In which I try to find fault with two of the best received PC games of all time.
So that’s it? Those are the reasons why you think the Half-Life games are overrated?
You point out 2 or 3 features as not really being that special (mostly the characterization), but somehow fail to mention any real problems in the game mechanics. I thought the supposed lack of those was always the main point of all the Half-Life praise – that it’s such a polished, rich in detail, atmospheric and well-crafted piece of escapist entertainment. A kind of Star Wars (the original from 77) of modern gaming.
its a linear game and you don’t like it because the woman doesn’t have big boobs. what an idiot you are.
Not sure why you’re getting such negativity in the comments. I thought you brought up some great points.
Love your videos, and as much as I love half-life, I agree with you on every point.
Nailed it. Very good points throughout. I never thought Half-Life 2 was quite as good a game as other people claimed, but it’s always been really difficult for me to explain why. Everything in the game IS really good, after all. But much like what you brought up, I’m not unhappy with anything that’s in the game, but rather with what isn’t…
Other games have been doing the same thing a lot, lately, come to think of it. Like Modern Warfare. That game had an absolutely fantastic single-player campaign that I never want to play again, because in just one run, I’ve exhausted every single possibility it had to offer. Although much longer and deeper, HL2 sort of feels like a forerunner to modern FPS campaigns like that.
It makes for great entertainment, but does it really make for great video games…?
Selective editing on the Gordon Freeman praise from the opening moments of Half-Life. Where’s <em?"Aren't you supposed to be in the test chamber?" and the rest of the impatient talking-down-to-you scientist dialogue?
In the second game, Gordon Freeman has been missing for years and hasn’t aged, so the response from characters are more reflective of that astonishment than deifying the character.
Meanwhile, there’s something wrong with Alyx Vance being a respectable role-model? I don’t get it. You say she has a lack of emotional baggage, then jump to her having a contradition of her “don’t replace my mommy complex”.
The funniest thing is there are easy gameplay elements that you could have been critical about, such as the change in game mechanics for the alien battles at the end of Half-Life.
Instead it’s dialogue that you’ve mainly targeted, cheaply. To be fair, rather than harsh, what you’ve presented is far more of a criticism of narrative.
What’s missing here is the context that in each case, the Half-Life games set a bar for narrative. Just like criticisms of classic films, it’s easy to go back to the game that set a foundation and pick away at it.
In other words, it’s a whole lot easier to make these criticisms now. This would have been more interesting if published in 1998 and 2004. Hindsight is well, again, cheap and not really as instructive as you’d said you’d like it to be. Other games have already been elevating narratives since then.
I honestly came to this page via a link, expecting to see an insightful critical look at the game that would, as you indicate at the beginning, help improve the genre. That’s not what you’ve done here, sorry.
Loving your videos. I would like to see your commentary for Kane&Lynch 2, a game I both hated and liked somehow. I hated the gameplay but I like some of the things it failed to accomplish with story and character design. Nobody seem to talk about this game and I think it´s a pity, it worth a closer look.
I may have missed something here, but what’s wrong with making the player feel important and to keeping them entertained? Not every game’s goal is to be more “artful” or to provide deep commentary on love/society/etc. Why force your notions and beliefs of what a “game should be” into all games? You don’t really have any grounds to criticize the game’s intent, because, well, it was intended, as you said.
I think you make some fair points, and it definitely got me thinking about game design. That said, I’m not a big fan of this scripted format for the videos; it’s a little too hammy, and frankly it makes me find you a little annoying, which detracts from your points. The 2 AM train-of-thought ramblings were a lot more likeable.
If you thought he was riffing on Alyx because her boobs are not big enough, you COMPLETELY missed the point.
Great video, Chris. I agree with you on all points. I actually never finished either of the two games: The first because I was busy and never got back to it, and the second because it was really boring to me. The presentation’s great, but what really killed it for me was the pacing. The beginning is exciting, running around and dodging/shooting guards, and then they put you on a boat. Terrible. Ravenholm was great! Then, they put you on a buggy. Good god. Maybe I’m mixing up the order a bit, but I felt like whenever I was shooting at something, the game was fun.
And the other thing was that there was really nothing in those giant open spaces to explore. I kept driving up to those wrecked boats hoping to see something interesting, but there was never anything there. I guess it’s nice that there weren’t any invisible walls or anything, but I kept wondering why they would put such a boring section into the game in the first place. Why not just just put in a level transition with a message that says “You drive for 20 minutes to your destination. No one is harmed.”?
