Let’s Study Half-Life 2, Pt 4

So, I actually uploaded this one to Youtube on Thursday, but forgot to embed it here until now. Oops!

I’m going to try to teach myself some new tricks for Part 5, so expect a bit of a wait before that appears.

Script below the jump.

So—we made it to Black Mesa East, which was our main goal set by a dialogue section I covered in the previous video. I said that I was going to go into more detail about Valve’s approach to storytelling, so let’s just hit the ground running.

4.1 Environmental storytelling: an introduction

“Environmental storytelling,” the idea that stories can be infused into a physical or virtual space that a user explores. It stands as an alternative to traditional modes of narration, and it is a longstanding idea in game design.

In terms of explicit theorizing about what environmental storytelling is and what it can do, there are two main canonical texts.

From the design end of things, Don Carson posted an essay entitled “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry” on Gamasutra in 2000. Carson’s a veteran designer of theme park rides [Billy Corgan image], and his essay was intended to establish a cross-disciplinary conversation, sharing things like how he has learned to design spaces that show the physical effects of past events, cluing people in to cause-and-effect chains of events that aren’t directly presented.

From the academic end of things, Henry Jenkins has an essay, partly inspired by points made by Carson, entitled “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” It’s a popular essay, widely reproduced in anthologies and assigned for courses. A lot of it deals with literary and cinematic precursors to the idea of using a story to tell a space—or, indeed, to have a description of a space sort of stand in for a story—and connects these to then-recent developments in multiple genres of videogames.

And those are the canonical texts on environmental storytelling produced in the past two decades. Many environmental artists and level designers are getting up every morning, going to work, and doing environmental storytelling. I’m sure that they’re talking to each other about it, swapping stories and tips, learning from each other’s work. I’m sure there have been GDC talks about it, and blog posts that have gotten lost in the firehose of Gamasutra content. But nothing has really come along and further defined the concept in essential ways, and produced quite as much influence as those two canonical writings.

I’m not going to get all big-headed and pretend that I can completely re-define the notion of environmental storytelling in this video. But it’s been well over a decade since the most recent of these essays came out, and there have been a lot of games that have come out in the interim. I think it’s possible, and necessary, to broaden our vocabulary. So I’m going to describe four distinct different tactics of environmental storytelling that I’ve noticed developers using, particularly in the wake of the turn gaining currency.

Please don’t treat this as an exhaustive list. This are just some techniques I’ve noticed, and that I think it would be useful to draw some tentative categorical boundaries.

4.2 Four flavors of environmental storytelling

Space contains a log

In this one, the developer designs a space, and then plunks some sort of diary entry into it. This could be a written diary, or an audio log, or some hybrid of the two. But the basic idea is the same: as the player is exploring, maybe scrounging for health items or whatever, they stumble upon a piece of writing that narrates an event in the past.

Carson calls this technique “Following Saknussemm,” after a character in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. I would characterize it as the most marginal form of environmental storytelling. Really, it’s just depositing another form of narration into a particular space. The story in these cases is being told through writing. It’s just writing that the player happens to come across while exploring a space.

Log explains a space

This is one level up from “space contains a log.” I think the best way to illustrate it is through contrast. So first, a clip from Dead Space.

In this clip, we hear the audio log, and we’re freaked out. It tells a gruesome story, of a crew member who came before us in this ship of horrors. It gives some backstory for this setting—that is, the setting in general. It doesn’t give us back story for this specific place. There is actually a body over here, but it isn’t dismembered in the way that is described in the audio recording. So it feels like the writers were doing their thing, and the level designers were doing their thing, and at a certain point someone decided to plunk this particular bit of exposition into this space, but otherwise there’s no direct connection between them. We’re still stuck in the “space contains a log” mode.

Contrast that to this clip from BioShock:

Here, I get to directly witness the scene of a crime, as I listen to an audio recording of that crime. There is a definite cause-and-effect relationship, and, as a result, this space is thoroughly explained. The space itself tells the story of a grisly murder, by virtue of having the corpse still there and relatively fresh. The audio log serves to fill in additional details about that murder. Here, it feels like the writers, level designers, and environmental artists were working in much tighter collaboration to weave a particular tale.

