The Long Dark Hallway

As I mentioned earlier I bought Half-Life 2 last week. Here is a short meditation on why the game is perhaps the perfect shooter. First Person Shooters are characterized by fairly simple gameplay:

1. Enter area. 2. Kill everything that moves before you die. 3. Exit area.

Ultimately, no matter how dressed up a shooter is with narrative, cut scenes and interactive non player characters, the key to the game’s success is how well it delivers on this core mechanic. Shooters are at their best when you are runing down a long dark hallway and using your bad-ass skills to cut your enemies to pieces.

I have a soft spot for Half-Life. The original Half-Life was the last game I played before my current descent into addiction. It is also generally credited with expanding the role of narrative in a shooter. The game is played as a series of narrative episodes all told from the game engine without separate cut scenes, and always from the point of view of the player. At its best, the game combines this narrative style with great level design to give you at least the sense that the story, such as it is, is just unfolding in front of you as a result of your actions in the game. The fact that the game sort of falls apart in its last act doesn’t really detract from the fact that everything leading up to that point was brilliant.

After Half-Life, shooters and action games took on more elements of interesting story telling (Halo, Max Payne) and more open ended gameplay (Far Cry, GTA, Deus Ex). It’s now fashionable to tout interactive environments, uncanny AI and complete freedom of gameplay as a set of holy grails that once obtained will usher in a new age in gaming glory.

But I don’t think this is so, and I think Half-Life 2 is a small bit of proof that I am right. Half-Life 2 is brilliant precisely because it is not open ended, but completely linear and scripted. One minute the goons will be chasing you over a rooftop. The next you’ll notice an open window near a ledge and you leap in just in time to save yourself from the rush of the drone army. You feel like a brilliant bad-ass. As the rush subsides, you realize that the game led you there. This happens over and over again. The game has perfected a technique that Half-Life got right once in a while, which is to take you down a long dark hallway that is cleverly disguised as “the real world”.

Half-Life 2 builds this illusion using state of the art rendering and flawless pacing and level design. City 17 is full of beautiful light, texture and a palpable “sense of place.” There was never a dark hallway this pretty. The place looks wide open, but the areas are cleverly designed to frantically direct you in exactly one direction, which is towards the end of the mission. You hardly ever find yourself wandering aimlessly through the game world with no idea where to go. This is in stark contrast to, say, Halo 2, where you could get lost even in the middle of the most frenetic action set piece.

The other tool that Half-life 2 uses to keep you running is some of the best human character animation I’ve ever seen anywhere. Humans in the game walk, run and fall like real people. But the faces are pure magic. Character’s mouths move like they are really talking, and the faces really project a sense of feeling and emotion. It’s cool how they carefully look at you as you move around them. All of this makes you forget is that most of your interactions with non-player characters who are not trying to kill you are completely scripted.

The result of this design is a game that puts you right on the rails of its story and doesn’t allow you to fall off. You run, you hide, you shoot, the story moves forward. It’s perfection.

My only complaint is that they didn’t hire the guy that implemented Halo’s level loading code, so your time in the game world is broken up by too many stupid load screens.

Other people who agree with me and said it first

Here tilt gushes in much the same way.

Here the Game Brains guys do the same thing.