Archive for the ‘ Valve ’ Category

Why Half-Life 2 is Broken, and Why Valve Can’t Make Half-Life 2: Episode 3

Why Half-Life 2 is broken, and why Valve can’t make Half-Life 2: Episode 3

(it’s not performance anxiety)

Reposted from here.

Everyone seems to want Half-Life 2: Episode 3. Some people have even jumped the gun and just want a straight-up Half-Life 3 (personally, I’m with them; a new timeskip and a new enemy would be nice!). Valve’s said that performance anxiety is the problem, but I doubt that’s true–these are the guys who can release a four-hour game with only two multiplayer modes and have it score an 89 on Metacritic and then whip around and release a cheap sequel the next year and still be the most-loved game company on the planet. They could release anything and it would score well on Metacritic.

So why can’t Valve release Half-Life 2: Episode 3? It’s not possible. Valve can’t make another Half-Life game, not as they are.

The joker in me wants to say that it’s all because of Eli Vance, but in truth, he’s a symptom, not the problem.

I should probably explain that: See, Half-Life 2 doesn’t have a very good story. Generally, a godo story will introduce the audience and protagonist to the world, deal with a conflict, and then resolve that conflict. Each act will feature new goals for the protagonist to pursue, all building up to the conclusion.

Half-Life 2 doesn’t actually do that. The game starts brilliantly, introducing the player to a fascinating world, but it quickly falls flat on its face with a ten minute unskippable cutscene. Interestingly, your next objective is to go see Eli Vance, who, it is said, will explain everything, like why you’re here in the first place. My first thought was “yeah, yeah, yeah, just a minute, I’m teleporting this miniature cactus!” My second thought was “wait, if he’s going to explain why I’m here, why did you just spend ten minutes telling me all about how Breen won’t let people make babies and stuff?”

So you blast through the first act and finally make your way to Black Mesa East, where Eli Vance talks to you for five minutes or so, telling you what everyone previously told you, and then sends you outside so he can get kidnapped. Then, the game’s best levels, Ravenholm and Highway 17, happen… but they happen so you can get to Eli, which you did during the first act. Of course, Eli gets kidnapped for the second time, and the game’s third act features you trying to meet him yet again.

Keep in mind, you still don’t know why you, specifically, were brought to the world. “Fight the Combine” is never stated to be the reason, and it becomes fairly clear that everyone can hold their own without you, so apparently, there’s some big secret reason that you’re here. Throughout the entire game, you never actually learn why you were brought to City 17. In fact, Half-Life 2: Episode 1 is spent helping Eli escape from City 17 (and then pursuing him), and Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is spent… getting to him. Then, just as he plans to tell you what you’ve been wanting to know over the course of two games… he dies.

Eli is the only reason you do anything in the Half-Life 2 games, and he’s dead. The Princess Peach of the Half-Life 2 series is gone. Now you’ve got nothing.

Of course Valve could easily write their way out of things (G-Man knows why you’re there! I bet that brain-eating slug does too!), so the problem isn’t Eli himself, it’s Valve.

Valve loves to hype their organizational structure, but to be honest, I think it’s kind of broken. To tell a story, you need an author. Working by committee doesn’t really work. Portal 2 succeeded because its levels were pretty divorced from the narrative; it is a puzzle game that has a story running simultaneously. The two rarely work together. The plot is simplistic and the story only has three living characters, so it’s pretty easy to do.

Half-Life 2 is a different beastie because it’s got a plot and a bunch of characters to contend with. That plot takes place in an actual world, and the gameplay’s more than just a simple puzzle game. That means that there’s a lot more to things.

One of the most important things to understand about stories is how selfish they are. They can’t be second to anything. They simply don’t work that way. As I mentioned earlier, stories by committee rarely work (check out most comic book events, for instance). So… you kinda have to have an author or two or a director or someone–you’ve got to maintain that vision, or you have a hundred different people all working every which way being inefficient and telling a story that isn’t very good.

In other words, you get Half-Life 2.

It’s much easier to work on a multiplayer project. There’s no need to focus on creating a cohesive story and all the elements required to make that work. You just program the game, create the assets, and run with it. It’s significantly easier than trying to tell a story with a large group of people who have no real leader.

Perhaps that’s why everything Valve’s released since 2007 has been a multiplayer game. Both upcoming titles, DOTA 2 and Maybe it’s why Portal 2 is probably going to be Valve’s last single-player game. Speaking of Portal 2…

Portal 2 worked because at its core, it’s just puzzles. A story-based game requires significantly more than that. With a pure puzzle game, the storytelling is basically disconnected from the gameplay. It’s just “puzzles increase in complexity and we add new mechanics.”

Half-Life 2 is far more complex than Portal, in terms of gameplay and puzzles. It has a much richer toolbox, with human characters who must do actions, enemies who have their own actions, far more varied environments, vehicles, and so on and so forth. The amount of things that can occur in Half-Life’s toolbox and how they can play out are far more rich than Portal’s. In terms of toolboxes, if Portal is See Spot Run, Half-Life 2 is Animorphs; one hasn’t got a lot of tools to work with, while the other’s got many.

Right now, Valve has too many chefs in their kitchen. Portal 2 only worked because they had very few ingredients.

I think their anarchic style of development is pretty interesting, but its primary weakness really does seem to be storytelling. They can’t make Half-Life 2: Episode 3 because they are too big and too unfocused to do so. Eli’s a symptom of the problem–Valve didn’t really know what they were doing, so kept shoehorning him in as the series’ primary objective without really realizing it, and they never really figured out why Gordon was there in the first place. The game’s storysimply does not matter.

So how can Valve get out of this mess?

They can do a few things:

First, just get it over with. Get Half-Life 2: Episode 3 out the door and be done with it.

Second, limit the number of people on the project. I did just cover the whole “too many chefs in the kitchen” bit a moment ago, so that should need no explaining.

Third, and most importantly, work on Half-Life 3, but cut out all the stupid story stuff. As I’ve demonstrated, Half-Life 2’s story kinda sucks, so backing away from it and moving towards a more experience-based game would be a good thing.

Ultimately, the series doesn’t need a story. If you don’t believe me, you might want to check out a little game called Half-Life. That game has no story. It’s an experience. You, the mute protagonist, travel through a bunch of levels solving puzzles and fighting monsters. That’s it. There’s no story there, just a journey through a world.

If Valve wants to make another Half-Life, they should go back to basics. Their development style doesn’t lend itself well to storytelling, but simply creating an enjoyable world with fantastic enemies and set pieces? That should be no problem at all. Several times, I’ve surveyed people, asking them what their favorite levels in Half-Life 2 were: with just one exception, everyone mentioned either Ravenholm or City 17–levels where Gordon was on his own, not locked in a room having a story told at him. People love Half-Life’s loneliness. They say they like its characters, but when it comes to what they actually enjoy, they prefer playing without them.

