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.
But as with so much of the Half-Life world, you never find out for sure. The process of exploration, discovery and deduction that you experience inside this building is a microcosm of one that occurs in the Half-Life world at large. Valve refuses to serve up a single moment of conventional exposition. Instead it takes players, drops them in a warped, ravaged world and tasks them with making sense of it.
It doesn’t always take something as obvious as a derelict, zombie-infested building to tell a story or shed light on the world that exists beyond the immediate limits of a game. Sometimes a single room will do the trick. Even a few thoughtfully placed props can suggest a greater narrative and occasionally tell a pretty poignant story in themselves.
By the time you reach Test Chamber 16 of Portal, you probably feel pretty pleased with yourself. You’ve dodged high-energy pellets, tripped switches, mastered momentum and escaped from a so-called “impossible” test chamber. It’s at this point that GLaDOS – or to be more precise, the game’s designers – decides to throw a surprise your way: “a live-fire course designed for military androids.”
“The enrichment center apologizes for the inconvenience and wishes you the best of luck.”
This is the first test chamber in which you’re up against an actively hostile enemy in the form of Aperture Science’s strangely adorable automated turrets. But this change in pace and tone doesn’t come without a glimmer of hope – you’re also given your first hint of another potential survivor hidden inside the facility.
The word “HELP” scrawled on the floor is the least subtle clue, but once you follow a breadcrumb trail of such evidence and discover the den of the individual who left them, hidden behind a pried-out panel of the chamber wall, you begin to get a feel for the mysterious individual fans know as “the Rat Man.” The eerie red lighting and industrial architecture tells you that you’ve stumbled “off stage,” and the scrawled writing on the wall – rambling pastiches of Auden, Dickinson and Longfellow, as well as that infamous phrase – hints that the occupant of this chamber was an educated, if slightly unhinged, fellow.
The items in the corner tell the saddest story, however. A replacement vat from a water cooler. An upturned desktop PC crudely converted to a stove. A collection of empty Aperture Science-branded tin cans. From these simple props, you get a sense of the ingenuity of your mysterious ally, along with the unfortunate realization that he’s been stuck here for some time. There’s even a (mercifully empty) bucket sitting forlornly in the corner.
A film could show you these things, of course, and a book could describe them to you. But no other medium can recreate the feeling of having stumbled across another person’s private space the way games can.
Creating spaces which tell their own tale is one thing. Building worlds that do so is another.
One of the particular hooks of Half-Life 2 is the way its world has been crafted to hint at the events that occurred in the interim between games. At its outset, protagonist Gordon Freeman wakes up from an enforced years-long hibernation and is required to piece together surroundings just as players are. Sorry, that’s Dr. Gordon Freeman. It’s easy to forget that Freeman’s a scientist – even the supporting cast needles him for the rather limited amount of actual science he gets done – but this facet of his character is expressed utterly by his (and the player’s) role as a slightly removed observer to the evidence piling up around him.
Return to that charming beachfront property on Highway 17, and you notice something’s seriously wrong with the sea level. Boats lay strewn across the sand, and piers stop at least 30 yards short of the coastline – an early warning from Valve about the dangers of climate change, or a blindingly obvious yet completely un-telegraphed hint that the Combine have been draining Earth of its most abundant natural resource?
Clues such as these have been meticulously studied and compiled by fans of the Half-Life saga. The result of such dedicated work are sites such as The Combine Overwiki or Chan Karunamuni’s The Half-Life Saga Story Guide, which has been described as “pretty darn accurate for the most part” by Valve’s writers. Visit sites like these and you truly begin to appreciate the complexity of the world in which Half-Life and Portal are set and the way in which Valve presents it to its audience.
Many of these games’ seemingly innocuous background details raise as many questions as they answer. We know, for example, that Portal is part of the Half-Life universe thanks to a slideshow left playing in a Aperture Science conference room, but we don’t yet know how these settings will meet. Will the answers ever come? Perhaps not. But then, the moment the mystery is exposited out of the Half-Life universe, the moment Valve stops hinting, stops showing and starts telling, will be the moment they discard the storytelling principles that they themselves established. More importantly, it’ll be the moment when Half-Life becomes just another series of videogames about saving the world from aliens.
Craig Owens is a freelance writer based just outside London, U.K. When he’s not dissecting the plotlines of sci-fi videogames, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.