Thursday, July 30, 2015

Half Life 2 and Black Mesa: Subtlety Between Shootouts

This was originally supposed to be about Black Mesa but it turned into a bit of a ramble touching on emergent versus linear storytelling.
A friend once asked me what my favorite video game stories were. I went to grad school for that, and it's my job description, so I wanted to impress. The first couple titles that sprang to mind weren't terribly unusual. I think I said Final Fantasy 6, The Last of Us, Arkham City, and Gunpoint, all for different reasons. If he asked me now, The Witcher franchise would vault to the top of that list, followed closely by Wolf Among Us, and Tales of the Borderlands. Again, pretty standard stuff. I did manage to throw him one curve ball though.
"Half-Life 2."
Yup. The story is unfinished (and sadly looking like it might stay that way), it has a silent protagonist (which I hate), and on the surface it looks like your standard re-telling of War of the Worlds, right down to the tripodal alien war machines. But there's more happening behind the scenes. Or maybe between the scenes is more accurate.
If you rush to the next firefight or puzzle, you'll miss out on ambient dialog and broadcasts that flesh out the plot. The writers are humble enough to not cram their tale down the player's throat. Instead of saying "OMG this is so important, the fate of the universe depends on you!!" they let the level design and mechanics make you fear for your life, feel oppressed, and then in the quiet moments, the game gives you little glimpses of what went wrong, and how bad it really is.
The cliff notes version of Half-Life 2 is that Earth has not only been invaded, but already conquered by an alien collective called the Combine. As befitting their name, they genetically remix every race they conquer to refine their race of super soldiers. The entire world is now an Orwellian police state and the bulk of humanity has been penned in old cities that have been redistricted and augmented by the Combine's sci-fi tech. You start out in a bleak Eastern European metropolis called City 17, and its aging already-dystopian architecture, is merged with the Combine's pristine, geometric tech is a great juxtaposition. There is, of course, a resistance, and you do, of course, join and lead it. That's all you really need to know.
Now here are the cool details you can miss: the Combine have set up 'inhibitor fields' that prevent us from breeding, but promise our race will have 'genetic immortality' and travel the stars, which, would actually be compelling carrots for a lot of people. But they put chemicals in the water that make the populace forgetful and docile. The alien species they've introduced as biological weapons (and maybe crude terraforming tools) have ravaged the environment. It took them only 7 hours to completely dominate the planet, and--oh yeah: this is all your fault.
A lot of people aren't clear on how Half-Life 1 and 2 are connected, especially since many people jumped on at HL2. That's unfortunate, because the connection between the games is in my opinion, the coolest part of the lore. At the beginning of the first game, Gordon performs a science experiment at Black Mesa research facility that opens portals to an alien planet. A hostile army of aliens invades, and the military is called in to kill everyone and everything involved. Gordon of course, kills them better, goes through the portal to the alien planet, and kills the leader of their alien army, Nihilanth. In the process, you free a race of enslaved aliens and thwart an invasion on Earth. Yay! Awesome right? No. Turns out Intergalactic assassinations have huge consequences. By killing Nihilanth and crippling his army, you paved the way for the Combine to sweep in and conquer Earth. Nice job, slick!
Then there's the G-Man: one of the most enigmatic characters in all videogame-dom. He's pasty, suited man who speaks like one of the supernatural denizens of Twin Peaks, has a talent for appearing and disappearing in impossible places, and the ability to freeze space=time. At the end of the first game, after you've committed your "one-man genocide," he offers you a job. The terms kind of suck: you don't know what work you'll be doing, and if you refuse, he strips you of your guns and leaves you to inevitably die fighting hordes of aliens, avenging their comrades. If you accept, he puts you into suspended animation until Half-life 2.
The original Half-Life has not aged well, but fortunately, a dedicated team of modders and programmers called The Crowbar Collective have remade Half-Life 1 practically from scratch. It is known as Black Mesa Source, and you should buy and play it. Consider that endorsement an imperative if you have yet to play Half-Life 2, provided you have patience for somewhat dated graphics. Incidentally, I discovered that my threshold for old graphics is Source 2. It is just realistic enough for me to feel immersed, which is a testament to the engine considering it's now a full decade old.
Why bother with Black Mesa? Well, it also has that slow burn. The beginning of the game is arguably a fist-person survival horror affair, that ramps up into some of the most intense firefighting of any shooter you'll play. And there are puzzles throughout. Most of them are very basic, some are jumping puzzles, but they provide enough variety to break up the bouts of action. The fights themselves, in fact, are like improvisational puzzles. Unlike most modern shooters, where you have a regenerating health bar, you have a shield and a health bar that can only be restored with items. I miss this trope, because it allows the designers to exhaust you. To chip away at your sense of security, and thrust you into fights where you feel the weariness and desperation of your avatar.
The level "Surface Tension," may be the best I've played in a shooter. You start by storming a dam in one very intense firefight. Immediately after that, you must ward off a helicopter with a laser weapon. Then you flush yourself down the dam, and navigate an incredibly claustrophobic cliff face as more soldiers try to kill you. The helicopter returns, but you can ground it permanently with a new laser-guided rocket launcher. Most games would call it a day there. But you are just getting warmed up. You have to escape a tank; a rare firefight where your only chance is to run. Then you must navigate a warehouse, rigged with dozens of trip mines and ordinance, Entrapment style, in one of the most nerve wracking sequences you will experience in any game ever. Then the tank catches up with you and you have to take it out with an environmental weapon. Finally, you have to kill an alien giant with a mortar as it shakes the tower you are standing on--this last part was pretty badly glitched, regrettably, marring an otherwise incredible experience. But the game is still in early access, and the developers are actively engaged in fixing up the title.
Both titles excel at immersion because they commit. They trap you in first person the entire game and there is a single linear path that you must follow through the levels. At Georgia Tech, I remember a lot of the teachers and my fellow students felt that videogame storytelling was hobbled by cinematics, set pieces, and linearity. It was regarded as "a legacy approach to storytelling," inherited by analog media. When you look at drek like COD it's easy to empathize with that complaint, and when you see just how creative you can get with something as simple as Twine, it's hard to not want games that take that versatility a step further (I think Tell-Tale has successfully made themselves the sovereigns of that dimension).
But my professors and peers were chasing an even more elusive whale: truly emergent storytelling. This describes systems that would effectively improvise valuable (emotionally potent) stories in the course of play, as opposed to taking you down a number of branching corridors. I was a member of the project group that tried to develop that kind of gameplay. It's been long enough now that I can admit it felt like a bit of a bust. With the crucial exception of tabletop roleplaying, I haven't found a system that creates meaningful narratives on the fly. I know you can find good RP if you find the right people in the right MMO, but what results is effectively collaborative fan fiction. The onus of storytelling is on the player rather than the system.
Other than failing to leverage the 'affordances' of digital media, the backlash against linear stories is that they are didactic; you are forced to engage with the world a specific way that elicits a specific emotional response. I think that only becomes a problem when you feel the strings tugging you, because that breaks the immersion. If you are leaning into the strings though, it feels a bit like flying, or riding a roller coaster. Yes, I would love it if Gordon Freeman spoke, and I'd be ecstatic it if you could speak for him and make choices... but when I played, I wanted to know what happened next rather than the ability to do things differently.
I guess there are two main takeaways I'm trying to convey here: you can make familiar linear stories compelling with enough experiential immersion, and squeeze in some meaningful subtlety,even when paired with huge scripted action scenes. That and the Half-Life franchise rocks. Here's hoping Valve comes back to it some day.

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