagonist is wish-fulfillment for gameplay reasons nearly every one is vulnerable to this accusation, so at least in my opinion it should only apply to the character traits rather than physical ability (therefore Gordon doesn’t get off here). Also it’s often not clear whether “author-insert” applies to game protagonists: in this case I agree with Campster’s claim that Gordon’s carefully designed to appeal to players, but that excludes him from being a Mary-Sue.

      PS: Bad writing is bad writing, doesn’t matter if you’re paid for it or if you are licensed to use the IP.

      • LintMan says:

        I agree. “Mary Sue” is completely inapt here. Tossing some well justified praise on the heroic player character after all his accomplishments over the HL series doesn’t make him a Mary Sue. The player actually *did* all those accomplishments (ie: kill the big fetus-thing in Xen to free the Vorts, blow up the Citadel, rescue/save the scientists, etc).

        Is it “unrealistic” for one man to have accomplished all that? Yes, but this is the classic first person shooter genre.

  17. Packie says:

    I think he made some pretty good arguements towards Half-Life but his lack of free choice comment, while understandable, is baffling. What he’s essentially asking for is a sandbox RPG, not a linear scripted shooter like Half-Life. Valve can’t suddenly change genres or the entire game design just so that the game can accomodate to every choice the player makes.

    Also, designing a game that gives you a huge level of choice and environment in this day and age requires a budget of astronomical level. Heck, smaller developers are already struggling in this generation with the simplest of games.

  18. Simon Buchan says:

    I always read Alyx as less hitting on you and more school-girl idolizing Gordon, as if he were a rock-star or something. The hair-flips and gushing over his every action felt to me more like camouflaged shyness in the presence of a deified figure than flirting. Consider that literally everyone we see thinks of Gordon as the one man who can lead them to victory over the Combine, (for no explicable reason, and therefore probably due to the G-man) so she’s had a long time to build Gordon up in her head, and it seems you do little but reinforce that image of him. I’d guess she probably thinks of herself as beneath Gordon even, and wouldn’t even think of (deliberately at least) flirting with him.

    • Zagzag says:

      I had actually never even thought of Alyx as flirting with you until I saw this article. I always got the impression that she was trying to cover up her shyness from being around you by being very outgoing. It was for this reason, I had though, that she was considered her to be such a good character.

    • swenson says:

      That’s what I’ve felt too. She’s obviously grown up hearing about how awesome Gordon Freeman is, of course she’s going to fangirl a little once she meets him! It’s really only toward the end that there’s even a hint of anything more (the line when you get in the very last elevator to go after Breen is the point I noticed it), and even then, it’s a very subdued sort of way. She isn’t throwing herself all over you or anything.

  19. Hal says:

    “Characters fall in the spectrum between ‘macho’ and ‘very, very macho.'”

    I understand exactly what you’re saying, Shamus, but I’m not sure how to fix this, per se.

    A lot of these stories sort of require a character that would pick up a gun and mow down the invading hordes. In my mind, this is going to involve two types of characters: The already macho tough guy, natually inclined to such actions; and the everyman, forced into a situation and stumbling through as best he can.

    We see a lot of the former. The latter we see less frequently, but I’m not sure he would feel less “played out” in a game. Worse, he might be quite frustrating to play, since he would naturally be rough around the edges. Too much training required and the players will get frustrated controlling him; too little and he won’t be believable.

    Perhaps my imagination is failing me, though. I just can’t think of a good compromise in between any of this.

    (Edit: Also, apparently I fail at blockquotes. I gotta figure out HTML one of these days.)

    • Rutskarn says:

      “Macho” carries a lot of connotations. When I consider the word “macho” in terms of shooter protagonists, I see someone who is:

      *Thickset and brawny
      *Demonstrates no fear
      *Is emotionally unaffected by violence
      *Is proud and rebellious
      *Has stubble
      *Uses only negative humor (sarcasm, snarkery, insults, etc)

      Most currentshooter protagonists run a gradient between this and no personality at all.

      The number of viable possibilities that lie outside of this *and* the everyman archetype listed above approach infinity.

      • Rutskarn says:

        Here’s an off-the-cuff fictitious example:

        Dr. Bansen
        Genre: FPS
        Setting: Steampunk

        Dr. Bansen is a graduate of Mordengrave Institute of Dangerous Science. A specialist in robotics, Bansen’s dream is to create a genuine AI that can assist him with his work. His colleagues think him mad (mad!), and thus, he somewhat lacks for funding and peer assistance. One of the world’s finest critical thinkers, he’s found an effective, if distasteful, solution: build himself an exoskeleton and a team of automaton assistants and hire himself out as a bounty hunter and mercenary…a field dominated by individuals described by the traits above.

        Dr. Bansen is polite, even to the people he’s hunting down, and can be both a little too excitable and a little socially awkward–in the sense that he comes off to other people as a little bizarre and flighty, not in the sense that he’s actually uncomfortable in them. He doesn’t really like killing people, and shoots to wound when he can, but even when that’s not an option and he’s forced to use lethal force he often gets so excited by the technology he’s experimenting with (his guns, suit, and helpers are in a constant cycle of upgrade) that the sting of moral indiscretion is dulled. He’s actually quite scrawny underneath the device, something his colleagues make fun of him for (he doesn’t really understand why, and is incapable of taking offense. After all, it would be a foolish waste of resources for him to “press bench.” That’s what the device is for, confound it!). He’s proud of his inventions, but it’s an intellectual sort of pride that causes him to attempt to rationally explain his actions or devices to people, even when their contempt appears to stem from anti-intellectualism. He often makes bad science puns and is dejected when nobody else gets them. Dr. Bansen isn’t so much afraid of street-level scum, but if a monster shows up, he really has to grit his teeth to face it, because those things are goddamned scary.

        To summarize, Dr. Bansen has these qualities:

        *Demonstrates fear in some situations
        *Has emotional responses to violence, but overrules them
        *Has pride, but selective, intellectual pride without swagger or braggadocio
        *Uses silly humor

        …but is by no means an everyman.

        Dr. Bansen is not the greatest shooter character ever made, although I think I’d like to play him, but he represents just one possibility in a realm of potentialities that is woefully underexplored.

        • Zeta Kai says:

          *slow clap of appreciation for creativity*

          It;s too bad that we’ll never see the good doctor as the protagonist in a mainstream shooter. All we ever get is the Marcus-Fenix-Mountain-Dew-Redbull-Homoerotic-Wet-Dream-Stereotype as out avatar. Like that’s what we all wanna be (ugh).

        • Hal says:

          Sounds like an interesting character. I welcome the correction.

          I guess, as someone else suggested, that they should probably write stories that don’t require the “macho” or “very, very macho” characters.

          For what it’s worth, I’ve been playing DX3, and while I love this game to pieces, Adam Jensen fits every ridiculous qualifier you listed above. His “tough guy whisper” is really starting to annoy me, especially since I’ve been making fun of “Leverage” for utilizing that for a while now.

        • rrgg says:

          So he’s an idealized nerd who unlike the gears of war guys isn’t tough but makes up for it by wearing a power suit so is tough anyways.

          That said though, I’ve never really been a fan of heavily flawed “everymen” characters, if there is one person that I am supposed to care about and that the plot has rendered near-invincible then they better well be some sort of hero to make up for it. Ideally some sort of renaissance man who has striven to be the best that he can be both mentally, physically, and spiritually (somewhere near the top of Maslow’s pyramid).

          When I do like “everymen” I tend to prefer seeing them as part of a larger whole. To be honest I feel watching an army of mooks fight a battle in the total war games is multitudes more interesting than killing hundreds of people as the dovahkiin.

        • While I think overall that bio is a pretty damn compelling one in terms of a FPS character, as it stands now, it wouldn’t work. The key problem with your character is the he lacks these two characteristics:

          *Demonstrates no fear
          *Is emotionally unaffected by violence

          Remember, the genre you picked was FIRST PERSON SHOOTER. By being in the first person, the player is inhabiting this character and controlling him directly. By being a shooter, the player is engaging in prolonged bouts of violence and destruction where the only danger is purely simulated.

          What these two elements come together to mean is that by NOT being indifferent to the violence and showing fear, it can create a significant ludonarrative dissonance (which I JUST learned about today thanks to – you guessed it – an Errant Signal video…his Far Cry 2 ep in this case). In other words, unless the big monsters only show up in cut scenes, it’s up to the player to decide when Benson shows fear – or any other emotional reactions – during gameplay.

          It’s all about taking the time to understand WHY things are the way they are. Yes, there’s an issue of marketing with regards to the cheesehead machismo cliches used in FPS in order to grab that strait white young ‘adult’ male demographic that are the sole source of the genre’s income (if we’re being honest, this is only PARTLY an exaggeration…at best), but there’s also a practical application of that behavior template being the best suited to justifying player’s actions in a world where violence is so prevalent (being a first person SHOOTER), but CONSEQUENCE is not (being a…well vid’ja game where you don’t feel the damage you take…or experience the deaths of your failure). Even Gordon Freeman – supposedly the only nerd in the genre – incorporates those two traits mentioned above because it’s the only way to rectify this problem so far as I can figure.

          • Rutskarn says:

            While this is a good point, it doesn’t preclude a little bit of characterization. My example would play out like this:

            1.) (Demonstrates fear)

            Bansen turns a corner and sees a slavering many-tentacled jungle abomination. No control is wrested, and no visual effects are applied, but there’s a subtle little audio sting to the tune of, “Yah!” After it’s killed, there’s the option of doing a finishing move, a la Eternal Darkness, that’s the equivalent of stomping on a spider a dozen extra times to vent adrenaline and make sure it’s dead. The key is not to make it obtrusive, and to make extensions of it optional, so that if the player gets into the character–and begins to sympathetically adopt the character’s outlook, as has happened to me personally in some games–then they have the option of running with it.

            2.) (Emotionally affected by violence)

            This could be a pretty subtle one. Offhand comments in cutscenes, having the droids shoot to wound rather than kill, having Bansen give a (relatively muted) little, “Ooh,” or, “Hm,” whenever an enemy dies in a particularly messy fashion. This last one works because assuming the player is unaffected by the gore, which is very probable, the wibbling is funny and even sort of gratifying.

            One thing that gets ignored when talking about first-person protagonists is that the player does not, as is sometimes implied, have to *absolutely* empathize with them. The character does not have to be a perfect mirror of the player’s thoughts and feelings. If the character does something stupid, or particularly degrading, the player does rebel, but there’s something to be said for a character providing a few surprises and handling situations a little differently than the player might have. Especially if the game’s overtly not trying to go for a horror theme, or an anti-violence message, then Bansen’s occasional restrained hysteria can be more amusing and quaint than irritating.

