It’s Finished: Let’s Study Half-Life 2

It’s been a long haul, but my series of video essays on Half-Life 2 is now complete.

I have embedded the entire finished series above. If you just want to watch the seventh and final part, it is here. In it, I look at how Valve’s “herding” techniques were adopted and expanded upon by subsequent developers, taking a peek at things like Insomniac Game’s Resistance 3, Monolith Production’s 2000s-era output, and DICE’s Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. I then investigate how the pleasures of the well-constructed linear first-person shooter have been transformed and absorbed into himitsu-bako/wander games (which I just give up and call “walking simulators” in the video, so that people will know what the hell I’m talking about).

Creating video content takes much longer than other types of blog content, but I also find it much more rewarding. (I was right when I predicted that, because my day job has me writing all day long, I would have less patience for it outside of work.) Expect more in the future.

Script below the jump.

So, at the end of the previous video, we made our way to the top of the Citadel. And we blew it up. That means that our playthrough of Half-Life 2 is finished.

Most of the other videos in this series have had large chunks of their running time in which I discuss something other than Half-Life 2. In some videos, the percentage of time in which my Half-Life 2 playthrough was on the screen has been downright tiny. This final video in the series is the apotheosis of that approach. It’s mostly going to be about Valve’s reverberating influence on 3D game design.

7.1 In the shadow of a crowbar

Half-Life 2 is an influential game, although the trajectory of that influence has been inconsistent, waxing and waning over the years.

I would venture that Half-Life 2’s influence peaked in the early 2010s. First-person shooters were a dominant market category, having fully saturated the console space in the wake of Halo’s release a decade earlier. And although multiplayer first-person shooting was certainly a popular pastime, most FPSs at this time were launching with a single-player campaign. These tended to be highly linear, focused on a combination of spectacle and storytellingin short, modeled after Valve’s work, sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so.

This spectacle + storytelling approach to single-player, linear first-person shooters peaked as an economically dominant model somewhere around 2010–2011. In a roughly 20-month period, just about every first-person shooter franchise active at the time released a game, and each of those games included a single-player campaign falling squarely into the spectacle + storytelling tradition.

And then, around 2012–2013, the dominance of the linear single-player first-person shooter campaign began to taper off. I mean, there had always been a certain segment of FPS fans that had griped about these games being “on-rails.” But they still sold somewhere in the range of 2.3 bajillion copies, collectively. And they were mostly well-received critically, as well.

But, over time, mainstream critics began to echo points made the genre’s most vocal naysayers. When Medal of Honor: Warfighter released in November 2012, it was trounced by critics. And a lot of their negative reaction just seems to come from waning patience with linear campaigns that ordered players to do take certain prescribed actions in a set order in confined levels for the promised payoff of tiresome, incoherent spectacle.

Then came BioShock Infinite, in March 2013. This one was greeted with near-unanimous praise from critics upon launch. But after it launched, many critics re-assessed it, and, especially after the collapse of Irrational Games, began to interrogate their own susceptibility to hype. Ken Levine had sold BioShock Infinite as the absolute pinnacle of ambitious storytelling in a first-person shooter. But once the hype wore off and people started examining it closely, it became clear that its story was an incoherent pile of themes that didn’t meaningfully intersect, using insultingly lazy and amoral political whataboutism to justify feeding players a steady stream of graphic violence. If this was the best we could expect from storytelling in a linear first-person shooter, it wasn’t a good sign for the form.

Poor critical reception of single-player first-person shooters could never have killed the genre, as long as these games were still making billions. But at this exact same moment, market realities were shifting, and new models of revenue were becoming increasingly attractive. A high-production value single-player first-person shooter is an expensive proposition, and there are much more foolproof ways to ensure a return on one’s investment. In the past five years, we have increasingly seen the first-person shooter genre embrace the “games as service” model, with a heavy focus on microtransactions. This model relies on a committed and long-lasting multiplayer community, at least some percentage of which will happily spend money on characters, weapons, hats, cosmetic skins, and upgrades, or a random chance at receiving any of the above in a loot box. The profit margin on such content is enormous, so this type of multiplayer-focused experience has achieved utter economic dominance in the current first-person shooter market.

