236: Gordon Freeman, Private Eye

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Gordon Freeman, Private Eye

Valve has earned a reputation as one of the most cutting-edge game developers when it comes to storytelling. But it takes more than just ditching cut scenes - you have to build the world as much as you write it. Craig Owens looks at what makes Valve's stories so engaging.

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Half life 2 must be one of the first games that really blew my mind. The atmosphere was so deep and compelling. But I had to play it twice to actually capture the whole world and its story. I think it had serious impact on my "gaming-life". I sometimes think about how it would be, if the half life fiction was our reality.
And I don't think there would be a Gordon Freeman for us.

This is exactly the reason why I value Valve's storytelling methods over those of the latest epic JRPG or Metal Gear game. Essentially, it comes down to the old "show, don't tell" adage from Creative Writing 101. Don't tell me the story through yet another un-interactive cinematic; let me experience it for myself through the environment and game play.

I think this is one reason why some people knock Half life for crappy storytelling, if people are use to games like Halo and gears, the enviroment only serves as cover, the story is told directly to you, and they dont notice these subtle devices that speak much louder than words.

Excellent article. Reading it really makes me want to install and play through it all again, just to see if the article changed my perspective on it.

Wow.
This article was pretty darn accurate for the most part.

For some reason, I have this feeling that this is the exact reason why we have had to wait for the Episode 3 for this long. While it is much easier to get away with such enigmatic writing in the earlier episodes, the grand finale does demand some sort of closure. And this is rather difficult to achieve without too much exposition, which the people in Valve are well aware to kill off all the excitement towards the story.

johnman:
I think this is one reason why some people knock Half life for crappy storytelling, if people are use to games like Halo and gears, the enviroment only serves as cover, the story is told directly to you, and they dont notice these subtle devices that speak much louder than words.

This does remind me when I had a friend of mine sit down to play some Portal. He wasn't exactly impressed by the game thus far and I hoped that actually playing the game would make him change his mind.
After listening his ongoing rant about "What is this place? What's going on? This game sucks. What's that voice? Who's my character? This game sucks." I came to a realization on just how different our tastes were when it came to storytelling.
I don't think he played the game for more than 5 minutes.

I think tha...
Whatever, everything I wanted to say when reading the article has already been said by DeviousJ and DJPirtu.

All that is left for me to say is: Great article, one of the best (the best?) I've read on the escapist. :)

Now if Black Mesa just could come out...

While we're casting Gordon Freeman as a private eye maybe we can have him investigate where Half-Life 2: Episode 3 went.

Awesome article! I really feel that I want to play through HL2 again to explore all these details. :)

Wow. Just wow.

That said, when it comes to telling a story, nothing can beat Lost Odyssey's dream sequences.

To me, even Half-Life pales in comparison.

The music, the way words appear, it all blends to make me cry every fucking time I watch that.

Valve did take a different direction with storytelling by making you the play button, and I agree that it's a great way of getting the player immersed in the world.
However, a little care should be taken to making sure that the player can take in the story being suggested by the surroundings. With the house on Highway 17 I could deduce what the building was and what had happened, but that was only after I'd killed the headcrabs and raided all of the supplies. The part about the sea levels dropping a few metres I missed entirely. Sorry, but I was too busy not crashing the car and blasting antlions to pieces; there just wasn't the time to take in the scarred view. I didn't get the hint, and nobody directed my attention to it.
But at least there was somebody in episodes 1&2. Alex nicely points at a few things and starts the ball rolling for you to piece the rest together. And there aren't any distractions like endless headcrabs when you're meant to learn something new about the world you're in.

The hideaway in testchamber 16 is impossible to miss. You need to take one of the cubes, and when you do, you see the bright orange of the centre's innards in contrast to the sterile white of the chambers. And the sinister undertone when GLaDOS compares the value of the portal gun to somebody's organs hits you hard because she's the only voice you hear (bar the companion cube).

It's important to get the delivery right if you're wanting the player to stumble upon your non-narrative under-story. If there's something hidden in the corner, I'll need a reason to look at it first, otherwise I'll walk right by.