            • It still doesn’t solve the issue of dissonance. Even applying audio cues may SEEM light handed, but will still come off as comically inappropriate if the player’s controlling the character like he’s Serious Sam…or even better, our old pal Reginald Cuftbert. :P The issue of cutscenes only exacerbates this problem.

              Bear in mind no information has been given about the game this character inhabits other than the genre: First Person Shooter. Therefore, I have to assume the mechanics will match the basic requirements of said genre. Now you tell me, what first person shooter mechanics require the player to behave as the character is intended to without taking control from the player?

              This goes back to that big old hadoo I made in the Skyrim post about narrative and its importance in games. By creating a character first, you kinda put the cart before the horse. It’s not about creating a character and then telling the player to behave that way, but creating the mechanics for the game that reinforce those traits. The GAME should tell them to be afraid and empathetic, not the story. Amnesia features a character who is nothing but afraid and affected by violence, but that’s because the game blurs your vision and alters your controls when he gets nervous and includes no weapons of any kind. So it’s not even a shooter. It needed change genre’s in order to reinforce the characteristics your talking about.

              This is why I don’t think anyone’s tried making characters like that. It means fundamentally reworking the mechanics of the FPS, which is risky (from a marketing perspective) and time consuming (from a development perspective). The alternative is telling the player the character he controls is afraid of monsters and doesn’t like violence, while the player bunny hops everywhere shooting every enemy in the face.

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                “This is why I don't think anyone's tried making characters like that.”

                They did.He is called garrett,from the thief series.Granted,the game has reworked the mechanics of the fps games,but you yourself said that was an option.

                Also,the fact that a small number of people(and those who are able to steamroll and exploit a new game on first playthrough are a minority)will play the game in a wrong way(so to speak)doesnt change the fact that the majority will experience it the way you intended,through your character.

                • I only played the third one and at no point does he ever exhibit fear or show any response to violence. Regardless, the Thief games are not first person shooters.

                  “doesnt change the fact that the majority will experience it the way you intended,through your character.”

                  How is this a fact?

                  • Daemian Lucifer says:

                    I wasnt talking about specifically being afraid,but being a character.Or,at least,he is in 1 and 2.And when thief 1 came out,there was no sneaking games,so it was a first person shooter,only it redefined the genre(ironically though,thief 3 is much closer to first person shooters than 1,and especially 2).

                    As for your question,valve collected plenty of info about how people were playing half life 2,and majority did play it as was intended.

                    • “I wasnt talking about specifically being afraid”

                      Well I was and you were responding to me.

                      “And when thief 1 came out,there was no sneaking games,so it was a first person shooter”

                      That makes absolutely no sense. What defines a genre is the content, not the context. It don’t matter if it were the first or the last, if you aint shooting, it aint a shooter and NONE of the Thief games were anything CLOSE to a shooter.

                      “As for your question,valve collected plenty of info about how people were playing half life 2,and majority did play it as was intended.”

                      I already addressed this in the last sentence of my initial response to Ruts.

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:

                      1)Right,because the only way to have a character is the way Rutskarn described,and no other,and if you dispute that one example,youve disputed the whole argument.

                      2)And what are you doing with bow and arrow?And before you say anything about other weapons,you can finish half life with just a crowbar,but that still doesnt make it not a fps.

                      3)How exactly?You said nothing about majority of players not experiencing a game in a way the developers didnt intend.

                    • I’m not doing this anymore DL. You are simply not worth it.

                      1) Missed the point.

                      2) Flat out wrong.

                      3) Yes I did. If you can’t get it, so not my problem.

      • Marlowe says:

        One could of course reference Jack Walters (Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the earth) as a sterling example of a non-macho character who actually gibbers with fear at some points of the game (and may even turn his gun on himself if it becomes too intense). Mr Skarn has a memory blockage concerning that title, however.

    • Syal says:

      A lot of these stories sort of require a character that would pick up a gun and mow down the invading hordes.

      So they just have to write one that doesn’t.

      Like a child fighting off invisible/imaginary Monsters from the Closet in a bustling suburban environment. (He shoots by pointing his finger and saying “bang”, or for heavy weaponry using his whole fist and shouting “Pow” . Then he reloads by using his inhaler to get enough air to keep saying “bang” and “pow”.)

    • Bret says:

      Even then there’s a nice spectrum available. The cast of Aliens is considered the prototype for space badasses, but they’ve got a range. You’ve got Hudson, who’s gung-ho at the start but starts freaking out when the poop hits the prop. Hicks, who’s cool and professional. Bishop’s detached. Gorman is inexperienced.

      Look at Republic Commando, even. Squad’s all battle hardened soldiers but they don’t feel like macho stereotypes. They feel like “the guys”. Even the most macho one has moments where you can catch him in the act and see that it’s, to some extent, a front.

  20. Ira says:

    Well, while I agree in principle with any effort to take Half-Life off that blasted pedestal…

    Let’s think about Gordon. Is he a Sue? I would define a Sue as a character who twists the world and other characters in that world in unnatural ways, for the emotional gratification of a particular audience. A Sue is a character who makes other characters act out of character; who makes improbable or impossible things happen in ways that only make the Sue look more fantastic. It’s not Sue-ish for a character to be universally loved, nor for a character to be the messiah or the chosen one. ‘Mary Sue’ is a label that’s thrown around much too often and we should be careful with it.

    But does Gordon have flaws? Is he an audience insert; that is to say, does he exist purely to gratify the fantasies of a particular demographic? (See also: Harry Dresden.) To an extent, yes. It’s been pointed out, I think, that Gordon is the ‘idealised nerd’, so to speak. He’s a science nerd who becomes an unstoppable killing machine and on whom the fate of the world depends. There’s obvious appeal there. You see the heroic fantasies of the sorts of people who work at Valve and made Half-Life, and the heroic fantasies of the audience.

    Still: even that, I don’t think, is a major problem. One of the reasons we play games is to indulge in heroic fantasies. Surrogate characters are important for that. For instance, I first played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time when I was ten years old. To my young self this game was enchanting, as was the presented world, in both its action and its puzzle elements; and yes, Link was my heroic fantasy. He was the sort of person I wanted to be; he did the sorts of things I wanted to do. He was my surrogate character, with whom I identified and through whom I understood the fictional world.

    However, there is one thing that Link did that Gordon Freeman doesn’t, and to me this is why Gordon is not a good character. Link had a personality. Oh, he was a silent hero – and I am well and truly sick to death of the ‘Link can’t talk’ joke – but silent heroes are allowed to have personality. He reacted to events in the game through actions and facial expressions. Sure, it was generic enough that I never felt isolated from him, but I had a sense of who he was distinct from his role as a player avatar.

    I don’t get that sense with Gordon Freeman. To steal a thought experiment from RLM: tell me about Gordon Freeman as a character without referencing 1) his physical appearance or clothing, 2) his job, or 3) his role in the plot. Now I can easily do that for a character like Link, despite his silence. He’s plucky, innocent, courageous, pure-hearted, and perhaps a bit simple as well. He wants to do the right thing and save the world; and there’s a refreshing simplicity and humility to him. But I can’t say anything like that about Gordon Freeman. Who is Gordon Freeman? Does he even have any connections to the world; parents or relatives, hometown, anything?

    Gordon Freeman isn’t a person.

    And that, to me, is a failure of storytelling on the most basic level. Half-Life doesn’t have a protagonist. It has an empty hole shaped like a human who kills things. However much I loathe Marcus Fenix or whoever, and believe me I do, they are at least people. And Gordon isn’t.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Some people enjoy that, though. Combining a blank slate Everyprotagonist with a detailed world enables the player to imagine how they as a character in the world react to what’s going on. Freeman’s Mind is different for each player.

      When you put words in a FPS protagonist’s mouth, 99% of the time you end up with an unlikeable douchebag and a situation where YOU WISH YOU HAD THE OPTION TO GAG “YOURSELF”. I am most certainly not just talking about Duke Nukem Forever here; specifically I think Prey is even worse in this regard. (I haven’t played Bulletstorm yet, I only just got it in the holiday sale.) Duke Nukem 3D is an exception because it’s mostly witty one-liners and/or lines used to communicate something to the player.

      For third-person games, a detailed protagonist is good because I’m the camera floating behind the protagonist, giving detailed combat instructions. In first person games, however: “Oh shut up. PLEASE shut up. I did NOT just say that. You idiot! The solution to this is so OBVIOUS. No, don’t say that! No, agree to that, you moron! THAT’S IT! YOU THINK YOU CAN FORCE ME TO LISTEN TO YOUR BRAINLESS GARBAGE!?! NEXT CLIFF I SEE, I’M TAKING YOU WITH ME, YOU DUMB BASTARD!!! THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO BECAUSE I CONTROL OUR LIMBS!!!! HEY, I WONDER WHAT HAPPENS IF I DROP SEVERAL GRENADES AT OUR FEET!!!!! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!”

      • Ira says:

        I would actually argue that the first person viewpoint is worse for putting yourself in the place of another character, for the simple reason that, despite appearances, a first person view in a game doesn’t accurately show a person’s field of vision. In real life you have peripheral vision and spatial awareness: you are aware of things going on to your sides or to behind you. The field of vision you get in third person better approximates your real world spatial awareness than the limited first person ‘window on the world’.

        And it’s also the case that in first person you can’t see your own body; and yet body awareness is something basic to how we perceive the world. In real life we are aware of our bodies, our clothes, how we carry objects, and so on; all these things that are completely invisible in first person.

        I myself am not a fan of the FPS genre at all, and part of the reason is that in first person games, far from being more immersed, I feel intensely disconnected from my in-game avatar. I feel like I am controlling a camera, not a person. To be connected to a game world I must be able to sense who I am in that world, and the disembodied first person view just doesn’t work at all for me. To play in the first person, for me, is to be bodiless; it’s to be a flying camera, not a person.

        When there’s dialogue in first person shooters coming from the protagonist, my reaction is more ‘What? Who’s talking?’ That’s not a good experience, in my opinion.

        • Simon Buchan says:

          That thing of controlling a camera is why I really like games that attach the camera to the skeleton, and include the whole player model, like Mirror’s Edge, and a few others as well: Crysis maybe? Left 4 Dead 1 but not 2 for some reason. But then I’m perfectly happy with first-person platforming, so what do I know?

          • Rosseloh says:

            A hundred votes for this — why why Why WHY WHY?! don’t more games have visible bodies in first person? I can’t imagine it’s much of a graphics effort (at least on suitably modern machines, and even then there’s such a thing as a toggle), and it adds so much more to the world for me. Oh, sure, you have to design the camera in such a way that it doesn’t clip with your body, etc etc, but enough games have done it that I know it isn’t impossible. Thief Deadly Shadows had it (despite the controls being kinda wacky), and that was from 2004 (so assume 2003 as the development year).

            • MadTinkerer says:

              Because in terms of coding the darn thing it’s like doing a third person view and a first person view at the same time. It’s at least twice as much work to get right, and it has to be worth the effort.