The market for single-player FPS experiences still exists, but it has gradually shifted away from tightly linear, “guided tour” experience in the Valve mold. With Far Cry in 2004, and then again with Crysis in 2007, Crytek began experimenting with large map sizes, creating games that were a linear series of levels, but that also offered an amount of spatial and tactical freedom unparalleled by Valve’s work. And when Ubisoft took over development of the Far Cry franchise, they gradually molded it into their standard open-world format, with missions and challenges freely selectable from a massive, icon-cluttered map. So if you manage to find a first-person shooter today with a decent single-player campaign, there’s a good chance that it’s going to be set in an expansive open world, maybe with varying degrees of survival and crafting mechanics tacked on.

7.2 A Light Touch (or, I Herd You the First Time)

I don’t think it’s particularly tragic that games in the mold of Half-Life have tapered off as a dominant genre. I personally don’t play online FPSs, but I have nothing against open-world games—they can be utterly fantastic. And I’ve been delighted that there’s been such a rich resurgence of ambitious stealth and immersive sim games in recent years, first-person and otherwise. It’s a heartening development, even if it is ultimately economically unsustainable.

But I do think it’s too bad that Half-Life 2’s most prominent crop of imitators so often botched the delicate craft that Valve displays in its linear first-person games. This isn’t universally true—some developers did carry some important lessons over. So I’ll start by talking about some games that I think are worthy heirs to Half-Life 2’s design, before moving on to less sterling examples.

First off, a game that wears its indebtedness, earnestly, on its sleeve. Resistance 3 borrows so much from Half-Life 2 and its sequel episodes that it comes across as a greatest-hits remix. We start things off in an area full of friendly, stationary NPCs whose lives and problems we can listen in on … just like in Half-Life 2. Then we’re given a goal in a somewhat awkwardly-staged briefing scene … just like in Half-Life 2. Our final destination is a bluish-gray impossibly large alien tower on the horizon, just like in Half-Life 2. There are early moments where we’re just supposed to gawk at large tripod-like enemies, before we take them on in combat, just like in Half-Life 2. There’s a boss fight where we scurry along in extensive but destructable cove … just like the climax of Half-Life 2 Episode 1. There’s a section where we fight an alien flying thing while ducking for cover among the support beams of a bridge, just like in Half-Life 2. There’s a partially-flooded mine, filled with alien glowie things, just like in Half-Life 2 Episode 2. Also, just as in that scene, we encounter a large boss that we can’t immediately fight, but just have to run away from, into small tunnels it can’t fit in. Our guide to this section is an obsessed preacher. Sort of like the one from Half-Life 2. There’s a battle between various factions as we plot an escape from a ruined prison, just like in Half-Life 2. And when we finally make it to the tower (spoilers), we hitch a few rides on its inner mechanisms, just like in Half-Life 2 or Episode 1.

But Resistance 3 does more than just re-stage some familiar set pieces. Its makers, Insomniac Games, also demonstrate that they’ve learned some subtle level design lessons from Valve. I’ll take just one rich example. When discussing Valve’s “herding” strategies, I discussed the idea of “false choices you don’t know you’re making.” That is: designing linear maps that hide their own linearity by making it seem like you’re choosing one option out of several … only to then use subtle psychological mask to encourage you to get you to go the only viable route, leaving you with the impression that the explorable space is larger than it actually is. Resistance 3 is one of the few linear first-person shooters outside of the Half-Life franchise to really nail this design technique.

Here’s a moment in the aforementioned mines. Alone and without a waypoint, the player reaches a three-way fork in the road. In front, a cavernous darkened mine tunnel. To the left, a smaller shaft, also darkened. To the right, another smaller shaft. This one is well-lit. And, what’s more, there are a couple of guns by it, which players can pick up to add ammo to their inventory.

So let’s assume, for the moment, that they take the visual bait, and head down this shaft. They enter into a flooded room, and, within a few seconds, enemies pop up to shoot. Following the logic of Ken Birdwell, we can probably assume that, because things are happening, we went the right way.

This impression is strengthened when, a few paces later, we encounter a seismic event. Scripted events like these are a good sign that we’re on the correct path. Also, a waypoint has now popped up.

And, if we follow that waypoint, we find our way to a drop—a clear point of no return. It seems like we’ve ended up where we ought to be.

