Interactivity

She's got a gun, and she can move much of her face.Tonight I finally finished Half-Life 2 Episode One. (On a completely unrelated note: thanks again, Steve!)

This is the game that, according to GameSpot’s whiny review, was “incredibly short,” containing “only four to six hours of gameplay.” I figure it’s taken me 7 months to finish it.

I’ve already admitted that I’m not good at the videogames, on account of my condition. Still, I’d reckon I put about 10 to 15 hours into it. I got up to the end a couple of months ago, then quit playing for a while after getting frustrated by the “escort citizens to the train station” section. When I picked it up again tonight, that part went by in a flash; I’m wondering if there’s some clause in the AI that looked at the system clock, thought, “holy cow, this poor guy’s been stuck on this part for two months now!” and ended it abruptly. In any case, the rest of it went by quickly and a little anti-climactically.

The only reason I think this is all worth writing about is because it ties in with one of my favorite topics: storytelling in videogames.

Half-Life 2 was pretty much exactly the game I’d been wanting to see for over a decade. Not because I was a huge fan of the first one (I liked it a lot, but still have never finished it), but because it was finally incontrovertible proof that a videogame can tell a good story and be a good game.

I started working in adventure games right as the adventure game genre was dying, and it was tough to know who to root for. The LucasArts adventures proved that a game can tell a cool story, but I’ve always hated adventure game puzzles. Of all the adventure games I’ve played, there are only a few puzzles that are genuinely satisfying; most are just filler to interrupt the next big story segment. (You can say the same thing for RPGs, which have repetitive combat sequences just to kill time between cut-scenes.)

The change didn’t happen all of a sudden. Dark Forces and Jedi Knight showed that you could have a strong storyline in an action game, and there are some unforgettable moments in each (in particular, there’s one level early in Dark Forces where you get stuck in a sewer, and I’ll never forget it). Still, both of those games felt to me like cut-scenes separated by action game levels. The original Half-Life is kind of the opposite; I remember it as an action game with a strong story.

It wasn’t until Half-Life 2 that I felt that they got the mix just right — the setting feels real, the story is strong enough to be interesting but not so dense that it drags down the game, and most importantly, everything happens within the game. It wasn’t a first-person shooter with cutscenes, and it wasn’t an adventure game with action segments. It was its own thing, and it could only work as a videogame.

To me, Episode One lost a lot of that. For starters, it kind of bugs me that one of the main technical achievements of the game — having the character Alyx accompany you throughout the entire thing, and actually work instead of get in the way — ruined one of the best artistic achievements in the first. In the first, there was relatively little exposition; you’d figure things out as you would if you were really there, by experimenting. In Ep 1, she explains everything to you, and says exactly what you’re supposed to do next. (It particularly bugged me that she explained why the gravity gun turns into the super gravity gun; one of my favorite things about Half-Life 2 was that they trusted you to understand what was going on without having to explain it).

Also, the storytelling is a little off. There are some amazing action sequences in Episode One, and they did an outstanding job with them. Still, they feel like action sequences separated by not-really-interactive bits. Talk to Alyx, get to here, talk to Alyx, blow this up, talk to Alyx, fight these guys, repeat until done.

I really felt like Half-Life 2 had stopped being a “first-person shooter with story elements,” and had finally crossed the line to create something new. It’s kind of a shame that “interactive movie” has such a bad connotation now, because it’s a neat term — it’s everything cool about a movie, but you control it. After years of seeing videogames being movies’ dopey little brother, it was cool to see the tables turned — while watching War of the Worlds I kept thinking, “hey, this is a lot like Half-Life 2!”

Now, though, I look at the trailers for Episode 2 and see the sequence with antlions and I’m already frustrated with it, before it’s even been released. I really just want to see a cool story, not shoot a bunch of monsters I’ve already killed hundreds of. Especially since it means I’ll most likely end up dying and restarting about a dozen times just to make a little bit of progress.

I’m not saying that I want the game to be easier, even though anyone who watched me play these things would assume that’s what I need. I guess I’m saying that the balance between story and gameplay and filler is a really tough one to get exactly right.

There are complaints that HL2‘s AI is too simple and predictable, which means those people want more game. But if story’s key, and you’re playing to one conclusion instead of repeatable deathmatches, why does it matter if the AI is predictable?

There are complains that Episode 1 was too short, which means that those people want more content. But eight hours of content, which would be criticized as “way too short” by videogame players, would be a pretty lengthy miniseries if it were shown on TV. So how does a videogame get more content without resorting to repetition and filler?

After I played Half-Life 2, I thought the adventure game was finally dead. I don’t think so, now (I’d better not, since I’m doing work for adventure games at the moment). It’s more encouraging than that — it’s not the death of anything, but proof that there’s infinite potential left in videogames. The potential to get away from the old genres and reinvent something totally new with each new franchise. And with episodic content, to make worlds and tell stories much bigger and more immersive than would be possible with a single-release game or a movie or miniseries. The trick is finding a way to throw off the last remnants of the old genres, getting rid of what made adventure games tedious and action games stupid, while keeping the elements that make for great games.

And if I knew exactly how to do that, I’d have a lot more money than I do right now.

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