Let’s Study Half-Life 2, Part 2: The Horizon

Part two is up!

It will likely take me longer for me to get part three up. (I’m thinking Monday, April 2nd, at the earliest.) This is the last video in the series that borrows heavily from my dissertation and prior course materials—subsequent videos will delve deeply into new material, which means they’ll be spaced out more.

Script below the jump.

I know I spent a lot of Part 1 not actually talking about Half-Life 2. I’m sorry about that. And I’m going to do it again! So … sorry, not sorry. A lot of the points I’m going to make in this series are about design decisions in Half-Life 2 that have wide applicability and resonance outside of the specific context of that game. So expect many digressions. Interesting and enlightening ones, I hope.

Anyway, bear with me as I begin Part 2 talking not about Half-Life 2, but about an Atari arcade game called BattleZone.

2.1 See That Mountain? You Can Climb It.

BattleZone is a tank-themed arcade game that came out in 1980. It was one of the first 3D, first-person games ever made. Because we’re talking about 1980 hardware, BattleZone’s polygons don’t have surfaces. Instead, its stark landscapes were rendered in crisp monochrome wireframe, on a vector graphics display. In the arcade cabinet, this vector display was enclosed within a small square porthole, emulating a tank periscope. Looking through this porthole, seeing this mobile, first-person periscope view, was undoubtedly many players’ first experience with a game fully rendered in three dimensions. All of a sudden, there were new possibilities injected into the experience of playing a shooter game. Rather than having complete visual access to the area of play, relegated to a single two-dimensional screen, players had to adapt to the fact that the game’s action wrapped around them in 360 degrees, and included expanses of play space currently out of view, of enemies that persisted and pursued even while their virtual back was turned.

BattleZone was a potent stimulant for players’ imaginations, and lots of rumors swirled around it. Its vistas seemed too impressive to act as just a container for another shooting game, and stories swirled throughout arcades that the game’s terrain was actually more explorable than it initially appeared. The active volcano perched tantalizingly on the game’s horizon became an epicenter for such rumors. Atari employee Lyle Rains, who was working in the mail room at the time, recalls that “One letter came in from a BattleZone fan … who said that if you drove far enough you finally got to the volcano, and if you drove over the top of the volcano, you could go down into the crater. And he said that inside the crater there was a castle, and that you could go inside and explore the castle. Of course, none of this was true.”

It only eight short years, Atari’s arcade games had moved from the two-dimensional ballistics of Pong to the 3D wireframe of BattleZone. But still: advances in technology were no match for players’ ravenous imaginations. For a certain segment of players, BattleZone’s volcano presented an implicit promise that perseverance would be rewarded, and that horizons are meant to be chased, rather than idly contemplated from afar. But, since this was only the dawn of 3D games, this promise remained unfulfilled.

And I feel like the lesson that Lyle Rains learned on that day in Atari’s mail room was a lesson that game developers have been trying to live up to ever since. Nintendo seem to have designed Wind Waker as a tech demo for the Gamecube’s draw distance capabilities: one of the central pleasures of the game is just sailing around, knowing that any island you spot on the horizon is yours to explore. During E3 2011, Bethesda designer Todd Howard is said to have excitedly announced “See that mountain? You can climb it,” while pointing at distant spots on the horizon in Skyrim. Similar claims were made about draw distance and explorable space when The Witcher 3 was being promoted, as well. And then you have something like Journey, which is a very elemental manifestation of that desire that Atari failed to account for back in the making of BattleZone. There’s you, and there’s a mountain in the distance. And the game is about making your way to that mountain, and climbing to its summit. Um … spoilers, I guess.

Half-Life 2 isn’t as architypal in its construction as Journey is. But it still understands the power of a landscape’s implicit promises. It understands that spaces in games are meant to be conquered, and that things we see in the distance act as bait for our attention and curiosity. The climax of the game will take place at the top of the Citadel, the impossibly tall building that we see pretty much as soon as we get outside. Curiosity is piqued, in order to be satiated. Horizons are means to be chased.

2.2 The Visual Language of Horizons

“Horizons are meant to be chased.” Yeah: it’s a dopey truism, reproduced on dumb motivational posters. But there’s undeniably something that’s visually captivating about horizons, especially when reproduced in visual media, and the certain psychological itch they set up. It’s something that’s well-established in painting, from Kaspar David Friedrich to the Hudson River School. And as I mentioned in the previous video, one of the most visually-striking genres of early cinema was the phantom ride film, which Tom Gunning describes as the “unique realization of the fantasy of penetrating a landscape, of chasing the horizon into the depth of an ever-unfolding image.”

