Half Life 2, manshooters, and setting/UI interaction

Nearly seven years after I purchased it, in a Target in Memphis, TN, I finally beat Half Life 2. I know, shocking. How did I finish a game so quickly? I only had to re-start once, even. Madness, madness. The game is not only great (you know that already), but a really interesting thing to have finished up right now, in the year of our lord 2014. Partly that’s to do with its relationship to its game genre, and partly it’s to do with its setting and sf/f elements.

The biggest first person shooter that’s story-driven that I can think of in the recent past is Bioshock: Infinite. I wrote about that game here, by the way. In my personal play history, I guess Borderlands (1 & 2) count. I tried to play a Medal of Honor game and got really bored. And the first Halo game really didn’t age well at all (I just tried it out a few weeks ago). This is a specific thought about story-driven manshooters that aren’t Left 4 Dead (the co-op’s not the problem, the sparse, algorithmic nature of the plot is) or Portal (at no point can you shoot a dude in the face with a shotgun). I specifically longed for a game that met these requirements just recently, then remembered, “Hey, I haven’t beaten Half Life 2 yet.” So I started in on that.

The tale of my original play of the game is sad, I suppose. I got it when I was “forever alone” back in Memphis, and played up until Nova Prospekt, at which point I quicksaved in the middle of the first fight where you have to set up turrets, but after I set up the turrets rather poorly and also after the first waves of enemies had fucked me up. It might have been winnable, but I wasn’t going to win it. Last year I started again and got to some point during the dune buggy section before I just stopped. After I came back I whipped through the game in a few sessions. I think all that TF2 has improved my ability in manshooters after all (though, of course, I’m still not good at TF2). This playing of HL2 took me through seven years and a lot of changes in gaming, particulary the venerable FPS genre.

How for the prerequisite history of my FPS gaming, I guess. I started on Doom, on the Goldstar 3DO (A: a console, B: an obscure as hell alternative to the Playstation 1). Then I tried Riven on the PC (didn’t play much), Goldeneye on the N64 (played a lot, almost no access to friends to play multiplayer), and then a handful of the similar Bond titles after that. I think Nightfall came out when I was in college sometime; I played it on the Gamecube. After that there was a lot of Mechwarrior, some Unreal Tournament in small LAN parties in my dorm’s basement, and just a smidgeon of the original Half Life (by the Dark Forces game I actually played, Jedi Knight 2, there was very little first personing or shooting, given lightsabers and the need for third person to actually use the lightsabers).

OK. So you may draw what conclusions you want from that.

The reason I say it was odd to play Half Life 2 now is that the story-driven FPS games are very different now. They’re heavily stylized or deeply entrenched in certain tropes (militarism being the big one). Some of the most popular don’t even have stories – at least not the sort of narrative I’m talking about. That’s the kind of story you play in; a story is happening not only in the place you’re in, but to you and the characters you know. So Gordon Freeman isn’t just the guy killing some zombies while, out in the world, there’s a narrative happening (I’m thinking of Killing Floor here); he’s the main character of the entire narrative. The story is lovingly crafted around him; he flows through it and it affects him (well, my perception of him – I started nodding and shaking my head when people spoke to me, and I tell Barney aloud whenever I see him he’s my best friend, because he gives me crowbars). Bioshock is absolutely this sort of game. In my mind Mass Effect and the like are different, because the gameplay changes around the cover-based mechanics. There’s cover in Half Life and Bioshock, but mostly you have to just duck instead of gripping onto things. It necessitates the need for unrealistic bullet absorption, but why the hell would you be playing a game about sky-cities or alien invasions if you want realism?

So one of the reasons it was interesting is that this sort of game isn’t as ubiquitous as it once was – and the game itself behaves as though it is. The FPS conventions aren’t slavishly followed, but they are deployed in such a way as to leave no doubt that they’re familiar, ready to be used to explore the aftermath of the alien invasion and what’s yet to come. Like Gordon’s HEV suit and red-handled crowbar, they’re familiar tools you’re glad to take up with confident hands. Seven years on, my hands weren’t quite so confident and the tools weren’t quite so familiar, but the game still presented them as such.

I mentioned exploring the setting. Of course, save for the Lambda caches, there’s not too much exploring to be had. The game is gloriously linear (I know that’s a dirty word nowadays, but seriously, if you want to tell a story and provide an excellently-directed experience, linear is still the way to go most of the time). But our existence in such an odd setting serves as a kind of exploration. The setting shifts like in a novel, with a sudden surprising reveal of a terrible dystopia (City 17), the race along the filthy gutters and canals that bookend your first visit to Eli’s lab, and the desolate boonies with a sandworm (antlion, sorry, antlion) problem and creepily abandoned homesteads. On top of all this, it’s not even in America – City 17’s in an undefined former Soviet state, so the architecture, geography, landmarks, and sometimes even signage are alien, never mind the Citadel, the Overwatch, the Vortigaunts, the deadly flying blenders, and all the other markers of actual alienness.

Playing through this works because the gameplay itself is so familiar. It’s like postmodernism – some of the greatest postmodernist texts describe pretty mundane things. My favorite’s just about a kid getting lost in a house of mirrors. Because the technique is going to be so screwy, it’s safest to describe an easy-to-understand plot; on the flipside, the crazier the setting (Stranger in a Strange Land’s, for instance, of most of Dick’s work), the simpler the writing, to some degree. It allows the reader to digest one while parsing the other. Now, that doesn’t keep the greatest works from alienating you with both: A Clockwork Orange springs to mind. But you see the thought process here.

I really like Borderlands, for instance, but I’m so busy wrestling with the controls (sensitive even when you turn the sensitivity down) and all the menus that I hardly notice it’s an alien planet. All the information necessary to navigate the gameplay (skulls for enemies too tough to fight, levels of enemies to tell you how leveling will go, objective markers because open worlds are what we do now) makes it difficult to digest the equally-alien world, and so only in the short cutscenes, the dialogue we can stop and listen to, and other such “restful” moments can we get any sense of the setting itself. Something simple like auto-equipping the best weapon of each type currently equipped, or even just auto-looting, could have improved that sort of setting-immersion.

I might have gone on and beaten HL2 Episode 1, then re-started HL2 on a higher difficulty. Just to enjoy that glorious manshooty pleasure a little longer…

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