Background & Plot
Half-Life 2 is a classic game of the shooter genre, and is one of the highest-rated shooters of all time. The question is, does it qualify as art? To answer this question, the game will be examined on several levels, from its plot to its audiovisual design and to the greater political messages it conveys. First, an introduction to the world of Half-Life 2: At the end of Half-Life, the protagonist, Gordon Freeman is approached by a mysterious, unnamed figure who has been observing him throughout the game. He offers Gordon a job, and places him into stasis until he is needed again. In the beginning of Half-Life 2, he is awoken by the same figure (nicknamed the “G-Man”), who tells him that his hour had come again, and to “wake up and….smell the ashes…”
Gordon appears on a train shortly before it reaches its destination, then disembarks to find a world radically changed from the one he left. He is immediately photographed by a flying drone, which does the same for the other people exiting the train. As the player moves through the train station, he finds an oppressive police state that controls its citizens through manipulation, fear, and suppression of basic rights and impulses. Propaganda posters line the walls; screens broadcast speeches by Dr. Wallace Breen, Gordon’s former employer at the Black Mesa research facility in Half-Life. By speaking to people in the train station, the player discovers that the government (who call themselves the “Combine”) relocates its citizens against their will, drugs the water supply to make them forgetful and docile, and kidnaps and tortures people at will. The player is stopped at a security checkpoint and ordered to follow one of the police officers. Once in private, the officer reveals himself to be one of Gordon’s old friends from Black Mesa, and instructs him to head towards a former colleague’s lab and to avoid checkpoints. Sneaking out through a back window, the player reaches the train station’s lobby. Dr. Breen’s ongoing monologue in the background has turned to the matter of human instincts and the “suppression field,” which prevents humans from reproducing altogether. This is when it becomes clear that the regime in power is not human at all, even though the police force are; citizens are fed meager rations, but better rations and other rewards are promised to those who join the euphemistically-named “Civil Protection” and turn against their own people in the process.
As the player exits the train station, the scale of the situation hits the player viscerally: they see an imposing superstructure that breaks through the clouds, several checkpoints, drones flying around photographing people, and a heavy police presence. War of the Worlds-esque tripods patrol the streets and police can be seen searching people and raiding residences. As the player navigates through apartment buildings to avoid checkpoints, an announcement is made by a synthetic female voice: “Attention, residents. Miscount detected in your block.” This sets Gordon as the target of all Civil Protection units in the area, and he is forced to flee through the city’s canal system. As the game unfolds, it is revealed that shortly after the events at Black Mesa in Half-Life, an extra-dimensional alien force, the Combine, invaded and defeated every military force on Earth within seven hours. They then appointed Dr. Breen as a figurehead governor of Earth and established the regime in place today. While there has been some resistance, Gordon has been in stasis for around twenty years, giving the Combine plenty of time to drain the planet’s resources (the ocean level is later seen to have dropped by thirty feet) and build a military force out of heavily modified trans-humans who appear to have been stripped of every aspect of their humanity that does not improve their combat-effectiveness. However, much of the core invasion force, which consisted of other alien species similarly modified to serve various roles in the Combine war machine, has left Earth (Valve & Hodgson, D 2004). This is why the G-man said Gordon’s time had come – the Combine had finally let their guard down, and an opportunity had arisen to strike before they could call in reinforcements. The rest of the game centers on the resistance’s fight against the Combine, which becomes bolder with every victory Gordon Freeman earns against them. In the game’s final moments, during an explosion that would have killed Gordon, the G-man freezes time and informs Gordon that he has received many interesting offers for his services. He saves Gordon from the blast and places him in stasis once more.
The video below shows the first few minutes of the game:
Niedenthal (2009) provides three definitions of aesthetics:
Game aesthetics refers to the sensory phenomena that the player encounters in the game (visual, aural, haptic, embodied).
Game aesthetics refers to those aspects of digital games that are shared with other art forms (and thus provide a means of generalizing about art).
Game aesthetics is an expression of the game experienced as pleasure, emotion, sociability, formgiving, etc (with reference to “the aesthetic experience”).