I loved how in Portal, you stumble across that room, and you see that computer that's been used as a stove. At first I thought it was just coincidental, but then I thought "hey just wait a second... did someone use the CPU as a heating source for cooking?"
That's what I love about Valve's games, you don't get everything pushed on you, you have to take a bit of a moment to watch and think about what has happened.

Bob_F_It:
Valve did take a different direction with storytelling by making you the play button, and I agree that it's a great way of getting the player immersed in the world.
However, a little care should be taken to making sure that the player can take in the story being suggested by the surroundings. With the house on Highway 17 I could deduce what the building was and what had happened, but that was only after I'd killed the headcrabs and raided all of the supplies.

On my first playthough I did much the same, but I completed Hl2 about 5 times and every time I would notice somthing new that would help explain the story a little bit more.

I think that this is one of the many examples that show that storytelling in video games has the ability to do things that film and literature never could. Outstanding article.

Excellent article. This is a worthy addition to other Escapist articles dissecting and praising the VALVe style of strong but minimalist storytelling:

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/editorials/op-ed/2554-Portal-Less-is-More
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_122/2597-Slouching-Toward-Black-Mesa
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_51/309-Return-To-Ravenholm

As I wrote before in this thread:

The Youth Counselor:

The medium of gaming is one of experience... The story is formed as you play it. There are people who foolhardily dismiss straightforward games like Super-Mario: Bros, Doom, or Half-Life as having no plot or no depth. They have been accustomed to prose and film, and expect the story to be told to them.

We are all protagonists. We all have adversaries, loves, goals, conflicts, and struggles. There aren't scrolling text, a voice over (hopefully), a soundtrack, pop up verse, plot twists and conclusions in life. Yet everyday we experience a story in life.

Anyone else notice a resemblence between Gordon and Yahtzee?

Stormpigeon:
Anyone else notice a resemblence between Gordon and Yahtzee?

I noticed that only post scriptum.

All Valve games seem to tell the story in this way. People who criticize L4D(2) for not having a story just don't take time to examine the environment.

I've always appreciated they way the story was presented in Valve games. I hate it when people say that Valve games don't have any cutscenes and come to the conclusion that the story sucks and Valve was too lazy to put them in.

Half-Life is not Copyright EA. It's owned solely by Valve. EA just had the console publishing rights to the Orange Box.

I dunno why people keep mixing that up.

You know, sometimes I forget what makes Half-Life 2 such a great game. Thanks for reminding me.

G-Mang:
Half-Life is not Copyright EA. It's owned solely by Valve. EA just had the console publishing rights to the Orange Box.

I dunno why people keep mixing that up.

Your avatar is the scariest pic of the Gman I ever saw.

ANYWAY, love the article. Love Valve's storytelling.

beautifully written

You convinced me to download portal and play it a 4th time

The Youth Counselor:

The medium of gaming is one of experience... The story is formed as you play it. There are people who foolhardily dismiss straightforward games like Super-Mario: Bros, Doom, or Half-Life as having no plot or no depth. They have been accustomed to prose and film, and expect the story to be told to them.

Anybody who has spent more than 15 minutes in a creative writing workshop knows full well that if you're "telling" a story instead of showing it, then you're doing it wrong. All good storytelling is immersive; a story, a show, a movie, a song, a play, a game, or whatever should immerse its audience in the world its attempting to build. If the books you read aren't doing this for you, you're reading crap books. The article dances around this topic without explicitly saying so, but boils down to how good Valve is at showing without telling, and I tend to agree.

Like a good book, every replay of HL2 (and to a lesser degree HL) reveals a world replete with subtle details (if you care to look for them) that simply make it more real, more immersive for the audience without having them shoved in your face.

That said, SMB and Doom (the original version; I haven't played the remake) are spectacularly bad examples if you want to talk about games with depth. I can't think of two more shallow games. The walls of the Mushroom Kingdom are not scrawled with graffiti about the ramifications of blue-collar plumbers climbing the social ladder. "It's-a me! Mario!" Does not make for a compelling story. Imps don't wander around complaining about the quality of cafeteria food in Hell.

Craig Owens:
Gordon Freeman, Private Eye

Bravo! An excellent article on VALVe's mastery of diegetic space!