This might seem like a more advanced technique than the “space contains a log” technique. And it is. But it’s not like it came significantly later in the development of environmental narratives—it just requires a tighter collaboration between different members of the development team. Already in the first System Shock game, there were instances of spatial architecture that were explained by explained by audio logs [the “red radioactive pit” moment in System Shock].

Orgy of Evidence

I’m borrowing this term from the film Minority Report. I have no idea if it’s actually used in law enforcement. But the basic idea is that you take the “space contains a log” technique, and amplify it. Suddenly a space no longer just contains a log. Suddenly it’s made of logs. Elsewhere in the game, it might seem out-of-place that people are leaving their innermost thoughts scatters all over the place [Bucket Detective]. But here the developers have an excuse: this is an investigation wall, or a conspiracy wall, or a memorial wall. It’s a designated place where journals and photos and clippings are kept. It’s an area where the player can slow down, and take everything relevant from the story in.

The space stands alone

This final technique is the rarest, because it is the hardest to pull off successfully. This technique doesn’t rely on written or spoken narration at all. The features of an environment just work to tell a story all by themselves. It’s sort of a holy grail of environmental storytelling, and it’s so difficult I can only think of a handful of successful examples of it.

Valve sometimes aspires to this. One particular example is a supply warehouse in Half-Life 2: Episode Two. There’s a trick to getting to the supplies here, taking the form of one of Valve’s ubiquitous physics puzzles. You have to slip a grenade under this hinged metal plate, and then stand on the plate, so that the concussive force of the grenade launches you upward like a catapult. And in order to clue you in to the fact that this is possible, they decorate the warehouse with the grisly remains of a fellow resistance member who didn’t pull off this feat quite right. Alyx doesn’t comment on this—in fact, she stays in the car—and there’s no text anywhere. There’s just the remains of an odd death, worthy of a Darwin Award, and the chain of events that it suggests, which we’re meant to suss out to find our own way forward.

Gone Home uses this technique as a way of obliquely referring to the darkest elements of its story, without spelling them out textually. Several written notes in the game indicate that there was bad blood between Terry Greenbriar’s immediate family and his Uncle Oscar, whose mansion Terry has inherited and moved to. This bad blood is never explained in detail in the game’s textual documents, but the game ultimately hints that Oscar sexually abused Terry as a child. This is communicated through just the barest of environmental details: a small darkened room with a wooden children’s toy in it, a height chart that indicates that Terry’s mother no longer allowed Terry to visit Oscar after something happened when he was 12 years old.

Another place you see this technique at work is in detective games. Not all of these games are particularly ambitious or good, but the norms of genre simply dictate that detectives spend time at crime scenes, trying to suss out the events that took place there. So it’s an obvious organic fit with the genre—even if it does inadvertently reveal exactly how tough this type of storytelling is, because these games are often awkward.

4.3 Feel Free to Look Around

Here at Black Mesa East, Valve slips back into storytelling mode. We get some more dialogue, with more scripted NPC behavior, this time around with Alyx, her father Eli Vance, and his colleague Judith Mossman. But we also have some downtime, allowing Valve to slip some spatial storytelling in.

This is mostly of the “orgy of evidence” variety. By this point, we’re several hours into the game, and even the most curious and keen-eyed players will have no idea exactly what the Combine is, and how they came to rule over Earth. This is cleared up somewhat here, if players are curious enough to poke around the various clippings and objects scattered throughout Eli’s Lab. Apparently, the Combine set their sites on Earth sometime between the end of the first Half-Life game and the beginning of this one. A larger and more organized force than the one that besieged the Black Mesa Research Facility in the first game, they defeated the combined military forces of Earth in a mere seven hours, in an event known as the “Seven Hour War.” Doctor Breen, who was apparently the head administrator at Black Mesa, although we never met him in the first game [clip of Alyx saying this], brokered a surrender, and was named as the ruler of the planet.

As I said in the previous video, the story of the Half-Life games isn’t particularly earth-shattering. It’s boilerplate genre fiction. It doesn’t belong in the upper echelons of science-fiction canon. It has some fun ideas, like a resistance lead by badass scientists, and some memorable monsters, like the head crabs. It smartly keeps the figure of the G-Man shrouded in mystery, so that even though his character shares structural similarity to someone like Q in Star Trek, he lacks that character’s goofiness. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing too special.

But Valve handles it in a really smart way. They knew that if they beat players over their heads with the story, players would most likely lose interest. So they leave large chunks of it in the background, stray threads for interested players to pull on.