Make another Half-Life, Valve, not another Half-Life 2. That’s how you get out of this mess.

Or, y’know, use traditional development methodology.


On Valve

I realize it seems like I hate Valve–and it’s true, I do give them more of a hard time than anyone else, but I don’t hate them as much as people seem to think. Yeah, they’ve demonstrated a great eye for picking talent and cannibalizing that talent to publish ideas that aren’t theirs under their name (to the point where only one of their games could be said to be original, and it’s based on Stephen King’s The Mist), which might upset some people, and yeah, they’re extremely popular, which might upset other people, and yeah, they have a monopoly in the form of Steam, and another final yeah, since a bunch of people are mad about the focus on CS:GO and DOTA 2 rather than Half-Life 2: Episode 3.

That’s… not why I dislike them. I’m somewhat uncomfortable by Steam’s monopoly, because I don’t like monopolies, but I feel Valve has generally run Steam quite well. If I hated popular things, I’d hate Bungie, the makers of Halo. If I hated unoriginality, I’d hate waaay too many people in the world. It’s not worth it. Also, since I don’t like Half-Life 2 and its episodes, I’m not exactly angry at Valve for keeping mum about Episode 3.

I dislike Valve for a couple reasons. Primarily, I dislike, as I’ve mentioned previously, their penchant for training the player and then abandoning that concept before letting the player loose to play the game how they want. I dislike their insistence on a lack of cutscenes and silent characters while their games aren’t served by their actions. I think the way they go about making games actually ruins the pacing and storytelling of their games. I’ve got other reasons too, but those are probably the biggest ones.

Ultimately, I’ll criticize anyone I’ve got a problem with. I write this blog because I want the game industry to be good, not because I enjoy insulting it. It seems to me that criticism is the best way to make things improve–after all, if you only focus on what’s good, you’re too likely to end up with people thinking everything’s fine or merely imitating what’s good. Valve, formerly one of my favorite developers, has made some really odd decisions as of late (forgoing fun for training, for instance), so I feel the need to talk about them.

Yeah, I could focus on other devs–and I do/will–but apparently, people want to read my Half-Life posts more than anything else on the site. So! I’ll be writing a huge bit on why I don’t like Half-Life 2 fairly soonish. It’s not meant merely as some troll post designed to get people mad, because I honestly believe what I’m saying and believe it needs to be said.

Issues: On Valve and Origin

Eh. No pictures for this one. I’m reviewing Rage at the moment.

So, RPS posts some neat links every Sunday. Most of the time, they are awesome. This last weekend, I was pretty disappointed. I just wrote about Eskil Steenberg’s open letter to John Carmack which, I think, is completely wrong. Now I’m going to talk about Futurelook’s Origin vs Steam article. In this case, the I’m going to be talking about a point brought up in the “Final Thoughts” section on page two, and my frustration with the whole Origin/Steam nonsense that gamers have been dealing with for the past several months.

Basically, the article’s authors do a decent (though it appears somewhat biased towards Steam) job comparing the two platforms until the end of the article, where they proceed to go full-on fanboy and ignore the facts of the “Steam vs Origin” controversy. Like most people, the authors seem willing to believe that Big Bad Electronic Arts engineered a situation in which they could steal away Steam’s market share. Never mind for a moment that this is in no way an evil thing; choosing to release, say, Battlefield 3 on a platform that isn’t Steam is not a sinister act. The idea that all games Must Be On Steam is foolish and monopoly-friendly, and, hey, right now, Valve are the big boys, while EA are the underdogs.

I don’t really care about where people want to buy their games.

What I do care about is the “hah! We are so clever! Here’s proof that EA is being evil!” that people want to offer while putting forward ludicrious scenarios that make Valve out to be the good guys. Unlike Futurelook, I’m going to try to give you all the facts before getting into any major editorializing.

Here are the facts: On June 3, 2011, EA announced Origin. On June 14th, 2011, Valve announced that they would be allowing Free to Play (F2P) games on Steam. The day after, on June 15th, Crysis 2 “mysteriously” disappeared from Steam.

If you look at the url of that last link, you’ll notice that even then, fanboyism was rearing its ugly head. The article’s original title appears to be “Crysis 2 removed from Steam to make EA’s Origin look good.” Comment threads were filled with similar claims and an overwhelming willingness to believe that EA is run by complete morons who don’t care about making money. Those sentiments persist to this day. When Gabe Newell finally said something, two months and two games later, he was hailed with a bunch of “wow, he’s so classy!” remarks. EA, in contrast, was portrayed by many gamers as a dirty snitch for having to say anything about it.

Look, I love Steam. I have, like, two hundred games on Steam. But… I don’t think it could ever be said that I’m a fanboy about these sort of things. Steam’s got lots of problems, like memory leaks, random crashes, shitty browser implementation, no phone support, and so on and so forth. There’s really no reason to make EA out to be The Big Bad and to pretend that Steam is somehow totally innocent, and that’s what Futurelook, along with nearly everyone else, seem to be doing.

EA’s initial claim that the problem was due to a recent change to Valve’s TOS doesn’t hold water. A change to Valve’s TOS should affect every game license they have or will have, yet only EA’s triple A titles of Crysis 2 and Battlefield 3 are being affected. Shank and Alice were both returned to Steam. In addition, not one other company has removed a current or upcoming titles from the service.

Let’s look at the timeline once again and come to a reasonable conclusion, where everyone is playing fair (but with their own interest in mind):

1. EA announces Origin.
2. Valve annouces F2P games on Steam.
3. The next day, Valve removes Crysis 2 from Steam.

According to EA, the new terms of Valve’s TOS made it a Very Bad Thing to release games with DLC outside of Steam. Looking at the evidence, this appears to be true: no game released post-June-14 has DLC that you can’t obtain from Steam.  While not entirely facutal, another argument would be this: if you’ve ever raised kids, and one kid claims that the other kid was doing something wrong, more often than not, the kid, if they know they’re guilty of wrongdoing, will say nothing or try to avoid (as Newell did in his August statement) admitting it. EA gains nothing by lying about Valve, while Valve, on the other hand, maintains their goodwill by avoiding the admission that they changed their TOS in a way that effectively forces EA to pay the middleman.

Think about it: how many people liked it when Impulse and others refused to stock Modern Warfare 2 because it required players to install Steam? How many people were pleased with UK retailers that forced publishers to make digitally distributed games sell for full price by refusing to stock PC games otherwise? How many people would be pleased to hear that someone refuses to carry a game just because you don’t have to use their service to obtain additional content?

Before I theorize about Valve’s motives, however, let’s get back to the observations: EA has changed absolutely nothing. They were releasing DLC through EA Download Manager (EADM) at least as far back as Mass Effect 1. With Dragon Age Origins, they started selling DLC through Bioware’s store. Now that an updated version of EADM exists, EA is releasing content through the platform… just like they were previously.