              That said, Dark Messiah did it really well.

        • LintMan says:

          Personally, I wouldn’t have minded if Valve had given Gordon Freeman a personality and made him a deep character, but I understand what they’re trying to accomplish by leaving him a blank slate. Some people really appreciate that: I saw a review once where the reviewer lamented that the game showed a picture of Freeman on the opening screen, saying this was a copout and that his appearance should have also been left a blank slate.

          I wouldn’t want every FPS to do that, but it works for HL.

          “When there's dialogue in first person shooters coming from the protagonist, my reaction is more “˜What? Who's talking?' That's not a good experience, in my opinion.”

          Probably one reason Freeman is silent.

        • Irridium says:

          Yeah, this is why I get far more immersed in third person games. I can actually see that the thing I’m controlling is a character, instead of a floating camera with arms.

          Of course, I love it when fps games show you’re feet/legs. Wish more would do that.

        • ps238principal says:

          I disagree. Fallout and other games that keep the first-person POV when I can’t actually “speak” in-game doesn’t break me out of the unreality as much because me reading the dialog choices is in “my” voice, as I read in my head. There are no other cues to dispel this idea.

          One of the things I hated about Dragon Age is how you’re mute (which is fine) and the game shows you being mute in cutscenes where everyone else is speaking. Somehow seeing my dude in a conversation without him/her adding to it just drives it home how much like an articulated mannequin they are compared to everyone else.

    • Irridium says:

      I agree with Gordon’s lack of being a person thing.

      And the excuse that he’s supposed to be me never flew with me. Because if Gordon was me, he’d lock himself in a closet and cry. Or run to the hills as fast as possible. Because that’s what I would do if there’s a war going on around me.

      • Klay F. says:

        Thats why its called wish fulfillment. It gives people who aren’t brave the chance to act like they are in an environment of no consequences.

        So when did the very concept of wish fulfillment become a bad thing?

        • Irridium says:

          For me, wish fulfillment is just getting old. At least in the form of being the person who saves the day all the time. I already fulfilled that wish hundreds of times. Can’t I just help someone else do it?

          That’s one thing I loved about Oblivion. You weren’t special. You weren’t the “chosen one”. You were just some guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was refreshing to not have to fight the big bad demon coming to conquer the world, and just watch as someone else did it for a change.

          I’ve already experienced saving the world and all it entails. I want to know how the character I’m playing experienced it. How the people inhabiting this world experienced it.

          • Klay F. says:

            Keep in mind that in Oblivion, you can become the leader of every guild, the champion of every deadric god while also being a deadric god yourself and a crusader of the nine divines.

            Also, you might as well be the hero of the main plot because everyone treats you as such. Also, if you are tired of being a hero, maybe you should stop playing videogames altogether and get on with your life. I realize I’m being a little facetious here, but the primary purpose of narrative in videogames (at least for as long as videogame narratives have existed) has been for wish fulfillment, that isn’t likely to change (and looking at the recent attempts to change this fact like Heavy Rain end up being affronts to all of existence). Its partly the reason the (proper) survival horror genre has all but died out.

            I don’t necessarily disagree with you, just keep in mind that videogame writers can’t even get classic narrative conventions that have been the norm for almost 3 millenia right. Most don’t understand what pathos even IS much less how to utilize it. Asking them to do anything more is just a bit much.

            • Irridium says:

              Yes, you can become a super-awesome and super-famous person. But that isn’t given to you by default, you have to work for it and earn it all. So by the time you are hailed as the best in the land, it’s not because you’re “the chosen one”, it’s because you worked to get to that point.

              Basically, I want to earn my status as a hero, not just be given it. Otherwise it feels hollow.

              Yes yes I know this is a personal thing, and that game writing is nowhere near good enough to make this a viable venture story-wise, but I can still dream dammit!

              • Klay F. says:

                Wait a minute, but you DID earn all the praise if you played Half-Life 1. While I agree that maybe some of that praise should not have carried over to the next game, at least they have a backstory reason for this.

                • Irridium says:

                  Fun fact, my first time playing Half Life 1 was last year. I’ve owned it for about 10 years now, and have no idea why I put off playing it for so long.

                  Anyway, even through all Gordon did in Half Life 1, I still didn’t much like the praise. Since I saw it less as “Gordon the hero saving everything” and more “Gordon the person who played a pivotal role in causing all this and is now just fixing the mess he started”. Though I guess it’d make sense when others still call you a hero, since they don’t know that part…

    • Simon Buchan says:

      You know an apple is a failure at being an orange, right? It’s well established that Gordon is not given a character (heck, Shamus says as much in this very article) – he’s a face and name to hang on to the player so the actual characters can talk about him.

      But that doesn’t mean he can’t have a character, just that it’s player provided. My Gordon Freeman is angry that after putting himself “through hell” at MIT expecting to land a cushy high-paying job only to find himself put though a real hell, and confused as to why it all happens to him. He doesn’t like what the G-Man is doing to him so far as he can tell what that even is, but feels that it’s probably in total in humanity’s favor so he plays along without too much fuss. He likes Alyx, but thinks of her as a kid, and has to keep reminding himself how talented and capable she is. He can barely stand Barney’s chummyness – he never thought of him as a friend, but plays along cause he doesn’t want to be a dick. And so on….

      Now just in case I’m completely mental and I’m the only one who does that for Gordon, there’s another largely silent protagonist who recently got a huge dump of “personality” – Samus Aran. And we all know how well putting a personality on her went down – yes, yes, it was a terrible personality, but a large part of the outcry was along the lines of “that’s not how Samus should talk”, meaning not how the outcrier thought of her.

      Also, I disagree with your definition of a Mary Sue – it’s a common trait of Mary Sues that they distort the world around them, but it’s not a definition (I don’t even know how that works in original works – how do you know if a world is distorted if you don’t know how it should be?). I made my definition above, so I won’t repeat it here.

      • Ira says:

        The thing is, ‘your’ Gordon isn’t rooted in anything in the game. You have put in all of the imagination yourself. This is also my response to anyone who claims there’s actual role-playing in Bethesda games. Gordon’s personality is completely inside your head: and if that’s the case, is the game even doing anything?

        That is, 1) the game is not establishing anything about Gordon for you to work from, and 2) your vision of Gordon doesn’t change the way you play the game or your in-game choices.

        You’d be just as well off writing original fiction.

    • Falcon says:

      Link is also an inveterate lazy slouch, until the call to duty wakes him from his isolation.

      Samus is actually a better character when she doesn’t talk, the Other M being antithical to her established character. Strong, determined, resolute, disciplined, smart, even lonely. Silent characters can still be characters. Freeman is a walking wooden board.

    • Darkness says:

      Hero’s journey, the chosen one and such are all useful stories for children growing up. They establish that they are special, unique and fated to be more then they appear to be (a child with little control). The hero role is important because it establishes right and wrong with moral duty. Building the team and getting the magic sword allows the building of confidence and tools to get the job done. Also, the feeling that you have been adopted or kidnapped or a prince/princess hidden away are very common fantasies for the young.

      Using the everyman character is for adults. Hitchcock was a master of the ordinary man in extra-ordinary circumstances. As adults we expect the everyman character to be a template for ourselves. What would I do on this lonely road when the airplane starts to dive at me?

      FPS and the macho theme is mostly wish fulfillment and revenge fantasies. They killed my wife/mother/father/goat/teacher/world and now they are ALL gonna die. “The Others” have attacked “The People” and now they must die/be punished/driven back/exterminated from “The World”. I have trouble deciding if they belong to child or adult mindsets. Maybe just teenage, as in the mind not yet completely wired.

      I quit reading fantasy stories a few decades ago because of “one more damned chosen one” issues. After discovering the actual connection to real mental growth in children they no long cause me to cringe. I can still get tired of them however.

      Blank slates seems to be a common video game artifice. When defining the resource for the development and matching it up to the resources available sometimes doing all the character fill in is just too expensive. All the audio/video/cut-scene/textures cost a lot to develop and to store. And sometimes they actually do a good job of the blank slate story.

      Not all these options mean all developers are going to succeed in the format that you (the user) will actually agree with. Thus we have the internet.

  21. MadTinkerer says:

    “The game is not perfect and I can see those flaws despite my fandom. There's lots of room for criticism here.”

    Actually, until 2008 I hated Half Life. It’s like this: I played through the game and was fairly impressed despite it dragging to a ridiculously slow pace in several places. There were also some severe UI and/or signposting issues where, for example, I’d be stuck in a place because I didn’t realize that a door was a door. Despite these issues, I liked the game. I liked the bit where you free the pistons next to the generator and drain the water and those frickin’ leeches DIE. I liked the tram section. I liked the NPCs and their, for the time, advanced AI and scripted bits.

    Then I got to the desert. And I was stuck on the same level for eight hours. I crawled around while those giant claws blindly tried to find me, and I searched in vain for an exit. And then I ragequitted the game so hard I literally forgot almost the entire thing until after I played through Half Life 2 and Portal and then started up Half Life Source… gee, this is familiar… why did I never finish this game? OH YEAH.

    Playing through HL:S was a little surreal. I remembered almost all of it, but certain parts I had forgotten were part of Half Life. At the time I had also played a lot of single-player Quake mods, so certain parts I thought I had remembered were part of other Quake mods turned out were actually Half Life levels. And I had only just gotten two thirds of the way through the game, a little while before Xen. In fact, I never realized there was a Xen section until I cheated past the desert level in HL:S.

    I had problems with Half Life that I’ve never had with any Valve game since. It’s obvious in retrospect that Half Life was more rushed and unpolished than any Valve game. On a side note, I’ve played a bunch of the leaked levels for Half Life 2 and am very VERY glad it was delayed for that long. It needed to be delayed so that Half Life 2 could become the Half Life 2 we know and love. Otherwise, it would likely have ended up as painful (or worse) as Half Life.

    I’m still not sure what the hold up with Episode 3 is, though. It’ll be interesting to see a Final Moments of Half Life (episode?) 3 or whatever Valve does to explain why it took so long.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      “I liked the tram section.”

      So Im not the only one?Yay.

      “Then I got to the desert. And I was stuck on the same level for eight hours. I crawled around while those giant claws blindly tried to find me, and I searched in vain for an exit.”

      Oh yes,that one.It took me quite a while to find the blasted sewer entrance in that one(yes,thats what you were missing,I know,its infuriating).Still,valve has improved their games since then,and while there still are bits where you can be stumped not knowing where to go,they are far less frequent.

  22. rayen says:

    to quote “there is nothing wrong with linearity, especially in a story driven game.”

    And half-life is to my mind a story driven game.

    Let me be clear. I am currently in the beginning of episode one. i played half-life for the very first time last year, and with Christmas money picked up 2, ep 1 and ep 2. so aside form what i saw in the spoiler warning episodes everything is new to me. i am aghast that for a game made 6 years ago it still stands above everything made after it.