In my experience, the use of props to tell stories in video games can be very effective. Rather than directly telling the player the story, they allow the observant player to piece it together on their own. When you figure out something on your own, it has a much bigger impact.

I wish more developers would consider using this method of story telling. Bethesda seemed to try this in Fallout 3, and I say the game was much better for it. I've heard people say that it had little story, but the story was all around you. By taking the time to examine your environment rather than just zooming through it in search of loot, you could find many props being used to tell stories. For example, at the entrance to one of the subways I found a skeleton cradling a much smaller skeleton in it's hands, with a battered baby carriage lying next to it. What this suggests is obvious, yet having me figure it out on my own through observation made it a much more effective image.

boholikeu:
This is exactly the reason why I value Valve's storytelling methods over those of the latest epic JRPG or Metal Gear game. Essentially, it comes down to the old "show, don't tell" adage from Creative Writing 101. Don't tell me the story through yet another un-interactive cinematic; let me experience it for myself through the environment and game play.

I think this is an excellent way to describe this method of story telling. To many games rely on cut-scenes to provide plot exposition. More developers should try to let the player figure out some parts of the story on their own.

x84jdh:

That said, SMB and Doom (the original version; I haven't played the remake) are spectacularly bad examples if you want to talk about games with depth. I can't think of two more shallow games.

But think of these games in their own time. When SMB first came out, games were often played against black backgrounds with spartan graphics. SMB was one of the first great games to bring a story experience into people's family rooms. Mario was someone you could identify with, and the hours spent guiding him on his quest to save the princess were more personal than any game most people had played before.

And the graphics of Doom, at the time, made it a phenomenon. It was a space to be explored and enjoyed, unlike the flat lifeless rooms of Wolfenstein 3D or the decidedly external experience of 2D platformers. It wasn't until Half-Life was released four years later that someone managed to successfully infuse a virtual space with a compelling story. Both games were the high-water mark for their time. Half-Life still stands as one of the high-water marks for our time in game development, and for my money it is still the most immersive experience offered in a game. The seamless integration of technology and personal experience is phenomenal.

Raithnor:
While we're casting Gordon Freeman as a private eye maybe we can have him investigate where Half-Life 2: Episode 3 went.

I see what you did there. And I agree.

300lb. Samoan:
But think of these games in their own time. When SMB first came out, games were often played against black backgrounds with spartan graphics. SMB was one of the first great games to bring a story experience into people's family rooms. Mario was someone you could identify with, and the hours spent guiding him on his quest to save the princess were more personal than any game most people had played before.

I can't argue with your personal experience of the SMB except to say that the hours spent shooting at the damn dog on the other side of the cartridge were far more personal to me than dodging Hammer Bros. That's not to say that Duck Hunt has much real depth either, although you could easily argue that the characterization of the dog was far in advance of anything SMB had going for it.

I genuinely don't understand how you can argue for a "story experience" in SMB. It has a sort-of premise that's never explained, and that's about it. Metal Gear (two years later) offers an actual (though crude) story. Just because SMB was an early console game doesn't give it any more depth than it actually had. I'm not knocking on the fun of the game -- SMB is a classic and rightfully so -- but reading into your own experiences doesn't offer any additional depth to the content, because there really isn't one. Mario isn't on a "quest" because SMB doesn't offer any of the traditional "quest" tropes except for the bare fact that he's looking for something.

300lb. Samoan:
And the graphics of Doom, at the time, made it a phenomenon. It was a space to be explored and enjoyed, unlike the flat lifeless rooms of Wolfenstein 3D or the decidedly external experience of 2D platformers. It wasn't until Half-Life was released four years later that someone managed to successfully infuse a virtual space with a compelling story. Both games were the high-water mark for their time. Half-Life still stands as one of the high-water marks for our time in game development, and for my money it is still the most immersive experience offered in a game. The seamless integration of technology and personal experience is phenomenal.

While I agree that Doom was visually stunning and a huge landmark game for the genre, it's still not "deep" in any meaningful way, though more immersive than SMB. Zero plot, zero character, zero world building. If you're looking for a contemporary shooter with depth, try System Shock.

