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.
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.
Little is known about Valve founders Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, but they are undoubtedly smart fellows. Both worked for lengthy periods at Microsoft, becoming some of the “Microsoft millionaires” that cashed in on the success of the company, before joining forces to form Valve. Harrington is clearly the impetus behind the games’ immersive nature. Here’s what he said about the series in a previous interview:
Is this the game you have always dreamed of playing?
Mike – If only it came with a virtual [reality] body suit, then we could all live in the game. : )
When he’s asked what the future of games looks like, he says, “I’m really looking forward to better physics simulations. There is a lot of room for improvement in this area. When objects in the game world start acting like objects in your world, an entire new set of possibilities get opened up.”
Clearly a great deal of time, effort and thought have gone into the games in terms of gameplay, but that also indicates an equal amount of reflection on the plot and from where it borrows its ideas.
From here we turn to William Butler Yeats, one of the most renowned poets of the early 20th century. Specifically, we must concentrate our gaze upon his most famous work, “The Second Coming.” Filled with allusions to grand human trials, the poem has given us many notable lines and ideas. (Here’s a version of the poem recited by Law & Order‘s Sam Waterston, because he makes everything a little classier.)
Half-Life 2 begins with what might be a reference to the poem. The G-Man says to Gordon, “Your hour has come again.” Compare this to Yeats: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last.”
Is Freeman that “rough beast”? Perhaps, but he’s not Yeats’ rough beast. Literary critic Yvor Winters wrote, “We must face the fact that Yeats’s attitude toward the beast is different from ours: we may find the beast terrifying, but Yeats finds him satisfying – he is Yeats’s judgment upon all that we regard as civilized. Yeats approves of this kind of brutality.” Yeats, having been born into a time of Irish aristocracy, believed that the aristocrats were the highest order in the world and the bottom-feeders were the politicians who attempted and eventually succeeded in setting up a constitutional democracy. Half-Life‘s rough beast is not some crushing aristocratic class looking to rule over the commoners, but is one of those common men, seeking to destabilize the ranks of the overlords.
Yeats yearned for a ruling class, a watchful eye that knew best. Stan Smith wrote in W.B. Yeats: A Critical Introduction, “Yeats believed in the values of a hierarchical, ordered society in which a cultural and political aristocracy gave leadership and dignity to a people who respected and served them. … Economic and political inequality would be unimportant compared with the sense of unity and wholeness derived from sharing a common culture and set of values.” Today, most people realize that a democratic system of government, with careful checks and balances on power, is a much better option than existing at the whims of a ruling class.
Half-Life 2 is the antithesis to Yeats’ system, swapping the beast’s triumphant aristocracy for Freeman’s strive for equality and freedom. The name “Freeman” gives his mission more meaning than in the first game. In the original, he was a man trapped in extreme circumstances beyond his control, forced to fight not only extraterrestrial creatures but also contend with a military force dedicated to quashing the incident. In the sequel, he is so much more: a folk hero, a political icon, a quasi-religious figure, wielding his crowbar like God’s wrath. When resistance members greet him in the game, they speak to him as if he’s almost unreal, helping him in his cause, regardless of personal consequences. He has awakened after a “stony sleep,” bringing a nightmare to the Combine’s “rocking cradle” and its all too human figurehead. Both military commander and preacher, Freeman has come from “somewhere in the sands of the desert,” and he is “a shape with lion body and the head of a man.” His body is decked in orange and golden colors, much like a lion, but his head is that of a man, quietly contemplating his next move, your move, through the shadowy recesses of this ruined world in which he’s been dropped.
The title of this essay is not entirely correct, though: 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. Bethlehem is a holy place in Christian theology, which makes it the perfect location for the beast of Yeats’ poem to encroach upon. In City 17, that ideal is flipped on its head, replaced with a center of darkness and power.
Theologically, the forces are the same. Gordon is the good force in the universe, guided by the inscrutable, God-like hand of the G-Man, facing the seat of evil, Dr. Breen . In an even more direct rejection of Yeats, however, the forces in Half-Life 2 are non-supernatural. It continues the series’ theme, man as a force in this world; whether for good or ill is his choice. It is this choice, this need to carve out our own destiny and define ourselves based on our own hopes, dreams and fears that makes us human. So what is slouching toward Bethlehem?
Tom Rhodes is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Ohio. He can be reached through Tom [dot] Rhod [at] gmail [dot] com