    Gordon is a fantasy wish fullfilment character. by god yes he is. he still has flaws, i would say more than one in fact. he seems to have aspergers syndrome and he doesn’t ever talk! but that makes sense. super smart scientist that doesn’t do well in social situations fighting for his life in an alien house of horrors. I think the lack of need for social interaction is the only thing that keeps him sane. and the messiah worship he gets in 2 sorta makes sense. seeing as he was the hero of black mesa…

    Alyx… sometimes she does seem like the love interest but only because we’ve been conditioned to think we need a love interest. in some ways she just seems like a standard person who is worried about a comrade. She always struck me as wishing she had a hazard suit so she could all the crazy things you get yourself into. Like she’s been stuck in the back lines organizing for too long, and the longing she often displays is not so much for you but for the danger and excitement you are about to partake in.

    As for the other stuff. what do want it’s a video game. all games are roller coasters. or at most a theme park with a bunch of small coasters/rides(sandbox games). as for closure, well it isn’t over so of course there isn’t closure… i dunno.

    yes maybe it is a little over rated, but only because the bar has been set so low by the rest of the medium.

  23. X2Eliah says:

    Alright, these videos are awesome. Thanks for poiting towards them, Shamus.

  24. Eirc says:

    While his critique about Alyx hits home for me (once you notice it it’s hard to not feel cynically manipulated by Valve), the rest of it strikes me as underdeveloped, lacking in relevance to his thesis, or just nonsensical.

    “Content muncher”? This one I just don’t get. Yes, there are games with a lot of filler in them (which itself is tricky to define, as a game without any filler in the strictest sense would be ten minutes long), but what is the realistic alternative? It’s like he entirely disregards the fact that shooting, exploration, puzzling, etc. are all legitimate game mechanics. Those are just as designed as any scripted sequences. Put simply, this man’s lack of development experience is really, really showing for him to so blatantly disregard this aspect of the game.

    Gordon as Mary Sue. Yes, he is. He’s a nerd who becomes a badass in the face of a crisis and ends up saving humanity (sort of). In 1997, this shit was pretty radical to see in a game, and today is still largely the stuff of JPRGs. My issue is that this is held up as being a bad thing… because it isn’t really. Just as stereotypical characters have a place, so too does a Mary Sue character. Valve executes it well and it works well for the game. The fact is that games have a different set of rules to play by than other media. You simply can’t transplant one character idea, especially for a protagonist, into a game and have it necessarily work… and even if you pull it off, you may not end up with the desired effect. A Mary Sue in a novel is usually a bad thing – in a game, it’s practical and often the best choice.

    Gameplay changes every few hours? First of all, he’s trivializing some of the most expertly done pacing I’ve seen in a videogame. Second of all, what’s the problem? What is wrong with gameplay variety? What is wrong with introducing and using different mechanics? This seems like less a valid criticism and more like pointing out an obvious fact in the game. Just because you draw attention to it does not make it a problem. This is the equivalent of pointing out Mario gives the player a new power-up or level every X minutes – yes, it’s true, but it’s a strength of the game and one of the reasons players enjoy it!

    Theme-park rides: so are most shooters. Part of this is Valve’s older-school design mentality of “give the player a bunch of stuff to do/shoot at/activate and eventually the way forward will open” that was present even in the earliest shooters. There’s nothing really wrong with it… and even still, I’m not sure why “turn valve to make fire go away” is supposed to be so mystifying. If there’s a problem here, he drastically overstates it in order to make his point.

    Closure… I agree, it sucks, but I don’t think Half-Life was ever designed with closure in mind. It’s the adventure that matters, not the destination, and frankly anything Valve does would never be able to live up to what fans have concocted. The mystery is always more interesting than the truth.

    tl;dr version: this guy has some decent observations, but many are critical for the sake of being critical, and not very well thought out. As I said, this feels like your typical case of “liberal arts major who likes to talk about narrative but has no real understanding of game design or mechanics” – like Extra Credits with a bit more pretense and without the input from someone who has actually made videogames before and thus knows what the hell he is taking about. I still think this critique is valuable – and it’s been successful in spawning discussion, so a victory there – but something about it just strikes me as underdeveloped. If you’re going to present your video as an in-depth critique, referencing RedLetterMedia and giving a shout-out to TV Tropes should not be the most you can bring to the table.

    • Joe says:

      I feel like the content muncher argument comes down to the fact that all the gunfighting/physics puzzling/exploring/etc. that you’re doing doesn’t actually matter to the story. It’s all fun, but all the stuff that matters to the story seems to happen in scripted events. Hell, I spent what felt like half of HL2 on the road to Nova Prospekt, having forgotten why halfway through. Was it fun? Sure. Did any of it really matter? Not really.

      • Klay F. says:

        This same thing can be said of every shooter ever made. Does every hybrid you kill on the way to Polito’s office in System Shock 2 matter? Of course not. Does every splicer you murder on the way to Andrew Ryan matter? Of course not? Does every guard you knock out in Thief 2 matter? Of fucking course not.

      • swenson says:

        Yeah, but you can kinda say that about every game. The point is to rescue the princess, to retrieve the MacGuffin, to take the MacGuffin to the Land of MacGuffins to seal away eternal darkness, etc. Do the legions of mooks you kill along the way ever matter? I’ve never played a game where I legitimately felt, every time I defeated another enemy, “Wow, that really moved me toward my overarching goal.”

        Of course, this being in every game doesn’t excuse it. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing. And I’m not really sure how you could do things differently anyway.

        I will agree in one respect, though–Highway 17 does drag on a bit. It’s pretty well the only part of the game I feel that way about, though, and even then, it’s only because (like you) I forgot why I was going there about halfway through.

        • Thomas says:

          This is why Deus Ex:HR, KotoR 2 and FFX are all such completely brilliant games, is that the day to day battles are intimately involved in the plot and move it forward.

          KotoR 2 it only happens at the end, but is a fantastic reveal, Deus Ex, every battle is making you think about who Jensen is, what augmentations mean and what humanity means to you. FFX is creating the sense of this epic difficult journey through a broken world, so every mook you force you way through is giving you that sense of struggle, progress and journey.

          On the other hand, my two other favourite games, MGS 4 and Uncharted, fail at this to the point where it jars the story a little bit. At least MGS 4 blurs gameplay and story to the point where there are actually relatively few points of straight up weird stealth gameplay. In Uncharted killing so much stuff left me with huge character disassociation

  25. robziel says:

    If I didn’t have friends who agreed, I would think I was the only person who hated Half-Life 2. It is one of the few games I have ever stopped playing because I got bored. I found myself assaulting a prison to rescue someone and I suddenly realized I was bored to death and had been pretty much the entire time I’d been playing.

    It’s great that other people enjoy it but, I really don’t understand how.

    • Lanthanide says:

      The airboat levels, the car levels and Nova Prospekt all bored me too. I actually had no idea what I was supposed to be doing at Nova Prospekt, just that there were more baddies to kill. I wanted to get back to City 17.

      • Joe says:

        I personally enjoyed a lot of it moment to moment, but I completely forgot why I was doing any of it after about 10 minutes. The problem I had wasn’t that it wasn’t a fun trip, but that I forgot why I was on it.

  26. Biophision says:

    Honestly, I hate Half-Life 2 as well. I never played the first game, but the second, for me, was a boring slog with a poor story, dull gameplay, and frustrating puzzles. I agree with robziel’s sentiment: It’s great if you like HL2, but I can’t understand your reasoning.

  27. MichaelG says:

    The combat is a waste of time? If you don’t think Ravenholm is a great piece of game design, why are you even playing shooters?

    • Zukhramm says:

      Because Ravenholm is not in all shooters.

      • swenson says:

        Oh, but if only it was.

        I should clarify, I don’t necessarily mean “survival horror with limited ammo”. I mean “super mega ultra fun time with sawblades and the best weapon ever imagined by mankind”.

        Or, to put it more eruditely, a well-designed level in which you’re gently encouraged (although not forced) to practice a newly acquired skill that has memorable features (how could you forget Ravenholm, between the fright and Father Grigori?!), excellently-done atmosphere, is a lot of fun… and most importantly, doesn’t feel like a tutorial!

    • Robyrt says:

      Ravenholm was great, but about ten minutes too long. HL2 in general has some wonderful ideas, each of which are done a few times too many. Now, this mentality was everywhere in the early 2000s, so I can’t hold it too much against the designers, but it definitely has that Crysis 2 feeling of “really? Another room full of the same two dudes?” even with all the different mechanics.

  28. Sydney says:

    The only one of his criticisms that I agree with 100% is the one about the gameplay changing too drastically and too frequently. It reminds me of something one of my old professors said.

    In this class, the rule is that your thesis statement:

    i) Must not leave out any major points, and
    ii) Must not be longer than fifteen words.

    If you cannot create a thesis statement that fits those two rules, your essay lacks focus.

    I think a similar rule could, and should, apply to any other communicative creation. Movies, books, games. If you can’t sum it up completely and concisely, it lacks focus. And HL2 feels, to me, like about four games packed together. Is it a shooter or a puzzler or a driving game or what is it?

    Now, I’m all for genre-blending, if they’re blended, but HL2 doesn’t blent genres. It just jumps between them with audible clunking noises. I think each segment would have done better isolated and fleshed out. Five Portal-esques instead of one chimaera.

    I loved the gunplay, but the physics puzzling felt very arbitrary – I was never able to block out the realization that they had only one solution each that every player had to take – and I’ve never enjoyed driving anything in any game ever. But there was no way for me to pay only 33% and get the parts I wanted with none of the other stuff, so I ended up wishing I’d just bought a focused shooter.

    • Moriarty says:

      Try fitting those two criteria to any kind of medium and you’ll see they fit on none of them.

      A thesis is about gaining and sharing raw information, books films music and games are about entertainment.

  29. David Armstrong says:

    This was a really good response.

    Errant Signal voiced many of my own criticisms of HL2 and Shamus defended the game admirably.

  30. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I dont agree with the statement that gordon is a mary sue.Yes people like gordon,but are they acting out of character just to praise him for no reason?No,they dont.First people you meet in hl1 are all over the place.There are the polite ones(mostly the guards),but there are also those who simply brush you off.But then,as the game progresses,you keep doing all these pretty awesome things,so its natural that people who have watched you(a clip that was used here),will praise you for it.Heck,you overcame both alien invaders and trained army guys.That is impressive shit.In hl2,this is even more justified because you not only killed the big bad,but also freed an entire slave race.If gordon was a true sue,they would praise you like that,but you wouldnt have to fight a single enemy in both games.

    And while I mostly disagree with the points he made in this review,I get where he is coming from,and respect this kind of criticism far more than the “its just for valve fanboys” thats the most common.