Let’s go back to the earlier quotation:

A change to Valve’s TOS should affect every game license they have or will have, yet only EA’s triple A titles of Crysis 2 and Battlefield 3 are being affected.

This statement makes a huge assumption: that a change to Valve’s TOS didn’t grandfather anything. As far as I can tell, the only games that have been removed are games with DLC released after June 14th, 2011. It would be reasonable for us to infer from this that, since the only games with new DLC that has been released outside of Steam are Crysis 2 and Dragon Age 2, the only games currently pulled from Steam for this behavior are ones that have violated the TOS after they were changed, and that all older titles have been grandfathered in.

Here’s another statement made by the authors at Futurelooks: “Once again the evidence doesn’t support EA’s claim. It is true Steam does like to handle patches and updates to all titles available from their service, but I am sure this is a convenience not a requirement. I own at least 7 titles (5 of which are owned by EA) that have patches, DLC, and required updates either solely distributed or available outside of Steam.”

It’s fairly reasonable to assume that of those seven titles (if the first picture in the article is indeed part of the library belonging to the author who made this statement, then Arkham Asylum is one of them), some are run by Games for Windows Live. Batman: Arkham Asylum, Bulletstorm, and Bioshock 2 are titles I have that offer DLC through Games for Windows Live. Beyond that, almost all DLC is served up either through Steam or Bioware’s store. The interesting thing about GFWL is that Microsoft recently began offering their DLC through Steam. Essentially, you can buy a DLC code on Steam, register it on, and then download it through the GFWL client.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’ll offer a plausible reason for this (and why EA hasn’t done so) This infrastructure appears to have been implemented by Microsoft some time ago, when Gamestop wanted to start offering DLC at their stores. Since it was in place for Xbox, it shouldn’t have been too hard to implement it for GFWL, especially after GFWL became a part of Xbox Live. It’s quite likely that EA hasn’t changed because it wouldn’t be cost-effective to go back and set up this infrastructure (especially for games that have already been completed or, like Battlefield 3, are nearing completion) to accomodate Valve’s TOS on such a short notice.

Now that I’ve speculated as to why EA refuses to accomodate Valve, allow me to speculate on why Valve refuses to accomodate EA. There are three reasons, and the first is quite simple: Valve wanted to make sure that they profited from F2P games released on Steam. The TOS was altered to prevent F2P game developers/publishers from exploiting a loophole and selling game content outside of Steam while forcing Steam to host games for free. The second reason is also simple: Valve has been listening to their audience, and are trying to use their considerable clout to force publishers to make DLC available on Steam. Of course, I have no idea if Steam’s users are actively demanding that DLC be released on Steam (I have, in my head, but that doesn’t count for much), so this may be completely false. Finally, for the complex paranoid option: Valve are a bunch of greedy people who are trying to get a piece of the lucrative DLC market and are trying to force publishers to release DLC through Steam because, as I said, they’re greedy and they want more money.

Actually, looking at it, the most likely option and the craziest option are both about making sure Valve has lots of money.

Sounds like a typical big business to me.

Ultimately, I don’t care what service you use. I don’t care if you have objection’s to Origin’s TOS (though I would ask if you’ve ever bothered to look at Steam’s). Your reasons might be perfectly legitimate, but in this case… there’s really no call to blast EA for being evil when you haven’t got a single shred of evidence which suggests that they have done anything remotely evil. Congratulations, they’ve chosen not to cooperate with Valve when it comes to the distribution of DLC, most likely because it would be more expensive in the short term (and, unfortunately, businesses rarely think long term because they’re required to maximize profits for their investors, which is a huge topic we could write thousands of words on). Both parties are refusing to do what the other says, and this is hardly an evil thing. A world where Microsoft rolled over and did whatever Apple said would be silly, wouldn’t it?

Competition is good! If you really want to whine that you can’t have all your games in one place, well, do something about it! Make your own game-launcher client! Use Raptr! Launch stuff as non-steam games! Geez!

BONUS: “Several online only sites like that sell Battlefield 3 were also left off the list of digital retailers, yet Amazon was included.

To the bright fellows at Futurelooks: Newegg is not a digital retailer in the sense that EA/DICE means. Yes, they’re a store online, but they only ship games to you. Amazon sells downloadable copies. If you had any brains in your heads, you would have gone to Newegg to see if Battlefield 3 was available. It is. Pardon my sarcasm, but writers owe it to their readers not to suck.

In Defense of the First Person Shooter, Pt 3: Deep and Wide

This is the most badass iteration of the Power Rangers ever conceived.

Last time, I tried to side with popular opinion–to say that FPSes didn’t go the route of System Shock 2 and instead descended into the depths of mediocrity… but you know what? I honestly don’t think it has. Certainly, there are bad FPSes out there–Darkest of Days and Resistance 2 are proof of that–but there are great ones as well, and there continue to <i>be</i> great ones. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a smarter game than most people give it credit for, and, indeed, a more intelligent game than most RPGs (generally considered the smartest of games by console gamers, who have never played Real Adventure Games) I’ve played. Unfortunately, to prove that, I’d have to ask for a lot more of your time than you’d be willing to give me today, particularly on a game so readily ridiculed as Modern Warfare 2. But there are others! Halo 3: ODST is an interesting, almost literary story, for instance.

To suggest that the FPS has more bad stories per capita than any other genre is patently false–look at the RPGs released this generation, if you don’t believe me. Whether it’s a space RPG that simplifies and distills ideas from the Revelation Space novels by Alistair Reynolds with a story that’s little more than “gather crew, go on a mission,” to a fantasy RPG that barely reaches beyond the idea that “there were Orcs who attacked the humans, so humans allied with the oppressed elves and stone-dwelling dwarves fought them and won! Hooray! Also, we reused the character archetypes we’ve been using for a dozen games or so, including that space RPG that just got mentioned,” the WRPG isn’t quite the proverbial City on a Hill that gamers and developers seem to want it to be. If you want, I could regale you with the plots of games like Arcania and Divinity 2, two not-bad games that happen to be up among the best big action RPGs released since 2007–they’re quite disappointing. Shooters can, and often are, quite smart games…

So, like I asked in the original post… why is it that FPSes are treated as dumb things?

It's hard to believe it, but once upon a time, Monolith didn't make small, odd multiplayer-only games or mediocre horror shooters. No One Lives Forever 2 is arguably the funniest game ever made.

I had intended to show you how far we had fallen since System Shock 2, but I never really believed that to be the case, especially with titles like Bioshock 2 and Call of Duty 4 being released. There’s some quality writing in shooters that really does top what many other genres are doing. It sounds as if the new XCOM game will be holding a magnifying glass to the radical social changes of the early 1960s. From a purely narrative perspectives, FPSes can be quite bright when they need to be. They’re a bit like The Witcher 2’s Letho–they appear to be hulking, dumb brutes until you get to know them. Their intelligence is often understated, and they don’t cheat the way other games do, faking intelligence through character interaction and nonlinear gameplay.

