When Places Tell Stories: Dr.Freeman & The Musterion of Half-Life

Valve recently updated Half-Life 2 to their latest Source engine and added a plethora of Steam features like cloud support & achievements. This was motivation enough for me to revisit this dystopian society and so far, it feels a lot like catching up with an old friend. Welcome to City 17. You still owe me a beer Barney! What cat ?! When it comes to Half-Life, I clearly have my nostalgia shades on. I've always been fascinated by Half-Life's storyline and more importantly how it's conveyed to the player.
 
With their ingenuity & insistent ambiguity, Valve have turned Half-Life's simple story arc of "science goes wrong, aliens invade" into one of the most frequently analyzed narratives in gaming. They have embraced the show, don't tell admonition and taken it to new heights in games. It's a theme that runs strong in all their games. While other developers are still stuck using derivative methods of storytelling (i.e. snazzy cutscenes, constant narrations, characters forcefully dumping heaps of exposition at your feet), Valve seem intent on exploring new possibilities for the medium. For one, they let their environments do most of the storytelling. Instead of hitting you in the face with a script, the Half-Life series make you inhabit the world and draw your own conclusions from the happenings in your surroundings. Players are encouraged to seek out the details for themselves, instead of being handed a manual. Every little corner inside this world is a clue that the player is slowly collating to form a cohesive story in their head.   

Oddly enough, this song captures what a City 17 resident must feel like
       

Gordon is in the details

Facts in the Half-Life universe are constantly hinted at, but out-and-out revelations are few and far. Factors like the elusive G-Man & the mysterious nature of the Vortigaunt give Half-Life an ambiguous, almost puzzle like quality and makes it an alluring prospect for an inquisitive mind. One little piece of the puzzle that I came across today is an old abandoned house while driving along Highway-17. This building was off the normal path and a completely voluntary experience (which seems to be the norm for a Valve universe). 

I have a bad feeling about this.

When I came across this house, I was being chased by a legion of antlions. I was looking for a quick refuge and saw this antlion repeller on the top of the hill. Next to it was this old house that didn't look particularly interesting. The only thing distinguishing it from the others is a hand drawn danger sign on one of the walls. A skull and crossbones...a warning from it's former dwellers. This piqued my curiosity and I tried to break in through the front door ('cause that's what you do, right?). Predictably, it was locked. I investigated further and found the basement door. It had another danger sign and the door had been clamped down from the outside. These guys were more concerned with keeping something from getting out, rather than stopping someone from getting in. However, they didn't count on me wielding the gravity gun.

Crap! I mean Headcrab! 
Once inside, the first thing that struck me was the Combine headcrab shell and the broken roof it came through. As I took a step further, a mutilated body fell at my feet and a venomous headcrab crawled in front of me. After taking care of Lamarr's distant cousin, I climbed up the crates. And there it was - the anti-Combine graffiti that gave context to the whole picture. This was a resistance hideout that was shelled. One of it's former occupant was now a walking headcrab nest and his friends had to lock him in and flee. Friend condemning friend. It's a small, neigh-insignificant tale that hints at the greater struggle going on outside the player's immediate purview. Ravenholm let us know that the resistance was having a tough time (on a large scale) but encounters like these shine light on just how bad things can get on a smaller, more personal level. 

And there it is...

Every Valve game is rife with places like these. But engaging the player in this manner and telling a meaningful tale in the process is a tricky proposition. It is asking a lot from your average video game player; it challenges their investigative instincts and their intuitive skills. As a result, many dismiss Half-Life's story as non-existent and it's understandable why. Valve have eschewed all conventional means of exposition and players have difficulty grasping the narrative value of what's been shown to them. Valve tend to use their game's real estate as much as their characters to tell stories. It's alienating & abstruse to those who don't get it but immensely gratifying to those who do.

 Could you leave your friend in this state ?

Portal to a personal space

Over the last 12 years, Valve have become progressively better at steering players towards these nuggets. In Left 4 Dead, checkpoints and safe houses have innumerable posters & graffiti that hint at events that lead to the zombie apocalypse and how the other survivors are dealing with this calamity. There are many layers of graffiti and warnings in L4D and show how the situation has deteriorated over time. Messages like Mike was here are half covered by evacuation posters pointing to safe houses, which in turn have graffiti & corrections pointing to the current safe house - while all of these are overshadowed by warnings of "NO CURE" or "Nobody is going to survive". These message provide a small window into other people's struggle and nightmares. 

In Portal, players are invited to crawl into a secret chamber with the message "HELP", presumably written in blood. This is where the previous test subject hid from GLaDOS. The subject couldn't figure out a way through the live fire course for months (if the tally signs are any indication). But he did manage to break into this secret chamber and avoid the course altogether. He decided to hold up here, using an open computer case to cook his meals and wait for help, slowly losing his mind. There is little chance anyone missed the famous scribbles on the chamber walls. His ramblings indicate his insanity but the equipment he left behind show his resourcefulness.
 
Strange how a graffiti in one little corner of a game can turn into such a persistent meme 
Adam Sessler often mentions that movies can show you a place; books can describe them to you; but only a video game can truly deliver the feeling of stumbling into someone else's private space. The sense of discovery and exploration we experience in games is unmatched. It is an interactive medium and this fundamentally changes the way stories could and should be told. Unlike movie viewers or book readers, game players have an active physical presence inside these stories. We act like detectives, trying to investigate every clue the developers throw at us. I'm glad Valve is creating worlds that are worth investigating. It's a step in the right direction, towards creating the ultimate interactive experience:    
5 Comments
6 Comments
Posted by Spacetrucking

Valve recently updated Half-Life 2 to their latest Source engine and added a plethora of Steam features like cloud support & achievements. This was motivation enough for me to revisit this dystopian society and so far, it feels a lot like catching up with an old friend. Welcome to City 17. You still owe me a beer Barney! What cat ?! When it comes to Half-Life, I clearly have my nostalgia shades on. I've always been fascinated by Half-Life's storyline and more importantly how it's conveyed to the player.
 