When we start weaving the horizon into visual storytelling, it takes on a cluster of different narrative functions. Sometimes, as in Journey, the landmark perched upon the horizon is a goal that our protagonists will eventually reach. Other times, it represents a destination that they’ll never make it to. But showing just a momentary glimpse of it adds some lived-in detail to this this fictional world—what we might call world-building. Creating a matte painting is a lot less labor-intensive than creating a set, and putting at least something out there helps audiences imagine a larger world. I know that Spock isn’t going to head over to those buildings, because they’re obviously painted, but it’s still fun to imagine what they might look like close up, and what people do in them.

It’s a cliche that Western movies end with their lonesome drifter protagonist heading off into the horizon, often into the sunset. There’s a reason for this—especially if they’re riding into the sunset (that is, into the west), this final image says that, “yes, this particular adventure has come to an end, but this is but one of many encounters on the frontier our wandering hero had.” It gives us a mythic sense of a continuing journey of frontier adventures, which maps onto the continuing Westward expansion of the nation. It’s no surprise, then, that this “striding solemnly into the horizon” ending would later become a visual shorthand used to establish loose continuity between sequential stories.

Along with heroes ambling off into the horizon, there are also scores of movies that end with characters looking out toward an army amassing on the horizon. Or a storm brewing on the horizon. Or some sort of other plot-relevant thing otherwise looming or drifting toward us from the horizon. There’s a similar range of effects here. The film is telling the viewer, “there’s something else out there, to come.” It suggests to the viewer that, although this particular story has reached its conclusion, these character’s lives will continue on. This world in some way persists, beyond the bounds of what viewers know about it. We can anticipate future events, guess at the future of its characters.

Which is, strictly speaking, a lie.

In a literal sense, we have to admit that there is nothing to these character’s lives beyond what we’re shown on the screen. They are constructs, used to tell a story. They aren’t people with lives. They don’t exist in a continuous world. Nothing about their world exists even beyond the bounds of the frame, let alone beyond the bounds of the beginning and ending of the film. Storytelling is just a trick, really.

But great stories make us forget that. They make us ask, “I wonder what happened to these people after that?” And that’s how the sequel was born. That’s how we go from this … to this. (Oh … okay. Are we really doing this? All of this? Okay, that was … more than I expected. Or wanted, frankly.)

There’s a certain philosophical dimension to this. And here, I’m just going to get indulgent for a bit.

2.3 Overthinking things, or: Yes, I’m Really Going to Talk About Philosophy for a Bit

There’s a school of philosophy know as phenomenology. It arose in the early 20th century, and it’s hard to accurately describe unless you know everything it was reacting against, in the philosophical context of the time. But to give a nutshell version, it basically boils down to an argument that philosophers can and should talk about sensory experiences in addition to logic and reason. It’s a particular form of realism, interested in the psychology of our perceptions of and interactions with things, and it claims that paying close, formal attention to everyday lived experience can provide valuable new routes into philosophical inquiry.

Anyway, philosophers in this school were pretty big on the phenomenon of the horizon. They liked to talk about it, they liked to theorize it.

Sometimes when they talked about the horizon, it seems to be pretty literal. There’s a lot of talk about the horizon as the limit of our visual experience. But not just a limit: a “limit that shows that it can be transcended” [Czech phenomenologist Jan Patočka]. Yes, the horizon limits our field of view and field of action, but in doing so it simultaneously suggests what lies beyond it. It pulls us towards new views, and new possibilities of action. To take another quote, “the horizon does not restrict people, rather the opposite … as it recedes, it positively entices one into the distance” [German philosopher of geography O. F. Bollnow]. The horizon is a perpetually “inaccessible border,” yes—an eternal reminder of our own finitude—but it is also a “space for advancing,” into which humans constantly “project themselves.” In its vey establishment of distance, it “invites us to draw near.”