But before we get into that, let’s recap: FPSes are easy to learn and difficult to master. Most people ignore those last four words, preferring to focus on the “well, it’s easy to get into” aspect. Elitists–and people who pretend that FPSes are dumb are elitists–are the sort of people who seem to think that if something appeals to a broad set of people, then that thing is inherently dumber than the niche thing they like that doesn’t appeal to many. Instead of considering that Watchmen is actually a bad comic with an idiotic moral, for instance, most comic nerds would prefer to say “you just can’t understand it!” Likewise, RPG and Adventure gamers assumed that shooters, with their low barrier entries, were somehow less intelligent than their notoriously difficult to play genres.

Need proof?

Well, if you’ve never read this infamous review, you’re in for a real treat. The core idea was that Doom wasn’t an adventure game, and as such, it wasn’t as smart, since all you did was shoot monsters. There are two obvious problems here: the first is that “this isn’t a thing I like, so it’s not as smart.” The second idea is that it’s simplistic, and therefore, it’s dumb. First off, it’s simple, not simplistic, and secondly, a simple experience is not necessarily an unintelligent one. Look at the game of Chess. It’s generally considered a pursuit for intellectuals, but it’s incredibly easy to learn. I learned it when I was, like, seven, and the only reason I didn’t learn it earlier is because I didn’t really have an interest in learning, and no one had an interest in teaching me. I tought my four year old sister, who has learning issues, to play chess!

Easy to learn, difficult to master, see? The simplicity of a thing does not define the intelligence required to deal with it. Elitists, however, see it as “the more niche it is, and the more I like it, the smarter it is.” The popularity of shooters and the public lack of intelligence of many FPS players over services like PSN has convinced the people who don’t like shooters that FPSes are dumb things. These people, in turn, are trying to make sure everyone, even FPS players, that the genre isn’t as smart as it is.

Presumably it's title Last Light because you'll have an achievement that requires you to destroy all light sources, including the sun, in the game.

First Person Shooters are smart. Deus Ex is a first person shooter, and it’s smart, isn’t it? AND DON’T YOU DARE TRY TO ARGUE THAT IT’S ACTUALLY AN RPG. It isn’t. It’s a damn FPS. It’s also an RPG. In this case, it’s an RPG insofar as you have skill points, dialog choices, and a branching narrative. This actually picks up where we left off and gets into my second major point, which is that choice (and it is choice; choosing between a limited set of options is still choice. Calling it the illusion of choice is foolish–it’s the illusion of freedom) is not intelligence, but people think it is. See, the basic idea is that you place more value on something dependant on your participation in that thing. This is why people who have played with Playstations since the 1990s think Playstations are better than Xboxes, and why I think Hondas and Fords are better than Toyotas and Chevys.  Participation leads to fanboyism, in other words.

In addition to the idea that the more you’re involved in something, the better there is, there’s the idea that people want to think that everything they like is better, and that everything that’s better is smarter. Few people want to admit that they like dumb things, which is “it’s dumb, but I totally love it for that” is such a rare remark, while “no, no, it’s really good because…” is super common. Lots of fights get started because people assume that what they like and what is good are the same things, and what they dislike and what is bad is the same thing. It’s not. But let’s not get into that now, because that’s a huge ball of wax.

The basic idea is: the more you participate, the more likely you are to like a thing, and the more you like that thing, then the more likely you are to say that it is smart.

This is why non-linear games are all the rage now, and linearity is seen as a fault. Because you can, say, choose to go to hub X or Y, rather than go to them in sequence, the game is considered smarter. Obviously, that’s meaningless–after all, the smartest traditional narrative is more likely to be a totally linear one, since the writer can convey a point and make sure the audiences sees everything they need to see, and games aren’t great for that. Choice is good, but it doesn’t mean games without choice are bad. It’s just another kind of good, the way a steak and an ice cream are two different kinds of good.

This is one of the greatest games I have ever played. I seriously recommend you obtain a copy.

Finally, we have the idea of breadth versus depth. Basically, imagine that the amount of game mechanics in a game are coordinates of a graph. Now imagine that each mechanic’s complexity is illustrated by the height on the graph. You have a breadth of mechanics, and each of those mechanics can be deep or shallow. Generally, a game with a narrow focus will have deeper mechanics than one with a wider focus.

There are a few reasons for this. One such reason is that the game’s focus is limited by the amount of input the player has through the control interface. If you’re going to play Max Payne, for instance, you can dedicate all your controls to crafting a deep shooting experience. You can focus on a wide variety of enemy types and avenues of combat (for instance, certain enemies are more conducive to sidestepping and/or dodging than others) that a game like, say, Red Dead Redemption couldn’t do. Because Red Dead offers a broad variety of situations with roughly the same number of inputs, it can’t have the layer of mechanical sophistication that Max Payne does. There’s other stuff too–Red Dead Redemptions level design is open, which is conducive to a more samey combat experience. No matter where you are, you’re generally going to use the same tactics, and you aren’t likely to use change weapons beyond the basic weapon archetypes* unless you find a more powerful gun of those specific archetypes. The AI generally just up to you and shoots, or takes cover and fires. In Max Payne, the AI and level design come together to provide a more varied shooting experience, but… that’s all it does. Max Payne provides a deep shooting experience, and Red Dead Redemption provides a broad sandbox experience.

In short, Max Payne has deeper gameplay than Red Dead Redemption, but the latter has a broader focus.**

Essentially, people look at a simple game type that they don’t have a lot of freedom playing, they watch it overtake these things they really like that they’ve spent long hours with, and all that combined makes them go “hey! That’s not smart!”

Ultimately, that’s an idiotic complaint, but an understandable one. The shooter, ultimately, requires a different type of intelligence–movement in real-time through a three dimensional space while choosing weapons and prioritizing enemies. The name for this sort of intelligence is called spatial intelligence. When you play a game like Wizardry or Final Fantasy, you are using logical-mathematical intelligence. When you play a Kinect or Wii game, you are using bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. A game with a really, really good level of character interaction (at this point, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the only game that really does this, though Alpha Protocol has it, Fable and Fable 3 try it in a different way; Bioware/Black Isle games do not have this because they are based on RPG numbers, not human reaction, which is why their character relationships are so hollow) uses interpersonal intelligence.

If you’ve taken psychology courses, you know I’m talking about the theory of multiple intelligence. Ultimately, my tests show a high level of interpersonal, linguistic, and spatial intelligence. I enjoy FPSes and Immersive sims. Friends with tests that are more logical-mathematical are more likely to enjoy games like Civilization V, X-COM, and so forth. It’s not to say that you can’t enjoy certain types of games–merely to reinforce what we all know: some people like some things, and other people like other things. This is why.


