Saturday, June 18, 2011

On the design of Half-life 2

Yesterday, I finished Half-life 2. Not for the first time; I'm certain I played it when the Orange Box came out in 2007, and I might have played it before that as well. I remember I really loved it.

I loved it a lot less this time around, and in fact have major complaints against the design of the game. This is odd, because I'm pretty sure that the things I loved 4 years ago were the same things I disliked now. Let me try to explain, and I'd love to hear what you think.

Story and characterisation

The story is simply bad. There's a lot of SF nonsense about humans being oppressed by aliens from another dimension, and there's a being out of time who manipulates Freeman for purposes unknown. All very "mysterious", but the kind of mystery where you feel that the guys at Valve are not giving you a coherent story because they don't have a coherent story to give you. This feeling was certainly borne out by the two episodes that followed, which did little to clarify the situation.

Most mysterious is the design decision to give Freeman no voice. I'm not talking about voice acting, but about any means of communications at all. People are continually saying things to you, you do not utter a single syllable, and nobody thinks this is strange. What are we to make of this? Do they all know that you are a mindless automaton? No, they seem to treat you as a human being with emotions. So why are you not talking, and why are they not noticing? Freeman's silence makes it impossible to take anything in the game at face value; but then the game doesn't provide another value for you to take things at. We only have bewilderment.

I really don't understand this design decision. There have been other games with a they-talk-and-you-do-not approach, like Diablo 2. But that was different. (1) Since you trade with these guys, you are apparently communicating, even if the game doesn't show this. (2) You were still selecting options from a menu, even if they were as impersonal as "trade" and "turn in quest". (3) Since the game was less cinematic and the conversations were less about personal feelings, reactions of the protagonist were less important and less expected.

Freeman really freaks me out. I don't believe he is supposed to, but man... his silence is his only personality trait!


Many of the original reviews agreed with me that Half-life 2 didn't have a great story. So let's put that to the side, and look at the gameplay. Surely that is brilliant? It has everything: not just fast FPS action, but also vehicles and jumping and shooting down huge robots and summoning ant lions and getting the upgraded gravity gun and whatnot. A truly fast-paced game with lots and lots of variety.

And it's true. Half-life 2 does give us a lot of variety. A lot of creativity went into it. But, and this seems to me the game's central problem, all of it is the creativity of the designers. Nothing is the creativity of the player.

It starts with the extreme linearity of the game. There is exactly one path, and it is impossible to deviate from it for more than a few meters. Even where there was absolutely no reason to choose such a design, Valve insists on linearity. For instance, near the end of the game you are turning off generators in some kind of public building. It's a big building, you need to get to all generators, there's no story reason to do them in a particular order. But Valve blocks off all corridors except one with force fields, and then slowly turns off the force fields one by one as you shut down the generators. Why? Apparently just so the player doesn't get overwhelmed by having... a choice.

The linearity of the game is so ridiculous that you cannot help but wonder -- again and again and again -- why the Combine is sending soldiers at you when all they would have to do to stop you is lock a single wooden door, or put a single 70 cm high obstacle in a corridor somewhere. In fact, if they just did nothing, Freeman would get stuck in one of the many areas where you can only proceed once your enemies have blown up a wall.

Linearity wouldn't be so bad if Valve allowed us to decide how to take on the enemies. To a certain extent, of course, we can: we can choose to throw a grenade, or use our crossbow, or shoot with our machine gun. But in fact, this extent is quite limited. We are continually placed in situations where there is exactly one way to proceed, and all we have to do is pick up the designers' hints and act on them. Combine soldiers behind shields? You'll be given a bunch of grenades just before you arrive there. Lots of zombies coming through a narrow corridor? Three circular saws are lying on the ground at your feet. In fact, if you come across a cache of rockets, you know that you will have to fight an airship or a strider. This is true every single time. You don't see a strider and decide which weapon to use against it: only rockets will work. You don't see a strider and think of a way to get rockets: there will always be a cache of rockets nearby, and there will be no other way to get rockets. The designers have decided that it is time for a rocket-vs-strider battle, and therefore you are given a strider and rockets and the battle commences.

This design philosophy informs every aspect of the game. The designers at Valve have decided what you are going to do at each point of the game, and any significant deviation is impossible. You never duck into a small tunnel because it allows you to circumvent the guards; you duck into a small tunnel because it is the only way forward. You are never moving crates and floating barrels because you have had an interesting idea, you are moving them because you have come to see that the level has been designed in such a way that you must positions the barrels and crates in position X in order to proceed. If you find placable turrets, you know that you'll have to defend the area against lots of enemies. There are no exceptions. Perhaps worst of all, there is Ravenholm with its awesome anti-zombie traps: gas-and-fire traps, falling cars, rotating knives, truly brilliant. But every trap has been designed and placed by Valve. The player just pushes the on-button. You don't even have to lure your enemies towards it, because if there is a trap, Valve will of course have provided you with a couple of enemies who are walking towards it.

As I played, the feeling that I was just acting out a script given to me grew stronger and stronger, and I came to resent it more and more. Why don't these guys just leave me alone? I don't want to be fed the set-pieces you have thought up in advance; just give me a level in which I can move and do things and be smart. And if it's a pure arcade game in which I don't have to be smart, but just have to show my skill at shooting in the right direction, that would be fine too -- but do not force me to act out the smart ideas you have had.