For this post, we will focus on definitions 1 and 3.
Half-Life 2 was renowned for its superb visuals and sound design. The environments were designed with painstaking attention to detail, and as a result, the player truly feels like they’ve stepped into a mysterious and frightening world. Propaganda, graffiti, litter, disrepair, and architectural styles were designed to reinforce the plot and its message on multiple levels. The Combine’s propaganda conveyed the idea that they were a force for peace and a gift to humankind. The poster below uses the dove, a symbol of peace, atop the Combine logo to achieve this effect:
They also painted the Combine as humanity’s route to biological immortality and ascension as a space-faring species; the mediators of the next step in human evolution. Dr. Breen’s speech at the start of the game states this explicitly. Graffiti seen through the game serves as the rebels’ answer to Combine propaganda and guides rebels through their hidden network of outposts. The graffiti shown below summarizes the unnatural nature of human “evolution” at the hands of the Combine. The image on the left shows the inside of a Combine soldier’s head and the degree of mechanization involved in the process of producing the dehumanized killers employed by the Combine.
The architecture featured in the game is inspired by that of several Eastern European countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and others (City 17). For example, the exterior of the train station in the beginning of the game closely resembles the Western Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary (comparison images below).
A few other buildings in-game appear to have been drawn from buildings in cities throughout the former Soviet bloc, including Belgrade, Serbia and St. Petersburg, Russia. Signs throughout the game are written in Cyrillic, further reinforcing this connection. As we’ll see later, the architectural style bears significance for the game’s message.
The game’s audio is rich in detail. The general hubbub of the city (referred to only as City 17) and propaganda broadcasts serve as an ambient background. Announcements by the Overwatch AI (the synthetic voice mentioned earlier), delivered in cold, surgical terms, instill a sense of dread and cue the player in to the unfolding situation. Communications between Civil Protection and Overwatch soldiers in their synthesized voices give a sense of their thought processes and reveal the extent of their dehumanization. Several other sound cues, such as the announcements made to Gordon by his hazardous environmental suit, give the player a rich stream of data to keep them appraised of the situation. The music is sparse but perfectly suited to match the tone of the situation.
Following Hunicke et al.‘s definition of aesthetics as “the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player”, the emotional impact of the game should be considered directly. The plot is revealed indirectly and gradually, always leaving plenty of things a mystery to the player. This sense of being in the dark accentuates the feelings of awe, paranoia, and dread experienced and teases players’ curiosity to know, driving them onward. The environment exhibits varying degrees of decay and disrepair; the rare places that appear to have been preserved serve as a wistful reminder of what once was. Each section of the game has a distinct flavor, or emotional experience, based on its plot. In the first portion of the game, Gordon discovers the new world order and escapes City 17 while being hunted relentlessly. Through most of the game’s coastal section, the player is completely on their own, isolated from allies. Gordon’s victory over the Combine at Nova Prospekt sparks a full-scale rebellion, and the last portion of the game is a frantic, protracted battle as Gordon fights his way towards the Combine’s base of operations in the region, the massive Citadel at the heart of City 17. Gordon is silent throughout; this allows the player to insert themselves into the character’s stead, allowing deeper immersion even though the lack of dialogue can be odd at times.
