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Anticitizen One: Examining Half-Life 2's Variation of Relative Player Strength

This analysis aims to examine how, by varying the player’s strength with respect to his enemies, Valve structures the game’s pacing, reinforce its themes, and produces a compelling and fun experience for the player.

Noah Bukhari, Blogger

December 8, 2014

14 Min Read

Few games have received as much critical and popular acclaim as Half-Life 2. As such, there is value in inspecting the game from different angles in order to better understand its successes, its failures, and the significance of its designers’ (who will henceforth simply be referred to as Valve for brevity’s sake) decisions. This analysis aims to examine combat scenarios in Half-Life 2 in order to describe how, by varying the player’s strength with respect to his enemies, Valve structures the game’s pacing, reinforce its themes, and produces a compelling and fun experience for the player.

Half-Life 2’s varying combat difficulty plays a key role in shaping its narrative structure. In order to approach this subject, it is useful to use the framework provided in Extra Credits’ episode on pacing. In part, it states that a well-paced game is characterized by rises and falls in narrative tension. More specifically, there is an initial rise in tension followed by a calmer period, followed by a rise, and the calm and tense periods alternate as tension mounts overall until the climax, after which tension falls to zero. The infographic below describes this tension structure by using Star Wars as an example (Portnow, "Pacing").

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To see the relevance of this model to Half-Life 2’s combat, one could look as early as one of the game’s first levels, Route Kanal. Gordon Freeman, the game’s protagonist (whom the player controls), is in trouble with Civil Protection, the law enforcement officers of the game’s totalitarian government, and has made the mistake of bringing a crowbar to a gunfight. Tension builds during this segment, as the player is severely outmatched, but he manages to struggle through a fight and obtain a pistol, his first viable tool against his enemies – this is the peak of a small hill of tension, because afterward, the player has a much easier time when facing enemies thanks to his new weapon. This period of comfort doesn’t last for long, as another “tension hill” forms when he comes across foes armed with automatic weapons and obtains one for himself. Narrative tension rises throughout the level as the player faces a strong enemy, the player increases in strength, a stronger enemy arises, and so on.

In the ideal game, this hill-and-valley narrative tension structure applies just as much to the “arc,” the experience as a whole, as it does to the “scene,” a level or game segment like Route Kanal (Portnow, "Pacing"). If Half-Life 2 is well-paced, then, its tension has small hills and valleys during segments of the game, but rises throughout the course of all of its levels until some point near the game’s end. This rising action is observable through the aforementioned fluctuation in the player’s strength relative to that of his enemy: in later levels, the player is faced with powerful and fast new zombie enemies, but is able to face them after obtaining a shotgun. He subsequently goes against the Overwatch, a tougher and better-equipped version of Civil Protection, but receives an assault rifle to make the job easier, and in order to destroy a gunship, he receives an RPG. The game continues this arms race of escalating enemy and player strength until it reaches its climax.

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At this point, the player is about to fight alone against waves of soldiers and a Strider, a massive and nearly invincible machine-monster. Given the player’s equipment, the battle will be difficult, but not impossible. Complications arise, however, when a security device destroys nearly all of his weapons. Narrative tension reaches its peak, as it seems as if the player must face an army without any arms of his own, all because he was thwarted by the futuristic version of an airport metal detector. Almost immediately after, the player sees that one of his weapons survived, and this weapon and his armored suit have been supercharged by the device. This power-up turns him into a juggernaut, and he is able to make quick work of all the enemies that follow, including the Strider; as a result, the game’s tension subsides as the player forces the story’s antagonist to flee and destroys an essential part of the evil government’s infrastructure, bringing about the game’s end. In short: difficult combat, or the difference between the player’s and enemies’ strengths, created narrative tension throughout Half-Life 2, and changes in this strength gap caused the tension to oscillate in segments of the game, but overall tension increased as both sides grew in power until the climax, after which the player’s immense strength caused tension to fall as the game reached its resolution.

Many of the themes in Half-Life 2 are centered on the totalitarian government that dominates its setting. In creating this fictional regime, Valve seems to have taken some inspiration from George Orwell’s 1984. For example, shortly after beginning the first level of the game, the player is greeted by the face of a Big Brother-like figure on a television screen, and can interact with non-player characters (NPC’s) in the area to hear stories about disappearing loved ones or how drinking their city’s water “makes you forget.” Further evidence of the regime’s abuse of total power can be seen from how Civil Protection treats civilians, who seem to frequently make the mistake of resisting arrest.


