Essential moments in video game storytelling: Half-Life
Hey all! I’m debuting a new feature here today, where I talk about scenes and moments in video games have stood out to me over the years.
I’m kicking this off with one of the first games that ever made me think long and hard about the subtle ways game developers could turn a potentially generic story into something thrilling and memorable. I’m talking about Half-Life, and those first few minutes at the beginning that might be gaming’s most definitive example of “less is more”:
Exposition is one of the most essential elements of sci-fi storytelling. You need to explain the world and why things that don’t normally happen are happening. You need to establish the local setting. You need to introduce the protagonist. This can be difficult to achieve in a game in a manner that isn’t clunky, which is what makes the low-key opening to this 16-year-old game so impressive. The protagonist is a scientist. The game even tells us his credentials (a PhD from MIT, almost a proud proclamation that he is about as far from Duke Nukem as a shooter protagonist can get). The setting is the lab where he works. Today his job involves opening portals to space.
Violent hijinks ensue.
Opening the game by having Gordon Freeman simply going through his normal work routine accomplishes two crucial tasks. First, it provides a reason and a place for the events of the game. “Because unexplained science” is perhaps one of the more overused tropes of science fiction, but most tropes can be forgiven if used well. And Half-Life uses this particular trope beautifully, with the laboratory soon being flooded by a veritable monster mash of alien life.
Second, it adds a one of the most significant spices to the unique flavor that makes the Half-Life games so beloved. Before Half-Life, the shooter genre was dripping in even more excess testosterone than it is today. The most famous FPS protagonist of the time was still probably Duke Nukem, purveyor of cheesy one liners and casual sexism. Other FPS protagonists still tended to fill macho action movie hero shoes, from space marines to WWII soldiers to literally James Bond. Gordon Freeman? He’s just guy at work, whose office happens to have been taken over by angry aliens and angrier mercenaries. True, he still has to fight through them, and in doing so Gordon displays remarkable aptitude for mortal combat for a scientist. In other words, we might not buy this as the premise to a movie. But Half-Life wasn’t trying to be a movie. It was figuring out new ways to involve the player in the story through interaction with and absorption in the environment.
Nor was Half-Life imitating its peers. There is no rush to immerse the player in bloodshed right away, lest they stop paying attention. We go through the motions of Freeman’s day at work. Hop on the trolly, mess around with the microwave, chat with the colleagues… or listen to them as they try to make conversation anyway.
Gordon doesn’t say a word. But his lack of verboseness became one of the most essential aspects of his character. We don’t need to know more than we do about Gordon for him to work as a protagonist. Valve recognized how much interactivity can fill in the gaps in a narrative.
For a story that truly unfolds in real time like Half-Life’s (the player and Gordon operate on the same amount of information, and the game offers virtually no plot exposition) something as simple as knowing that the character we’re playing as is not a trained soldier, that he is a civilian and a scientist, adds tremendously to the narrative without doing much at all. I’m all for games exploring complex narratives, but it can be just as satisfying when a game recognizes the right amount of narrative for itself.
Half-Life set a standard for real-time storytelling that Valve games have continued to excel at ever since. In a genre that increasingly relies on telling us the story by imitating films rather than embracing interactive narrative and reducing action to glorified games of whack-a-mole, Valve has prospered by giving players some credit, letting them observe and take in their surroundings. They did it even better in Half-Life 2 and achieved perfection with the format with Portal, but it all started with Half-Life’s creative use of mundanity.