The story of the Half-Life series is one of most consistently praised, discussed and analyzed narratives in gaming history. Forums, wikis and fansites pore over every scrap of information gleaned from trailers, off-hand comments from the series' writers and, of course, the games themselves. Yet the games themselves can be pretty fairly summarized as follows: "Earth's been taken over by aliens. Go shoot them."
That phenomenon isn't unique to Half-Life. Portal introduced an essentially brand-new mechanic into first-person gaming and did so while challenging conventional notions of videogame length and pacing. Yet the game's enduring online legacy will always center on the questionable existence of a certain baked confection.
So what's Valve's secret? Their writing is sharp, no doubt. And even as the Source engine nears the end of its life, those facial animations still impress. But when it comes to gaming narrative, giving convincing digital actors interesting things to say is only half the battle. Equally important is the world you put them in.
The Shooting Detective
There's a boarded up house on Highway 17. It's a little plain, and the paint is peeling. But it might have been pretty once, in a quaint, coastal-view kind of a way. Then you see the skull and crossbones painted over the exits.
You could simply ignore it and move on, of course. Half-Life 2's a pretty linear game, but this building's an entirely optional experience. The only incentive the game offers you to break down the basement door and carefully step into the gloom is the satisfaction of your own niggling curiosity, but you decide to take a look anyway.
It's at this point you realize the house has been all but hollowed out from the inside. A mortar shell juts from the basement floor, and what would once have been the ground level no longer exists, offering a perfect view through the building's punctured roof to the grey skies above City 17. A scuttling noise informs you that the missile's payload, a clutch of venomous headcrabs no less terrifying for their being a science-fiction cliché, is still here - as is one of their undead victims.
A piece of anti-Combine graffiti on the wall provides the final piece of the puzzle. This house, like so many others on the coast, was a Resistance hideaway. Along with the not too distant mining town of Ravenholm, the fate of which the player has only recently learned about the hard way, this dwelling was the target of a precise and grisly strike. The survivors boarded up the exits and fled.