So… this is why so many people hate shooters: FPSes are the most popular games out there. This is fact. Look at the sales figures of the games released this generation: nearly all of them on both the PS3 and the 360 (I don’t have PC sales figures, sorry) are shooters. People love shooters. As they’ve grown in popularity, other games, like the 3D platformer, have nearly gone extinct. Their narrow focus, linearity/lack of choice, and apparent historical focus on gameplay over story (which has been disproved by System Shock 2, Deus Ex, No One Lives Forever 2, Halo, Marathon, and so forth) have convinced those people who grew up without FPSes (mostly console gamers who had only ever played Goldeneye before the turn of the millennium) that FPSes just aren’t that smart.

They’re wrong. I think I’ve proved that here.

These same people also like to claim that more FPSes are made than any other game type out there, and point at, say, the death of the 3D platformer, as evidence. The numbers certainly seem to back them up, and even game sites like Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun treat shooters like they’re overabundant.

That’s wrong too, as hard as it might be to believe, but stick around. I’ll prove it to you.


*General weapon archetypes: melee, pistol, rifle, shotgun, sniper, throwable explosive, heavy weapon.

**I was going to draw a graph, but I don’t know how to do that using the tools available at my disposal.

Let Them Eat Cake! Ugly Truths, Pt. II

A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges. ~ Benjamin Franklin

My father once told me about a business dinner he attended in Japan. At this dinner, he told me, the various people in attendance all asked the chef for specific cuts of meat. Dad said the chef didn’t seem terribly happy, so when it was his turn, he asked the chef to prepare the steak in whatever way he felt was best. The chef, Dad said, excitedly got to work on his steak, and when it was done, seemed very proud to present it to him. What my father did was respect the chef’s ability to do what he did best, and in doing so, he was served the best steak of his life.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, game developers aren’t chefs. They’re farmers, fishermen, and ranchers. They’re the guys who provide the means to create that delicious steaks, but they are not the ones who create the steaks themselves–no, the chefs are the gamers.

You see, in a truly great game, whether it’s Dragon Age Origins, System Shock 2, or STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, it is the player who takes the tools provided by the developer and creates a wholly unique experience. I can almost guarantee you that the way I play Half-Life is not the way you do. How we each interpret the game’s world and its rules is ultimately up to us.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem.

For me, gaming is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake. ~ Me, butchering someone else.

Previously, I discussed the issue with player manipulation. To recap: conditioned behavior is artificial fun and therefore lacks any meaning. Ultimately, this is a subset of possibly the worst problem in video game design right now: disrespect for the player base. At its worst, the problem means that gamers are seen as little more than sheep to be manipulated into spending money on things. Instead of being comfortable with letting gamers play how they want to, developers seem to have more interest in controlling every aspect of your experience.

In other words, the farmer is saying “hey, I raised this wheat, so I know the best way to make a cake.”

There are several examples of this. Because I already covered Valve in great detail last time, I’ll mention them briefly before moving on. The joy of cooking, as with jazz, is in improvisation. The best food is where you take the recipe and make it your own. In a cooking class, a good teacher will make sure their class understands the basics of good food before letting the students experiment with the recipes. Say the class final is a black forest cake; if the teacher’s done their job, then each student is going to come out with a cake that’s unique to them. Each student has made a true cake–one that’s as much an expression of who they are and how they interpret cooking as much as it is a great cake.

Valve, unfortunately, is a bad teacher. Oh, yes, every student will end up with a delicious cake, but at the same time, each cake will be virtually identical. Cooking, like gaming, should not be an assembly line process. The experience should not be manufactured, or it loses much of its appeal. Ultimately, a student who learns to bake a cake from Valve’s school of cooking, has baked a lie.

Okay, maybe this isn’t so brief. Back in my Eli Vance post, I pointed out that Valve also abandoned the silent protagonist approach of Half-Life for a similar, but fundamentally different approach in the sequel. Where Half-Life said “okay, you can kill anyone you want and behave however you feel like,” Half-Life 2 said “No. You are THIS guy. Even though you can’t talk, we have defined you through NPCs and how they treat you.” Ultimately, it’s as if Valve didn’t feel the player could create a compelling-enough experience for themselves, so they defined the persona of Gordon Freeman while offering the illusion of freedom.  It’s as if they want to have their cake and eat it too–they want to railroad the player through their story, but they want to make the player feel as if they’re actually free to do as they choose.

I tried to commit suicide by sticking my head in the oven, but there was a cake in it. ~ Lesley Boone 

The illusion of freedom is rather common in video gaming.

Before I get into that, however, I foresee a major objection that many pseudo-intellectuals might offer: “you haven’t really got any freedom in a video game!” This much is true. You haven’t got much freedom in real life either. You can no more move a mountain with your mind than rewind time itself, after all, so unless you’re God Almighty, when I’m talking about freedom, I’m clearly not talking about total freedom. Being a silent protagonist in a linear game like Half-Life still offers freedom, because, as I mentioned earlier, you can still be whoever you want to be. Perhaps you’re the earnest hero, attempting to save everyone from the disaster you blame yourself for. On the other hand, maybe you’re a psychopathic alien rights activist who intentionally sabotaged the experiment so you could get away with killing everyone and everything in Black Mesa!

Right. Enough about Valve.

Let’s talk about Bioware.

Dragon Age Origins is a great and wonderful game, and you ought to give it a playthrough. It might not be as rich or unique as, say, any isometric RPG ever made, but it has got things like great graphics, interesting ally AI, and better gameplay going for it. Dragon Age 2 is the worst RPG I’ve ever played. I’m sure there are worse RPGs out there, and I know for a fact that, say, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura has a more convoluted menu system, worse graphics, worse sound, and lower production value in general. Dragon Age 2 is still worse.

You see, one of the most important things in an RPG is player choice (JRPGs haven’t got this, which is why they aren’t JRPGs; they’re adventure games with stats in). Your ability to impact the world around you through your decisions is why the RPG is different from, say, a military arcade manshoot, where your job is just to shoot lots of things. This isn’t to say that every decision in an RPG must be a hugely meaningful one (such as choosing whether or not to topple an entire empire); merely that decisions must have some point. The FPS and the RPG fundamentally different game types, and as such, players expect fundamentally different things from them. I expected the ability to make meaningful choices in Dragon Age 2.

It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it. ~ Richard M. Nixon

Instead, what I got was an adventure game with stats in–a lot like a JRPG, in fact. I can honestly only think of two instances in the game where a choice I made served any purpose; one decision led to my mother’s frankensteining, and the other led to one party member leaving my party. In other words, none of my decisions had any positive impact on the world.

Indeed, Bioware was so intent on very specific outcomes that every decision that ought to have been a major one was steamrolled over by bad writing. Sided with the mages? Too bad! All but one will resort to using blood magic, and that one will hate you for a good long while. Kept the magic tool-thingy that is the only way to complete the magic mirror from Merrill? Too bad, she’ll fix the mirror anyway, and the game won’t even acknowledge it. Want to kill that Chantry woman who is trying to get you to killed? Too bad, the game won’t present you with the option to do so.

