Sunday, October 18, 2015

HL2 Narrative: A Red Letter Day

Last time I left you unconscious, surrounded by Combine soldiers beating benevolence into you. Forcibly. This time we'll start up again just after Alyx Vance introduces herself. You both walk through some back passageways, and eventually to a secret tunnel and into the laboratory of your old Black Mesa coworker, Dr Kleiner.

Dr Exposition's Lab

This is where the first pseudo-cutscene happens. The game restricts your movement to the one room, and you simply listen as the other three characters exposite at you for a few minutes. They explain that you've really stirred up the Combine and that they need to get you somewhere safe as soon as possible. Kleiner gives you your old suit of armor and brings you and Alyx into the teleporter room.

This whole scene exists to show you that the resistance is barely scraping by. The lab is full of equipment clearly stolen from the Combine or crafted from foraged parts. There are only three people here, showing that the numbers of resistance fighters are very low, and overall you get a strong sense that these people are just clinging on for dear life. The teleporter highlights that quite well. Alyx goes first, repeatedly asking if the contraption is safe, and being assured that there will be no repeats of what happened to "the cat". The machine works, but only after some hiccups to reinforce the precarious nature of it and to foreshadow what's about to happen. When it's Gordon's turn, the machine breaks down and you're teleported to several other places. A random beach, your actual destination, an underground lake filled with monsters, and most importantly, Dr Breen's office. At first Breen freaks out asking what you're doing there, but the moment you disappear he calls his boss. When you reappear you see him discussing your presence, confirming that Freeman is indeed alive. Apparently the Combine are so afraid of Freeman's presence that it's worth an immediate call to the overlord of this whole ordeal the moment Freeman appears again. Right after this, you appear outside of Kleiner's lab and go on about your day with Barney yelling behind you that the whole city is now on alert.

- Route Kanal -

Ready for a swim?

Now you have your first weapon and the game really begins. You are very quickly presented with two Combine soldiers attacking citizens, and are forced to kill the soldiers. Shortly after you get your first sight of the resistance symbol painted on the walls, and a stash of useful items to restore and rearm you. The idea here seems to be one of cooperation, as you help the citizens, the resistance will help you. The environment is also starting to show you the state of the resistance, as the first logo you see from them is in a run-down, abandoned building. Shortly after seeing that you walk through a Combine outpost overlooking a train, and very clearly in much better shape than the resistance building just before it. Combine show up here and force you into the sewers to escape them, and in those sewers you find your first resistance hideout.

Not the nicest of accommodations

Here you learn several things. First, the resistance human gives you directions for where you need to go next and mentions an underground railroad. Then, the vortigaunt heals you, showing that despite their hostility in Half Life 1, they are very much on your side now. But the most important narrative element here is that the vortigaunt calls you "The Free Man", with the sound of prophecy in his voice, as if your arrival had long since been foretold.

The resistance sends you on your way and the first thing you hear outside of their little train cart home is a Combine announcer's voice saying "Individual, you are charged with social endangerment level one" and ordering the Combine to find you and detain you for interrogation. The whole of Route Kanal seems to be about hiding under the Combine's nose. Particularly from here on out, you spend the rest of this part of the game going through sewer tunnels, drain pipes, etc. all for the sake of circumventing Combine control. Several times you literally walk under soldiers as they discuss their orders to kill you.

They start to take these orders more and more seriously in this chapter as well, with the game introducing vehicles for the first time. A tank fires missiles at you while you're manning a turret, and shortly after you are presented with a helicopter chase sequence. During all this you begin hearing radio transmissions from the underground railroad announcing your arrival, but also warning of the dangerous Man Hacks that have been released into the sewers by the Combine. Clearly they will stop at nothing to take you in, but while the Man Hacks are a brutal method of finding Freeman, the true depravity of the Combine rears its ugly head a few scenes later.

At what point does THIS become acceptable?

You walk through the sewer tunnels, eventually coming upon a place with yellow water. Your suit's geiger counter begins clicking, warning you of radioactivity. Sadly, there's a member of the underground railroad even here, showing that they will literally live anywhere they can to get away from the Combine. And you can't really blame them considering that moments later you see two citizens run away from an open area screaming "They're shelling us!". The explosion of the shell takes out these citizens, but the horror mounts even higher when live head crabs crawl out of the wreckage and dig themselves a home in the surrounding sludge. But the biggest horror comes when you round a corner and look into the face of a citizen who's head has been replaced by a head crab. The citizen growls incoherently and lurches into motion, trying to eat you. Several more such zombies lie in wait nearby as well, showing that this is clearly a frequent occurrence.

