The games set in the Half-Life universe are considered marvels of videogame storytelling – but why is it so effective when they can basically be boiled down to “Save the Earth from aliens?”
Ask any PC gamer what their favorite story in a game is, and you’ll almost undoubtedly get some answering, “Half-Life 2,” or “Portal.” But why? On the surface, both of the games have relatively simplistic stories: “Aliens have invaded the Earth, kill them,” and “You are trapped in a lab by a crazy AI, escape,” respectively. Why are they so powerful and so effective? As Craig Owens argues in Issue 236 of The Escapist, the effectiveness of Valve’s storytelling comes not from the “what,” but rather the “how” – by creating fully-realized worlds that requires the players to find the story and piece it out themselves.
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.
Half-Life and Portal don’t tell, they show – and this makes all the difference, turning a relatively unoriginal story into an affecting, mindblowing experience. To read more about the superb craftsmanship of fairly simplistic storylines in the halls of Valve, check out “Gordon Freeman, Private Eye” in Issue 236 of The Escapist.