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Half-Life 2 successfully uses a mechanic, variation in relative player strength, in order to better convey one of its themes, the oppressiveness of totalitarianism, but this mechanic often works against another one of the game’s themes, namely the importance of unity in overthrowing tyranny. The MDA model is a useful tool for studying how Valve uses this mechanic to convey a theme. To paraphrase, the model is one in which, from a design perspective, a game’s mechanics (i.e. the components or “rules” of the game) create its dynamics (i.e. the system of interacting behavior between players and the game’s mechanics), which in turn create its aesthetics (i.e. the player’s emotional response to the game) (Hunicke).

On numerous occasions throughout Half-Life 2, the player’s weakness compared to his enemies’ vast strength (a mechanic), causes the player to avoid fighting or fight an uphill battle against his enemies (a dynamic), which helps the player understand what it is like to suffer the abuses of those in power, as he feels overwhelmed by the might of the city’s regime (an aesthetic). Perhaps the purest example of this mechanic-dynamic-aesthetic interaction appears in the game’s introductory level, during which a Civil Protection officer knocks a can off of a trash can, and then tells the protagonist to pick up the can and place it in the trash. The officer blocks the protagonist’s way through the level, so the player, being unarmed, must either obey or be served and protected into submission by the business end of a stun baton. In this scenario, the mechanic, a difference in power, brings about the dynamic of player obedience toward the officer, and the player experiences the desired aesthetic: he feels dominated by the guard and begins to hate him and the authoritarian regime for which he stands. Similar instances occur in later segments of the game, such as when the player must fight soldiers who are equipped with better weapons than he is, or when he flees from an attack helicopter because he does not have the equipment to fight back, or when the player must kill several Striders with only an RPG and the assistance of friendly civilian NPC’s. The imbalance between the player’s power and that of his enemies in the government helps him feel the crushing weight of totalitarianism.

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This last combat scenario mentioned, the fight between the protagonist, who is aided by civilians, and a number of Striders, demonstrates how Half-Life 2 succeeds only in part in illustrating the need for unity in order to do away with totalitarian power. The gap between the strength of the player and that of the Striders forces a new dynamic; the player must rely on the civilians for health, ammo, and weapons, and this new dynamic gives rise to a new aesthetic: the player at once feels fellowship with his comrades and can see how his cooperation with them leads to success against his oppressors. On the other hand, these comrades never provide anything more than auxiliary assistance; they help the protagonist close the power gap between himself and his enemies, and then they rely on him to protect them and kill the majority of those enemies, including all of the Striders. This divide in contribution turns the player into a one-man-army with a few assistants rather than a leader among equals. One practical question asked in game design is whether the rules of a game and the play that takes place inside it convey a message in themselves (without relying on tools like imagery, dialogue, and so on), and whether that message helps to convey the designers’ thematic intent (Portnow, "Mechanics as Metaphor"). A discrepancy these two creates ludonarrative dissonance, a break between play and narrative that tends to harm interactive experiences (Blow, "Conflicts in Game Design"). With regard to Half-Life 2, it could be argued that the way the civilians function and aid the player communicates the necessity of some form of cooperation, but not the need for unity in the sense that every person is essential and contributes something of similar value. In order to see the weaknesses in how Half-Life 2 expresses the twin themes of oppression and the need for unity against tyranny, we can refer to a simpler game.

Jailbreak, a mod for a number of Valve’s games, including Garry’s Mod and Team Fortress 2, is a first-person shooter that takes place inside a prison and between two teams, the prisoners and the guards. The prisoners begin the game unarmed (or armed with only a weak knife) and locked in their cells, and the guards start with access to powerful weapons that allow them to quickly kill any given prisoner. These are the most basic mechanics of the game, but also the most essential part of the mod, as they lay the foundation for a space of possibility; that is, an experience defined by what players can and cannot do within boundaries predetermined by the designers (Jenkins, Game Design as Narrative Architecture). In Jailbreak, players navigate a space wherein two groups of unequal strength can communicate, move around, and attack each other. This space tends to give rise to a dynamic of oppression between the guards and the prisoners, as the guards play by watching the prisoners for violent activity and forcing them to obey “pick up that can”-like orders (e.g. walk to this area while crouching, look to your right and do not move, or run through this dangerous obstacle course). All the while, the prisoners play a different game; they look for an opportunity to escape to the armory, obtain weapons, and collectively kill the guards. Since there is no single “hero” prisoner who is stronger than the rest, the prisoners must work together to defeat the guards. The play in Jailbreak expresses what it means to be dominated by those in power. Moreover, because the mechanics of this play created a space that mandates equality among prisoners and fosters cooperation, it also succeeds where Half-Life 2 failed: Jailbreak demonstrates the value of unity against oppression.