    • SyrusRayne says:

      I always thought that it was the Vortigaunts who spread the “Freeman is pretty much a god” thing. Since they seem to be able to communicate over long distances (Always thought it was a hive-mind type thing, but Ep2 begs to differ,) it wouldn’t be too far-fetched for them to communicate that fact to all their Vort homies. Then said Vorts tell the humans.

      Of course, this isn’t actually explained in game, so it’s pretty much a moot point. Also, I’m rather a Valve fanboy, so of course I’m going to make excuses for a game I love.

    • NonEuclideanCat says:

      Yeah, the whole criticism about people rallying around you and thinking you’re the greatest kinda smacked of taking those scenes completely out of context. I literally did a facepalm when he showed the clip of Kleiner from HL2. Why wouldn’t he know you? A little note you can find in the HL1 instruction manual establishes Kleiner as Gordon’s professor while he was at MIT. Same with the rest of the clips from the beginning of HL1; everybody knows your name because you see them every day. You all work together; especially the security guy at the very beginning, since he checks you in at the start of every day. And the HL2 clips are even more obvious. There’s only one guy running around with a beard and glasses and Halloween-flavored power armor and he’s been wrecking the Combine’s shit non-stop since he arrived. Plus, the Vorts all know what you did during HL1 and they’re prolly been telling stories. Why wouldn’t the resistance fighters know your name? Why wouldn’t they want to follow you?

      • Simulated Knave says:

        …I think expecting him to find a tiny note in the manual is a bit much. Indeed, you’re assuming he even got one.

        Otherwise, I’ll expect to see a lot more complaining when Shamus misses something important because it was in the manual.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          You dont even have to focus on tiny details to show you that.You dont even have to play the first game for it.Here,just focusing on the second game:

          You are greeted by people who know nothing of you,therefore are indifferent towards you.Then suddenly,theres barney,and he mentions the beer he owes you,establishing himself as an old friend,which is perfectly natural.He then introduces kleiner,who also establishes himself as an old friend.Then you meet another bunch of people who dont know you,and some help you because they hate the combine.Then you meet alyx,who establishes how you worked with her father,and how he speaks highly of you,so naturally she thinks of you as some kind of a superhero,hence her behaviour.Then you meet the villain,and it seems he also knows you from before.After a bit of chasing around,you meet your first vortigaunt,and if you pester him a bit,you find out how you actually saved his people from slavery,so no wonder they idolize you.The rest of the people you meet here show that they know about you because they all keep in touch via radios,plus there are some vorts around,so all the praise you get is natural as well.Then you meet judith,who praises both you and eli,showing how you two were equals,and again,seeing how she worked with eli so long,her praise for you is also natural.Then ravenholm,again a few rebel bases with radios,highway 17,vorts,and nova prospekt.After that,you find out that your assault on the prison sparked a rebellion,so any praise you get afterwards is justified in game.

          Now,if gordon was a mary sue,youd get barney praising you without ever establishing he knew you from before,and same for kleiner and eli.Alyx would throw herself on you without ever mentioning your involvement with her father,and same for judith.Vorts would never say anything about your actions from before,and would praise you for no reason.Your actions in nova prospekt would be meaningless,yet people would still be praising you after that.

        • Duffy says:

          In defense of the manual background, HL came out right before the death of informative manuals. At the time, gaining some story information from the manual was not exactly unheard of.

          Have you ever seen the original Star Craft, Diablo, Dark Reign (slightly more obscure one) manuals? Most of the manual was background story.

  31. Bentusi16 says:

    Actually, there is a reason for the apparent deification of Gordon Freeman, but it’s a bit subtle.

    THe area your in, and the rebellion that is established in that area, is being led by Eli Vance. Vance was a scientist at Black Mesa, up to and including ‘the incident’ that led to the combine invasion. He knows about what Gordon Freeman did, though probably not all the details involved, but he and the other surviving staff, Magnuson, Kleiner, Barney, were all involved in what happened and saw Gordon doing these things, or heard about it.

    Now, Eli is the head of this rather big thing, and he talks to people. Maybe he mentioned Gordon Freeman as being a real badass back in the day, which seems to be likely considering most of his immediate friends and family seem to know quite a bit about you, even the ones not directly involved in prior incidents, Alyx and Mossman. Even Breen is aware of Freemans reputation, though that could be linked to his unknown connection with the forces at play during the Half Life universe.

    Remember that up until you get the orange suit, most of the NPC’s have no idae who the hell you are. Why? Because up until that point the other characters haven’t really mentioned you to them. But then you show up, and they go ‘Well gosh darn it’s Gordon Freeman!”. So the person next to them goes “Who the heck is that?”, and they sketch in some of Gordons backstory.

    Anyway from there you basically get a meme. This idea spreads through the Rebels that this Gordon Freeman guy is the ultimate badass, and they really need someone who is just that as a symbol. Eli may be brilliant, but he’s also an amputee and quite old. He’s the leader. Kleiner and Magnussen, while both brilliant, are both quite old and are scientist. And Alyx, while a capable fighter, is more of a scout/spy, sneaky and quick.

    Ultimately, what Freeman fufills for the rebellion is the role of “grand warrior”, while Eli leads them ‘spiritually’ and Kleiner and Magnusson lead the way in advancing their tech against the combine.

    Freeman happens to fill an empty spot in the rebels symbol list, and he fills it well. The key difference between him and alyx in this regard, or he and barney, is that Freeman is both distinguishable (Bright orange suit) and willing to go straight up against the combine.

    Barney actually gets a bit of this during Episode 1, and I forgot to mention: Right after you get the orange suit, you go and kill a bunch of combine, send the city into the frenzy, and otherwise give the combine a serious black eye. A serious visible black eye. And you live. So that helps. Oh yeah, and all the Vortigaunts around. That probably would have helped.

    • SyrusRayne says:

      Eli and Kleiner and them leading the local resistance could explain the Lambda being used everywhere. A sort of in-joke that spread to the other rebels, maybe. That as opposed to absolutely everyone knowing about Freeman. There’s a lot of possible explanations.

      • Irridium says:

        Indeed. A bright-orange hazard suit isn’t exactly subtle, after all.

      • ps238principal says:

        I always figured Eli and Co. were using Gordon as the most likely candidate as a counter for Breen’s propaganda, making a symbol for the rebels to rally around. Given that the G-Man is a “mutual friend,” he probably encouraged it in places.

        Even if they assumed Freeman had died at the end of HL1, he’d still be useful symbolically. A man who doesn’t technically exist can’t be killed, so…

    • Jake Albano says:

      In addition to this, the first few citizens you see after you get the suit don’t know who you are. The woman in the tunnel whose husband is killed, and the guy in the train car with the vortigaunt both act like you’re just another dude. By that point Alyx is sending out communications on the rebel radio networks…and it’s still not “OMG FREEMAN”. The first time you’re recognized by a citizen he says “Hey, you’re Freeman, aren’t you?”, and from then on to somewhere close to the end you aren’t back in City 17. By that point it makes sense that the “meme” has been spread and everyone recognizes you.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      One other thing:If you pester the vorts long enough,they will mention how you have freed them from slavery,and they will never forget it.And seeing how they are everywhere,they sure are going to tell everyone “We were slaves like you once,but then this guy in orange suit killed our master,and set us free.And he is here now,so prepare to unshackle yourselves”.Of course,they will do it in a much cooler sounding way.

  32. Phoenix says:

    Stalker: call of prypiat is the best I can think of. There are a lot of shooting games in pair or better than HL2. Anyway I prefer the original HL. :-/

  33. ngthagg says:

    Re: Content Muncher

    I agree with Campster on this. I haven’t played all of HL2, but for the parts I have played, the game certainly is inconsequential to the story.

    The trip from Kleiner’s lab to Black Mesa East should be about being on the run from the Combine. And it was . . . until I went off script. The first time I wasn’t sure where to go, I discovered that the pursuit by the Combine doesn’t exist. It’s just set pieces connected by linear paths, one after another.

    What HL2 should do is make these mean something. Allow results other than pass/fail. Multiple routes, multiple solutions, anything to make one playthrough different from another.

    Perhaps if you find these pieces to rewarding in themselves then they are rewarding to play through. But I don’t play a lot of first person shooters, and I’m not that great at them. I blunder through these sorts of games, wasting a lot of ammo and health and making things seem more difficult then they really are. But occasionally I get things right, and it was these times that really drove me nuts. No matter how efficiently I defeated a blockade, the game rewarded me the same. It’s not very satisfying, and goes a long way to explaining why six months later I’m still only in Ravenholm.

    Re: Alyx. Maybe you didn’t pick up on it (being married might make a difference), but she’s totally saying “I’m available” every time you talk to her. Not quite flirting, but it’s there. The body language, awkward pauses, everything is done magnificently well.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      I saw a similar behavior from a girl meeting her idol in person.I wouldnt call it flirting,seeing how she was 13 at the time,and her mother was with her.I guess the line between the flirting and idolizing is very thin indeed.

    • “The Content Muncher”

      So…yeah, what ngthagg said. It’s not that the content is bad (though I do personally find the shooting mechanics of the HL series to be pretty weak in comparison to its contemporaries), but it’s inconsequential. In fact, the point he was making is the agreement you typed out in the Theme Park section.

      SIDE NOTE: The Harry Plinkett reference in the vid was inspired!

  34. MikhailBorg says:

    Give the number of things you do in the Half-Life series that many others tried to do, and failed (even with Hazard Suits), I don’t see any problem with all the “Holy Shit, Gordon Freeman!” behavior.

    You saved tons of Black Mesa scientists from the military. You got the Black Mesa communications satellite into orbit. You defeated the Nihilanth (however it’s spelled). And when you’re de-frosted for HL2, you just keep triumphing for the human race, rather publicly.

    And the “Mary Sue” argument hardly applies to a first-person shooter. What would the reviewer have preferred? Constant news broadcasts about how what you (the player) were doing was nice, but nowhere near as important as what Gordon Frohman was doing the next block over? Should Alyx have said, “Well, it’s nice you’re here, but honestly, we don’t need you that badly. Just chill out over there in the corner, and Frohman will have the Citadel destroyed in a few minutes.”

    I’m not sure exactly what the complainer would have preferred, which makes his argument a bit weak.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      “but nowhere near as important as what Gordon Frohman was doing the next block over?”

      Hey,gordon frohman is da man!Without him,and his l33t barrel ordering skills,the rebels wouldnt stand a chance.

    • ps238principal says:

      You just reminded me of Lewis Black’s rant on video games several years ago where he mentioned a rhythm game called “Britney Spears’ Dance Beat.”
      You won if you were good enough to become one of Spears’ backup dancers:

      “That’s right! The best you can do is become a backup dancer. It’s perfect the perfect game for people who disappoint themselves even in their fantasies.”