But what if we hadn’t gone this way? Well, thanks to the magic of editing, we can find out.

Let’s go to the left this time. This passage collapses almost immediately—it’s a dead end. There is, at least, some ammo here, as a prize for exploring.

Alright now: forward. After we turn the bend here, we can see that this tunnel is completely collapsed. The bend and the darkness cleverly concealed this fact from us, making this space look larger than it was. With an extra bit of exploration, we can see that the route the lighting encouraged us to take was the only viable route to begin with.

So Insomniac have utterly nailed the “false choices you don’t know you’re making” technique here. I’d have to say that, if it was up to me to pick a developer other than Valve to continue the Half-Life franchise, it would probably be them. They get it.

Insomniac’s technique in this moment in Resistance 3 is quite intricate. But in general, the use of lighting to indicate the direction most promising direction for players to head in is a pretty widespread technique. One particularly common variation is to light passages in reddish or orangish vs. more greenish or blueish hues, to differentiate between dead ends and open routes, respectively.

This sort of tacit, unconscious-level guidance can ensure that players move quickly without getting lost when you want to imbue a scene with a sense of urgency.

But it can also be used in conjunction with slower and more deliberate play styles. For instance, players of Dead Space 2 might want to specifically seek out each map’s dead ends, given the high correlation between dead ends and extra items, which they’ll likely be scrounging for.

Using lighting in this way might seem simplistic, and when you see a whole bunch of examples strung together in this way it might come across as over-obvious handholding. But developers of 3D games neglect techniques such as these at their own peril. For instance, there was a moment in the very linear campaign Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus where I had crawled into a tiny room on a submarine. I was absolutely sure that it was exactly where I was supposed to be. But I was baffled, because it seemed to be a dead end. Both doors out of the room were locked. The only way out seemed to be the same way I came in. The map was no help. I felt stuck. Was this a bug? Was some scripted event not triggering? Now, what I actually had to do was craw up some pipes, and into a vent. But the lighting of the scene made it difficult to discern that it even was a vent. Once I got inside of the vent, the lighting was quite eye-catching. But from the entrance of the room, my destination was completely invisible. Thinking back on all of the times I’ve ever gotten stuck in a 3D game, poor use of lighting to indicate the possibilities of a space is one of the worst offenders.

And even Valve slips up every now and then in Half-Life 2. I mean … really? That’s the door you want me to go through? I can’t really even see that door.

When it comes to lighting and guidance, one of my favorite developers is Monolith Productions, particularly in their horror-tinged output between 2005 and 2009. Monolith generally favors more open map designs than Valve. Their levels have set beginning and ends, but between those two set points they also have genuine forks, alternate routes that loop back around upon each other, criss-crossing and allow you to flank enemies … or, be flanked by them, thanks to their then-cutting-edge AI.

So, in Monolith Games, you’ll come to a fork. And sometimes that fork will be a false fork, just like in Half-Life 2 or Resistance 3. But, other times, each option is a genuine alternate way forward. And even in these cases, each option will have subtly different lighting. Maybe one route is more warmly lit, the other more coldly. Maybe a third route is completely bathed in darkness. Given the norms of Monolith’s level design, it’s likely that each of these paths are going to ultimately lead to the same place … but you still might second guess yourself. Which of these seems safer, and which seems spookier? Which is more likely to lead to one of Monolith’s manufactured scares?

Because of the greater openness of their levels, Monolith’s use of lighting is a bit more delicate, less deterministic. If you refuse the call of the light in a Valve game, you hit a dead end pretty much immediately. In Monolith’s best moments, there’s a greater push and pull between player volition and developer guidance. Monolith knows that, in a horror game, it means much more for a player to choose not to go down a darkened hallway if that choice is a genuine one, and that hallway was actually a shortcut and not a dead end. A level is going to have more tension if you allow your player to truly get lost—if only momentarily—and fall back on very primal, involuntary danger-avoidance responses as they plot their way through a maze-like level.

7.3 Arrows, Voices, Invisible Walls

Using light to direct player attention and movement is a widespread technique. in 3D game design. Its emergence pre-dated Half-Life 2, and has expanded in the wake of Valve’s work. But other developers have experimented with more overt techniques—types of things you wouldn’t typically see in a Valve game, for the most part. For instance, one things you see when surveying contemporary first-person shooter design is arrows embedded into the environmental art, pointing players on their way.

