Once Upon A Time

Once Upon A Time
Slouching Toward Black Mesa

Tom Rhodes | 6 Nov 2007 11:59
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Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

In the aftermath of the First World War, William Butler Yeats wrote those words, the beginning of a dark and majestic gaze into his view of the world as it is, and how it should be. Eighty-five years later, a lone figure stands in a train station, the corrupting image of a dictator staring down from above, speaking of necessities and consequences and the superior race that is only looking out for the people's best interests. These two events seem completely disconnected from one another, but perhaps they are more familiar than they seem.

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Let's concentrate on this lone figure. The stuff of myth and legend in this tattered world, the man is called the only "free man" by the inhabitants of this desiccated plain. His exploits at an uncertain time in the past at a scientific compound known as Black Mesa have spread to pockets of resistance members, the men, women and otherworldly creatures that seek to overthrow the dominion of the Combine, a race that has transported itself into the world, crippled its defenses and enslaved its species, all in a period of seven hours.

Signs of their destructive power litter the landscape, and even show themselves in the vast oceans, which are gradually receding into nothingness as they are sapped from the planet. The resources of this once-vibrant world are being spirited away to some alien place, while the population is helpless to stop it.

Thus begins Half-Life 2, which, according to the Metacritic score, is the best first-person shooter of all time; and I think I would find few people to argue with that. While not hailed with quite a revolutionary brush as the original, the sequel improves and builds upon every aspect of the genre it re-invented.

For those of you who've been living under a gaming rock: You are Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist at the top-secret Black Mesa Research Facility. An experiment causes a portal to open in time and space, unleashing all sorts of alien hell on the world. You explore the facility, occasionally guided by the hand of the G-Man, a mysterious gentleman in a business suit. At the end of the first game, Gordon is put into a sort of stasis, and at an untold point in the future he is reawakened by the G-Man, now set upon a new and dangerous path.

The cultural significance of the Half-Life series has been woefully under-examined. Most reviews and interpretations of the game have focused on the gameplay (which is admittedly excellent), the realistic facial systems and its immersive qualities. Less regarded are the plot's purposefulness and its metaphorical importance. Pedestrian comparisons to Orwell's 1984 are unavoidable, but perhaps the real meat of the saga, which is mostly contained in the sequel, borrows its roots from other sources.

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