  35. Blake says:

    Never made it through Half Life 1, around the time of the big green boss monster thing in the video I gave up on it. I was there for the story but spent nearly all my time in nothing but boring confusing sewers.

    Didn’t play Half Life 2.

    For me to actually play a FPS I need to either be playing split screen co-op on console, or the game needs to do something special to keep my interest for more than 20 minutes. Bioshock managed this with it’s awesome atmosphere, but that’s about the only example I can think of in recent years.

    EDIT: Also the Metroid Prime games, thoroughly enjoyed them. They had very nice environments, story was basically entirely optional (learning about the world through scanning things etc.), good rewards for exploring, weapon selection was always up to you to decide what you liked best against each enemy (rather than what guns/ammo was around), good boss monsters, good endings (secret endings and all), great games.

  36. Matthew says:

    Why would you link us to TvTropes? Some of us have other things we’d like to do for the next week!

    I only played HL2 recently, but I’d heard a lot of hype and didn’t want to have another DX:HR happen (I heard far too much good stuff about that game to be able to enjoy it properly.) so I lowered my expectations and tried to remember that is was a fairly old game. As such, I quite enjoyed it and found a lot of fresh ideas, which doesn’t make much sense, seeing as it was released 8 years ago and I’ve played plenty of shooters since then, but I felt the same playing the original Deus Ex.

  37. silver Harloe says:

    My biggest problem with his “content muncher” complaint was that the exact same complaint applies almost universally – and usually in far worse ways.

    HL2 forces you from set piece to scripted event to set piece, but only occasionally forces you to pay attention or takes the camera from you. And it sometimes suggests a weapon but rarely forces it on you (even the example of Ravenholm – supposedly the big “new game play sequence forcing you to use the gravity gun” is playable without the GG (as a weapon)). While Kleiner is delivering his speech, you can ignore him and play with the room – even my much loved Deus Ex (original) wrests you into conversations quite often.

  38. Peter H. Coffin says:

    OT: The advert engine is putting up barely-dressed elves again, hawking a ORPG. I think I remember that you wanted to squish those. Feel free to email me for a screencap if necessary.

  39. Jabrwock says:

    Yes, the other characters do eventually elevate Gordon to some sort of messiah, and the reasons for their praise and adoration always seem to come from off-stage. This is one of those quirks of the series. I thought it was pretty understandable in Half-Life, and inexplicable in Half-Life 2. In either case, Campster's point stands that the game spends a lot of time clumsily stroking the player's ego.

    In Half-Life 1, the scientists begin treating you rather indifferently. The guard wants to buy you a beer, but the other scientists berate you for being late. You have a PhD, but they give you the easy job, pushing the “activate” buttons in the lab.

    Later on, you become the one everyone knows about, because you’re the only one who tries to get out. The others are scared, don’t have the hazard suit (who’s wearing the other two?), or are dead. By the end, you are the guy who saved the world.

    Then you get to HL2. There was this guy who saved the world from alien invaders, and then mysteriously vanished. A new alien force invades. Through time and stories about you, your legend has grown to the point where it has become ridiculous. Everyone knows your name because they’ve told stories about you. And the Vort treat you like a liberator. And then there’s the scattered radio stations, which justify why everyone (including the Combine), know who you are and that you are coming.

    Is it hyped up? Yes. Is it some kind of Mary Sue buttering up? A bit. But honestly, if you’re the main character who goes and saves the world, is it not a bit tongue in cheek to have everyone treat you like the messiah? I think the Administrator summed it up nicely. You are just some pink-faced employee of a research lab. And yet his minions STILL can’t stop you. You can almost sense his frustration at that.

    • Falcon says:

      Those radio/ video messages were the best part of the game. They give a real sense of character to the world. Dr Kleiners were an excellent evolution of the character concept. Dr Breen’s give an idea of what is going on behind the scenes. Honestly any time I heard one I hadn’t heard before I would hastily exit combat and stand still until they were finished, for fear of running into a firefight, or out of audio range.

    • MikhailBorg says:

      We see several more Hazard Suits on dead bodies in the Xen world. Apparently Black Mesa had a supply, but other folks who wore them weren’t as lucky or smart.

  40. thebigJ_A says:

    You want a shooter with agency? The STALKER series. Plus it’s the total opposite of a theme park ride.

    If you haven’t played any of them (The most recent, Call of Pripyat, is a good starting point if you don’t want to play them all, but the first is well worth experiencing) then you are missing out on a lot that could be added to the discussion in this post.

    Damn shame about the company. The next STALKER was one of my most anticipated games, ever.

    • Klay F. says:

      Actually as far as I know that whole announcement about GSC canceling STALKER 2 was a hoax. According to their official twitter, the game is still in development.

      • thebigJ_A says:

        No, it wasn’t a hoax. GSC has had some serious trouble (the nature of which they won’t even be talking about till mid January, that’s how bad it is), and what we have now are merely some slight glimmers of hope.

  41. CalDazar says:

    Aside from GameyGoose I’ve not seen much in-depth thought on half-life

  42. rrgg says:

    “I liked Crysis 2”

    Yeah right I saw your review of that game. . . >_>

  43. Kdansky says:

    I’ll offer a really short version:

    Half Life 2 is by no means a pinnacle of game design like some movies or books are. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is ages old, and still a good book. Goethe’s works are worth reading, as is Kafka, despite them all being decades older than the first pc-games.

    Music: Classical music, opera and the Beatles are still good.

    Film: 12 Monkeys or most Kubrik or Hitchcock movies (and many, many more) will still be worth watching in a hundred years, because they are still interesting. Some of the comedies with Marilyn Monroe are worth watching, despite nearing their first century.

    Games? Tetris will be fun too in 2112. Half Life? Probably not. You say yourself that HL2 is already getting old, and I felt so too when I went back to it recently. Half Life is the best version of the crappy game type which is a tunnel shooter with cutscenes, which is so incredibly common right now. Mass Effect is in the same category, by the way. It’s broader than you’d think.

    In essence, he points out the flaws of the genre (and games in general) much more than the flaws of this one game. It’s just very hard to point out subtle issues when you have to work with games that don’t fail at “have an interesting, multidimensional female character which might or might not like the player-character”, but already at “have a character instead of a Fleshlight with a texture swap”. Really, this is more of a critique at what games are and what they could be instead, and you just have to look at the top to find an answer to that question.

    As for myself: When I first played HL2, I found it boring. It took me years to like it, and I fear this is because I lowered my expectations, because all other games were so bad.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Well not everyone enjoys shakespeare,classical music,or hitchcock,so you are being unfair.You think that half life didnt age well?This person would disagree with you.

      • swenson says:

        SoldierHawke ftw! I love her playthrough of HL2. It’s fascinating to see a game I love and have played so much viewed through the eyes of someone who has literally no idea what’s going to happen. Gives me a whole new perspective on it. And it makes me appreciate Valve’s stupendous environmental storytelling all the more, what with how, with no need to resort to the wiki or other outside material, she’s able to work out a lot of the background.

  44. Noble Bear says:

    I’m late to this party but I’m gonna comment anyway.

    For the most part, I agree with YOU, Shamus on your points and would also add that, speaking for myself, Alyx is awesome and I have enjoyed every moment I’ve gotten to spend with her, regardless of what is claimed. She passes the Plikett test of characterization, and that works for me.

    The one point I disagree with you on and was the only point I really connected with Campster was the “stupid, time-wasting bullshit”. Repeated playthroughs of HL2 have shown to me how much I, as a player, am really playing for story. I found the car obnoxious and the boat doubly so. I hated the bridge level that makes you cross the same expanse twice to meet your objective. After a while I felt like “yeah, I get it, can we move on now? PLEASE?!” I spend half the game board or frustrated and hoping that the next checkpoint would do SOMETHING, ANYTHING, to advance the story or do something really cool, but that never materialized. It was a complete wasted and when they started repeating set pieces in the episodes, I started to feel cheated by a series that by all accounts, I still really love. So yes, “stupid, time-wasting bullshit” feels like exactly the right description to me.

  45. Vect says:

    I’m suddenly reminded of the Plot Analysis of Mass Effect 2 that while brought up very similar points that Shamus made did have some mistakes. For example, he insisted that Samara should be perfect at the endgame as a Fireteam leader despite the fact that it really didn’t fit her because she’s centuries old and therefore should have mastered every single thing about combat, including military tactics/strategy.

    • CalDazar says:

      That guy had a lot of problems.

      • Klay F. says:

        While yes, I don’t necessarily agree with smudboy’s analysis of gameplay mechanics. He actually knows what he’s talking about in terms of genre fiction, and just about every problem he had with the story’s (lack of) plot, are the same problem anyone will have who knows how story structure works. Add to that the fact that what little plot there was in Mass Effect 2 was so stupid I wanted to murder everyone involved in the game afterward.

        • swenson says:

          The real problem I have with smudboy’s analysis is that there’s plenty of legitimate issues with the plot to pick at… but yet there’s still some things he complains about that a person could realize make perfect sense if you took a few minutes to skim the Codex or think about it deeply. With so many legitimate complaints, why would you even bother with things that can be explained away?

          • Klay F. says:

            His big complaints however don’t really have anything to do with things that can be explained in the codex. Yeah, he might dwell on a few things that the codex explains for a few seconds, but he largely doesn’t concern himself with those points.

            You can see the largest part of the problem in the comments below his videos. People are constantly trying to defend the game with nothing but conjecture. They are so desperate to not have their enjoyment of the game ruined, that they all start making up complete bullshit to explain away the problems.

          • CalDazar says:

            I thought I already posted this, but I guess wordpress ate it or something.

            I think the problem is he is so quick to take cheap shots, so eager to emulate Plinket reviews that he doesn’t think through everything he says. The result is most of a video is unimportant, and also wrong. I suspect this is also why his suggestions are only slightly less bulk than whatever problem he is talking about.

            I’d say it’s a shame since the good points really are good (I’ll admit to feeling stupid that I didn’t notice a thing or two), but from my dealings the fellow really is that petty.

  46. ClearWater says:

    Maybe I misunderstood but I though he said his problem with Alex was with “her role in facilitating Gordon Freeman as a masturbatory aid for the player”, not that Alex Vance was a masturbatory aid. I’m not sure what he means by that exactly.

    Masturbatory. Lovely word. Like laboratory but with a slightly different meaning.

    • Noble Bear says:

      That IS what he says but he still seems to marginalize her by saying she needs emotional baggage and she hates Mossman because… wait for it… Mossman is looking to replace he deceased mother.

      What kind of bullshit is that? I’m sure her distaste of Mossman has absolutely nothing to do with Judith being an elitist, pedantic, egotistical bitch. One who we find out later sold out Gordon and all of the Black Mesa team to likely remove him as a competitor because SHE think it should have been HER in the test chamber that day creating a dimensional breach that doomed all of humanity!