Also, to the people saying that the dialogue is not important: EVERYTHING is important. That’s the whole point of critiquing art! Every time someone’s talking about ludology and a person replies “who cares,” an angel loses its wings. SERIOUSLY.
Also, I particularly like the parts about Vance. I feel the same way about Jade from Beyond Good and Evil. Those two always make it onto the top ten lists for “best female characters,” and I can never figure out why.
I recently replayed HL2 with all episodes and it was very obvious how the later episodes were much better games than the original HL2, in terms of pacing and narrative.
Eli Vance, Dr. Kleiner and Barney recognize Gordon Freeman because he is an old friend who was thought lost.
The rebels recognize him because he is the symbol of the whole rebellion. Also he’s wearing an orange mechsuit. Put Barney in it and rebels will think he’s Gordon ;)
I like the critique on Alyx Vance, I think it was spot on. She was better than most female characters we had in games and you admitted that, but she felt artificially constructed for the player (actually reminds me of Peter Molyneux’s products).
Also you finally made me realize that the G-Man is Gabe Newell =) It’s so obvious now.
@RO: They are the best, b/c to the blind the one-eyed is king.
YAAH GORDON FREEMAN!
But seriously, I think you nailed it, it is a theme park ride and I never thought of it that way. But then I never really thought much about halflife at all.
Well, the criticism is mostly spot-on but I have a few “but”s.
First, I agree with Gordon’s Mary Sue-ness but not with the examples. For me it stems from one major thing that was omitted (or I have somehow missed it if it wasn’t): Gordon is a scrawny, nerdy guy with beard and glasses and no military training who turns out to be a complete badass. He isn’t some space marine or other badass by default, nevermind his scientific achievements (while pretty high mark doing science is something a nerdy person can hope for), nevermind that he’s treated respectfully early and idolized later on (as a consequence of surviving and cleaning that whole mess in no small part due to his HEV suit). He completely PWNs commandos AND aliens while being the same kind of bookworm in thick framed glasses archetypical gamer nerd was in 1998, rather than some muscle bound cyborgized elite commando mutant ninja pirate whatever.
Expansions actually reduce his Mary Sueness by introducing a handful of other survivors, including other badass characters (who aren’t bookworms), and even without the examples you get a feeling that Gordon isn’t as much of a hero here as his HEV suit is – Gordon is pretty much reduced to the role of suit’s squishy filling.
As for the sequel, I think it actually portrays as an accidental idol of sorts. Sure, he is badass, but you can’t really help thinking that events got out of control and you have too big boots (or rather HEV) to fill.
It even pokes fun at you/Gordon (switch + MIT education) or outright calls you/Gordon out on accomplishing nothing of consequence (see Breen in this very video).
Alyx, while obviously not that awesome actually is better character than portrayed here – she is fairly cheerful and lacks much emotional baggage because she was too young to remember anything prior to Black Mesa incident so for her this broken world is the normality. Plus, she seems to have lived fairly sheltered life compared to every terrorized citizen of this world – getting hugged by a stalker in Ep1 actually seems to hit her pretty hard (and provides additional opportunity for Valve to tug at player’s emotional strings). My main complaint about Alyx is that she apparently doesn’t feel the need to procure some damn armor before becoming target practice for gestapo in menacing gasmasks, AFTER the series goes through pains of explaining away ridiculous FPS protagonist durability with protective gadgets.
Now, I generally like Half-Life, 1 more than 2.
Given how extremely linear rail shooters seem to be a fad now, it might have been better for gaming if there was no HL at all, but that’s hindsight.
HL1 had several important things going for it:
-aliens that were actually alien and tried to make sense anatomically
-suitably alien world for aliens to live in (crappy jumping puzzles notwithstanding)
-fairly realistic weapons for its time
-interesting weapon selection including modern, experimental and outright alien stuff
-diverse enemies you couldn’t just circlestrafe ’till effective
-locational enemy armour consistent with 3D model (absent in Source version)
-rigorously staying in character all the time (no TPP or “meanwhile” cutscenes, no engineered cutscene ineptitude, etc.)
HL2 is worse, because it feels gimmicky at times (Dog as comic relief, pattern attacking helicopters dropping huge beeping bombs, throwing those bombs back, grenades with LEDs and so on), has embarrassingly ineffective enemy attacks (APC rockets take about 25HP on average), idiotic moments (voluntary coffin ride in citadel, twice) and very constrained weapon and enemy selection.