In the first Half-Life, they could have included a cutscene when Gordon Freeman firsts finds the captured Xen aliens, showing his shocked reaction to the fact that scientists elsewhere in the facility had already been studying them. They could have had some scientist NPC, standing in a room somewhere, ready to deliver some line of dialogue about how dimensional doors are better left closed, and that they didn’t realize they were kicking a hornet’s nest. Or if they didn’t have an NPC, they could have an audio log somewhere that expresses this sentiment. But they don’t do anything like this. Players just happen upon this space. If you put two and two together, you might come to the conclusion that this secret project was irresponsible, and now the entire Black Mesa Research Institute is reaping what these particular scientists sowed. Or, you know, you might just ignore it all, and have fun blowing up some headcrabs. That’s fun, too. The context is there for interested players to mull over—announced in the title of the chapter, actually—but the story isn’t dictated to us. It’s just there, for us to absorb what we want.

And the same is true of Black Mesa East. The connective tissue between the first and second game is all right here, for players who are interested. It’s information that’s vital to understanding the franchise’s overarching plot, and it will be referenced again in later player dialogue. But it’s delivered at a quantity and pace dictated by players’ own curiosity, rather than Valve’s authorial hand.

4.4 Let’s Go to Ravenholm

After the expository section in the Black Mesa East lab, Alyx hands us the gravity gun. It’s one of the most iconic elements of the franchise, and it will come to dominate the player’s mode of interacting with the game in during its latter portions. Not long after we’re handed it, Black Mesa East is attacked, and, in the resulting scramble, we’re separated once again from Alyx, left to fend for ourself in Ravenholm.

“We Don’t Go to Ravenholm …” is a fascinating chapter. It’s structured as a quick pit stop into the survival horror genre. Lighting, monsters, sound design, and environmental design all lean toward the horrific. And, just as in classic survival horror games like Resident Evil, the amount of ammunition Valve doles out in this chapter is severely limited.

Ravenholm has a very unique mood to it, and it really helps vary Half-Life 2’s pacing. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Valve’s decision to insert a survival-horror-themed chapter in the game wasn’t initially made for reasons of pacing and variety, but was instead motivated by mechanical necessity. The limited amount of ammunition in Ravenholm makes the chapter tense, yes. But it also ensures that the chapter will be a tutorial on how to use the gravity gun as a weapon. Valve are throwing us into the deep end, so to speak, using a survival horror-themed chapter to force us into the mindset of improvisational thinking that will define the gravity gun as a weapon for the rest of the franchise.

In addition to being a masterful bit of tone switching, Ravenholm is also a masterful tutorial. In the time we spend there, Valve repeatedly uses a three-phase process to get us to read environmental cues:

1. Environment as micro-narrative

2. Environment as weapon

3. Weapon as solution to puzzle

So, for instance: in the first building we’re able to enter, we encounter a grisly scene: a headcrab zombie that has been bisected by a saw blade. Then, in order to get through the next door, we have to remove a saw blade from its frame, using the gravity gun. Right as we do this, a zombie wanders into our field of vision. Just like the bird I pointed out as we open the doors to the citadel, this is scripted: Any and every time the player loosens that saw blade from its resting place, that zombie is going to immediately lurch into view. In just a few seconds, we’ve seen two phases:

First, Valve gave us a tiny micro-narrative. A headcrab zombie was here. It was cut in half with a saw blade. That’s a very simple chain of events. Not much is left to inference.

As this zombie lunges into view, Valve wants us to quickly recall that scene, in order to see the environment as a weapon. We’re guided through this process almost on the level of reflex: it’s much easier just to hit the left mouse button, the one we’ve been using to shoot, than it is to scramble to bring up a conventional weapon. We’re not given much time to react—and this is purposeful. Valve is trying to hone a new instinct in players, of environmental improvisation.

So that’s phase one and two of the process. We won’t see the full sequence until a bit later.

Here, we finally get a look at Father Gregori, one of the most colorful characters in Half-Life 2. The first time we see him, he’s perched above a roaring bonfire littered with the corpses of headcrab zombies that have effectively been burned at the stake.

Phase one, micro-narrative: Father Gregori is the sole survivor of this town, and he’s a bit batty. He must have witnessed some terrible things, and as a result he has turned the dismemberment of headcrab zombies into a macabre art form.

