Rise and Shine, Mr. Video Gamer

Not that I wish to imply you have been sleeping on the job, you’ve just been sitting in front of a computer until your brains bleed out your ears.  All the effort in the world is going to waste there, wake up and smell the melted silicon.

So what do I have to say about myself?  Not much.  Still working, still breathing.  Bought a new webcam, some nice new shirts.  Still reading the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian.  Somewhat odd writing style but great adventure and fascinating character interaction.  Lends a whole new depth to the movie, (Master and Commander) too… did you know that Dr. Maturin, the naturalist, is also a secret agent?  I find it intriguing to see how different the book is from the movie.  The director cut bits from all over the series and stuck them into a brand-new storyline that meshes perfectly with the books.  Very interesting artistry.  I have a whole new respect for the director, Peter Weir.

Someone of a less brighter mark is some news about Baylor.  Apparently I’m required to register for 4 graduate-level courses for each semester, which is a pain since the tuition remission they gave me only covers 2 classes.  So I have to pay for two classes, which though definitely cheaper than a full load of tuition, is still about 6,000 dollars that I have to take out a loan for.  I was hoping to avoid accruing more debt over grad school, but it seems it is not to be. 

Ah well.  At least I beat Half Life 2 (including the two additional episodes).  I don’t play a lot of first-person shooter games, more from inactivity than from principle, but Half-Life 2 is one of those groundbreaking games you always hear about everywhere.  Or rather, Half-Life 1 was the groundbreaker, and Half Life 2 just continued plowing.  Both games are noted for their environments and immersive storytelling.  I haven’t played the first, so I can’t directly compare, but I do find the contrast between the covers to be amusing.

That’s Gordon Freeman, the game’s central protaganist, in both pictures, by the way.   Odd he goes from the gritty ‘manly soldier’ to the more ‘intense librarian’ look.  I wonder if that reflects a change in marketing tactics, a greater confidence in their product, or just a wish to show off their better graphics.  Perhaps it’s even reflective of the games themselves… Half Life 1 was considered an awesome shooter, while Half Life 2, though still an awesome shooter, is mostly renowned for its physics engine.  You can pick up nearly ANYTHING and throw it at people.  In certain levels, you can even pick up PEOPLE and throw them at people.  The developers even included a weapon designed for the specific purpose of picking up and throwing things, just to show what the physics engine could do.  You can take a look here (though I wouldn’t recommend watching the WHOLE thing).  So that gives you an idea of the games physics and graphics.  Superb for me, pretty good for today’s gaming community, groundbreaking when it came out in 2004.  It also shows you something of the games storytelling technique, which for me was the truly great accomplishment.

Half-Life’s story, as I said last week, isn’t terribly original.  A secret military lab accidentally opens a portal to another dimension, unleashing aliens onto planet Earth.  The aliens take over the planet and then the humans chase them out again.  An oversimplification perhaps, but not by much.  You play Gordon Freeman, the unfortunate MIT graduate who opened the portal.  Half Life 1 essentially deals with you fighting your way out of the military lab, then back to the portal, then through the alternate dimension.  Half Life 2 has you coming back some years later to the alien-controlled earth, where you basically spark an uprising and blow up the alien’s biggest building.  Half Life 2, Episode 1 deals with your escape from the city before the alien building completely blows up, and Half Life 2, Episode 2 shows your journey to a rebel base and the rebel’s successful closure of the alien portal.  Presumably, Episode 3 (whenever it comes out) will deal with killing the remaining aliens stuck on earth.

But the way the video game TELLS this story is truly phenomenal.  No cutscenes, no mission briefings, no audiotapes.  It’s just people talking in the world around you as you play the game.  You can stop to listen or you can just run on through, but either way it feels like you are really living the adventure as opposed to simply playing through a script.  There are no pauses, no ‘levels’ as they’re customarily understood.  The adventure is just one big playthrough, seamlessly moving from one segment of the story to the next.  It’s interesting, listening to the in-game commentary, of how they had to ensure that the player caught certain details and saw the story-crucial points that might otherwise have been ignored. 

So even if the story isn’t terribly original, the execution of it–the way it is conveyed–is superb.  And in storywriting, the ability to convey your tale in fresh and original and above all LIFELIKE ways is crucial.  So in it’s own way, Half Life 2 is a work of art.

Storytelling and physics aren’t the only strong points of this game.  The world built up around Half Life is superbly imaginative, containing both rock-hard realistic elements and bizarre yet oddly logical creatures.

The houses, fence, and tree are all purely realistic.  Even the bazooka is pretty much present-day technology.  If it weren’t for the three-legged walker things blowing up the landscape, you could be in WWII, or even just in some run-down part of Detroit.  But the walkers blend in so well, and have already been introduced as common sights around the city, so they feel completely real.  Observe again.

Ground, trees, railroad car, all well-rendered and grittily realistic.  They even have a suitably random collection of miscellaneous stuff around them.  The three–no, four–eyed alien in the middle is the only weird thing (well, okay, the odd gun you’re holding and that bright blue hole in the sky, but details).  And they mesh together so well.  I’m not even getting into most of the really weird things in this world… Hunters, Antlions, Headcrabs, and Advisors.  They’re so incredibly bizarre and yet they look so real.  Maybe a lot of gamers feel this and just put it down to good graphics, but I feel the designs are also wonderfully logical in parts.

I have to be honest, though.  My initial attraction to this game–and the part that still holds a lot of the charm for me–is one of the elements that makes NO sense at all.  The G-Man.

I read this opening sequence in a gamers guide back in 2004 when the game was just coming out, and it fascinated me with just how WEIRD it was.  I like enigmatic stuff, and G-Man is nothing if not enigmatic. G-Man (for ‘government’ man, though this is doubtful) is the link between the two games, the odd-looking man(?) in a suit who rescued you at the end of Half Life 1 and gave you a choice–die or work for him.  And apparently, your first job from him is cleaning up the mess from Half Life 1.  He’s constantly showing up throughout the game, again, amidst the gameplay, easy to miss if you’re not looking for him.  What exactly he’s up to and what motivates him is unclear, though there are hints throughout the series.  In some ways, I think he’s the author insertion, the way for the game developers to show their hand.  And his strange teleportation abilities allow them to present the dramatic equivalent of cutscenes.

Odd, perhaps, that the thing that breaks up the immersive storyline happens to be the thing I like best.  But again, I’m weird, and the world and story are so believable that you actually go right along with it.  The realistic gameplay contrasts with the more surreal G-man scenes and give them plausibility while at the same time underlining just how odd the whole thing is.

Half Life 2 is a well-constructed game with beautiful graphics and a well-executed if unoriginal storyline in a fresh and realistic world.  It’s fun to play, fun simply to watch, and fun to examine.  Probably not for younger children–there are a great deal of distressingly realistic zombies–but otherwise you should definitely buy this game. It’s not even expensive anymore, since it’s been so long, and you’ll get hours of enjoyment out of it.

One thought on “Rise and Shine, Mr. Video Gamer

  1. Congrats–you have almost managed to convince me that this is looking into–which is quite a feat considering my aversion for shooters. Maybe if I ever run across someone playing it I’ll take a look at it.


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