122: Slouching Toward Black Mesa

Slouching Toward Black Mesa

"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."

Tom Rhodes looks at the literary significance of Half-Life.

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Deus Ex is *still* the best FPS ever released, I'm afraid. Never the less, I liked this article. It was... thought provoking.
To me, Half-Life 2 was always most reminiscent of "The Life of Brian". Everyone in Half-Life 2, both friend and foe alike, believe that Gordon Freeman is some kind of messiah, come to save humanity from the consequences of tampering with forbidden knowledge. Only the player, and perhaps the G-Man, are aware of the truth about him. Freeman is, in fact, just some poor, bottom-rung-of-the-ladder, semi-blue collar slob who's never really had the chance to stop running since he emerged from the test chamber, back in Black Mesa. The only differences between him and all the others lucky enough to get handed an HEV is that Gordon is luckier and has tireless, razor-sharp survival instincts.

I'm a "console 'tard" only just exposed to Half Life 2, but I have trouble reconciling this article with the reality of the game.

"Freeman isn't slouching toward Black Mesa , he's converging on the great citadel in the middle of City 17 , the Bethlehem of our story."

Is he? He doesn't know he is; or, as the player, I don't know he is.

Freeman is always in a "room" with one exit. Sure, the "room" might be a city square, or a river bed, or just a room - but it always has exactly one exit, with the way he entered somehow unavailable. His reward for finding the exit: another room, again with one exit. He is like Sisyphus rolling that stone up the hill.

I love the narrative of Half-Life 2, but saying that Freeman has any personal intentions goes a bit too far. Valve actually liked the subtle comedy in the Test Chamber; all the scientists are saying that "You know what to do!" whereas if you could speak, you would say "Um, no I don't! What the hell is going on???"
This more enforces Freeman as a normal person thrust into an unusual situation...even so when everyone is counting on him. When the citizens in Half-Life 2 followed me during the rebellion, I wanted to shout "Don't follow me! I have no clue what I'm doing either, you're gonna get yourself killed!" Thing is, that's how Freeman is supposed to feel; mostly clueless.

Is he? He doesn't know he is; or, as the player, I don't know he is.

Valve's idea was that as soon as you saw the citadel, and Barney mentioning it was lit up searching for you, that the player would pretty much know that was going to be his final destination.

And I have trouble accepting that Freeman is a preacher. Preachers aren't normally silent. Indeed, we have very little idea of what Freeman's political ideals are, other than shooty alien.

I think that one of the great things about the Half-Life franchise is that it can be a tabula rasa of sorts, allowing others to imprint their ideas onto it. While I will agree that the first game was very involved in the man-in-a-bad-situation aspect, I think that the second game is much more purposeful. If I accepted the argument that Gordon remained clueless throughout, then it wouldn't negate my thesis, since most of it deals with how he is viewed in the scope of the entire world. Still, I think that Gordon accepts his role, even if he doesn't necessarily want it, by the conclusion of HL2.

I definitely agree with the tabula rasa idea. Gordon is a man upon whom everyone else in the world projects their own idea of what he is, just as the player projects themselves onto Gordon. He's an excellent blank slate, in that his actions are always spectacular, yet never obvious in their meaning. The Gman's otherworldy influence pervades Gordon's every action; he is, in the highest sense of the word, a tool, a machine. Perhaps we are even meant to draw parallels between Gordon and the brainwashed Combine soldiers he cuts down.

It's quite obvious though, that at no time is Gordon in control of his own actions. Spoiler alert! Even after the Gman loses control of him at the beginning of Ep. 1, Gordon is simply following orders from another group, this time the Vortigaunts. I'm sure that the Gman will regain control at some point, and I even suspect that he arranged Eli Vance's death in order to regain control of events.

Anyway, I'm very pleased to see this article. I feel that the Half-Life series are the greatest games ever created, and I'm always happy to see someone exploring their roots and influence.

If we're going to start equating video games to the works of various authors, I will immediately put Portal in the nomination as being roughly equivalent to the Great Gatsby of video games. It is probably the closest we have ever been to "perfection".

Tom_Rhodes:
I think that one of the great things about the Half-Life franchise is that it can be a tabula rasa of sorts, allowing others to imprint their ideas onto it.

In this case, Tom, you are imprinting yours onto it, and us, in your article.
I'm sorry, but I think this article is way over-the-top in its attempt to paint HL2 as a literary entity, not to mention equating it to an early 20th century poem.

This totally triggered my BS alarm, and smells of terrible over-analysis.

In short, I disagree.