Half-Life 2 portrays a totalitarian, collectivist regime with significant similarities to the Soviet Union, though the Combine use advanced technology to take their domination even further. The architectural style supports this connection as well – City 17 is not clearly identifiable as a single real-world city, but instead amalgamates features of the architectural styles of many countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc. Citizens rely on rations provided by the government and there appears to be no system of currency in place. The water supply is drugged to dull the minds of citizens. Propaganda is ubiquitous and incessant; Dr. Breen provides a human face to an entirely alien government. Citizens have no rights – they are forcefully relocated, can be punished for speaking with others in public, have no vehicles, are under constant surveillance, have no access to telephones or the Internet, and are interrogated or tortured at will. Joining Civil Protection is a path to earning better rations and treatment; many citizens are desperate enough to make that choice, even though it will require them to oppress their own people. People are rewarded by Civil Protection for reporting on others for violations. The trans-human military force and senior Civil Protection personnel have their memories modified to ensure their allegiance to the Combine and other modifications to make them more effective fighting machines. Finally, the ability to reproduce was taken from humans by the suppression field established by the Combine. Because of this, no children have been born in around twenty years. As another deterrent against misbehavior, the Combine turn criminals into “stalkers,” mindless, emaciated drones who perform menial tasks. There are significant parallels between Half-Life 2 and George Orwell’s “1984” as well; Dr. Breen is a figurehead like Big Brother, Civil Protection serve functions similar to those of the thought police, and the system of coercion and manipulation used by the Combine are akin to the methods used by the Ministry of Love.
The Combine government emphasizes collectivism on several levels. In propaganda broadcasts, Dr. Breen focuses on humanity’s future as a species rather than on individual rights, placing the group over the individual. As discussed earlier, the Combine strips all their military units of free will. The Overwatch AI issues orders directly to police and military personnel in contrast to the less centralized command structures seen in human military organizations. Both the AI and Combine soldiers talk about rebels using terms that normally describe disease – the last soldier in a squad will sometimes say “Outbreak! Outbreak! Outbreak!” over the radio. The AI sometimes refers to rebels as “malignant” and issues orders to “cauterize,” “sterilize, and “contain.” These terms suggest that the speaker views the Combine as a host organism with an infection rather than a collection of individuals with rebels. During the final chapter of the game, Dr. Breen is fleeing from Gordon and is seen attempting to negotiate protection with an Advisor (the ruling caste of the Combine). The Advisor suggests relocation on another world inside of a host organism, which Dr. Breen, naturally, balks at. The game emphasizes the dangers of absolute collectivism – namely, the annihilation of individuality and free thought.
On the other hand, the G-man represents the epitome of free-market capitalism. He sometimes refers to his “employers,” who authorized him to solicit the services of Gordon Freeman; he then sells those services to others. Who his employers are is unknown, but Dr. Breen was apparently aware of this situation, as he reveals that Gordon’s services were sold to the highest bidder. From a Marxian perspective, the G-man would be the bourgeois who earns profits, while Gordon would be the proletarian who provides labor but has no power to make his own choices. At the end of Half-Life, when the G-man offers Gordon the job, it is not a real choice; the alternative was to be thrown into a legion of aliens eager for revenge on the man who killed so many of their kind. This mirrors the nature of capitalist societies – to put it simply, proletarians must work to survive. So Gordon made the only choice he could, and was placed in hibernation for decades until the G-man decided to deploy him. While not the primary enemy in the game, few would consider the G-man to be a force for good; had another party made a higher bid, Gordon may very well have been used for something else altogether.
Half-Life 2 warns against the dual threat of communism and pure market economies, though it certainly portrays totalitarian communism as being worse. This game, like “1984,” serves as a warning to keep people from being complacent in the face of threats to individual freedoms, however benign they may appear to be at first (Van den Bossche 1984). Many people (myself included) who play the game will be too young to remember the tyranny of the Soviet Union and will thus be less wary of the methods of control they deployed against their citizens. With this awareness, people can more readily identify moves towards totalitarianism within their own governments and work to stop them. For its value from both political and aesthetic perspectives, Half-Life 2 is a worthy contender for the title of “art.”
City 17. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://half-life.wikia.com/wiki/City_17
Hunicke et al. MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. https://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf
Niedenthal (2009). What we Talk About When we Talk About Game Aesthetics. http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/09287.17350.pdf
Orwell, G. (2008). 1984. Inglaterra: Pearson Education.
Valve & Hodgson, D. (2004). Half-life 2: Raising the Bar. Roseville (Ca): Prima Games.
Van den Bossche, E. (1984, January 1). THE MESSAGE FOR TODAY IN ORWELL’S ‘1984’ Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/1984/01/01/nyregion/the-message-for-today-in-orwell-s-1984.html?pagewanted=all