I’ve recently finished playing through Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004) again. If anything I was even less impressed this time than the last.
Let’s get one thing straight: the runny-shooty stuff is great. It’s a fantastic runny-shooty game. I’ve loved runny-shooty games since the days of Rolling Thunder, which was released in 1986, and this one is a class act.
What I don’t like about Half-Life 2 is the claim that it has a fantastic story, a claim I’ve heard from a number of people who really should know better. Half-Life 2 doesn’t have a story, for any meaningful definition of the word. It has a great environment, it has backstory in spades, it has passable characters, it even manages to have a few themes. But story? No.
Let me illustrate what I meanâ€”and if you haven’t played HL2 and are planning to, there are spoilers here. This is the story of the game:
Gordon Freeman arrives in a strange city and makes contact with a member of the resistance, who tells him to make contact with another member of the resistance, who tells him to make contact with a larger group of the resistance outside the city, including Eli Vance, an expert in technobabble. When a teleporter doesn’t work he must do some running and shooting, and then some driving and shooting, and meets the resistance group who don’t tell him anything useful before they are attacked, though they do give him a better gun. Gordon escapes by running and shooting through a town full of zombies, then some caves full of zombies, then a railway, then some beaches and a bridge and some more beaches. Finally he arrives at his destination, Nova Prospekt, where Eli Vance is being held prisoner. Gordon breaks in with no kind of preparation, plan or backup, does a lot of running and shooting, fails to rescue Eli Vance and learns nothing useful before teleporting out. Arriving back in the city, there’s a fight going on. Gordon runs and shoots a lot before entering the enemy base where Eli Vance is freed through sheer luck. Finally Gordon stops the bad guy teleporting to the alien homeworld, though it’s not really clear why this is important.
That’s not a story. That’s a series of narrative incidents linked by good level design.
“But,” I hear you bluster, “but what about the aliens draining the Earth’s water, and the Vortigaunts being on our side now, and Father Grigori, and the heroism of Dog, and the malfunctioning teleport device, and the G-Manâ€”for pity’s sake, what about the G-Man?”
What about the G-Man? He appears twice, once at the beginning and once at the end. His purpose and function are only hinted at. If you’ve not played the first game then here he is either a distraction or an annoyance. The rest of it is either character-colour or back-story. It’s not plot. None of it is interactive, and none of it affects the gameplay in any way. Gordon Freeman himself, the silent everyman whose face is never seen except on box-art, isn’t a great character: he’s a cypher. Nobody plays the game because they’re interested inÂ GordonÂ Freeman.
And a word here aboutÂ HL2‘s cut scenes. I don’t care that you can walk around in them, if a bunch of NPCs are standing around flapping their mouths and you can’t skip past it, it’s just as bad and as a pre-rendered CGI sequence. The first bit with the teleport is purely an excuse to force you to spend an hour running through the city and down the river. The pre-climax bit in Doctor Breen’s office is beyond horrible.
For heaven’s sake, HL2‘s writer Mark Laidlaw is meant to be a novelist. He’s supposed to be good at this stuff. HL2‘s storytelling is wildly inconsistent. And I haven’t even mentioned the point in the last act of the game where Gordon has to step voluntarily into an active prisoner-containment unit in order to travel to the next stage. Twice. And the second time he does it he becomes a prisoner, and we’re supposed to be surprised?
What the game does, brilliantly, is disguise the fact that it has no story. The G-Man’s momentary appearances on far-off structures or TV screens, the recurrence of characters from the first game, the use of backstory as if it’s actual plotâ€”it all makes the player feel like they’re at the centre of a huge unfolding SF epic. In fact they’re at the centre of a series of huge action set-pieces, many of which serve no narrative purpose at all.
If Half-Life 2 was a novel, you wouldn’t bother finishing it. As I’ve said before, the things that video games do best are exactly the bits that most narrative forms (meaning film, TV and books) leave out because they’re dull: travelling from A to B; gaining proficiency; shopping; dressing up; and combat without a narrative purpose. Back in the early 90s when I was novelising video games for Virgin Publishing (under a pseudonym, since you ask), Sega was hugely keen for us to do a book version of their supposed Street Fighter 2 beater, Eternal Champions. The main reason we didn’t was because it was blatant that the game was going to tank, but close behind it was the fact that a novelisation of a beat-em-up would be unutterably tedious, and no fun to write. I know there was a Street Fighter movie. Have you tried to watch it?
What story HL2 does haveâ€”which boils down to “Start alone, meet allies,Â attemptÂ to rescue captive but fail, destroy thing in order to save it”â€” is basically the same storyÂ as Halo, which has a protagonist just as faceless and enigmatic, though with better wisecracks. The difference is that Halo took its backstory elements,Â putÂ themÂ frontÂ andÂ centre, and made an actual story out of them.
(Don’t forget that it takes 10-15 hours to play through Half-Life 2. That’s a long time to sustain a continuing real-time narrative, not just for a game but for a player too.)
Which brings me to the crux question, much debated: howÂ importantÂ is story to games? Is backstory or the illusion of story enough? If you chuck in enough explosions and headcrabs, will anyone notice there’s something missing? That’s a subject which this margin is too narrow to contain. But given that story, games, story in games, games that tell stories and games that create stories are why I’m here, it’s a topic I will be returning to. Oh, you lucky people.
Coming up next in this ongoing series of award-winning games with sucky story-telling: either Black (Criterion, 2006) or The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo, 2006) depending whether I’m feeling in the mood for more violent Eastern European death and ragdoll physics, or gathering nuts in May.