Half-Life 2: Episode 1 & 2 and the Issue of the Silent Protagonist
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 & 2 hold a beloved spot among many as some of the best games ever made. However, while some aspects have held up, some really don't.
Gordon slides in and out of the barn’s patio cover wielding a crossbow that shoots red hot rebar at Combine soldiers. Effortlessly switching between the crossbow, submachine gun, and shotgun, Gordon moves into the house opposite the barn and absorbs an inhuman amount of bullets into his HEV suit. Not even the Combine hunter with its charging tackle can stop Gordon from filling it with shotgun buck. Only a helicopter can force him to flee, but even it eventually falls before a disembodied armory. The customary amazement at your abilities follow and another roadblock is soon discovered, beginning the cycle again.
It’s hard to talk about Half-Life 2 in 2018 given the position it holds among so many as one of the best games ever made. Having never played the base game until a couple years ago and the episodes this past summer I can appreciate their quality, but don’t believe it reaches anywhere near the pinnacle of what games can do or offer at this point. Half-Life 2 and its episodes are relics with gameplay and controls that are obviously pre-Call of Duty, not that I was bothered by the lack of aiming down sights or resource-driven health. In fact these elements, and the swift movement, reminded me of the excellent DOOM from 2016.
I never had great expectations going into the series, as when does any breathless praise of a game live up to its reality? However I was impressed by its atmosphere, both for the empty city and buildings, as well as its distinctive audio cues and ambience. All of these elements in Half-Life 2 were exemplified best in contrasting ways through the game’s two expansions after its release in 2004: Episode 1 in 2006, and Episode 2 in 2007.
Episode 1 is a Greatest Hits condensation of the base game of Half-Life 2; some elements are inverted, such as beginning with the god-like gravity gun and trying to get away from the City 17 Citadel. In Episode 1, you encounter the familiar cycle of puzzle-combat-story with a shortened lifespan of 4 hours as opposed to 10+ from before. Both the acquisition of a full weapon wheel and escalation of conflict from headcrabs to gunships is done in much shorter time. This increased speed means there is very little downtime, but in the restricted setting–you spend the entire time in City 17’s underground or streets–means it all blends together as well due to that speed. I do love City 17, as it is familiar and home to my favorite sequence from Half-Life 2–the opening–but Episode 1 doesn’t feature any memorable sections of the city by comparison.
The highlight of gameplay in Episode 1 would be the final underground section in which you fight against waves of headcrab infected soldiers and civilians in a pitch black basement. I understand the tone they were going for, as the blackness was featured earlier and imbued a sense of fear since your flashlight relies on a draining resource and your other options for lights are flares or explosive items, the former of which barely gives off a light and the latter is deadly when shot too close to your location.
This wave defense suffers due to your flashlight and sprint draining the same meter, thankfully an issue resolved in Episode 2. The frantic sequence of running in the dark not knowing where the enemy was or where a source of light could be became more frustrating than exciting. Headcrab enemies already had a good sense of fear to them, especially the black headcrab and fast zombie versions. Putting me in a pitch black area that requires light as well as fast movement doesn’t enhance the horror, it just makes surviving a chore.
A small moment I appreciated was when Gordon is given the iconic crowbar by a resistance member, because it shows its importance more as a symbol to wield than an actual weapon. One section of dialogue that also stood out to me was when you leave the underground into City 17’s streets, you hear Dr. Kleiner discussing how people should begin to procreate again in order to repopulate since the suppression field has been removed. It was a nice touch of black humor in regards to a humanity that is dwindling in number. Another aspect soon after this PSA was when soldiers questioned why the scientists who were responsible for the Combine presence in the first place are the ones in charge. It hints at some displeasure at the power structure of the resistance and leaves the potential for some drama within the ranks, but is never taken anywhere.
Continually bringing up interesting subjects but never spending much time with them is a frustrating aspect of these two episodes. While I always appreciate a less-is-more approach to detailing every aspect of a fictional world, I do think some of the subjects that Episode 1 and 2 bring up are never explored enough. This is the only dialogue I came across that introduced an entirely new angle of the resistance, that the Black Mesa scientists wouldn’t be able to walk away from the mess they started even if the Combine were fully repelled. Episode 1 introduces some significant new elements to the plot, such as the mystery of the pod creatures and a data packet MacGuffin, both of which appear again in Episode 2 but still not fully detailed, though this matters little for the latter.
The data packet is meaningless, an important item that makes the Combine track you, even though you were already a target due to being the face of resistance. The telekinetic pod creatures are imposing, but never interactive. They only appear in cutscenes where agency is taken away from the player, and all they can do is look around. Their status as a powerful force to be feared would be more effective if you were actually under threat from an unstoppable being, much like the xenomorph in Alien: Isolation. Instead, they appear out of range or restrict your ability to do anything. One scene in which the silo doors close and it looms menacingly overhead Combine soldiers is more effective at imbuing fear than all its other appearances.
Episode 2 opens with the destruction of the City 17 Citadel and with it, mostly everything from before is thrown out. Episode 1 was a very familiar expansion taking place underneath and within City 17, with its oppressive atmosphere of buildings and linear pathways forcing you into chokepoints. Some of that is carried over into Episode 2, but it mostly has a much more “freeing” feel in the wilderness.