But this talk of literal horizons also bleeds into more abstract theorizing. For these thinkers, “horizon” does not simply denote that literal perspectival circle that circumscribes our vision, but also indicates the world’s tendency to promote faith in its own continued existence. The fact that our vision has horizons is one of the first ways in which we come to know that the things that surround us continue to exist, even when we don’t see them. To have a horizon, and to not be perturbed by this fact, is to in some way be resistant to skepticism. In this way, although we typically think of horizons as spatial, we can also consider temporal dimensions to the concept. We remember the past. We anticipate the future. We generally don’t assume that the things around us cease to be the moment we aren’t having direct perceptual contact with them. And when we remember and anticipate, we don’t feel like we’re stuck in some sort of storeroom of time, peeking at the present through a tiny window. Rather, we have a “certain continuity of experience.” We “carry out a synthesis of superimposing and fleshing out.” Really, this is a matter of faith. We connect perception, memory, and anticipation because we “place our belief in a world.” We need this faith, or we’d be unable to function.

The fact that we are hard-wired to have this sort of faith in the continuity of things is really, really useful for people who create fiction. Because, as I already mentioned, fiction is a trick. When you’re watching a Western, the storefronts are façades. There’s nothing behind them, really. The world doesn’t actually continue beyond the edges of the frame. It’s just a studio lot.

And, of course, Half-Life 2 is the same way. All the buildings that surrounds us are two-dimensional façades. And that’s not even the half of it. There’s also frustum culling, and back-face culling, and occlusion culling, and all sorts of other little rendering tricks to conserve processing power that means that things literally blink out of existence the moment our virtual gaze isn’t settled upon them. This is a world that deserves our skepticism!

Any moment that we’re not thinking about this is a moment that Valve has done their job well. Any moment we’re looking at the Citadel perched on the horizon and thinking “I want to go to there” instead of thinking “oh, okay, so that’s just a proxy art version of that Citadel, probably using forced perspective, there will be a higher-poly asset that’s swapped in later in the game when I get closer,” Valve has done their job well. They have successfully used the rules of visual storytelling to exploit our tendencies toward assuming coherence, and to get us to forget about the constructed, set-like nature of this world. They’ve successfully exploited our own imagination to fill the gaps in their paper-thin set.

And, just as an aside, this isn’t just something that movie-makers and game developers and theme park ride designers do. It’s also something that people do in what we would consider the “real world.” For instance, in forestry and land use. It’s common to treat major roads or major riverways in places such as national forests as “scenic corridors,” areas where tourists would be disappointed if their aesthetic appreciation of nature were disrupted by the visible intrusion of logging. So when planning land use, it’s common to use what’s known as “buffer strips”—that is, stretches of unmolested forest that stretch exactly as far as the eye can see from the corridor, but no further. So someone rafting down a river might think “gee, what a pristine forest!”—but it’s only because the logging that’s going on has been precisely positioned so as to be invisible from the river. The people who plan this sort of thing are in the same business as Valve’s level designers are: they’re hiding away the gaps and seams, exploiting our faith in the horizon to lull us into a visual fiction. Just something interesting to think about whenever you hear the term “corridor shooter.”

2.4 The Glimpse

I opened this video talking about a literal horizon: the Citadel perched here on the horizon, in our first outdoor glimpse of City 17, which sets up the implicit promise to the player that we’ll go there by the game’s end. It’s there, imposingly and tantalizingly perched in the distance, directly our attention beyond this plaza’s closed gates, piquing our curiosity.

And there are plenty of other literal horizons we could talk about in Half-Life 2. Along the canals, along the shorelines, during various chase sequences, we’ll get a view of scenery we’ll never actually visit, that serves the same basic function of a matte painting in cinema: giving us a sense of a larger world, by having the visible details stretch out beyond what our characters are going to explore.

But the reason I took that sideways step into philosophy was because I wanted to open up some rhetorical wiggle-room. “The Horizon,” as a concept, means more than just the literal horizon, and in the remainder of this video I’m going to talk about anything that we glimpse but don’t explore—anything that suggests a larger space, or a larger story, or otherwise props up our faith in the continuity of this world.

So for instance—going back to a moment we covered in the previous video—there’s the glimpse of the Vortigaunt that we saw in the train station. For anyone who played the original Half-Life, this suggests how Vortigaunts have been socially integrated into this new Earth society. But it also raises plenty of questions. It’s just there to be suggestive, really—to give us a peek, and to set our imaginations off, rather than exhaustively explain whatever lore connects the beginning of this game to the end of the previous one.

The glimpse we get of the other passenger, protesting in the interrogation room, serves the same purpose. It’s there to make us ask questions: What is going to happen to this man? What is his story? The answers are never known to us. But the game suggests that they’re known to someone. This is part of the toolkit it is using to persuade us to have faith in this constructed world, to get us to play along and imagine that there’s more here, beyond what we’re seeing.