A good RPG would take into account everything the player wants to be able to do and allow them to attempt it. If Bioware’s writers really didn’t want you to kill the Chantry agent, then they could have had her run away, but they should have given you the option to attack, and you should have been able, at the very least, to kill her bodyguard person. In Mass Effect, how you treated Wrex ultimately determines whether or not he commits suicide. In Dragon Age 2, no matter how you treat Anders, he is going to straight up murder a bunch of innocent people because he is an insane psychopath. Unfortunately, if you want to keep him as a healer (Bioware refuses to let you teach anyone else anything from Anders’ bag of healing tricks), that isn’t going to happen.

In fact, the only choice the player can have is who they’d like to have a relationship with. Bioware’s gone a total 180 here and turned the game into a (pretty poor) dating sim, and you can romance almost any member of your party, regardless of gender, personality, or anything else. It’s not like the choices are that great–you can select from an emo elf, a walking STD farm, a naive/possibly underage welsh blood mage, or a complete murderous psychopath (who is like the worst spirit of Justice ever; and yes, I realize he became vengeance, but how did that happen, exactly?), for instance.

Once you get rid of integrity the rest is a piece of cake. ~ Larry Hagman

So… congrats. In the end, the one choice you make that matters is which character will leave with you at the end of the game because your character hates both the templars and the mages, ’cause they’re both stupid.

Much of the joy of Dragon Age Origins’ simplistic story revolved around how the player treated it. You could be whoever you wanted to be, right down to appearance, backstory, and race. Dragon Age 2 ignores this and locks you in to a rather boring story with two-dimensional anime-ripoff characters and relationships right out of a bad fanfiction. It’s got some great ideas, but it’s so intent on making sure you experience them that it forgets to give you any choice.

Could you imagine a jigsaw puzzle where every puzzle piece is numbered and you have a nice background to set all the pieces on? Where would the fun be in that? All you do is find piece number 1 and put it in the top left hand corner. Piece 2 goes next to that. Piece 3 goes right next to that… and on and on it goes. It’s not fun.

Another example: imagine that you buy a sandbox. Now imagine that you want to make a sandcastle in it. How much fun are you going to have if the guy who sold you the sandbox keeps coming over and telling you how you ought to build your castle? What happens if he kicks down everything you do that isn’t to his standards, ensuring that any decision you made that he didn’t want you to make is quite meaningless. Is that a sandbox worth having?

No, not really.

Would ye both eat your cake and have your cake? ~ John Heywood

Developers need to respect their players. Their responsibility is to design a framework around which players can have fun, not create an intensely controlled environment where even the most basic player response is a learned behavior. What makes Deus Ex: Human Revolution and The Witcher/Witcher 2 such great RPGs is that the player is taught how to play the game and let loose in the world to behave as they feel like.

The Witcher 2 has a great story, not just because of superb characters like Letho, Foltest, and Roche, but because it manages to really make you feel like you’re part of the plot, not just an outside observer. Some events will happen because of the (often difficult) choices that you make. Others will happen regardless of what you choose, and some will even happen despite your presence. It creates a realistic world where you have freedom, but some things are still beyond your control.

Ultimately, The Witcher 2 respects its players. It doesn’t ignore your choices, nor does it defer to you every time you want to do something. It says “alright, you can do this–so let’s see how you handle this kidnapping!” This sort of respect is a hallmark of great gaming: STALKER gives you a gun, some ammunition, bandages, and a first aid kit. It tells you how to play, but it doesn’t hold your hand. The onus is on the player to keep an eye on their health and armor, as well as to watch out for anomalies and enemies. STALKER trusts you to be good enough to carry the right gear and to be observant, and it’s certainly never cheap. If something kills you, it’s because you screwed up. I’ve heard similar praise in regards to PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls.

The best games are those that respect their players and help those players craft a unique, exciting experience. I don’t know anyone that says “aww man, I did this thing in Half-Life 2 that was so awesome!” or “hey, in Dragon Age 2, I managed to…” I do, however, know people who play games like STALKER, Demon’s Souls, and The Witcher 2, and they absolutely love telling me about the decisions they made or the fights they got in.

Developers, respect your gamers. Give them a framework to operate in, but don’t treat them like they’re toddlers. In the end, they’ll love you for it.

What is Free to a Good Home?

I never asked for this.

If the reports are true, a bunch of dastardly (or heroic, depending on your point of view) Italians managed to steal (or liberate, depending on your point of view) a copy of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (or Deus Ex: Highlight Boogie, depending on your point of view) to the internet (or the information highway, if you’re stuck in 1994).

Square Enix/Eidos have taken this all rather well. They could have attempted damage control, talking about how evil piracy is, asking people not to download the game because it’s incomplete, and then finished with some dehumanizing marketing spiel, much like EA did when Crysis 2 was leaked. Instead, they took it in stride, going so far as to encourage discussion of the leak and request feedback, which was a great move. Where, like Crytek, they could have condemned their potential audience–people who downloaded the leak because they desperately wanted to play more Crysis–they embraced the leak and got their community involved. It showed that they were interested in making their game better. They weren’t just treating the leak like a demo–they were using the opportunity to dialog with their audience, and to make the game the best it could be.

I have seen discussions unfold where people who have played the leak actually convince others to preorder the game, or at least, check it out for themselves. Yes, it speaks to the high quality of the game, but it also brings to mind a question: why don’t developers and producers rely more on positive word of mouth?

In an era where game previews are guarded more tightly than state secrets, where demos have all-but disappeared (and, failing that, tend to be misleading or too short to provide an accurate picture of the game), and where reviews rarely come before the game is purchased, one might get the impression that developers are actually ashamed of their games. It’s as if the almighty marketing machine thinks that holding screenshots hostage is a better way to sell games than to get people talking about them.

The idea is, of course, hogwash.

Old Spice Bodywash is a superior alternative to hogwash.

Whether it’s Lost or The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, getting people to talk about something is the best way to sell it. Humans are social creatures, and we like sharing excitement. Most people weren’t terrifically excited by Human Revolution’s leaked screenshots; every game has those, and they’re from the same few levels that will be shown over and over again until the game is released. It’s hard to care about a picture beyond the initial game announcement phase. When Human Revolution was leaked, the excitement for the game skyrocketed. Once people got it in their hands and were able to play it, they got excited, especially when they got to experience things that had upset them before.

One of the biggest complaints about Deus Ex was object highlighting. A few people had got it in their heads that it would be an obtrusive “feature” forced on them by shoddy developers, so they started telling everyone how bad it was. Negative word-of-mouth spread fast. The team released gameplay videos, gaming websites said it wasn’t that bad, and Eidos Montreal said they’d include the option to turn it off, but nothing seemed able to stop the naysayers from their whining. It’s a different story now that the game’s been leaked, however; the complaints seem to have vanished.