The most difficult question regarding Half-Life 2’s shifting of relative player strength is whether this mechanic serves to enhance the player’s enjoyment of the game and compel him to continue playing. One way to answer this question is with the aid of Jenova Chen’s Flow theory, which seeks to explain how one enters “the Flow Zone,” a state of deep immersion in an interactive experience. Chen comments that a player must be challenged to enter this state, but “if the challenge is beyond … [his] … ability, the activity becomes so overwhelming that it generates anxiety. If the challenge fails to engage the player, the player quickly loses interest and tends to leave the game.” Chen also provides an infographic to depict this relationship between challenge and Flow (Chen, 2007).

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The Flow theory is pertinent to this discussion because increasing the player’s strength or that of the game’s enemies has a direct impact on the level of challenge that the game presents. As he plays the game, the player becomes more skilled and faces fewer challenges, but when his enemies grow in strength, he faces new challenges that keep him from becoming bored. The challenge does not reach the extreme of making the player overly anxious because the player is eventually given an advantage of some kind, typically a new gun. It is in this way that the player relative strength variation mechanic keeps the player in his “Flow Zone” and compels him to continue playing.

Another argument for the value of this mechanic of variety is that it contextualizes the player’s moments of weakness and strength. When sharing an opinion about Half-Life 2, Jonathan Blow described much of its gameplay as a series of arenas through which the player must progress by fighting monsters (Blow, "Conflicts in Game Design"). This simplified description is appropriate when describing a great deal of Half-Life 2’s gameplay, but it does not address parts of the game that feature combat that is infinitely difficult, where the player must run away from an enemy rather than stand and fight. Examples of this include the introductory level, wherein the unarmed player must run across rooftops and avoid enemy gunfire, or parts of Route Kanal and the level that follows it, which force him to evade and outrun a helicopter and artillery fire; these are comparable to escape segments in horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, wherein the protagonist is also not sufficiently equipped to fight his enemies and must flee or be killed.

Sections wherein the player must run away are unlike the “arena” segments of Half-Life 2, but they are frequently placed before, after, or even alongside such segments (alongside meaning that the player must fight one set of enemies while fleeing another). The contrast between segments where the player is weak and those where he is strong gives context to both kinds of segments. For instance, when the player receives a machine gun capable of destroying a helicopter, he better appreciates how vulnerable he was when he previously had no choice but to run away from it, and because the player began the game unarmed and was made to pick up a can on the whim of a Civil Protection officer, he feels a sense of satisfaction, and perhaps even catharsis, when he demolishes his malefactors using the supercharged weapon he receives later on. The extent of this feeling of satisfaction is derived in part from the nature of the upgrade (i.e. whether the player’s new tool is fun to use), but much of this emotion stems from the context surrounding the upgrade, which is the adversity the player had to overcome in order to attain it and the enemies it allows him to conquer.

One of Half-Life 2’s simplest and best-implemented mechanics is its adjustment of player and enemy strength during the course of the game. Through the application of a mechanic prevalent in many games, especially those in the first-person shooter genre, Valve paces the game’s narrative, giving it a variable rising action and a strong climax and resolution. It also attempts to highlight a theme of totalitarian oppression and one of unity against tyranny, but does not succeed in fully communicating the latter theme through play. Additionally, the mechanic keeps the game fun by regulating combat difficulty and giving context to the player’s actions and successes. In creating Half-Life 2, Valve chose to make extensive use of a single mechanic, and designers can learn from its successes in this choice; however, where Valve failed, future designers must innovate.



Works Cited

Chen, J. (2007, April 1). Flow in Games (and Everything Else). Retrieved December 2, 2014.

Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (n.d.). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. Retrieved December 2, 2014.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Game Design as Narrative Architecture. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (pp. 684-686). Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Jonathan Blow: Conflicts in Game Design 2008 talk [Motion picture]. (2011). YouTube.

Mechanics as Metaphor (Part 2) [Motion picture]. (2012). YouTube.

Pacing - How Games Keep Things Exciting [Motion picture]. (2012). YouTube.

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