My Favorite Games: Half-Life 2

The video game that fundamentally changed how I think about video games

To manage expectations: I don’t have any new epiphanies about Half-Life 2 or anything, but I’ve been seeing lists of people’s favorite or most influential video games going around, and it occurred to me that I forgot to add Half-Life 2 to my own running list. The problem is that I forget about Half-Life 2 simply because it had such an impact on me; it seems as trivial to say that I like it as it would be to say that I like chocolate or puppies.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this game changed how I think about video games, and what I think they’re capable of.

Until I played it, I’d been perfectly happy with the hard divisions between games that had become calcified over the years, to the point where I believed that different aspects were inherently mutually exclusive. You can have a well-written cinematic story… but at the expense of action. You can have puzzles… at the expense of pacing. You can have systems-based game mechanics… at the expense of direction and “authorship.” Half-Life 2 just said, “Nah, we want all of it.”

I’d played other shooters before — including the first Half-Life — but still thought they’d never be good at cinematic storytelling as adventure games. Once I finished Half-Life 2, I was left wondering whether adventure games even needed to exist anymore. Here was a game that had an action-movie story with thrilling shoot-outs and scary sequences with zombies and dune-buggy racing and at least one impossibly sick moment where you’ve jumped off a ramp and everything is exploding around you while you’re in mid-air. All that and puzzles!

Luckily, I never became Emperor of Games and got the chance to impose my will on the industry, and instead it was shaped by people making all kinds of different experiences that could peacefully coexist.

But until I played Half-Life 2, I’d only seen a couple of glimpses of how video games might incorporate cinema into interactive entertainment: the first “Meanwhile…” cutscene in Secret of Monkey Island, and the theme park dark ride-like experience in Dark Forces of being pulled through a dianoga-filled sewer. HL2 was full of moments like that.

Recently, playing Fallen Order has been giving me renewed appreciation for the art of level design, the dozens of ingenious ways that designers can silently guide players to the desired destination. When done well, it feels like the magician’s trick of forcing a card on you while making you believe you chose it yourself. Half-Life 2 was the first game where I really appreciated it, though, for truly feeling like you were freely exploring a huge, open world even though you were actually on a predefined, linear path.

I wrote about it a long time ago, but I think the most ingenious part of Half-Life 2‘s design is how it took its linearity — or at least its “game-ness” — and gave it a diegetic justification. There were briefly jarring moments in which I’d been engrossed in the exploration and world-building, and then suddenly found myself in a contained puzzle area. Jarring because the game is so good at giving the illusion that you’re in complete control over the experience — even to the point that most of its “puzzles” are physics-based, instead of single-key-fits-a-single-lock — that it was weird to be reminded that you’re in the middle of a problem that’s not only been solved already, but set up so that you are guaranteed to be able to solve it. It was such a convincing illusion that I really was the first person to explore this world since the apocalypse, that it could’ve broken the illusion to be reminded I was in a game.

But Half-Life 2 cleverly and silently gives that dissonance a story justification: you’ll find a lambda symbol painted somewhere near the puzzle solution. It not only points you, the player, in the right direction, but it reminds you, the main character, of the pockets of Resistance that have been working to make a hidden path towards the bad guys that only you can defeat.