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‘Half-Life 2: Episode One’ and Its Decade-Long Struggle with Confidence and Identity

Now ten years old, Half-Life 2's first expansion shows us that by trying to be like films, games can only suffer.

by Ed Smith
27 May 2016, 6:00am

All screenshots of 'Half-Life 2: Episode One' via Steam

To release a game episodically – to refer to it as a "season" – is today intended to mimic the style of television drama. It's no accident that The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, two of TV's most widely regarded series, have been processed into episodic games (by Californian studio Telltale). The proclamation is clear: the quality of writing in these video games is comparable to that of premium TV drama. But why invite the comparison in the first place?

Words like "emotional", "narrative" and cinematic" have long been used by game-makers in order to suffuse their work with quality by association, implying it has the thematic consistency of a truly great movie, or heart-rending potential of an actual tragedy. But doing this only elucidates video game-makers' insecurity – and by and large, the entire culture of video games' insecurity, too.

Games like Life is Strange and The Wolf Among Us, which are heavily written and attempt to develop their characters, cannot be positioned purely as video games because video games, it has come to be believed, are not a forum for lofty, narrative pursuits. Games are dumb. Games are just for fun. Story in games is like story in porn.

And so, out of that pervasive but self-defeating notion, The Walking Dead and games like it are expounded as semi TV series, simultaneously imbuing them with vicarious prestige while giving game-makers tacit permission to do the unthinkable: release video games with stories that demand players' attention.

These insecurities, about what games should be, what players expect and what game-makers are allowed to do, were evident ten years ago this June in another episodic game, Half-Life 2: Episode One. Not unlike Half-Life 2 proper of two years previous, Episode One is at war with its own nature, terrified of both first-person shooter genre tropes and traditional video game excess.

Like hundreds of video games, Episode One features extended sequences where characters recite exposition and make phatic remarks to one another, but it refuses to run them as cutscenes: instead of losing control of your character and watching, essentially, a short film, while other characters are talking, you're allowed to move around and either listen or not listen. It's more interactive but it's not better – it makes it possible to turn dialogue scenes into a ridiculous pantomime, where Gordon Freeman is crawling and jumping in circles as his companions debate the end of humanity.

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Similarly, the game's reluctance to give you a gun (it's maybe an hour and a half of play before you get one) is perhaps well intentioned, but has the inverse effect. Defeating enemies by solving puzzles, or simply standing back and letting your companion, Alyx Vance, kill everyone for you, is perhaps a different approach to video game combat, appealing to players' initiative and modesty. But again, it's not better.

It's a word I hate to use, because I like to think that all expression, all artwork, even if it's poor, is in some way enriching, but the opening hours of Episode One are boring. What I presume is a fear on the game-makers' part, a fear to embrace some standards of video games or more specifically first-person shooters, turns Episode One into a timid, desperate game. It feels like somebody, or some group of people on Half-Life 2's development, was not comfortable with it being a shooter. Combat is held back as long as possible, guns are tinny and ineffectual and the enemies all feel like empty suits that just flop down dead, en masse.

Some will argue that Episode One's (or Episode Two's or Half-Life 2's) disinterest in shooting is rooted in grander ambitions; that these are story games, focused on world building and intrigue. But when Half-Life's central character never says a word – when I spend the whole of Episode One being talked to, right in the eye, by Alyx and all I can do is stare mutely back, never uttering as much as syllable – I find it hard to agree that Half-Life is that interested in story. It's a game afraid to dirty itself with traditional gaming pleasures.

At the same time, though, it hasn't the sophisticated writing to justify itself as something other or above standard video games. It's insecure, to the point that it won't dedicate to either video game genre or heavyweight storytelling.

Related, on Motherboard: Watch Gabe Newell Avoid Talking About 'Half-Life 3' for Almost a Decade

It's a pity, because with a little more confidence, a little more willing and bite, Episode One – and Half-Life 2, by extension – would be a better shooter with a better script. It still boasts some inventive set-ups, like surviving an underground car park filled with monsters, or covering civilians as they escape from the secret police, and if the combat were weightier and the game didn't make you feel ashamed for using guns, moments like that could really sing.

Likewise, Alyx remains one of the most plausible, endearing characters in video games. She's funny, she's brave, she's occasionally vulnerable – she's someone you truly enjoy being around. And if you could actually talk to her, all of these aspects would be felt much more. It's unfortunate that Half-Life 2, though reticent to throw in with the tropes of first-person shooting, is happy to lead with a silent hero, the most abysmal video game cliché of all.

Half-Life 2: Episode One is not an episodic game in the way we've come to expect. It's not narratively led, replete with explicit moments of player choice and determined to prove that decisions have consequences. But it nevertheless has a lot in common with the episodic games of today. It seems to resent, or at least fear too close an association to, its own medium. Where the insecurity of The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and Life is Strange might be measured by their eager emulation of television drama, Episode One's identity crisis is present in its weak shooting mechanics and half-formed character dynamics. It's a game neurotically aware of what video games do too often, but too frightened to attempt what they attempt so rarely.

If Half-Life 3 is taking so long, perhaps it's because so many pretences about video games still exist. While they're trying to be like TV, or trying to be like films, or trying to be anything but formed of game-makers' own, proud, confident volitions, great video games will struggle to be made.

@mostsincerelyed

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