Early on, Alyx is wounded and requires help from some Vortigaunts to recover, which results in a very fun adventure in which you and a Vortigaunt make your way through antlion caverns to find the magical healing item needed. The Vortigaunt’s way of speaking endeared me to it more than any of the other human characters in each game, and I was genuinely concerned for its fate when I ascended in an elevator leaving it behind to fight off antlions and head crab zombies. Thankfully, he finds another elevator and we were once again working alongside each other.
This section ends with a tunnel defense sequence capped off by an appearance from the G-Man who hints at Alyx’s past and future and his status as a sort of go-between liaison for other people. As with other elements of what little there is of plot in these games, Valve does do a good job of being vague and giving enough information that you can piece together your own theories on what is going on beyond the general “Combine vs. Humanity” arc. Unfortunately, this infamously goes nowhere as the conclusion of Episode 2 is the last piece of official Half-Life fiction we get.
For the duration of Episode 1 and 2 Alyx’s affection for Gordon becomes more and more pronounced, culminating in Eli requesting the two have a baby as advised by Dr. Kleiner’s PSA during Episode 1. The issue is that as a silent protagonist, Gordon is a non-character. He doesn’t occupy space as his hands only appear when holding weapons, and as steering wheels are controlled by invisible forces. Look down and you see nothing; characters talk to him and about him as if he has a personality, a presence beyond being a camera with guns attached to it, but this is false. Alyx’s affection is towards something that does not exist, and her love and NPC compliments are directed at the player to make you feel a connection to Alyx and feel good about your accomplishments. Alyx is in love with the player, not Gordon, and her reasons are that he exists and shoots the bad guys, not that he has a personality.
Alyx at some points even feels like an admission that Gordon the silent protagonist was insufficient to relay what emotions Valve wanted you to feel during specific sections–as she verbally expresses fear, joy, and sadness–in place of Gordon. Eli’s death unfolds before you, an apparently close friend and coworker, and you just stare silently as Alyx cries and his head is violently invaded by a disgusting pink appendage. Gordon as a character, I think, sucks: he is a void empty of emotion or feelings, and the way characters treat him warmly is so obviously aimed at the player, whose constitution needs constant affection to be sustained. It’s terrible and why I hate silent protagonists in narratives such as these.
As previously mentioned, Episode 2 has a much more breathable atmosphere as it takes place in the outdoor wilderness for a majority of its runtime. After spending a significant amount of time not only in an underground antlion network of caves but also the entrenched pathways of City 17, having the blue sky above you is a welcome change. The wilderness outside of City 17 was briefly tapped into during Half-Life 2, specifically the Highway 17 sequence where you stumbled upon abandoned buildings and scattered Combine groups. The collection of buildings you come across that sit empty and lifeless is a great way of showing the dire straits humanity is in. The lack of music during most of the gameplay also heightens the lack of life, as it is just you and Alyx poking through what little remains waiting for the Combine to descend on you yet again.
Sequences of driving are stopped by artificial roadblocks requiring you to lower a bridge, explore a barn, fight a helicopter, disable a turret, and survive an ambush. Due to the increased speed of movement afforded by the car, these roadblocks really drag down your sense of momentum but also allow each sequence to be separated by a larger distance and therefore more memorable as a set of events. It all leads up to a wave defense that is more fun than challenging as you speed from one section of a large area to the other, throwing special bombs onto Combine tripods for instant destruction. Despite the car controlling terribly, you won’t have too much trouble stopping the tripods before they reach the base.
Episode 2’s conclusion is a plot dump teasing the next expansion where you would travel to the Borealis, another MacGuffin, in order to finally expel the Combine from Earth. You are stopped short by the telekinetic pods that have appeared throughout both expansions which proceed to kill Eli Vance, Alyx’s father. Dog appears before they can kill you or Alyx and the episode ends with Alyx crying over her father’s body. As an ending to Episode 2, it feels like it was necessary to eliminate Eli, as his knowledge of the G-Man brought an expectation of more exposition that Valve was either uninterested or incapable of giving. Eli even spends some of his final moments attempting to talk to Gordon about larger events happening in the background of the resistance and being cut off. As an end to Half-Life it is obviously frustrating as a cliffhanger that goes nowhere. The Borealis is never reached, Alyx’s ultimate fate with the G-Man is unresolved, and the Combine are still a threat.
These two episodes reiterate and expand on the base game of Half-Life 2. While Episode 1 is the inferior expansion, the condensed arc of weapon acquisition and the retreading of the oppressive City 17 atmosphere is still a fun action romp. Episode 2 has some issues with introducing a speedy vehicle only to stop you just as you feel the momentum building, but has much more memorable sequences and introduces small changes that make it easily playable a decade later.
It can be frustrating to think about how we will likely never see the conclusion set up by Episode 2’s final hour, but playing Half-Life 2 and its expansions were never about the resistance against the Combine, and always about the atmosphere and cycle of gameplay and movement through a fully-interconnected space.