Yeah...this easily reminds me of those people who attempt to take a literary analysis to Mario or Contra games, just because they like the series. (And when he shoots that fireball at bowser it's supposed to represent a subtle change in character...before, Bowser was the one who breathed fire...)
HL2 has great plot and voice acting. But it's no social commentary, and Gordon isn't its centerpiece. He's just how you view the rest of the world.

Well, I guess this is one of those agree-to-disagree situations. :-)

The difference between Half-Life 2 and a Mario or Contra game is that Half-Life 2 has excellent writing throughout.

Bongo Bill:
The difference between Half-Life 2 and a Mario or Contra game is that Half-Life 2 has excellent writing throughout.

I think I can point out a few more differences....
:)

Ummm...

Something should be mentioned here.

That thing is named Marc Laidlaw, an award-winning spec fic writer. Check out http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?Marc_Laidlaw (he's also in wikipedia).

Marc has been writing and publishing successful fiction since the 80's; he has also been writing Valve's games since he joined them in 1998. Half-Life, and especially the opening scene on the train, has been mentioned in pretty much every single "how to" book on game writing. This is not surprising, as it was done by a brilliant writer who is also a passionate gamer.

Caveat: I'm also a game writer, and I have met Marc and been amazed by him. More about what he does and why can be found here, in his presentation to the Austin Games Conference in 2005:
http://marclaidlaw.com/?page_id=17

So if you think there may be sub-texts, and hidden meanings, and references to great works of fiction or science fiction, and if you think that there may be cultural and intellectual significance in the game story... you're probably right.

However, if Yeats were part of the Combine, his story works quite well for Half-Life 2, and we can decide which "baddy' is his "beast". Perhaps G-Man.

Further, if G-Man were "Yeats" and IF his plan is diabolical (such as if he's in league with the combine), then Freeman could be his "beast", though much more like a "pawn".

Lastly, I just posted a lot of ifs and quotes - just like the article. It was nice to read Tom, but until the developers say, "This is what inspired the story;...", I'll stick to enjoying Half-Life subjectively. Even then I might just say "Bugger it, I liked it better when it was the way I liked it... erm, better." But, then again, I'm a self-serving prat.

I like Marc Laidlaw fine, but I was at his speech in 2005 and man did he seem like a flaky bastard. That whole bit about the muse tapping people on the shoulder? Eeeesh.

coot:
So if you think there may be sub-texts, and hidden meanings, and references to great works of fiction or science fiction, and if you think that there may be cultural and intellectual significance in the game story... you're probably right.

THANK you. You get a cookie.

Half-Life 2 was hardly "the best FPS" ever. I've played many games that were heaps better than HL2, but also: I'd say there is no such thing as "the best" game. Every game comes with flaws.

HL2 was a good FPS, but nothing more than that.

Ugh... I *hate* subtext. It's okay to look for themes in an existent piece of work, but to actual hide them in there while you're writing... It's literary masturbation. A writer should be able to make a point without falling back on tenuous veiled metaphors.

Yum... cookies...

Here's your cookie:

From: Marc Laidlaw
Sent: Friday, November 09, 2007 11:43 AM
To: Tom Rhodes
Subject: Re: Slouching Toward Black Mesa

Dear Tom,

We [Gabe Newell and I] read your essay with great interest and amusement earlier this week--it's always strange to see what others make of all this...like catching a glimpse of yourself in a couple of right-angled carnival mirrors. Of course these are the sort of ideas we can neither confirm nor deny. I will add, only semi-OT, that my recently deceased cat was named Minnaloushe. Also, Seattle is not considered enough of a metropolitan venue to have been chosen for today's the limited opening of No Country For Old Men; though I wish the Coen Brothers might someday make To the White Forest.

Yours,
Marc Laidlaw

I added the link to Minnaloushe, since I'm willing to bet that most people here wouldn't get the reference. This was posted by permission.

Force Feedback Codpiece:
Half-Life 2 was hardly "the best FPS" ever. I've played many games that were heaps better than HL2, but also: I'd say there is no such thing as "the best" game. Every game comes with flaws.

HL2 was a good FPS, but nothing more than that.

This post tells you more about the author than it does Half-Life 2.

Kudos to Tom Rhodes for a solid attempt at literary analysis of an incredible game.

Thanks for a great article. I love this Yeats poem and appreciate the analysis you've done.

I'd also like to thank Marc Laidlaw for including some great poems hidden in Portal as well. I wasn't expecting to find one of my favorite Dickinson poems in there.

And thanks for straightening out my Longfellow. ;)

AK-00:
Only the player, and perhaps the G-Man, are aware of the truth about him. Freeman is, in fact, just some poor, bottom-rung-of-the-ladder, semi-blue collar slob who's never really had the chance to stop running since he emerged from the test chamber, back in Black Mesa. The only differences between him and all the others lucky enough to get handed an HEV is that Gordon is luckier and has tireless, razor-sharp survival instincts.