SMB and Doom are important games, sure. I enjoyed them. I got frustrated when my ass was handed to me by a demon or I liked running a chain gun or finding a warp tube. That doesn't mean the content was in any way shape or form "deep." There will be no articles written about the Mushroom Kingdom circa-1985 because there's nothing to write. There will be no character studies about Sgt. Noname from Doom because there's no character there. Video games can be deep and can be great examples of immersive storytelling. These particular games are simply very bad examples.

Onyx Oblivion:
Wow. Just wow.

That said, when it comes to telling a story, nothing can beat Lost Odyssey's dream sequences.

To me, even Half-Life pales in comparison.

The music, the way words appear, it all blends to make me cry every fucking time I watch that.

With all due respect (I really truly loved Lost Odyssey) We're looking at storytelling being done in a completely fresh and new way (thanks to the interactive medium of videogames), versus in-game short-stories with beautiful backgrounds.

Don't get me wrong, they were effective. Some were definitely tearjerkers. But they're not at all informed by the medium that they're apart of. Telling an interesting and subtle story in the language of the videogame is what's being praised here (because it's a relatively new frontier to communicate a story).

DJPirtu:

This does remind me when I had a friend of mine sit down to play some Portal. He wasn't exactly impressed by the game thus far and I hoped that actually playing the game would make him change his mind.
After listening his ongoing rant about "What is this place? What's going on? This game sucks. What's that voice? Who's my character? This game sucks." I came to a realization on just how different our tastes were when it came to storytelling.
I don't think he played the game for more than 5 minutes.

your friend makes me sick :P

x84jdh:
it's still not "deep" in any meaningful way

I never said they were "deep". And "deep" is a horrible term to use, it has no real meaning of its own. If you specifically mean narrative depth, of course they are lacking - my point is that these were the first immersive game experiences for most people.

What most people overlook about Half-Life (and Portal) is the fact that any game could have told that story, but it's the sense of immersion that enables it to be conveyed on the level that it is. A word tells you what's there, a cut scene shows it, but interaction allows you to gather the meaning intuitively. Compared to playing Pac-Man, SMB was a very "deep" experience and compared to SMB, Doom was phenomenally "deep" - for the first time you could walk around a room and explore it for yourself, discovering keys and secret passages. Once Half-Life came out and the exploration of that space was being used to convey a compelling story, Doom and everything before it naturally became obsolete.

Mr Ink 5000:

DJPirtu:

This does remind me when I had a friend of mine sit down to play some Portal. He wasn't exactly impressed by the game thus far and I hoped that actually playing the game would make him change his mind.
After listening his ongoing rant about "What is this place? What's going on? This game sucks. What's that voice? Who's my character? This game sucks." I came to a realization on just how different our tastes were when it came to storytelling.
I don't think he played the game for more than 5 minutes.

your friend makes me sick :P

Seriously. Here's what you do: first, smash his TV. Then kidnap him and abandon him in the middle of a large city. If he goes crying to the police and they bring him home, do it again. He won't be fixed until he can find his own way home without being spoon-fed instructions. Pro-tip: don't actually do this. If he goes crying to the police, you go to pound-me-in-the-ass-prison.[/obvious]

What the hell??? The entire half life series has been slightly entertaining at best, and portal had shit for story line! I loved the game portal because it was fun NOT because it was full of depth. Its like saying Mario Bros. had a revolutionary storyline and amazing character development. No...it...fucking...didnt.

Im getting pritty sick about how Escapist Magazine has been promoting Valve like they were married. How old are these damn games anyways?? I've been hearing about how amazing half life 2 was for what seems like years. You really need to start writing about something a little more recent, unless your boss works for Valve. Then by all means continue deepthrouting your pride.

t(''t)

There's no doubt that the writer has described some of the very effective storytelling/world building techniques used in HL2 and Portal. However I do have to say if they leave me with a 'explosion/white out/stupid monologue by an interdimensional salaryman' one more time they'll have well and truly revoked their storytelling credentials. Weaksauce!

One thing to point out though is that Valve do make use of conventional storytelling in HL2. The developer's commentary talks about how they use 'vistas' and 'gates' to limit where the player can go/guide where they want to look. All the while they manage to make these sequences unobtrusive (for most people), even on repeat playthroughs. Now that's good design.

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