There are ways to do this that are subtle. Under the right lighting conditions, an arrow can dissolve into the mise-en-scene, to the point of being barely-noticeable. But whenever you draw an arrow in your level pointing the way forward, you run the risk of making players feel patronized.

I mean—really, Crysis 2? Where else did you think I was going to go? The tunnel is completely collapsed. This door is the only way forward. What is this arrow supposed to be communicating that isn’t already being communicated by basic level geometry?

In general, Half-Life 2 doesn’t use arrows. But when it does, it does so with a subtle touch, like this arrow constructed out of reflected light. This is an elegant visual grace note, part of an overall effort to imbue a space with an overarching sense of unified visual purposefulness.

It’s rare to see level design that is this well thought-out, visually, so when you do happen upon it, it’s quite striking. One franchise I’d like to give props to here is Mirror’s Edge. Between its two entries, DICE has experimented a lot with its “runner vision” feature. You can turn it off completely, making most building surfaces white. You can toggle it on, painting certain relevant environmental features bright red. Then, in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, they offered the additional option of drawing out a red path in the environment, in augmented-reality fashion.

The fact that these features have always been toggle-able, I think, shows that DICE has always struggled to balance guiding the player with letting them discover paths on their own, and have never been 100% confident in their end product. There were some isolated moments in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst where I really through they nailed it, though.

In the best-designed spaces of the game, the red runner vision trail redundantly re-traces pre-existing environmental features. Unobtrusive patterns of color on the walls suggest routes forward in ways that are inviting, without being dictatorial. Even when you turn runner vision off entirely, you’re still left with these visual patterns, that we almost can’t help but want to follow with our avatar’s movement.

This type of careful craft is a rarity. Unfortunately, in most of the first-person shooters released in the wake of Half-Life 2, you’re unlikely to see such subtle uses of light and color. You’re even unlikely to see relatively more obtrusive techniques, such as arrows. Instead, you’re most likely going to be guided by voices, telling you what to do and where to go.

I already noted the ubiquity of the “voice on the radio” in the third video in this series. And, honestly, if I had to pin down the low esteem that linear first-person shooters are held in within certain circles down to one factor, I would pin it on these sorts of dictatorial verbal commands. They just utterly deflate the player’s sense of exploration, of setting their own pace, choosing their own tactics, happening upon their own solutions.

Military first-person shooters are by far the worst culprit here. It’s really a shame that the explosion in linear first-person shooter games that happened in the wake of the success of the Half-Life franchise for the most part took the form of single-player campaigns in military first-person shooters, because everything that’s interesting about Valve’s design approach gets utterly obliterated in these games. The carefully-crafted illusion of free exploration is completely gone. In its place, you just have the voices of commanding officers.

These games have a staccato rhythm to them, in which we perform discrete actions entirely dictated by voices of authority. They’re basically variations on “Simon Says,” or “Red Light, Green Light.”

And whereas Valve’s games are typically full of real walls that players don’t bother to dwell over, because they’re too busy chasing the next interesting thing on the horizon, military first-person shooters are usually chock-full of invisible walls. Sometimes they come up with some fun excuses for these, like the radiation in Call of Duty 4. But most of the time they don’t even bother being creative. They just immediately punish you for failing to understand the dictated path.

It’s these sorts of lazy tactics that gave linear games a bad name, and hastened the rise of alternative traditions.

7.4 New Horizons

So, Activision just recently announced that Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, which releases this fall, won’t include a single-player campaign. Call of Duty has been a commercial behemoth in the first-person shooter space for well over a decade, now. This means that its single-player campaigns have stood as the highest-profile examples of the spectacle-driven linear first-person shooter around. And now … they’re gone, apparently. Even Call of Duty has gone multiplayer-only. It will probably be a battle royale game, or something. It’s really looking like the linear, spectacle-driven evolutionary offshoot of the first-person shooter genre pioneered by Valve in the first Half-Life might finally be withering and dying.

So … why study Half-Life 2? What is its legacy, if not an enduring form of first-person shooter?

