January 7th, 2007


on the half-life 2 demo: a less geeky perspective

The Half-Life 2 demo isn't a game. It's an hour of raw terror. Quite often the only thing that stands between you and Dear God What The Fuck Is That is a slow-reloading pistol with no ammunition and the part of you that knows what it's like to be eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. It's not a "boo!" fear like Doom 3 or Resident Evil. It's not a "ooh, this is creepy" fear like Silent Hill. It's not even an "ack no more bullets run away" fear like the first Half-Life. All of those games are mere parodies of fear. A fun fear, a haha, wow, this is almost like the real thing fear. Not this one. Half-Life 2 is literally the stuff of nightmares. This game knows where you live, and it is watching you sleep.

It isn't, on the first playthrough at least, something you can easily stop for dinner or a can of Dew. It is, in unadulterated form, what every horror movie and ghost story can only try to imitate. For in literature and film there are third-person protagonists, for which you can dump the burden of responsibility--you can put down the book to stop and think, or look away from the screen at the worst moment, and things will still go exactly as planned. Not here. You have to be taught how to enjoy a Stephen King novel. You have to have a passing familiarity with the conventions of cinema to enjoy Hitchcock. But a five-year-old child could (and would all too well) understand the full complexity of thought and experience that comes from clambering down a fire escape, furiously loading your last two shells into your shotgun, your low health alarm screaming in your face, as a dozen freakish, many-clawed, impossibly agilethings come at you everywhere you look and everywhere you don't, their howls echoing louder and louder through the ruined city as they draw near, their bodies casting grim silhouettes across the moon as they clear rooftops in thousand-foot leaps. Or being trapped in a heavily furnished room with a tiny leaping headcrab, pushing cabinets and turning over tables to try to crush it against the wall before it grabs onto your head and fucks your face off. This is maybe the one game that, if I had kids, I would definitely not let them play. The MA+ rating on this game is not a joke--not for violence or nudity, but for Mature Themes.

Deeper still, there's an overarching feeling of intellectual dread--it's astounding how much story can be told through background art and one-phrase conversations. They say much, but raise many questions: Where the fuck am I? Why does it look like downtown Trenton? Why do none of the trains ever depart? Who is this face on the holographic television screen and what does he mean by "instinct is merely superstition"? What answers come only bring more questions.

I could write for hours about how the sublime character modelling, the intricately detailed (and fully interactive)environments, the masterful use of ambient sound, and the astoundingly innovative trigger scripting come together to create this experience, but that would belie its apparent simplicity. And truth be told, while I was playing the game, I wasn't really thinking about that. I was thinking SWEET FUCK WHAT THE HELL IS THAT RUN AWAY RUN AWAAAAAAAAY.

And that's what makes me confident that this might be the best $40 I'm ever going to spend.