Phase two, environment as weapon: These bonfires aren’t just for show. They can be actively used as a trap. In two separate instances, Valve gives us a chance to deploy fire traps. First, we have to release some gas, then we have to create a spark.

Phase three, weapon as solution to puzzle: Once we teach ourselves how to turn these fires on, we can also put together how to turn them off. Cut the gas. This becomes important. An electrified fence is blocking our way and, following the power line backward, it appears that we need to go inside the building Father Gregori was in to cut the power. But that requires us to know how to douse the flame by cutting the gas.

And again, later in the level.

Phase one, micro-narrative: Zombies have been killed by this car. We don’t have long to think about this, because we’re under attack. But that’s okay, because it’s simple. There’s a pool of blood here, and a heavy object suspended above. This smells like a trap.

Phase two, environment as weapon: It is a trap, and we can use it to our advantage. The control lever is just a few paces back here.

Phase three, weapon as solution to puzzle: We can’t get out of this area without doing some light platforming. And to start the platforming, we first need to jump on the car while it’s descended.

These little micro-narratives would never be mistaken for ambitious storytelling. But Ravenholm, as a whole, represents a fairly advanced attempt at environmental storytelling. What happened here is never explicitly spelled out in dialogue. Alyx forebodingly mentions that the resistance members don’t go there anymore. Later, Eli explicitly instructs us not to try and escape that way—until the collapsing tunnel renders it the only escape route. That’s it, as far as verbal foreshadowing goes. Once we arrive, we see that the town has been pelted with shells—shells that, if we’re paying attention, we’ll remember carried head crabs as their payload. We saw them drop before, at a resistance outpost along the Underground Railroad. That didn’t turn out too well for that resistance outpost. The Combine seems to use head crabs as a highly-effective biological weapon against resistance outposts. And Ravenholm seems to have gotten the full brunt of this.

Once we’ve inferred this background, we can infer more about Father Gregori. He’s obviously batty, and he must have witnessed some truly horrifying carnage. His dialogue indicates that he sees killing zombies as an act of mercy, delivering the sweet release of death to his parasite-infected former parishioners. He’s a memorable character, and a lot of the memorability comes from the fact that, unlike many other characters in Half-Life 2, his primary purpose isn’t to deliver exposition. Instead, the exposition is delivered through the structure of the environment. Gregori has the benefit of just being added flair.

4.5 Environmental Disaster Storytelling

Finally, we make our way out of Ravenholm and its mines. The sun has just risen. We arrive at a besieged resistance outpost. And they give us a dune buggy, so that we can quickly make our way up the coastline to the Nova Prospect prison complex. So begins the game’s second major vehicle section, as we again make our way alone to the next major landmark. We’re introduced to Antlions, a type of monster that will relentlessly attack us if we walk around on sand.

We also get some environmental storytelling here, and it’s of the ambitious “space stands alone” type. In this scene when we first get the dune buggy, and on all subsequent scenes set on the beach, there are a lot of beached ships around. You’ll also notice that all of the docks we see are on thoroughly dry land, with support pillars that are fully exposed, much more than they would normally be just at low tide.

This is never commented upon by any characters in the game. But the idea behind this environmental design was that the Combine has been harvesting the Earth for resources. This includes desalinating the planet’s oceans, and transporting the water off-world, or otherwise somehow using it up. The idea is that they’re just sort of sucking everything useful from the planet away, to the point where eventually they’ll thoroughly deplete it. And there’s an attempt here to show the changes to the local environment that this resource-depletion has caused.

I don’t know if this really comes through. I mean, I applaud Valve for making sure that the details of the game’s environments were consistent with the story that head writer Mark Laidlaw had envisioned. But I’m not sure that this story is adequately told just through this environmental detail. Again, pure “space stands alone” environmental storytelling is really difficult.

But in the end, I think that’s okay. I think it’s okay if players don’t fully put together the intended story here. It still gives them something to wonder about. It’s another horizon, in the sense I talked about in the second video. It gives us a glimpse of something we don’t full grasp, but that we can wonder about, and that can fuel future imaginings.

Alright, I’m going to end things here, for this video. When we pick up in the next part, I’ll take a closer look at Half-Life 2’s coastline road trip. Stay tuned, and thanks for watching!

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