In the very first video of this series, I said that the lessons Half-Life 2 can teach us about staging narrative action in a virtual world can be carried forward, into other genres of videogames, and perhaps even emerging media forms. It’s time to back that up, now. Let’s take lessons we’ve learned from Valve—about guiding the player’s eye, about fostering the sense of an expansive world, about space and its relationship to pacing—and let’s take first-person shooting out of the equation.

Let’s look at games that don’t offer that. Let’s look at games that focus more purely on movement, exploration, and storytelling.

Let’s look at walking simulators. This is a derisive term, and one I don’t typically use. But I did just frame this as taking the first-person shooting out of first-person shooters, so in this particular case the term seems apt.

There’s a story that’s often told about JRPGs: they were massively popular in the 1990s, mainly because they the one genre that reliably offered up emotionally-resonant storytelling. But then other genres of games caught up. Adventure games and indie art games and even horror games started offering up emotionally compelling storytelling, and all of a sudden you didn’t need to suffer through all of the grinding and stats of a JRPG to get a good story. And so players moved on, and the genre suffered, commercially. JRPGs fell out of favor among western gamers not because they changed, but because everything else caught up.

When we look at the legacy of the Half-Life franchise, we see something similar. When Half-Life came out, no other game had been quite so dedicated to environmental storytelling, to communicating a narrative through spatial design and scripted sequences, rather than text and cutscenes. That led to people praising its story … even though they more precisely meant its storytelling. And Half-Life 2, again, offered up environmental storytelling, striking production design, and masterful guidance through well-staged action. The high-production-value first-person-shooter became the go-to genre if you enjoyed these pleasures.

But then small indie developers started experimenting: keeping the environmental storytelling, the eye-catching art, the “guided tour” linear experience, but stripping out the shooting. Keeping the budget low. Trimming the runtime down to an hour, or four. Making lean, pretty, story-based virtual tours. They were applying Valve’s level-design lessons, while jettisoning all of Valve’s combat.

If you squint at some of the most well-known “walking simulators,” you see the bones of Half-Life 2. Look at Dear Esther—which was built on Half-Life 2’s source engine, and even originated as a Half-Life 2 mod. It’s a game about walking down the designated path forward, until you reach the tall object on the horizon that caught your eye right at the beginning of the game. Sound familiar?

Half-Life 2 keeps its story obscure and in the margins, but rewards keen-eyed players with brief glimpses of the G-Man. Dear Esther keeps its story obscure and in the margins, but rewards keen-eyed players with brief glimpses of ghosts.

And beyond these sort of broad-stroke structural similarities, we can also see congruencies in small details of craft. The art form of herding, of signaling to players where they should look and where they should go, is one that is atrophying in big-budget game design. Everything’s an open world, now. Just open your map an peruse the icons. Set a waypoint, and follow that waypoint marker.

But in short, linear walking simulators, the art form of herding is alive and well. In this moment from The Old City: Leviathan, developers PostMod Softworks draw our eye through the delicate use of lighting, a trail of whale blood, and the path of power lines, allowing players to make snap decisions about which paths are the most promising, and which are likely dead ends. And, much like the example I gave of Dead Space 2, it encourages us to second-guess its design: since the game’s narrative details and running time are greatly expanded if you discover the secret passages that abound in its seeming dead ends, often times slow and deliberate players will be trying to guess which path doesn’t lead to a quick end to the level.

Gone Home opens up a very large portion of its mansion to the player, right from the outset. But despite the fact that its design is fairly open, the developers do have a preferred path through the space, which is subtly encouraged by the lighting. The first floor is much brighter and more inviting than the second floor. This presents a not-insignificant influence on player behavior, given the vague horror atmosphere that the opening of the game revels in.

NaissanceE (I’m never sure how to pronounce the name of that game) does a fantastic job of presenting players with spaces that feel almost unimaginably huge and confusing, but then funneling them into one single route forward, using cues such as lighting and motion to draw our eye. It’s also very good at fostering a sense of trepidatious exploration, of never being quite sure if you’re on the right path or not. Hopping up this tiny staircase, for instance, feels slightly transgressive, in much the same way I noted that making your way across the bridge’s support beams in the Half-Life 2 coastline felt transgressive.