Still it’s pretty atmospheric and entertaining ride coupled with some effective storytelling and consistent art design, though one would prefer it to be less of a ride, more of a game where you could experiment and find your own path.
You really nailed it! I think that the modern content-muncher is a serious problem with the industry today – it creates very expensive, linear content that can only ever really be experienced once. I was similarly bothered by the praise for HL2’s narration and etc, which mostly amounts to empty circlejerking about the big strong player, hallowed be his name.
We’re seeing the Alyx thing repeat itself all over again with Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth, only this time she does have the Hootie McBoob physique and the anime lolita face…
I would have said more about the weakness of the gameplay, personally. Yes, HL2 is mechanically competent – it controls well, enemies don’t murder you instantly, etc etc – but in an experience so meticulously planned there’s very little that happens through dynamics. Enemies will pop up and you will shoot them. You won’t really have to make any tough choices about how you will shoot them, because you will use that level’s gimmick weapon. There are no tactical considerations or potential synergies to it; it’s shooting the same guys, wash rinse repeat. Probably not enough fun to play on its own, which only emphasizes the “sticky pages” problem!
While “theme park ride” is a reasonable metaphor for the HL design philosophy, a better one would be “obstacle course.” Yes, the game is a strictly linear progression of non-interactive vignettes that bookend highly distinctive combat/puzzle/platform segments (which themselves are peppered with scripted “atmosphere” that artificially increase tension or foreshadow upcoming dangers). However, for practical purposes, that description could reasonably describe Super Meat Boy, Braid, or Thief.
Perhaps I’m unusual, but I don’t really remember the named characters from the HL universe. All of my lasting memories consist of overcoming in-game challenges by either running harrowing gauntlets or by working out an effective strategy for a seemingly unbeatable foe. I remember Surface Tension vividly, despite not having played it in over a decade. I remember hoarding saw blades in Ravenholm. I remember picking my way along under that bridge. Crucially, I remember those things because I was the one doing them, and dying repeatedly in the process before finally vanquishing them.
What Valve understands is that nothing motivates players more potently than the subjective feeling of mastery. Their games are all, without exception, built as tutorials for how to play their games, and they’re good enough at it that people think they’re solving problems in “creative” ways without realizing they’re being gently led toward the correct answer. This feeling of mastery and accomplishment is what breeds legions of slavishly devoted fans.
There is no question that HL’s characterization is weak and of secondary importance. The characters need to be memorable and distinctive without ever detracting from the player’s feeling of expertise, so they tend to be one-dimensional. But so are many of Hitchcock’s characters. Anything else runs the risk of getting in the way of the player’s subjective (read: cleverly & manipulatively inflated) sense of accomplishment.
There is no cardinal rule that says games *must* be nonlinear, and if linear games handle pacing, suspense, and controls like HL, then there’s certainly room on the shelf for them.
Nitpick: ‘chaste’, the word you use to describe Alyx, is pronounced like ‘chased’, not like ‘mast’.
I mostly agree, however, I view HL2 in reverse.
Rather than ‘random gameplay keeping me from story’ I view the game as ‘random story keeping me from diverse gameplay.’ I only played HL2 for the first time last year. I’d not played HL1 and had little knowledge of the series besides “being good.” I played HL2 in the course of three sessions and I was utterly blown away. Describing it to a friend after it was done I said it was a bit like the coolest action movie you’ve ever seen, but you get to be the guy doing all the cool stuff.
And, oh yeah, there’s something about a story, but whatever.
I can definitely get on board with your criticism if I had any praise at all for the game’s story – but I really don’t. I see the crux of the game being all about putting the player in as many cool situations as possible and letting them figure out how to get out. And while it is very linear in getting from point A to point B, I think there’s a lot of flexibility in how you do it, exactly.
Anyhow, great video. I’m always interested to hear from folks who have a good reason to slaughter sacred cows.
I’ve been watching your videos all day, they’re all really great, but I have to disagree on some points in this one (big surprise, I know).
I think that one theme of the Half Life series is that Gordon Freeman is an every-man. His wild and wacky adventures aren’t the result of some player power trip – they’re the result of being in the wrong place at the right time. I don’t know if my experience was singular or not, but I was acutely aware of this and felt like the wrong man for the job the entire game. You could compare it to the most interesting aspects of the last two Terminator movies – John Connor is just a normal dude, a loser kid that grows up to be a normal dude, whose only claim to leading the human resistance is “Oh, it just happens that way.” Because of this, John Connor and the player controlling Gordon Freeman are led to experience major anxiety (which might not be the case with players that are so accustomed to playing characters that ARE “mankind’s last hope” and “the only soldier alive who is able to pull off this dog and pony show”).