Yeah, those poor blue-collar MIT theoretical physicists:) The rest of what you said makes some sense.

sergeantz:

Yeah, those poor blue-collar MIT theoretical physicists:) The rest of what you said makes some sense.

That's something that always struck me as odd about Half-life. The guys a physicist, but his job consists of shoving hazardous material around on little trolleys and exposing himself to unfamiliar forms of radiation. As careers go, it's slightly less glamourous than sewage treatment. I can only assume the pay was astronomical.

Dang. That was deep.

AK-00:
Ugh... I *hate* subtext. It's okay to look for themes in an existent piece of work, but to actual hide them in there while you're writing... It's literary masturbation. A writer should be able to make a point without falling back on tenuous veiled metaphors.

Yeah, but in this game you have to. That's what I love about HL; they don't teach you the story, you have to find it out yourself.

As for Gordon, he's you in a way. They never gave him a personality so it's up to you to work out who he is. While I was playing it, I was playing Gordon as a bad arse. He just beat his way out of Black Mesa and killed a giant Buddah. When Gordon saw what was happening to his people, "I'm fucking Gordon Freeman! And it's time to put on my hero boots (deadsexy eyes)."

AK-00:

That's something that always struck me as odd about Half-life. The guys a physicist, but his job consists of shoving hazardous material around on little trolleys and exposing himself to unfamiliar forms of radiation. As careers go, it's slightly less glamorous than sewage treatment. I can only assume the pay was astronomical.

The joke has even gone meta, I heard that in HL2 (never played it, didn't have a decent enough graphics card till recently, and been busy playing *other* games..) some of your companions joke about how its takes a theoretical physics degree to push a button.

Chilango2:

AK-00:

That's something that always struck me as odd about Half-life. The guys a physicist, but his job consists of shoving hazardous material around on little trolleys and exposing himself to unfamiliar forms of radiation. As careers go, it's slightly less glamorous than sewage treatment. I can only assume the pay was astronomical.

The joke has even gone meta, I heard that in HL2 (never played it, didn't have a decent enough graphics card till recently, and been busy playing *other* games..) some of your companions joke about how its takes a theoretical physics degree to push a button.

One of your first missions was to plug a cord into a wall. Barney (You remember him from the first) jokes about it.

I'll read this artical later.

It is extremely refreshing to see a game get some serious academic attention, particularly comparisons with literary works. The fact that you identified such a correlation between Yeates' lines and Half Life 2 is quite impressive. There is probably a story in that discovery itself.

Jules Grant's letter to the editor in response to this work was unnecessarily derisive of your work. He did not understand the possibility for any number of readings in something as blank page as a video game plot.

Further, there appears to be a misunderstanding in this thread of what you meant by a "preacher". A messiah, an icon, a saviour rather than a priest; that was the context you were speaking of, with Freeman acknowledged as exactly that. Even the Vortigaunts bow to him, because he's already saved the world once, and he (albeit unknowingly) freed their entire race.

There is a reason why we're not allowed to kill innocents in Half Life 2 - because you're meant to be a hero. As others pointed out, the game is not Fallout. It has an intent. It has a meaning. It has a purpose. Hell, it has a plot, complete with complications, series of events, the climax and inevitable conclusion. There is little freedom for "the free man" until he completes the contract, which functions (with or without Valve's intent) to illustrate the irony that in being a hero and defying authority, you have to pay the price and lead the people into the center of Hell itself.

I think I should point this out for some who are objecting to the article, as well:

Literary or developer intent does not define the meaning in the plot. If you wrote a story about a totalitarian dictator who eventually commits suicide whilst living in Nazi Germany, but you didn't know about Hitler or anything about real world politics, people would still be justified in comparing that dictator to the real tyrant. If there is no intent in something, then people may read it as they please, and they will, and that will change the meaning. The artist's absolute power over meaning ends the moment the work is published or modified. That's simultaneously a wonderful and terrible thing, but objective meanings aren't that important when it comes to fiction. It's fun and a learning experience to read deeply into things using all the knowledge at your hands. If your assertions confirmed by the work's creator, then that's nice, but the fun is in the pursuit; the point arrived does not have to be an absolute.

So I say, thanks again to you Mr Rhodes. Your insight has deepened our understanding, and for me personally, the next time I play the game, everything will be richer for reading this piece.

EDIT: Hmm, this article was ancient, yet I got to it from the main page. My apologies for the thread resurrection.

 

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