This area shows the full extent of the depravity of the Combine. They will literally stop at nothing to maintain their control, using bioweapons to turn anyone who does not willingly accept their rule into mindless slaves, incapable of resisting.

And with that, the sequence ends. Next up is Water Hazard!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Half Life 2: A Narrative Exploration

So I've decided to play through HL2 once again, and I'm going to take some time to document my trip. I'll be discussing Valve's pacing and structure by way of narrative, but I may also mention some game design stuff if anything particularly interesting pops up.

Rise and shine, Mister Freeman

The game starts with the infamous G Man giving a speech about how your time has come to return to the world after you have been "resting". This scene sets up the fact that you are being controlled by some other-wordly force that G Man represents, and that your actions are not entirely your own. You are merely a pawn being placed back on the board when it has been deemed most opportune.

Upon arriving at the station for City 17, you are presented with a welcoming message courtesy of Dr Breen, who sets up the presence of the Combine and the military state that everyone lives in. Everything here speaks of enslavement and control. The surrounding area shows a Vortigaunt sweeping the floors under Combine watch, citizens standing in out-of-the-way spaces, huddling together in groups, and Combine soldiers standing at every major intersection, enforcing their law. 

The whole area reinforces the idea of Combine control. The citizens are cowering, propaganda plays on giant televisions, and there are fences everywhere controlling your very movement. But in the middle of all of that, we are introduced to Barney, your old friend from Black Mesa. 

Now about that exposition I owe ya

Barney appears here to show that the Combine, despite being in control, are not all-powerful. There is clearly a resistance. And if the Combine can be infiltrated, maybe they can be taken down from within. Barney shows up to tell us what we already suspect: We are going to be freeing this world from Combine control, and we are going to do it with the help of friends.

Immediately after Barney shows us that the Combine can be infiltrated, we are shoved back into reality where they are still very much in control. Everything we saw in the first area is reintroduced here, but turned up to eleven. Breen appears again, but this time he tells us that the Combine have taken away humanity's reproductive abilities. The Combine are as much in control as ever, but here we are forced to interact with their abuse for the first time in the form of a guard knocking over a can and telling us to pick it up. Even the citizens here seem a little more paranoid.

Yes, the resistance exists. But you're still not in charge.

After exploring this area, you end up outside. Immediately you are confronted with barricades, force fields, floating cameras tracking your every move, and an absolutely enormous tower looming in the distance, watching over the entire city. The barricades force you to head down a side street where you see an open door. A combine guard stands in the doorway to block you, but you can see inside that citizens are being lined up against a wall, being searched. Nothing too terrible for these citizens just yet, but you can't help but feel the search isn't strictly legal. And just down the street from that lovely scene is a combine tank blocking your path once again. 

The way to progress, however, comes with a little dash of anarchy. The only path off the street is down a back alley where you have to hop a fence. Yet another subtle nod that the Combine are not totally in control, you can always hop a fence. On the other side of the fence you are behind the curtain, and you start to see the Combine for who they really are. You are immediately shown a corpse laying in front of a group of Combine soldiers, with that corpse's friend standing over them being searched. Just after that, a housing area where two men are discussing how the Combine are searching homes, and will invent reasons to invade every house they can, as a show of power. Not quite the benefactors that Breen would have us believe, eh?

And speaking of Breen, once you enter a nearby apartment building, you begin to hear Breen talking once again, but this time you're seeing this propaganda from the citizens' perspective. You see Combine forcing their way into a door and hear them beating the occupants, but this is overlayed with Breen repeating his line about reproduction and how benevolent the Combine are for helping us overcome our urges. Inside one of the apartments, people cling together in fear while others stare out the windows, watching for approaching trouble. These people are in their home, but even here they can't escape. Hell, it seems they can't even close their own door. All this serves to educate us, as players. We know now exactly the type of people the Combine are, and we know we clearly do not like them.

With the setup out of the way, the game launches into the action. A siren cries out and you hear an announcement being made that someone has escaped and must be taken back into custody. Citizens start screaming at you to get to the roof, and Combine guns start firing in the distance. Time to go! A quick run across the rooftops with guns trained on you from the streets below and you get forced into an open window to avoid being shot to death. And all of ten feet later you are trapped and beaten unconscious.

 Luckily, 6 Combine guards are no match for unarmed Alyx Vance

This marks the end of the intro sequence of the game, and you are presented with a new autosave and subtitle for this area of the game shortly after an introduction to a new character, Alyx Vance. 

I'll continue this narrative break down with A Red Letter Day next time. 

See ya then!