This puts the characters and roles of G-Man and Alyx in a better frame of reference. While I agree that Alyx was just put into the game to stroke players’ egos, I think it’s the lack of which that makes her a decent character. While the player is bombarded with ego boosting Freeman propaganda from all sides (including being labelled “The Last Free Man”, Alyx is more likely to tell you to “be careful” and “take care of yourself.” Her flirtiness seems to stem from the deification of Freeman for her entire life, but in the end, she treats you like a normal guy.
Anyway, I’m not here to White Knight Valve or Half Life. I feel like the games themselves have several huge flaws, but I just thought I’d try and show you my take on some of the points you mentioned.
Thanks for doing these videos!
The main problem with Half Life 2 (having never gotten past that stupid tram ride in Half-life 1) was how pointless the character of Gordon Freeman is. I dislike utterly featureless protagonists in games that supposedly have a good narrative; I feel like I’m some RC robot being controlled by resistance members through voice commands. I’m going to compare GF to the Master Chief; The Master Chief is a better ‘character’ because he actually has a personality. He’s stoic, has a dry sense of humor, is dedicated to his fellow spartans, and fought through a swarm of parasitic monsters to save a comrade (granted, for the index, but you try to tell me that MC doesn’t value Cortana herself). Gordon Freeman… put a crystal into a machine? GF never gives an opinion, never speaks for himself, never tells the resistance members to get off their asses and shoot the rocket launchers they have lying on a table; MC never talked in-game, but cutscenes fleshed out his character; how he acted in combat was up to the player, but his character was well established. GF is a featureless protagonists; he’s the Doom Guy with a goatee and a doctorate.
I’m not sure if there’s a point in commenting on this video, seeing as it is quite old. However, it’s well done and I like how you go in depth on the issues. Definitely checking the rest of your blog out.
Only, I don’t see what most of your criticism is about. Let’s talk about the DO, DON’T SHOW section, for example:
you don’t seem to define it the way you define the show don’t tell concept, you don’t give a real alternative to Valve’s approach. It doesn’t help that the sequence from HL1 you play to make a point at the beginning (the scripted sequence of the headcrab zombie grabbing the security guard while the scientist runs on a mine) it’s the iconic sequence used pretty much everywhere to point out why HL1 had such an impact in its time. Putting things in context, back in the days the story was either written on screen (*between levels* à la Doom or *in level* à la Unreal) or told by a cutscene. It was tell, don’t show. The statement you make about games being an interactive medium is exactly why scripted sequences were considered revolutionary at the time: instead of taking away interactivity and telling you stuff, they left you in charge while showing you what is going on. It was like being part of a movie but with freedom of action and interaction. It was a step from tell don’t show to show don’t tell, so at the very least a step (the first step) in the right direction.
You seem to think that the player character in a game should be single handedly responsible for everything happening around him. At least that’s what I gather if you think that even a short scene showing what OTHER PEOPLE are doing is bad for the narrative because there is no interaction in it. How should it have been done, then, in your opinion? Sure you can’t think cutscenes are better, because there is nothing to DO in a cutscene while they SHOW it to you, and neither the written story is a good alternative. So, what’s an alternative to getting the fabula through character’s conversations and interactions and events unfolding around you? I really want to know, because the only alternative is having the player do absolutely _everything_, from setting events in motion (which Gordon does, btw) to pretty much solving any problems in the world; and good luck with the secondary character’s characterization in such a game by the way: if anything that is shown to be done by someone else is disrupting the DO, DON’T SHOW rule then we’re really in trouble.
The next section about gameplay being what happens between content chunks: sure, you go through levels while the story unfolds. That’s pretty much the definition of videogame, excluding some of the puzze based ones like Tetris. You also go on (and this confused me really really a lot) bemoaning the variety of gameplay the game has to offer, like if it’s a bad thing!!!
Oh yeah, I’d prefer having ONE weapon and shoot always the same guys O_o!
To put it simply, there has to be a story part to drive the action and give you motivation, and there has to be the action you got motivated for otherwise you’re watching a movie, right? So, Vampires the Masquerade that was a book with its pages stuck together: the really interesting part was the story, but the gameplay was repetitive and you found yourself longing for the next cutscene while hack’n’slashing through levels. In HL 1 and 2, instead, the “here’s the story, that’s why you should give a damn” section and the “here’s the point where you do stuff” section merge together without clear cuts and the variety of gameplay is what makes the gradual transition between these two points entertaining.