Consumers do not trust the marketing machine, and, by extension, they rarely trust the gaming press. A consistent lack of respect from advertisers and phony excitement from the gaming press has helped foster an environment where consumers are increasingly cynical towards new games and longing for the excitement of the old. Even now, many gamers refuse to believe that XCOM will be a good game, despite 2K Marin’s solid history and a slew of excited previews.

Might be a great game. Might not.

How do developers entice the wary consumer? How does 2K calm down the X-COM faithful, or the people who say “it looks like all those other shooters?” After all, to everyone not wearing a tinfoil hat, the leak of Deus Ex was a happy accident. It’s not like it could become a legitimate business practice or anything…


Let me be clear: I am not talking about demos. Modern demos for AAA games rarely work; nobody wants to spend two hours downloading fifteen minutes of misleading gameplay. Fifteen minutes of gameplay is rarely enough to get anyone hooked on a video game. Players need something more substantial than that, and that’s where Free to Play comes in.

Judging by most reactions to those three words, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were slapping your forehead in disbelief right now, and I can’t say I blame you. Free to Play seems like a corporate scheme to make players spend $68 for a monocle, or to deliver neutered, unfun games that are only worth playing once you begin shelling out a small fortune on a regular basis in order to keep up with the rich kids who don’t mind doing that.

What I’m thinking of is more akin to the shareware model: offer the first several hours of your game for free to get people into it, and then let them pay for the rest. Of course, the shareware name is something that tends to be associated with small, indie products, as opposed to large AAA affairs, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. Imagine at E3 if a developer said “oh, and you can download the same preview build we’ve got here on the floor right now, so check it out and let us know what you think!”

By allowing early access to the game, developers can allay fears while simultaneously building excitement for the title. There’s a bit more than that, though. If 2K Marin were to release a demo that put me in exactly one XCOM mission, I can’t say I’d necessarily be interested in buying the game. I definitely wouldn’t be interested in the story, because fifteen to thirty minutes generally isn’t enough time to get fully invested in a video game’s fiction. If they offered the game’s entire intro, on the other hand, as well as a few missions after that to whet my whistle, chances are I’d be gnashing at the bit, screaming for more. A sufficiently lengthy involvement in the game is required to stimulate the “well, I’ve come this far! I’ve got to keep going!” response, and that’s what developers should be wanting. They should be getting their audience to think “I need more of this and I need it now!” rather than “bah, this demo is probably all the best parts, and not even in the game.”

I feel wrong just posting a picture of this game.

In addition, letting players get a good feel for the game without some PR person standing over their shoulder watching their every move would allow gamers, particularly those who might not be able to attend various gaming conventions, to get a good feel for the game. It’s somewhat hard to be objective about a game when you’ve got people nearby who are incredibly excited about it and want you to be as excited as they are, which makes it difficult to offer any worthwhile criticism or helpful feedback.

At the same time, developers benefit. Bioware, for instance, has admitted that they made many mistakes with Dragon Age 2–if they had released the first few hours of gameplay some months before release, they would have been exposed to the overwhelmingly negative consumer reaction while there was still time to do something about it. As it happened, an iron-clad PR machine steamrolled through leaving no one with much bad to say about the game, because they simply didn’t have the opportunity to be critical. Shortly after the game’s release, negative word of mouth had spread far enough that its sales plummeted drastically over the next few weeks. With a substantial early release, developers could use the feedback from players to determine what could be improved. Shooter developers could take the opportunity to iron out kinks in the multiplayer, and, more importantly, offer a free version of their multiplayer to people who might otherwise not want to risk their cash on an untested FPS title.

See, as game prices increase, so has the number of “I’ll just wait for the Steam sale” remarks, which ultimately means lost profits. Offering several hours of a game for free means an opportunity to pique the interest of gamers who might not otherwise be interested in a title. STALKER’s a hard game to sell to people who are unfamiliar with it, because it’s so unique. If there was a free version of the game with, say, the Cordon and Garbage levels for players to explore, there would be no entry barrier, and anyone who was even remotely interested could give it a try. Many of the games I own were only purchased because I got to play them for a good few hours at a friend’s or something.

Essentially, it’s a win-win scenario. Gamers can formulate their own opinions about games before their release while building a better relationship with the developer, and the developer is, in turn, getting free crowdsourced focus testing and great PR. It’s high time developers rethought how they relate to their audiences. The current method is broken, and gamers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied by being forced to take a gamble on their games. Allowing the consumer to offer honest feedback about games before they’re released means better games, and ultimately, allowing people to try a game is the best way to get them to buy it.

The Most Important Man In The World

Most complaints about DOTA 2 come from the fact that it isn’t Half Life 2: Episode 3. In fact, ask anyone their least-favorite thing about Valve today, and you’ll almost invariably hear the same thing: “They haven’t announced Episode 3.” Many people have suggested that Valve is tired of working on Half-Life, or perhaps they’re just more interested in working on titles that aren’t Half-Life, but has anyone considered that… well, they can’t?

Valve is incapable of making Half-Life 2: Episode 3 without totally bullshitting the player.

Don’t believe me? Well, we need to think long and hard about the most important person in the Half-Life universe, then. That’s right! We need to have a little talk about Eli Vance.

Eli Vance got his start in 2004 when Valve decided to return give a character from the original Half-Life, Generic Scientist Number Two a name. That name was Eli Vance. It was determined that instead of being one of the many faceless drones throughout Black Mesa, he would be an old personal friend of your character’s, the same way that the one security guard seen at the start of the game, Barney, became your ol’ chum… er… Barney. This retcon caused a fundamental paradox in the purpose of the Half-Life series, which I’ll get to later. For now, though, we’ll talk about Eli.

I actually decided to start Half-Life from the beginning to get him. I could have gotten anyone else, but somehow, I just knew they weren't the real Eli.

You never see him again in Half-Life. In subsequent canon, it’s made clear that Eli escaped, stuff happened, seven hour war, and now he leads the resistance. This is where things get a little odd. We don’t really know much about Eli–what kind of a leader he is, how he interacts with people, or even why he’s the leader of the resistance. All we know of his leadership skills is that he’s too trusting (a bad trait when you’re going up against a stereotypical dystopic government) and a nice old guy, all things considered.

Half-Life 2 begins beautifully enough, letting the player stroll through City Seventeen at their leisure, witnessing just how wrong everything has gone, but everything goes sour(er? I mean, the world’s run by laser-faced cyborgs and psychic slugs now) when the Combine shows up and attacks you. It’s cool though, because this woman named Alyx saves you, but everything starts to go wrong again when characters start dumping all the information they can find in your lap. In the roughly eight minutes between when you first meet Alyx and when Barney gives you a crowbar, you’re subjected to a torrent of information, as if Valve has suddenly forgot all about the wonderful “show, don’t tell” rule they’d been following. One of the few genuinely important details imparted to you is that you must make your way to Eli Vance, because he will explain everything.

Get out of here, STALKER.

