Though compared to most it’s a relatively new medium, video games already have quite a few titles in their ranks that are deemed masterpieces or classics. Some of the newer ones are the Last of Us, Breath of the Wild, and Overwatch. If we go back in recent decades, we can include titles in that list like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Super Mario 64, Halo, and the list goes on and on. These are titles that, when you call yourself a gamer, you’re expected to have played, or at least have a decent knowledge of.
Valve’s Orange Box collection has been burning a hole in my backlog for a few years now. A close friend of mine sold me a bunch of old games he had played and didn’t want anymore, and among them was that. For those that don’t know, the Orange Box includes Half Life 2, it’s two expansion packs, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. I played Portal a few years ago, and TF2 is a multiplayer so that I don’t really consider to be part of my “backlog”. Half Life 2 however, got lost amidst a lot of other titles I was trying to add to my portfolio… until I recently popped the game into my console.
I started the game and immediately took a few things in. Even for an old game, the sound and art design both felt surprisingly… clean. Yes, I could certainly tell that some voice actors had been double booked, and a few textures looked a little muddier than they would nowadays, but even my wife was surprised that HL2 had been released almost 15 years ago. From a technical standpoint, the game holds up.
I walked into HL2 having never played the first, but the plotline wasn’t hard to get a handle on. My silent protagonist, Gordon Freeman, helped open a wormhole that let some bad aliens through. They tried to take over earth. They succeeded. Now there’s only a small group of freedom fighters that are willing to stand up to the oppressive “Combine”, and they’re very outmatched. Gordon, however, is something of a legend because of the one-man warfare he waged in the first Half Life, and every time you walk into a room you’re met with phrases like “Are you him? Are you really Gordon Freeman?” If nothing else, I could tell my ego was going to enjoy this game.
The gameplay itself, however, felt like a solid, yet pretty generic first-person shooter. Yes its crisp, yes the enemy AI is great, but the game didn’t offer me anything new… at first. I think I went into HL2 with such rose-tinted glasses, in no small part thanks to hearing about how legendary this game was from everyone and their mom over the years, that I expected to be absolutely blown away by something new and life changing.
Needless to say, I didn’t get that. But with that being said, as I played through the main title and its two expansions immediately after, I very quickly realized this game had earned its praise. And to accurately explain that, I need explain the title of this article in a bit more detail.
The phrase “Adults Only” in video games can often be found amidst gasps and scandalous glances. For those that don’t know, an “A-O” game rating is the equivalent of an NC-17 film. It’s a very rare occurrence, and is reserved only for the games that have the most extreme amounts of violence and sexual content. Half Life 2 is only rated “M”, so what did I discover to make such an accusation? Is it the steamy, over-the-top full nude scene between Gordon and and the lovely Alyx? Or perhaps using the gravity gun to tear the entrails out of an enemy and throw it back at them?
“Oh Gordon, talk dir- oh wait, you don’t talk. Uhhh, sign dirty to me? Hum dirty to me? Blink three times for dirty?”
… of course not, because those things don’t happen. Honestly I’m surprised Half Life 2 isn’t rated “T”, it’s a pretty mild game content-wise. No when I say it’s for “Adults Only” I’m not talking about an ESRB rating… I’m talking about the gameplay itself. And in order to convey what I mean by that, I’m going to reference the two games that bookended my HL2 playthrough: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and Tomb Raider: Underworld.
Despite the hate the series has received in recent years (mostly thanks to beautiful catastrophe that was Unity), I am a huge fan of the AC series. It’s one of those guilty pleasure games I play when I don’t want to be challenged and I want my hand held. Playing AC is like going through a historic power trip. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, and after getting a few titles in the franchise under your belt, it’s familiar. Though the series has definitely evolved over the years, the core gameplay is undeniably the same. Because of this, I not only was able to breeze through Black Flag’s campaign, but I had completed almost half the side missions before barely clearing a story mission. I am at the point in that series where I don’t even have to think or strategize. I can look at the building layout, see who my target is, and they’ll barely be able to blink before I’m having that infamous “AC Death” conversation with them.
“Bob! How are you man! Wife and kids doing good? The weather is gorgeous today. It’s so convenient how your guards are letting us just chat like this.”
Half Life 2 never, ever made me feel comfortable. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I was jumpy the whole time (although don’t get me started on those freaking head crabs), but I never knew what was coming next. There was never a point in that game where I felt like I could predict exactly what was ahead. I turned every corner cautiously, my shotgun ready for anything. Every upcoming area was heavily scrutinized before walking into it, trying to ensure I didn’t dive headlong into an ambush. Even still, HL2 surprised me on numerous occasions, even after I’d clocked over 10 hours into the main campaign and was well into the expansions. I never felt safe, every checkpoint was met with a huge sigh of relief, and it always felt like an accomplishment when I realized I was going in the right direction. Actually, that’s the other thing the game did a great job of in terms of feeling “fresh”: even though it’s a linear game, Valve designed the areas and maps so well that you never are exactly sure if you’re going the right way. Whereas modern games practically have a gigantic neon sign and and NPCs screaming “I AM PRETTY SURE IF YOU WANT TO FIND THE NEXT AREA, YOU SHOULD GO THROUGH HERE”, HL2, always let you stumble onto the correct path yourself. It wanted you to figure out where to go, not tell you. Realizing you were on the right path came with a huge amount of satisfaction.