Really, I can’t imagine in what other FPS the gameplay ISN’T “what happens between content chunks”, because really I can’t think of one. And if anything, as I said, HL does a better job than most in blurring the contours of the chunks so that instead of being huge discrete chunks, the content is delivered in a more granular and seamless way.
I agree with the theme park ride analogy: the writers had a pretty clear idea of what mood and what themes they wanted to tackle, and they engineered every single level and scripted event to “elicit a certain feeling” in the player, and they’ve done a great job at it. Only you seem to suggest this isn’t a good thing and I still don’t get why.
Missing narrative closure: yup, we’re all still waiting for Episode 3.
(sorry for the caps, but there’s no italic or bold and I just wanted to outline some words)
The criticism about Alyx Vance is fair game.
On the flip side, she was still very innovative for her time (that is, 8 years ago), and evaluating her as if she were created yesterday is not a sensible thing to do. You can’t expect miracles overnight; Valve have basically been consistently breaking totally new ground here, for video games. In Episode One alone she showed a lot more emotional depth than in Half-Life 2. And given the ending of Episode Two, we can reasonably expect Valve to do exactly what you want with the character; that is, make the complexities of her character pretty much the major focus of the script.
The rest of the review is amazingly inane, though.
I mean, you actually criticised a game for having varied types of gameplay in order to give it substance. You ACTUALLY did this.
It’s not remotely clear why. You just quickly state a succession of awesome pieces of gameplay in a dumb voice, and apparently this is as deep as your argument goes.
you think this is “heavily scripted”? try this
you look like a child molester
I think the points of the videomaker are just and to me, highly agreeable. He pointed out things I’ve noticed myself too. And I specially didn’t like how Valve made Freeman a Celebrity. I think it’s obvious when you read Raising the Bar; Valve explains their struggles to keep up and surpass the original Half-Life game.
What I really like about Half-Life 2 is the post-apocalyptic world, the horrors of wastelands, and the art direction in which all of that was tied in. I think it’s beautifully made. There are still some of those serene alone-in-the-world moments of Freeman, like in Sandtraps, Highway 17 and Water Hazard levels; cricket sounds, wind, a sea swelling, an abandoned house, the DIY technology of the “rebels”, the “There’s so many ways of dying out here” point… It really adds to the atmosphere. Here, Valve did an amazing job.
BUT, everything else that we see as incredibly well done owes much to having a really high budget to cover good voice acting, hiring good artists and talented programmers, taking their time to make everything work well together (not being under some investor’s deadline).
I personally didn’t like Alyx as a sidekick. I’ve always though Gordon was a “lone-rider”… There was something deeply detached from reality, something philosophical and intimate about the inception of Gordon into this strange world. Not that is anything wrong with Alyx as a character or her design, I just think she’s out of place in the Half-Life universe…
After playing Half-Life 2 and the Episodes, my final opinion was: This is a very well made game. I enjoyed it very much… but apart from the physics and facial animation, the game did not actually raise the bar that high! I would consider Half-Life 2 and onward Episodes as a sane-game. Something that is a result of talented people working together, having great ideas, but they had to make too many compromises for the final version, and therefore it lost some of its most crucial substance IMHO.
We are aware and its why we love it, to bad youre too much of a snide little shiet who thinks way to much of himself, or else you could enjoy this masterpiece.
A group of six musicians worked for two weeks shoulder-to-shoulder turning these agents of death into instruments of life,” Reyes says on his site
All of your complaints were shallow and grasping. Try again.
[…] liken the choice in TWD to playing Half-Life 2 for the first time. It might feel like you’re choosing a direction. You’re left with […]
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Half-Life is a science fiction video game developed by Valve Corporation, the company’s debut product and the first in the Half-Life series. First released in 1998 by Sierra Studios for Windows PCs, the game was also released for the PlayStation 2; Mac OS X and Linux ports became available in January 2013. In Half-Life, players assume the role of Dr. Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist who must fight his way out of a secret underground research facility whose research and experiments into teleportation technology have gone disastrously incorrect.
Valve, set up by former Microsoft employees, had difficulty finding a publisher for the game, with many believing that it was too ambitious a project. Sierra On-Line eventually signed the game after expressing interest in making a 3D action game. The game had its first major public appearance at the 1997 Electronic Entertainment Expo. Designed for Windows, the game uses a heavily modified version of id Software’s Quake game engine with code portions from id Tech 2 engine called GoldSrc.
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