Half-Life – The Journey

June 21st, 2009


There’s a saying that won’t quite come to mind, it goes along the lines of “life is about the journey, not the destination” The Half-life series epitomizes this mantra very well. The journey of Half-life can sometimes be as much of a detriment as it is a merit, whatever the case, that’s not the discussion point for this article. Instead I want to investigate how the series crafts a believable journey.

Much of this runs parallel to the stringent realism of the Half-life games. For one, both games run in a completely interconnected world where each time Gordon is given a simple task (reach this area). While he passes into obstacles along the way, his one goal remains the same, emphasizing the bond between one journey and one outcome, rather than a series of missions with a developing goal. The game centralizes this one goal with Gordon reaching civilian camps or Black Mesa foot soldiers to have them rephrase his objective, the means in which to achieve it and how he is closer to reaching that objective.

Half-life‘s world is so remarkable because of it’s coherence. Unlike some games which force a suspension of disbelief, everything that occurs in the Half-life games is logical and realistic of that world. If you infiltrate an abandoned enemy base, only a few lowly soldiers will be present. Those Combine soldiers will likely summon reinforcements (or the noise of gun fire will alert other groups), those reinforcements will take some time to arrive to the scene, will be organized into squads of controlled numbers and swarm the area in respects to other squads. In other games, enemy units just spawn and attack in a structure-less fashion and once they find you they don’t co-ordinate their attack patterns in realistic ways.

The whole game is told exclusively through a first person viewpoint and as mentioned previously relies on clues to prompt the player to investigate context. It’s a completely organic method of story telling. The player learns everything about his surroundings through his own observation and narrative is never made compulsory. By fixing the player into this perspective the game does nothing to detract from the experience and overarching journey.

Furthermore the games don’t distract the player with game-based norms which are outside of Gordon’s view. This is perhaps why there is so much quietness in Half-life, because the game mostly concentrates on what is within Gordon’s environmental sphere and not the players. Gordon can’t hear the ambiance crescendo as he walks into unsuspecting danger.

Ah, this is a rather lax analysis, but I’ll leave it there for now. I still have the two episodes to play so maybe my ideas will come to fruition in the meantime.

Additional Readings

Column: ‘The Interactive Palette’ – Grim Fandango and Diegesis