The game I played after HL2 was Tomb Raider: Underworld. Underworld is the final game in the “Legends Trilogy”, the second iteration of Lara Croft. Though it can’t hold a candle to the newer Tomb Raider series, or something like the Uncharted games, as someone who grew up with Lara’s brash, confident, double-desert-eagle-wielding era, these older iterations of her hold a special place in my heart. I’d completed both TR: Legends and TR: Anniversary (the first two titles of the trilogy) awhile ago, so I figured it was time to round out the series. Like the first two, the game is comprised of some decent to great puzzles, fun platforming, and less-than-impressive combat. Yet again, like AC but in a different way, the gameplay felt safe. It felt predictable. The world didn’t seem to run in a way that made sense for the real world, but it felt 100% like a game. Ledges are not only conveniently crumbled exactly how I need them to be, but they’re even aged to all be the exact same color so that I can clearly see where I need to jump. Puzzles, though by no means boring, never made me feel like I had to think about them. “I’m missing four gears for this machine. There are four towers. I bet I know where those gears are.”
Take note architects.
It felt set up, it felt like Jigsaw from the Saw movies had built every level and was watching me run through the motions the whole time. It wasn’t organic, it all felt very false. The puzzles in Half Life 2, however, never felt that way. In fact, it almost feels insulting to call them “puzzles”. The game is designed so seamlessly that each obstacle feels just like that: an obstacle. A very real problem with a very real world solution.
The best example of this in my opinion was a point where I had to power a machine to operate a mechanical door. I knew I had to open the door to progress, but it was very obvious the thing wasn’t getting the juice it needed. So I let gamer Jonathan take over. Was there a way to jump over the door/gate and just move forward? No, no there wasn’t. Was there some magic switch to power everything? No, not that either. I went through all my usual tricks, and nothing worked. Then I had a thought. What if I didn’t think like a gamer? What if I just thought like, me?
I went back to square one, and analyzed the door. The control panel had a wire connected to it. I slowly looked up, and realized that unlike EVERY GAME EVER MADE EVER, the wire actually climbed up, went across a pole, and led to a specific little building a bit away. I figured why not, may as well check it out. Every game previously has taught me that if I was supposed to follow that wire, it would be bright pink and my companion character would have gotten her degree in Advanced Wire Studies. But, maybe the little building would have some extra ammo. So, I followed the wire, walked in, and found a health pack. Then I looked left.
What looked like a complicated breaker system was staring back at me, and it’s hard to describe the excitement I felt. HL didn’t want me to think like a gamer, it wanted me to think like me. Valve put so much work into this world that they wanted you to play this game like a human being, not a human being that has played 100 video games before. I immediately studied the breaker system. Three outlets, each clearly meant to house a battery. The wire I had followed attached to the outlet on the far right. There was one battery already in the far left outlet.
“What a fun puzzle this was” I thought to myself. I removed the battery from its original outlet, and put it in the one attached to the wire. I confidently walked back to what I expected to be a fully open door. The door was still down. A little surprised, I went back to the breaker system. This time I noticed that the outlets were all connected, and thought maybe I had to find two more batteries to fill the two remaining outlets. Sure enough, after searching through the building, I found a second battery under some debris. Feeling confident, I realized that I just had to find one more battery and I could power the door. I searched the building. Nothing. I searched around the perimeter of the building. Still nothing. I looked in other buildings. I looked near the door itself. No dice.
I will say though, non-gamer Jonathan was very hesitant about the decorator’s tastes.
I went back to the breaker system one more time and really analyzed it. Then I (manually, believe me, manually), tried switching off the gamer in me and looked at it as just Jonathan. I looked at the design of the batteries. These definitely weren’t the type you could buy at CVS. They were bigger, square ones, like the kind you would find in a…
A lightbulb kicked on. I ran outside the building and looked around. Sure enough, I saw a pair of headlights sticking out from under some debris a bit away. I ran over, thinking to myself there was no way this was going to work, tore off the debris, and ripped the hood of the car off the body. What awaited me underneath, still attached to the engine, was a car battery. A removeable car battery. I grabbed it, ran back to the breaker, and sure enough. The lights came on, I heard an engine whirring, and I ran outside to be greeted by the mechanics of the door opening, allowing me to move forward.
This, to me, is why HL2 is for adults, because it wants you to think like an adult. It wants you to look at a situation and analyze what you would do, and try it. It doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t depend on your previous knowledge of other games to get you through. It doesn’t have massive signs or fireworks going off in the direction you’re supposed to go. Half Life 2 wants you to, like real life, be faced with a problem and not know immediately how to solve it. It wants you to use critical thinking, to fail and try again, and to feel a deep sense of satisfaction when you finally do overcome it. It doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t baby you.
Though it came out in the early 2000’s, Half Life 2 left an impression on me most modern games haven’t even come close to. It’s designed to feel like it isn’t designed. And whereas games like Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider give you satisfaction when you beat a level, or when you accomplish some great task, HL just made me feel pleased with myself for opening a door. And let me tell you, when you get to be an adult… you’re thankful for every open door you come across.
-Jonathan Wine, Creative Director of Wyvern Interactive
The images in this post are not the property of or made in association with Wyvern. We do not claim ownership over any of these characters or photographs.