With their ingenuity & insistent ambiguity, Valve have turned Half-Life's simple story arc of "science goes wrong, aliens invade" into one of the most frequently analyzed narratives in gaming. They have embraced the show, don't tell admonition and taken it to new heights in games. It's a theme that runs strong in all their games. While other developers are still stuck using derivative methods of storytelling (i.e. snazzy cutscenes, constant narrations, characters forcefully dumping heaps of exposition at your feet), Valve seem intent on exploring new possibilities for the medium. For one, they let their environments do most of the storytelling. Instead of hitting you in the face with a script, the Half-Life series make you inhabit the world and draw your own conclusions from the happenings in your surroundings. Players are encouraged to seek out the details for themselves, instead of being handed a manual. Every little corner inside this world is a clue that the player is slowly collating to form a cohesive story in their head.   

Oddly enough, this song captures what a City 17 resident must feel like
       

Gordon is in the details

Facts in the Half-Life universe are constantly hinted at, but out-and-out revelations are few and far. Factors like the elusive G-Man & the mysterious nature of the Vortigaunt give Half-Life an ambiguous, almost puzzle like quality and makes it an alluring prospect for an inquisitive mind. One little piece of the puzzle that I came across today is an old abandoned house while driving along Highway-17. This building was off the normal path and a completely voluntary experience (which seems to be the norm for a Valve universe). 

I have a bad feeling about this.

When I came across this house, I was being chased by a legion of antlions. I was looking for a quick refuge and saw this antlion repeller on the top of the hill. Next to it was this old house that didn't look particularly interesting. The only thing distinguishing it from the others is a hand drawn danger sign on one of the walls. A skull and crossbones...a warning from it's former dwellers. This piqued my curiosity and I tried to break in through the front door ('cause that's what you do, right?). Predictably, it was locked. I investigated further and found the basement door. It had another danger sign and the door had been clamped down from the outside. These guys were more concerned with keeping something from getting out, rather than stopping someone from getting in. However, they didn't count on me wielding the gravity gun.

Crap! I mean Headcrab! 
Once inside, the first thing that struck me was the Combine headcrab shell and the broken roof it came through. As I took a step further, a mutilated body fell at my feet and a venomous headcrab crawled in front of me. After taking care of Lamarr's distant cousin, I climbed up the crates. And there it was - the anti-Combine graffiti that gave context to the whole picture. This was a resistance hideout that was shelled. One of it's former occupant was now a walking headcrab nest and his friends had to lock him in and flee. Friend condemning friend. It's a small, neigh-insignificant tale that hints at the greater struggle going on outside the player's immediate purview. Ravenholm let us know that the resistance was having a tough time (on a large scale) but encounters like these shine light on just how bad things can get on a smaller, more personal level. 

And there it is...

Every Valve game is rife with places like these. But engaging the player in this manner and telling a meaningful tale in the process is a tricky proposition. It is asking a lot from your average video game player; it challenges their investigative instincts and their intuitive skills. As a result, many dismiss Half-Life's story as non-existent and it's understandable why. Valve have eschewed all conventional means of exposition and players have difficulty grasping the narrative value of what's been shown to them. Valve tend to use their game's real estate as much as their characters to tell stories. It's alienating & abstruse to those who don't get it but immensely gratifying to those who do.

 Could you leave your friend in this state ?

Portal to a personal space

Over the last 12 years, Valve have become progressively better at steering players towards these nuggets. In Left 4 Dead, checkpoints and safe houses have innumerable posters & graffiti that hint at events that lead to the zombie apocalypse and how the other survivors are dealing with this calamity. There are many layers of graffiti and warnings in L4D and show how the situation has deteriorated over time. Messages like Mike was here are half covered by evacuation posters pointing to safe houses, which in turn have graffiti & corrections pointing to the current safe house - while all of these are overshadowed by warnings of "NO CURE" or "Nobody is going to survive". These message provide a small window into other people's struggle and nightmares. 

In Portal, players are invited to crawl into a secret chamber with the message "HELP", presumably written in blood. This is where the previous test subject hid from GLaDOS. The subject couldn't figure out a way through the live fire course for months (if the tally signs are any indication). But he did manage to break into this secret chamber and avoid the course altogether. He decided to hold up here, using an open computer case to cook his meals and wait for help, slowly losing his mind. There is little chance anyone missed the famous scribbles on the chamber walls. His ramblings indicate his insanity but the equipment he left behind show his resourcefulness.
 
Strange how a graffiti in one little corner of a game can turn into such a persistent meme 
Adam Sessler often mentions that movies can show you a place; books can describe them to you; but only a video game can truly deliver the feeling of stumbling into someone else's private space. The sense of discovery and exploration we experience in games is unmatched. It is an interactive medium and this fundamentally changes the way stories could and should be told. Unlike movie viewers or book readers, game players have an active physical presence inside these stories. We act like detectives, trying to investigate every clue the developers throw at us. I'm glad Valve is creating worlds that are worth investigating. It's a step in the right direction, towards creating the ultimate interactive experience:    
Posted by SeriouslyNow

Excellent writeup!  Followed.

Posted by Doctorchimp

Blog about Half Life being awesome? 
 
Instant agreement

Posted by Yummylee

I have never played any Half Life game... but was still a really enjoyable read.!

Posted by Skald

This reminds me of all the great quasi-easter eggs in Fallout 3. That game was rife with this kind of stuff.

Posted by TheJohn

I enjoyed this, even though I still haven't played Half Life 2. Two thumbs up.