      But no, Alyx clashes with her initially because Mossman has a crush on her father. Whatever.

      EDIT: BTW, yes, “Masturbatory” is a fun word. :)

    • Joshua says:

      Yes, I believe he means masturbatory in that she’s there stroke Gordon’s(and thus the player’s) ego, not that she herself is supposed to be sexy or titillating the player.

      I don’t agree with this analysis and I pointed out why in another post here. It is very noticeable that many of the NPCs are constantly revering Dr. Freeman. The reviewer is choosing to believe that the reason for that is Valve is wanting to stroke the player’s ego. I personally think there are deeper reasons for it, such as the Messianic complex being the reason why everyone is wanting you to do the work, when in theory you’d be one of the least qualified.

  47. While I have no problem examining Half Life (and to a lesser extent HL2; I know it’s heresy but I never finished the game), I think that this review has additional problems you don’t mention.

    One: The early part of the game where everyone is greeting you isn’t a Mary Sue bit (maybe in HL2 it’s a little more protracted, but that emerges as a logical consequence of the players’ actions in HL1 and HL2). It’s a “friendly office place” bit. Some people barely acknowledge him or turn to him, others are more friendly. There’s the staid researcher trying to reinforce protocol and the more collegial and laidback people. I felt that Half-Life really made Black Mesa feel like an office place, which was crucial to reinforce the humanity. I remember to this day playing the game and being WORRIED about all the people I had met in the halls. By humanizing the characters by making them nice (not fawning over me but just the representatives of a nice workplace), the game reinforced the later feelings of dread and horror. Those head crab zombies may have been people you said hello to earlier. If Gordon’s a Mary Sue, then the elements were used skilfully. Further, Gordon is a unique Mary Sue because he is ordinary in all the ways that Mary Sues aren’t. He’s a theoretical physicist and a smart guy, but he’s not a badass.

    Second: The games have to be considered not only in their GENRE, but in their TIME. In particular, Half-Life was so revolutionary in terms of having story AT ALL, having that story be told organically through gameplay rather than cutscenes, etc. that it pioneered techniques that we’re still mastering. It wasn’t just revolutionary for the shooter genre; it was revolutionary for all genres. And while I personally think Quake deserves a little more of the mod community credit (Team Fortress came from Quake, though it’s true CS was Half-Life), it also certainly was a great modding platform. The flaws he’s pointing up seem very 2012 to me in terms of their orientation: They’re complaints that can be made now precisely because HL opened up the opportunities for storytelling. Yes, I suppose that’s not a big deal when we want to criticize games as a guidepost for the future, but at the same time, it’s disheartening when smart games that revolutionized the genre still get nitpicked.

    Third: Alyx’s personality is deep enough that it seems absurd to ask for more characterization. I also like that the game avoids Wangst this way. The fact that she’s not some political sloganeer or traumatized girl is helpful.

    Fourth: I love choice in games, storytelling, etc. But the fact is, just like it’s unfair to criticize a GM in a roleplaying game because he doesn’t let you run a unicycle shop as the crux of the gameplay (to borrow an example from Shamus), it’s not fair to criticize a game too readily for being a railroad ride. The fact that the game switches up the elements, makes fun gameplay bits, tells the story through the railroad cart, etc. is what makes it a GOOD GAME. The fact is that video games, by their TECHNICAL LIMITATIONS, are going to by and large remain pretty limited in what you can do. You get occasional Dwarf Fortresses and Minecrafts, but those games tend to be primitive in other ways such as graphics (Dwarf Fortress in particular being nigh unplayable for a lot of people and having a VERY high entrance requirement) and have their own problems and limitations. The fact is that there’s nothing wrong with a rail shooter, or a shmup, or a platformer, or many kinds of gaming experiences that are basically setpieces separated by gaming sections, and the fact that Half-Life took the time to make tons of content between the setpieces, made that content very different, and made the setpieces immersive. They also generally didn’t make my character seem stupid or facile, which many (Peter Molyneux, I’m looking at you) can’t get the grasp of: If you’re going to deny me alternatives, make sure they were dumb alternatives, please.

    In fact, too much choice is just as paralyzing as too little. Anyone who’s played a sandbox game like Oblivion or GTA IV can attest to a certain level of meaninglessness: Yeah, I can wander around and kill cops or rob people, but WHY? What’s my motivation? Oftentimes, these stories fail to motivate and their core storyline elements are not well engineered. (GTA is a particularly bad offender: Its missions are famously at odds with regular gameplay). What Half-Life did really well was use its set pieces to tell the story and make a powerful feeling of inhabiting the world, which is a feeling unique to video games, while taking away player agency at a MINIMUM. Fact is that some reduction of agency is crucial to having any kind of motivation: X prevents me from having what I want, so I have to exert Y effort to get Z shiny thing. If I have Z and all things Z-like at the start of the game, then what is there left for me to do?

  48. swimon says:

    Ok first: is it just me or does campster look like an introverted Graham Stark (from “loading ready run”)? Maybe it’s the beard but they look really similar.

    Secondly: not being campster myself I obviously don’t know what he himself meant but I’d like to defend some of his statements. Mainly the switching of gameplay. See while Half Life competently tells a story through it’s environment it’s not as good at doing it through gameplay. is a good example of this being done really well but essentially all gameplay set a tone, explore themes and flesh out the story. By constantly switching gameplay half life 2’s tone becomes unfocused and the exploration of it’s theme’s shallow.

    Switching gameplay styles can of course be done well but in HL2 it makes little sense. We quickly go from the empowerment of fighting combine to vehicle sections that at least to me seem to set a tone of hasty retreat (“flee the neutered non-threatening enemies that you killed loads of quite recently”) to the survival horror of ravenholm and suddenly we’re fighting large powerful enemies with companions. Because of this HL2 feels disjointed and I never really feel anything about these things. Switching it up can be used to tell a story but the swtching of gameplay need to be signifcant expressions of a changing state in the game not just because we’ll get bored otherwise. For example you could have a game that starts survival horror like ravenholm having us be vulnerable and afraid of everything then having that slowly escalate until we are forced to flee in a vehicle section. After that we start gathering rebels fighting in those horrible escort missions (but against zombies and headcrabs not combine) slowly building up the rebels and our power. After this we fight the combine giving us a taste of empowerment and a false climax. Our power is then removed by fighting the large powerful enemies like striders at the very end since these are single powerful enemies and not a horde of weak they’re a lot less empowering and instead puts our power to the test. I’m sure smarter people could make something better than that but my point is that the changing of gameplay could help tell the story.

    In HL2 however it just changes all the time, mostly for no reason. I think this is why campster described it as “empty” because in the end it doesn’t communicate anything it doesn’t make us feel in any certain way it’s just kinda forced variety.

    Playing through Crysis 2 might make shooting dudes boring (I haven’t played it myself since I don’t really like shooters unless they try something special) but shooting dudes is what it’s about and constantly changing what the game is about is rarely the solution. The best solution IMO is making a game with variety that comes from what the game is about and then simply ending it before it becomes boring. Many games (HL2 included) could be much improved by making it half as long.

    Also I made this post last night/morning and the site acted like I posted something (warned me of a double post etc.) but nothing actually turned up. Kinda weird.

  49. Jokerman says:

    ahh, the big head mode cheat…oh – thats just how they were.

    • ps238principal says:

      What’re you going to do next? Complain that Pong was too blocky? :)

      That said, I’ve always wondered if the white-haired scientists were meant to look like they were talking out of the side of their mouths like PhD versions of Popeye or if that was just kind of how the zeroes and ones made them turn out.

      • Jokerman says:

        I dont think the scale of there head to there body is an age issue – more of an art issue – other people got it right at the time. But honestly…i never noticed until now – so back when i played it first i did not notice.

  50. Mark says:

    Perhaps I’m conflating “The Content Muncher” with “Theme Park Ride,” but I found most of Gordon’s accomplishments to be incidental. If you look at the story, most if your time is spent going from Point A to Point B with a bunch of obstacles in the way. While it’s true that the obstacles are not without context, they accomplish nothing in the grander scheme of things.

    Take Ravenholm, for example. It was a brilliant section that I enjoyed, but looking back, it was just part of the “beautiful tunnel” from Black Mesa East (Point A) to Nova Prospekt (Point B). Nothing you do there carries forward. The same goes for Highway 17 and Lighthouse Point. These sections account for many hours of gameplay but accomplish nothing beyond giving various perspective of just how bad the Combine is. Okay, we get it.

    Without all the fluff, the plot of Half-life 2 is as follows:

    Gordon appears in City 17, which is overtaken by the Combine. Working undercover, Barney Calhoun directs him to Dr. Kleiner’s lab, and he meets Alyx Vance along the way. Dr. Kleiner teleports Alyx to Black Mesa East, but Gordon must travel the old fashioned way. Once he arrives, he meets Eli Vance and Judith Mossman. The Combine attack, capturing Eli and presumably Judith. Alyx and Gordon travel separately to Nova Prospekt to rescue Eli and Judith. During their escape, Judith teleports herself and Eli to the Citadel in City 17. Gordon and Alyx teleport to Dr. Kleiner’s lab in City 17 but arrive a week late. Alyx is captured by the Combine. Gordon storms the Citadel and saves everyone.

    The above paragraph shouldn’t take 12 hours. The first half of it is just introducing the cast. Half-life 2 is one of my favorite games, but I kind of agree with Campster. It’s overrated. It may be among the best we have, but it’s a far cry from the best possible.

  51. Johann F Weiss says:

    I’m with Campster on most of his points. The first time I played through half-life 2 I was really disappointed at the end, because I felt like there was no plot arc. It was the combination of theme park issue, the content munching thing and the lack of closure. If it were only one of those I wouldn’t have noticed it, but the combination of the three made the game seem pointless.

    I enjoyed playing it a second time because I spent a lot more time ‘smelling the roses’ and enjoying the rich environment, but that doesn’t negate the other problems.

  52. swenson says:

    Agree more or less on the Mary Sue/overly messianic thing (although like you, I think it’s an unavoidable side effect of making your character entirely silent), disagree pretty thoroughly on the Alyx Vance thing (she starts off respecting you like everyone else, probably because she grew up being told stories about how awesome you were, and I never got the mommy issues vibe from her. Ever. She doesn’t like Mossman because she thinks she’s arrogant and doesn’t appreciate her… and because Alyx has a pretty short temper.), definitely agree on the roller coaster part (HL2 is a remarkably linear game… I don’t necessarily consider this bad, though, because it’s done very well), and agree on the closure bit (although I forgive it in part because it’s how the series works).