Valve is very fond of glimpses as a storytelling technique. They are absolutely everywhere as we explore this City 17 plaza for the first time. Our curiosity is piqued over and over again in the next few minutes. We’re dropped into this world with only the bare minimum of explicit exposition. This is most definitely on purpose. Valve is getting us to use our imaginations, and it’s going to leverage that tendency toward imagination to paper over the gaps in this game’s universe.

Despite the dull menace of this space—especially in the soundscape, and the way in which photographic drones tend to hover around us if we stay in any place for too long—there’s no actual danger accumulating here. We’re still very much in “tourist” mode. So let’s look around.

Here we have a set of double doors, guarded by a masked officer. If we ignore his order to move along, we can partially peek at someone being detained, forced up against a wall. Again: a quick impression of a continuous world outside our narrow sliver of experience in this guided tour. This sort of “peeking view” is used to great effect in cinema, where it piques our curiosity, and makes us interested in a scene in a way we otherwise might be. Videogames can’t give us quite the same effect, since we can move our virtual body. But still there’s this sense of the inherent intrigue of that which is hidden, the persistence of the out-of-sight.

We turn a corner, and we see a Strider marching by. It’s an arresting image, introducing an imposing alien figure that we’ll have to fight much later in the game. For now, this moment just leaves us with questions: What is this thing? Where is it headed?

If we wanted to be an ass about it, we could answer this question in a very literal way, by slipping into “noclip” mode. Free of collision detection, we can slip through the roadblock. We can see that there’s no texture on the ground over here, and that the Strider isn’t really “going anywhere,” at all. It trudges along just far enough to be out of sight from the viewing angles normally allowed by the game in the absence of cheats, and then it abruptly vanishes: out of sight, out of existence.

So, yeah, again: we’re talking about fiction here. This world deserves skepticism. Nothing perseveres when our back is turned. The horizons of this world are hard edges, designed to never be transcended. But good level design makes us forget this, just like good filmmaking makes us forget we’re looking at sets. It uses missing information—like the question of where this briefly-glimpsed Strider is going—to entire us. To make us anticipate, and imagine, and put our faith in this constructed world.

Anyway, moving on, indoors.

2.5 Immersive Theater Anxieties

So, Valve doesn’t use cut-scenes in the Half-Life franchise. They have story beats, that are voice-acted, much like a cutscene would be. But the player always maintains controls of the position of Gordon Freeman in the scene as these scripted sequences take place. Over the decades, there have been plenty of analogies made between this style and immersive theater. The author Michael Nitsche has described the franchise as [Nitsche quotes]

There are pros and cons to this technique of always using scripted sequences over cutscenes. One con is that players can’t skip a scripted sequence, as they often can do with a cutscene. Another con is the awkwardness involved. At their worst, these scenes can feel like an anxiety nightmare, where you’re on stage and everyone else has memorized the script but you don’t even know what play you’re performing. This is especially the case when the NPCs seem to berate you for not hitting your marks on time.

I think that Half-Life 2 is an enormous improvement over the standard that Valve set in Half-Life 1, largely because it leans in to that sense of anxiety. The opening of the game is very paranoid. Not only is this a dystopian future, but we’re also very explicitly not supposed to be here. We’re “in the wrong place,” as the G-Man says upfront. The fiction accounts for our own confusion and anxiety as players. So the rushed and confusing string of events that plays out in this apartment block works really well. Gordon Freeman isn’t of this world. He doesn’t know where he’s going. His paranoia and our confusion as players dovetail nicely, and this scene works astonishingly well.

More glimpses of a larger world here—looking along with characters who are themselves looking, commenting on the action we see, building this world.

This moment where we arrive at the stairwell just in time to see officers rush up it, blocking our path is really fantastically staged. It invokes the same sort of feelings that a good haunted house does: a mixture of involuntary startle response, and deliberate “playing along” with the virtual danger of this space. And, of course, it’s Valve showing their hand again, rushing us along, telling us that there’s only one linear path.

And for the climax of this section, more horizons. City 17 lays out before us—although we’re too busy trying not to get shot to really take in its details.

And then we meet Alyx Vance, who has a very well-animated face.

Alright, I’m going to cut this second part off here. We’ll pick things up from the same spot in part 3. Starting in part 3, I’m going to start snipping long bits of my play through out, to keep this series under 1,000 hours. There are only going to be 7 parts, and we have a lot of ground to cover. Thanks for watching!

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