The Half-Life of Entertainment, First Impressions

Long ago – November 16, 2004 to be precise – a little game called Half-Life 2 came out.  At the time, the game stood as one of the most anticipated video games of all time.  It was the follow-up to a game many considered long overdue for a sequel, Half-Life, which had been released about 6 years earlier.  It was a First Person Shooter (FPS) hailed for its unique use of interactive storytelling, never breaking user control and conveying the world, dialog, plot, and action sequences all under user control through the First Person perspective.  This brought a whole new way of experiencing the FPS genre, because from moment one, you are the character; the only view you ever have is from your two eyes. It was a revolutionary concept as story sequences that usually tend to break in-game action with cut scenes had been in videogames since they’re inception.

With the release of the second Half-Life, the game, once again, was praised for its unique in-game presentation, creative puzzle solving, crazy action set pieces, progressive character development, gorgeous graphics and the like.

I expect this to be a multipart series which chronicles of my experiences and thoughts as I make my way through a game that is considered a must-play and one of the best of all time.  I am not looking to write a review of this title, but more a log of my journey, and the things I notice as a player who feels like he’s in for a mountainous adventure.

Yes, it has taken me 5 years to finally play past the first 10 minutes of Half-Life 2.  Why you ask?  Well, good question.  I’m not really a PC gamer, and for a very simple reason.  I never like, nay, in fact, hated the fact that I had to change the resolution of my screen.  So every time I would exit or come out of a game, all the programs I had open, would be resized, very annoying.  Now, compound that problem with the fact that since sophomore year high school, I’ve used a multi-monitor setup on my computer (it’s a productivity and multi-tasking effort that could be the subject of it’s on blog series).  Lets just say games and multiple monitors never really got along so well.  Now considering I have three monitors (a 30”, x2 22”s) I have no real desire to figure out how to get it working, just give me a controller and a big screen tv, and I’m at home.  So I stopped playing PC games, and still don’t.  I used my computer for a large number of things, gaming isn’t one of them.

Half-Life 2 was the first game in years that I had installed on computer all those years ago, because I was looking forward to it so much.  But still, the same resolution problems occurred, so I choose to forgo the game experience, even as I continued to hear, year after year, what I was missing.  Cue the entrance of Orange Box, a full Valve content pack for the Xbox 360, includes: Half-Life 2, HL2 Episode 1, HL2 Episode 2, Portal and Team Fortress, for $60.00 USD, hard to argue with that.  And it sat on my shelf for a year. No longer.

So, what happens after the first 10 minutes?  Officially one of the most epic chase sequences I’ve ever experienced in a video game.  When I say the game hit’s the ground running, I mean literally.  We’re talking about a multi-part, multi-area, multi-set piece series of events all within the context that you’re being chased like hell, by an entire government organization around, through and outside of a city in order to escape capture.

And as crazy as it was, all the running, the shooting, the smashing bad guys heads in with a cro-bar, after the hour 2 of this chase sequence (yes it’s that long, no that wasn’t the end) a thought in the back of my head popped up and would go away.  I started wondering, if this crazy run, was EVER going to end.  It is such a long sequence, but I understood it at the end.

Valve continues to protract out this sequence, first on foot, running through a train and sewer system, running, jumping, swimming, killing radioactive creatures, shooting men in black and defying death.  Then once the foot chase ends, a high speed boat chase where you’re chase by a Helicopter for what feels like 3 hours starts, where you missile shooting cars, SWAT team repelling cronies, sub-machine guns, grenades, bombs, a Helicopter machine gun that seems to find you no matter how well hidden you think you are, closed gates and all manner of things.  At the end, the sweet justice you feel in fucking destroying that god damned helicopter cannot be defined in words.  But had that Helicopter sequence ended an hour before it did, would I have felt the same?  Probably, but then it might have been less of an experience and felt more like a level in a video game.

It was hard, it was long, and it truly felt like I was escaping from every military force known to man.  Naturally I had help from the resistance, but those mofo’s never shot a damn person, really they just let me restock supplies and gave me health.  I was thankful to them for that, but they could have picked up some fucking guns!  Still, at no point was it a given that I would escape, and that’s what made it a unique experience.

As a seasoned gamer, my expectations of game situations are very jaded.  In order for my to be impressed with something, my expectations have to be completely broken, that’s what I’ve come to find.  As sad as that sounds, it’s the truth.  I’m not interested in playing games that show me things or give me experiences that I’ve had before.  Sure there’s inevitably going to be some sort of redundancy with genre, but the stuff that truly stands out, doesn’t abide by rules, it does what it needs to make an impact.

So, after this chase sequence, I was drained of energy, and figured, I stop, did I?  No.  Entering the second part of game what did I discover?  Completely different atmosphere, feeling, and game play type.  I’m introduced to a gravity gun which can suck things in, and hold them then eject them at high speeds, and when I say anything, I mean anything non-organic – which is beyond frustrating.  If you’re going to give me a gun that uses “gravity” on objects, it shouldn’t matter if those objects are organic or not!  Though in terms of game play, I can totally understand that they don’t want users to have such an easy time of it, using a weapon that has unlimited energy and could repel them with easy.

I received this gravity weapon, just in time to start running again, but this time, it’s through a highly Resident Evil influenced, decimated town called Raven House.  Sounds like the setting for a horror movie right?  Well with good reason, cause it is.  The town is filled with zombie like characters, and radioactive looking chickens dubbed “headcrabs” which take control of their host by jumping toward they’re host and attaching themselves to what seems like the brainstem.

Though it’s a cool and interesting milieu, the zombie genre really isn’t my preferred game setting.  None the less, I will charge on.  Until the next update folks!  =Sterling

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Mental note to all web designers, turn your sound off!

When you put music on your web page, even random ambient noises, I want to KILL you.  I don’t care how cool you think it is, I don’t care how much you feel it adds to the “atmosphere” or the “impact” of your page, if you put sound, or sound efx on your web page, you’d better believe I’m writing your name down on my “people to eliminate” list.

There are times when silence has the loudest voice

Oh sure, sound can be used to great effect in certain circumstances, but as a person that likes to surf in peace, or to his own music, or while listening to a podcast, or audio book (it’s called multitasking), unexpected blaring sounds coming out of web pages is a VERY unwelcome experience.  And guess what, I end up hating you for it.

Even some of the best web designs I’ve ever used have been ruined with music or sound.  And not only that, they make turning the damn sound off a pain in the ass with super tiny icon’s, that not only have to be hunted down, but have super small hit boxes, so you have to start using your mouse like a scalpel just to turn the noise off.  Just because Flash lets us present a synesthesia-like experience to the user, does not mean on something as simple as portfolio, you need to have it playing music you feel represents you, or the vibe you want to go for.

I mean sure, I can see the draw of sound or music, but umm… I’ve long been annoyed with artificial Foley work in my computer applications, and now it ruins and interrupts my, mostly, content-viewing efforts, forcing me to search for a bloody off switch.  I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.  Please, just stop trying to aim for an “expierence” and impress my eyes and my mind instead!  Most of you do such a poor job at that to begin with, I think you should start there first, and at least then, I won’t be so offended as to immediately dismiss your site as annoying.

If, however, you feel sound is essential to your design, website or expierence, at least throw a cookie in there that remembers I turned your damned audio player off (ajax and jquery make this easy), and let it remember me, and persist in it’s non-operation until it thinks I’m a new or unique ip.  Is that really so much to ask?

=Sterling P. Sanders

Sterling’s week in Twitter:

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