Seriously, if you think that crushing zombies under a falling car is cool, design a game in which I can raise cars, lure zombies, and crush them. Don't design a game with a suspended car, some zombies wandering towards it, and a button which I can push to drop the car. Because that is me acting out a scenario you have thought up and imposed on me.

Let me put it another way. The Half-life 2 designers are like a bad kind of Game Master: the kind of guy who has thought up in advance with what tactic the monster should be defeated, who gives you the tools to do it, and who rules that anything else you try will not work. "Nope, your spell does nothing. But remember that wand you just found in the previous room?" To which the natural player reaction is: "Yeah, I remember it, but I refuse to be manipulated. You are trying to usurp my fun, and then you want me to congratulate you on your well thought-out scenario. Go away." That seems to be exactly what the Half-life 2 designers have done: usurp my fun, and then expect me to applaud them for their brilliant "design". I'm not applauding. I just feel manipulated.


  1. Finally someone who echoes My sentiments on the story, which I really hated for being sketchy and lazy.

  2. I find the non-speaking player approach interesting. You know you're having emotional reactions to what's happening on screen, you infere then from other character reactions to yours, other than that, you're free to fill in the blanks. It's weird, but somehow it works with me.

    Linnearity is another story. It's so radical it makes me miss that little bit of exploration-joy that was present in the simplest of Doom levels. Sadly good'old Doom is not the inspiration here. Half-Life comes from that kind of "House Of The Dead" like games where you shoot compulsively to a static screen untill there are no more ugly baddies coming and the camera just flies to the next stage. In fact, It could even be considered as a brilliant variation on that concept, as it adds some elaboration om the scheme (some plot, some dialogs, a puzzle here and there...)

    But I still miss my Doom levels! :-p

  3. The idea behind Freeman's muteness has been that he isn't a character, you're supposed to become him. It's quite the opposite of the gameplay you describe, actually, since it at least allows you to have your own personality and reactions, even if they can't be reflected in the game. Marc Laidlaw even mentioned in an interview that Valve didn't actually want to have a face for Gordon either ( Hearing someone else's voice coming from you is weirder than having no voice at all.

    That said, I'll be the first to agree that Valve totally botched it by giving Gordon Freeman a personality anyway by means of promotional art and anecdotes in the game. In addition, the muteness was being called to attention by characters, which ruins the suspension of disbelief (and more so as the games go on. The muteness wasn't that odd in HL1, was it?).

    To quote yourself from 2005 ;) : "this is a detail we should not dwell upon. If we do dwell upon it, we are playing the wrong game of make-believe with the work."

  4. "and there's a being out of time who manipulates Freeman for purposes unknown."

    "Because that is me acting out a scenario you have thought up and imposed on me."

    I've never even seen the game, but what you describe seems completely consistent to me..

  5. Biep: that is consistent, of course. But it is not consistent with how the other characters react to you; and consistency is not a sufficient requirement for goodness.

    Anonymous: yeah, I have seen that "immersion" argument here and there. I don't buy it at all. If I can immerse myself in a theoretical physicist called Gordon Freeman (doing experiments -- there is all the explanation you need for why the experiment in the original Half-Life went wrong!) who battles aliens, surely I can also immerse myself in the same guy with a specific voice?

    And that is assuming that "immersion" is something desirable and existent, neither of which I'm convinced about.

    Of course, it worked a lot better in HL1, because there were no situations in which Freeman was supposed to speak. So you didn't really notice his lack of a voice. But in HL2, people are continually chatting to him, which, as you say, ruins it. I'd love to not dwell upon the muteness, but HL2 doesn't make that easy. :)

  6. "If I can immerse myself in a theoretical physicist called Gordon Freeman who battles aliens, surely I can also immerse myself in the same guy with a specific voice?"

    I'd argue that there's a huge difference there. The former has you putting on a mask; you are Gordon Freeman. The latter is more jarring. That voice is you. I'm fairly comfortable with playing other people. It's something I've had experience with form childhood play to playing in a musical. Having someone else be my personality is something quite different, and I find it to be a bit creepy.

    What does a voice add to the game? You complain that the situations presented in the game are implausible. But so are the conversations in the Iliad, Romeo & Juliet or the St. Matthew Passion. They, however, have accepted that and are proud of their surreal manner of speech. Nobody in the game ought to think Freeman's lack of speech is strange, in the same way that nobody in the Iliad thinks it's strange that Achilles always talks in hexameter (as mentioned, HL2 totally does draw attention to it and ruins it). A lot of games somehow can't accept and they have to add a character as a substitute for you when you can't interact. That's just crazy, in my opinion, not to mention cheap.

  7. Just a small thing, choice wasn't as prevalent of an issue back when they began creating this thing - sure, it came at the end of 2004, right along with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. But you have to consider where gaming was at in 1998, roughly where work began on Half-Life 2. Grand Theft Aut III is realy where I feel the expectation of choice began to be considered a given- that if exluded it some how dampened the games quality. But Valve was already two deep into the development period of it's sequal. Two years is is roughly half of what was spent on Avatar and twice the time speant on the average Call of Duty game. Indeed they didn't invest any more of a choice in the following Episodes, but they were working with the same engine that they specifically designed for Half Life 2. I personally have nothing against the ability of choice in a game, but I don't feel that it is a requirement, espicially with how much was given in the final game anyways. Six years is more time then most people spend in college, and I appreciated every second of it that churned out this game, even if I didn't discover Half Life untill 2009.