Occasionally, NaissanceE, does throw us into genuinely vast spaces, such as this enormous indoor desert. And here, as in Journey—or, for that matter, BattleZone—it uses landmarks on the horizon to pique our attention and guide our movement, exploiting player curiosity to pull them toward the next weird scene. And there are some very weird things to see in this desert.

The spaces of The Fidelio Incident aren’t as vast as those in NaissanceE, but it uses a similar landmark-based technique to guide players’ movement. In this game, you’ll actually freeze to death if you stand in the cold too long, so players have to scan the landscape for the next heat source—be that a volcanic vent, or a fire, or an industrial steam valve—and then dash to it, tracing connect-the-dot paths through a seemingly expansive landscape. And, all the while, as in Dear Esther, our final goal is something we saw on the horizon in the game’s opening moments—in this case, a plume of black smoke, where our spouse crash-landed her plane.

But it’s not always things we see that guide our movement in walking simulators. Sometimes it’s things we hear—a herding technique I noted in Half-Life 2 and regrettably didn’t spend much time on. Heartwood places players in a pitch-dark forest, and our way through it to the next attraction is almost entirely guided by the strange industrial sounds that echo toward us from the auditory horizon.

And The Unfinished Swan starts with no visuals at all, tasking players with painting the landscape as they use the soundscape as their guide through a twisting and changing environment.

Walking simulators borrow more than just tools for player guidance from the legacy of Half-Life 2. They also borrow techniques of pacing through spatial design. When I brought up The Last of Us in part five, I characterized it as falling into the lineage of Half-Life 2’s stream pool design. And it does, but it also does some interesting thing with stream pools set it apart from Valve’s antecedent work. Sometimes, yeah, a pool’s just a place where you scavenge supplies—the same way it works along Highway 17. But Naughty Dog also has pools where the pace is slowed down not simply because there’s ammo to grab, but because there are optional conversations to be had.

Walking simulators have followed up on this. In Firewatch, for instance, players don’t have any inventory at all. There’s certainly no need to scrounge for supplies. And yet Campo Santo still find a way to include stream pools. During this section of the game, our linear way forward is dictated by the path of the communication line. [Dialogue establishing this] But, if we want, we can explore optional side areas. These aren’t places where we collect ammo, health packs, and crafting items, but instead maybe hear an optional dialogue exchange between Henry and Delilah. Or maybe explore a landmark far off the beaten path, that Delilah never comments upon, and the story of which we’re invited to put together on our own.

Speaking of environmental storytelling, one thing I’d like to point out is that the brevity of these games is an asset. There’s a moment in Half-Life 2 Episode Two that [name, title] is really proud of—so much so that he comments on it in the commentary track for the game. [Commentary].

That’s all well and good, but the reality of the matter is that when you’re designing a game as large as Half-Life 2, not everything is going to be placed with such care. Spaces are going to be designed around combat encounters, first and foremost. Environmental artists have a lot of space they need to fill, and sometimes they’re just going to slap together assets that they have on-hand. The game designer Robert Yang talks about this in an article he wrote for the zine Heterotopias, where he points out that, if you diligently examine a game like Half-Life 2 while operating under the assumption that every single one of its details was crafted with the goal of environmental storytelling in mind, you’re going to come to some very strange conclusions. He also makes this point in his “Level With Me” video series on Half-Life 2, so I’ll just let him put this in his own words: [Yang clip]

But walking simulators aren’t constructed around combat. They’re smaller, and shorter than Half-Life 2. So their environmental details can be much more precise and story-focused than what we see in Valve’s work.

These games certainly aren’t to everyone’s liking. But as someone who has always been most attracted to Valve’s games for their subdued storytelling, tight pacing, elaborate staging, and supremely elegant direction of player attention, I’ve been excited to see adventurous developers craft interactive experiences that are tight distillations of these very elements. Whether it’s their approach to lighting, the approach to pacing, or their use of the horizon to expand our understanding of a virtual world, I’m glad to see that the lessons of Valve’s approach to design are being put to good use.

Welp … that’s it. When it comes to YouTube video series on Half-Life 2, I know there are a lot of them out there to choose from. So I thank you for watching mine. And thanks to Valve, for making one of my favorite games.

Keep playing, and keep thinking!

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