Finding the Plot: Half-Life 2 is Mundane

There’s an opinion floating around. ‘Video games don’t need a plot.’ Gameplay should be the only focus. If there is a story, it’s a necessary evil, shoehorned in as a technical tool, intended to hold the players’ attention just long enough to get them into the action. Kind of like a porn plot, or the picture books my doctor reads me before colonoscopies.

But we’re human, and we tell stories – it’s in the job description. It doesn’t matter whether we’re drawing on cave walls, writing religious texts or telling our partner how our day was, we’re always doing it. Stories connect us, teach us, and define us.  Interactive entertainment offers storytelling opportunities unique to the medium. If there’s a good plot to support good gameplay, it turns an average game into an amazing one.

Not all games need a plot. Soccer doesn’t need to be contextualized with a hero’s journey, nor does chess, or Rocket Arena. But when there is a plot present, it’s almost universally used to give the player a bigger goal beyond ‘jump on the turtle’. It’s there for motivation. And yet, many game stories fall flat when it comes to actually making us care. Developers see the need for a story, but they often don’t understand that it needs to be good. A badly written, badly presented story is worse than none at all.

At the time of its release, Half-Life 2 was lauded for its graphics, physics, and gameplay. Rarely before had we seen real-time refractive water shaders. We had never before had the opportunity to break somebody’s face with 40 kilograms worth of urinal. Twelve years later and these technological systems are out of date. The storytelling, however, is not. Good storytelling ages much more slowly.

The format is one of the most simple: a linear plot, unaffected by the actions of the player. This allows for a finely tuned and carefully scripted experience, with little room for players to miss key information and emotional beats. And from the first few minutes of play, it’s clear that this choice of format is backed up by quality writing. The characters have a genuine spark that you can’t achieve by simply adding more polygons. Shaders can make your characters shine, but they can’t make them glow. That’s technically incorrect, of course, but I was speaking in metaphor, like a writer.

Mark Laidlaw is a real-life writer, an author of actual books, and when he wrote Half-Life 2, it was those years of experience that enabled him to nail the most important facet of storytelling: capturing the subtleties that make us human. The overarching plots of video games are often massive in scale. Save the kingdom, save the world, destroy the giant alien-scrotum-baby on the planet Xen. We need to be able to relate in some way to what we’re seeing on-screen if we’re going to suspend our disbelief and open ourselves up to becoming emotionally invested in the characters’ struggles. The less invested we are, the less we value working with, for, or against these characters, and the less engaged we are with the bigger plot. That engagement is important in motivating us to fight until the very end.

We meet three key characters in the first few minutes of Half-Life 2. Alyx Vance, daughter of a peg-leg pirate, Doctor Kleiner, the baldie, and Barney, the only surviving clone from a defunct security team. The scene that establishes these characters takes place in Kleiner’s lab. While the scene features the occasional mention of the larger plot, it’s clear that friendly banter, discussion, and disagreements among these people are the focus. There’s awkward-yet-endearing flirting from Kleiner, some concern from Alyx around an unsuccessful cat-experiment performed several weeks earlier, anxiety about a missing pet headcrab, and Barney’s annoyance at the situation due to his headcrab-induced PTSD.

These interactions give the characters human qualities; we are shown real and relatable fears, concerns, and quirks. Their personalities aren’t comprised of a single characteristic, like shyness, slyness, bravado or sass. Just like real people, these characters embody many characteristics in varying degrees, and this gives them depth.

The depth is further developed by showing us that these characters existed before we came along, and will continue to exist after we’re gone. They’re given histories, often relatively unexciting ones. If we take the time to talk to the nameless secondary characters on the streets of City 17, we’re given small hints about the day-to-day life of regular people. We hear about forced relocation, about luggage and possessions being unfairly confiscated, about brutal beatings by members of the authority, and about violent police raids on homes. These moments aren’t used as opportunities to give us quests or stroke our egos. There’s no overt, immediate gameplay value. They’re used give a sense of reality to these people, to establish their suffering as real, and genuine. These are subtle moments, and these subtleties help us to care. They give us a sense of what we should be fighting for. They provide us with the motivation to win.

An engaging plot-driven game doesn’t keep adrenaline at a constant 110%. It doesn’t need a constant slew of hyper-badass voices and hyper-badass dialogue. Laidlaw and Valve realized that adrenaline glands can only pump for so long - there’s only so much caring you can do when you’ve been hyperventilating for three hours. The core of what makes Half-Life 2 so successful in motivating the player is the same thing that makes soap operas work: mundanity. The willingness of Valve to trust that the player isn’t going to lose interest as soon as the explosions stop is important, but it’s the well-crafted displays of genuine, mundane humanity that help us connect; with the game, with the plot, and with these virtual people that we’re trying to save.

A linear story isn’t the only way to make a game. The beauty of the medium is that there are many approaches that we can use, with more being developed every day. Join me next time as we pick another game out of the ‘I think it’s good’ pile, and see what makes the plot tick.