Traditionally, when a protagonist like Gordon Freeman finds himself in a strange world, a character comes along to explain the situation. Take The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. When little Lucy Pevensie is first transported to Narnia, Lewis sets the stage by showing us the frozen wasteland that is Narnia and by having the faun Mr. Tumnus fill in the gaps. In Half-Life 2, Eli Vance is that guy. At least… he’s supposed to be.

Thus begins Act I of the game. Armed with a nothing more than a crowbar and pursued by Combine forces, you make your way to Black Mesa East, where Eli Vance awaits. Upon meeting the man, you’re offered a few more details about how the world ended, and introduced to stalker (no, not THAT kind of STALKER) and budding kidnapper Judith Mossman. Eli doesn’t really tell you much important, and this interlude really only serves as a break from combat, an introduction to the gravity gun, and a chance for Judith to kidnap Eli, now that you’ve met her.

"Wait, who are you? You say you've kidnapped Eli Vance? What do you mean I took your job?"

Act II begins with you fighting your way out of Ravenholm and over to Alyx, who begs you to rescue her father from Nova Prospekt, an evil facility from the Mortal Kombat school of nomenclature, with the sort of chairs that makes one think it might have been an old Soviet Dental school before the Combine rolled in. Eventually, you do manage to find Eli, and, in a feat of monumental stupidity, manage to let Judith Mossman, who admitted over the radio that she felt she could brainwash Eli, kidnap him again.

By now, it should be painfully obvious that Eli Vance is one of the worst resistance leaders of all time, not only having been kidnapped twice, but still managing to trust his kidnapper the whole time. I’ve raised dogs that were more suspicious than Eli Vance. He hasn’t brought up his resistance to be too bright, either. After a suspicious old friend shows up (the same one who, you may remember, brought the Combine to Earth in the first place), Eli gets kidnapped not once, but twice, and the second time, this old friend and Alyx disappear as well.

Most people would begin to suspect that Gordon Freeman had something to do with Eli’s disappearance, but not Eli’s resistance, oh no. Instead, they take the disappearance of their leadership as a sign to begin… we’re not really sure. It’s not like they have a clear goal or anything–for the most part, it seems like the streets have been cleared, a lot of people are dead, and the living are shooting back and forth in the streets, accomplishing little more than chaos.

Logical story progression: for Act II, repeat the events of Act I, but now you have a car!

As soon as you show up in City 17, you’re given a new mission objective: the Combine have Eli Vance, and you need to go rescue him.


You knew this was coming.

So, dutiful old friend of a man you’ve only met twice that you are, you head after Eli. By accident, you end up getting the entire Citadel to explode and manage to kill the Human ambassador to the Combine, all in a haphazard attempt to rescue Eli Vance and find out just why it is the G-Man brought you here. Then the game just kinda… ends. You show up, topple a regime, start a war, and never learn why you were brought back to life.

It’s not over, though, not by a long-shot. Throughout the course of Half-Life 2: Episode One, you prevent the Citadel from exploding, in order to keep Eli alive, and then fight your way on a train, to follow Eli out of town to Black Mesa East, but you crash. Episode Two actually gets you to Eli, distracting you with a brief detour in which you try to save Eli’s daughter’s life, and a second detour in which you must launch Eli’s rocket and protect Eli’s base from assault. Ultimately, though, Eli dies, and you never find out why you were brought here in the first place.

Getting tired of this face yet? You should be.

Valve had three games to explain why you were around, and not once did the player receive any sort of explanation. Now that Eli’s dead, there’s no room for that. The whole point of Eli explaining everything was so that the G-Man wouldn’t have to, in order to keep his mystique. Killing Eli means that the only person who knows why you’re around is the one mysterious character who must explain nothing to you or risk losing his power as a character.

Remember the paradox I mentioned earlier? Well, what it did was fundamentally change Gordon Freeman and the way players thought about Half-Life. If you play the first game, you can be whoever you want to be. Gordon, as a silent, above average everyman, was given the power to shoot whatever the hell he wanted, enabling the players the freedom to express themselves in a world where everything else was going to hell. Half-Life 2 and its subsequent episodes threw this out the window. By giving Eli Vance an identity, Valve had given Gordon Freeman, and thus, the players, a past. By doing so, they had defined the silent protagonist as a character, thus rendering his silence unnecessary. Half-Life 2 became a contradiction, a game that offered the player the freedom to be whoever they wanted, but strictly regulated how the player used that freedom, effectively rendering the freedom meaningless.

Half-Life was a game that put you in the driver’s seat. It said “hey, you’re a normal guy, and now there are monsters and the marines want to kill you! React!” That’s what made it so pure. It was almost prototypical of the games that would come later, like System Shock 2, Deus Ex, and STALKER. Half-Life was all about how you, the player, related to the experience. No one defined you but yourself; your motivations behind your actions were entirely your own.

Purge the mutant, even if he is your friend. This is the man I have chosen to be.

Half-Life 2 robbed the player of that. By establishing characters, Valve gave Gordon a back story; by creating characters with fixed reactions, Valve gave Gordon a personality. What made the Half-Life experience special was torn away for a weak story about how an old friend of some scientists is mysteriously sent into the future to save one man from getting kidnapped a lot, but the kidnapee, Eli Vance, wouldn’t have been kidnapped in the first place had it not been for Gordon’s presence. Without the ability to be who you want, Half-Life 2 becomes a mere linear first person shooter with a bad story, puzzles, and sidekicks with character, and it’s all Eli Vance’s fault.

See, the Half-Life series isn’t about Gordon Freeman any more; it’s about Eli Vance. In the six years between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, the series went from being a game about you, the player, and the crowbar-wielding death machine that you inhabit, to a story about a kindly old resistance leader named Eli Vance who didn’t even manage to say anything badass when he died. The game’s like a big inside joke, but you’re never really in on it, because the people Gordon allegedly knows, you don’t. Depending on the mindset you played through Half-Life 2, your Gordon Freeman is fundamentally incompatible with the one Half-Life 2 tries to create.

The best con that he ever pulled was making you believe that he is you.

There’s really only one way to play Half-Life 2, and that’s as a trusting, mute amnesiac with great combat skills. In other words, Gordon Freeman is nothing more than a generic mute character, no more important or personal than the Doom Marine.

Ultimately, Eli Vance became the core of Half-Life 2. He was the driving force behind the game–the player’s entire motivation for doing anything beyond “they’re shooting at me so I must shoot back.” Eli, and the secrets he held, was the ultimate carrot of Half-Life 2, and with him dead, there’s no clean way for Valve to say “you’re ultimately here because…” In fact, after all this time, coming out and saying “Gordon, G-Man sent your to accomplish X or Y” would simply feel awkward, coming so late in the story. Valve shot themselves in the foot by eating their own carrot, and, quite frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were at a loss as to how to continue the game.

That’s why we don’t have Half-Life 2: Episode 3, folks. The main character is dead. Rest in peace, Eli, rest in peace.