    The “content muncher”/change what you’re doing things, however, make no sense to me. So first everything between the setpieces is boring and all the same… and then it’s changing all the time. Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction? Either it’s changing (and therefore probably kept fresh) or it’s repetitive and boring. You can’t really say it’s both, at least not without some serious qualifications. I’ve always felt the big setpieces are integrated quite well in with the puzzle bits and combat bits, and I personally love how varied the gameplay is. It’s far more interesting than most games.

    By contrast, let’s consider what you do in Mass Effect, one of my other favorite game series: kill average-strength enemies. Kill above-average-strength enemies. Have really awful vehicle sections. Scan planets. Hack things. Have elaborate conversations with varying levels of “jerk” and “saint”. And… that’s it, really, other than the final bosses, which consist of “shoot it a lot” and “shoot it only a few times, but in very specific places” respectively. And this is a game I enjoy and rarely get tired of (mostly because, I’ll be fair, it gives you a number of interesting ways to kill things and it has good dialogue/cutscenes). So how much better is a game with a variety of gameplay? When multiple sections of a game leave you wishing for more (the airboat and the super-powered gravity gun in HL2 for me in particular), that’s a really good sign, because in most games, people complain about something being dragged out too far.

    So I guess in regards to the “changes every two hours” thing, I just don’t see what the issue is there. Isn’t that sort of change a good thing? Or at least I wish more games would offer you that kind of variety…

  53. ENC says:

    He insightfully pointed out all the reasons I was bored to tears during both games (never tried the episodes) and why I returned them both promptly less than 2 hours in.

  54. Mukk says:

    The Alyx sex thing doesn’t seem right. She’s slightly flirty. But I don’t ever remember her trying to climb into Gordon’s pants. I’ll agree that it seems that if Gordon tried to woo her he has a shot, but that’s not a flaw. Its just that Gordon isn’t an asshole and both characters are young and in good health. Sex permeates the human condition. You just have to deal with its existence. Maturely. Which this game does.

    The alternative is some kind of sexless ‘girls are icky,’ ‘sex is gross’ outlook. Don’t include any women in your story or you might get cooties. Ugly bad women make you misogynistic. Good looking normal women make you sexist. Only include old ladies and little girls that couldn’t possibly be sexual targets.

    That’s not a better way of looking at things. How about you just grow up and accept that sex is OK as long as it is handled maturely? Its OK that men find women sexy as long as they don’t treat women with disrespect. Its OK that women find men attractive. Its OK that some men find men attractive… Taking sex out of your story completely leads to a weird world. In the real world people are horny.

    Alyx is a good example of a secondary heroine character compared to other video games. She’s not particularly developed but the story isn’t so much about her.

    Also the term Mary Sue is a bad one. In fact if you want to respect women like you were talking about before, you probably shouldn’t use it. The concept is pretty misogynistic.
    But I will agree that Gordon Freeman seems off in Half Life 2. Why is he a renown Hero? Why does everyone know who he is? I don’t mind that he always wins because most video game player characters always win. I mind that people treat him like space Jesus. He’s just some dude. Game you need to either explain why he’s so well known by explaining the consequences of his actions or stop worshiping him.

    • (LK) says:

      Alyx might be a more agreeable character (in one aspect) if she did take the initiative and “try to get into Gordon’s pants”.

      I think you’re equating a criticism of how attraction is being handled with a criticism of its’ presence, which is a severe mistake. Romance has a place in fiction. Romance wherein the female role will only hint at her desires and leave it up to the protagonist to decide to make her theirs or turn her down reduces that female character to just a servant of the protagonist’s whims, and that does come with a lot of misogynist baggage attached.

      I see a lot of these criticism where people take objection to this subservient-woman element of including romance in games, and people take umbrage, as you do, thinking that this has to be because they have an issue with including romance at all. There are a lot of ways for sexual attraction to play out besides a woman dropping coy hints here or there, and otherwise just deferring unflinchingly to whatever a man decides to do or not do about them. Portraying romance in that manner is painfully unrealistic, and digs up a lot of valid criticisms about how women are portrayed.

      If you’re interested in someone, whether it’s romantic or sexual, you are invested in that desire. You will pursue it, or not pursue it, depending on your judgement on the matter. What you will not do, man or woman, is just drop a few hints here or there, but express no emotional response whatsoever to whether they are accepted or rejected. That’s because you’re a person, not just a pathway left open to entice someone else should they desire it.

      Alyx as a character is welcome to be attracted to the protagonist. What makes this deviate into a sort of sexist territory is that she doesn’t follow through with this. The protagonist flatly ignores these advances, and she makes no response at all to what would normally be a particularly injurious form of rejection. From this, it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw that she isn’t flirting because she feels something: instead, she’s flirting for the gratification of the player.

  55. (LK) says:

    I’m going to offer my best attempt at a feminist angle on his criticisms of Alyx:

    I sense that his main issue with Alyx is that she is literally nothing except a supporting character. Any aspect of her character that does not have relevance to serving Gordon or serving the player is more or less just omitted. She has no characterization unless it serves the player character.

    Feeling more like a normal human and less like an animated sex toy does elevate her above other female characters in games, but not by much. At the end of the experience Alyx has still failed to serve as anything but a flat servant of the player and of Gordon. This does invite and deserve some pointed feminist criticisms. Alyx is a woman whose sole purpose is to support the character, or to guide them into the correct mood for a given setpiece. She doesn’t seem to have a lot of motivation of her own, besides being a helpful sidekick.

    I would agree, as I think you’re likely to point out, that a lot of this is because of her role as a supporting character. But that doesn’t diminish his point that because of these concerns Alyx is not exactly a good example of a good female character. She’s simply not a terrible one.

    As a case in point: you never really learn from Alyx why she’s participating in all of this. You can assume that she wants to help her father, and her friend Gordon, but you never hear any of this from her own lips. Further, even if you do give the game a pass and just leave it as these implied motivations, that does still leave you with a female character whose sole motivation for her actions is serving others. From a feminist angle, that makes me wince a little.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      That complaint would be valid,if not for the fact that male characters(eli,kleiner and barney)are exactly the same.They do have their quirks,little tidbits about them,etc,but their main purpose is to help the main character go forward.

      • (LK) says:

        I do agree that this is coming about as a result of her position as a supporting character but at the same time, supporting characters such as Dr. Kleiner, Dr. Vance, and (importantly) Dr. Mossman do seem to have a little bit more of their own, individual motivations and agendas.

        However even if her shortcomings are a result of being a sidekick character in a game full of flat characters that doesn’t really change that she isn’t exactly an exemplary female character.

        She is not a bad female character, but if we remove gender from our considerations entirely she doesn’t really hold up to other characters from other experiences. As such it’s hard to point to her and say “this is a good female character”. At best I feel like we can say “she was an acceptible character compared to the other characters in her game”.

        So I suppose a lot hinges on the context of your criticism: If you’re judging her as just an element of this specific work of fiction, or if you’re judging her in the context of culture itself.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          Actually,mossman has less motivations than alyx.We know that she is an eli fangirl,and a triple agent.But why is she the spy,why does she care so much about eli?We can only assume those things.With alyx,however,we know she is gordons fangirl because her father(and kleiner and barney)told her numerous stories about him,we know why she is so worried about her father,and why she is helping the resistance(she is helping her father,obviously).So basically she is a caring girl who wants to repay her father everything he did for her(raised her without a mother in a world torn by war),and she finally met a hero from fairy tales told to her by her in her youth.Remove her gender,and nothing there changes.But,remove the gender of judith,and you may suddenly lose her feelings towards eli,because we dont know if its love,or respect,or duty,or whatever she is feeling towards him.But thats ok,because mossman is a teriary character,while alyx is a secondary one.

          I could probably find same reasonings for kleiner and eli as well,if you want me to.But,in my opinion,alyx is the most characterized one of them all.Except for breen that is.But thats not because breen is a guy,but because breen is the main villain,and a very fleshed out one at that.

  56. Hyperion says:

    This is the response I left on Campster’s blog, in response to his follow up comments, but I felt like reposting them here, so:

    Other things aside, I take issue with this comment:
    “Half-Life 2's linearity exists to funnel you from scripted event to scripted event. These events are almost never meaningful plot related events, but random “cool” things like Breen berating the Overwatch, villagers being generally frightened or sobbing, glimpsing G-Man as he walks away, resistance members whispering your name in awe as you approach, etc. They don't move the plot forward at all, really. At best most of these scripted bits are the videogame equivalent of architectural storytelling. You pass people sobbing on the street, other people are looking for lost family members, and a masked officer in riot gear makes you pick up his litter. It's great for building the atmosphere and sense of oppression, but it doesn't push the actual plot along one iota.”

    You seem to imply that the only worthwhile storytelling takes place during scripted sequences, but this is blatantly untrue. The game is always telling the player a story, even in the middle of the gameplay.

    When fighting in the canals, for instance, you learn a lot about the organization of the resistance and the underground railroad, and the way Civil Protection and Overwatch operate. You see decaying corpses scattered around, bloodstains on walls, and sewers filled with manhacks. It isn't hard to imagine what the rebels must have gone through, living in the sewers, or what unfortunate fate must have met the one charred body lying in the corner.

    Or when you are driving along the coast: you see ships stuck in the sand, and the water level greatly reduced. If you step into the water you quickly realize that it is full of dangerous “˜leech-like' creatures that kill you if you are not careful. Just from this, you can begin to piece together a picture of the damage the Combine did to the Earth after their invasion, and the extent to which the planet's resources has been drained.

    Or when you come up to a coastal building with Combine troops stationed outside, and burnt corpses on a bonfire. You walk up the stairs to the top floor, and see a single solitary rebel lying dead on the ground, with a gun next to him, and a bloodstain on the wall behind him. It isn't hard to imagine him being so scared and desperate that he hid in the top floor and killed himself. It's very powerful stuff.

    Or even (bear with me) “˜Easter eggs' such as the “˜all-knowing Vortigaunt,' whom you find in the canals, whose vague statements reveal a lot about the events directly after Half-Life 1 and Black Mesa, the enslavement of the Vortigaunts, and the nature of the G-Man.

    All of this helps to flesh out the setting and the overarching narrative of the series. What really irritated me about your comment was when you said: “It's great for building the atmosphere and sense of oppression, but it doesn't push the actual plot along one iota.” You just completely brush off the game's incredible storytelling. Is atmosphere and world-building now irrelevant to a game's narrative? Do the little bits of information you pick up throughout the game from the environment not flesh out the universe, bridge the gap between the games in the series, and enrich the game's backstory in general?

    The best thing about all of this is that the game does not, in any way, force you to look at these things. If one so chooses, they can ignore all of the environmental storytelling, instead focusing on the scripted scenes, and the bits of the story that are directly presented to the player. It's there for people who want it, but it is completely optional. It helps to flesh out the narrative, but for people who can't be bothered to explore and piece things together for themselves, they do not have to. This is one of Half-Life's greatest successes in my opinion.

    Just my thoughts.

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