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Full Steam Ahead – Half-Life 2: Episode 1

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 3 Hours

I’m not entirely sure why I chose to tackle my Steam library in random order. Variety perhaps. For the most part, this hasn’t negatively affected how I play these games. After all, most of the games I’ve played have been relatively self-contained. One doesn’t always need to play the preceding games in the series to understand what is happening in current game.

However, I think I would rather not be dropped in the middle of a story-arc as complicated as that of Half-Life.

Welp, you don’t always get what you want. Welcome to the confusingly titled Half-Life 2: Episode 1.

It is possible that loCity 17 has seen better days.

Valve, the creators of the Half-Life series, is a company infamous for leaving games in development for a long, long time. While this care and attention to detail produces some of the finest games available, it also leaves fans hanging, waiting for the next installment of their favourite series.

In an effort to make this wait a little shorter, Valve released the follow-up to their landmark game, Half-Life 2 episodically; that is to say, they tried releasing shorter games with less time spent in development. Episode 1 is the first of these follow-up episodes.

I’ve already played one game in the Half-Life series for Full Steam Ahead, but Deathmatch had no plot or storyline, and was not linked to the narrative of the series in any way shape or form. Episode 1, conversely, is set right in the middle of the story. The player assumes the role of Gordon Freeman, the series’ protagonist. He is a theoretical physicist from the fictional, secretive, military research facility Black Mesa. In the first game, an experiment gone horribly awry leads to a portal opening up between dimensions.

Half-Life 2 takes place almost twenty years after the events of the original game. Earth has been, in order, discovered, conquered, enslaved, by an alien empire known as the Combine. Gordon Freeman, after the events of the previous game, was placed in stasis by a mysterious agent identified only as G-Man. In that time, humanity has rallied around the surviving scientists of Black Mesa, and specifically the idealized persona of Gordon Freeman, to start a resistance movement.

Without spoiling too much, Half-Life 2 does not end with the protagonist righting every wrong, or even definitively ending the threat of the Combine. In fact, the game ends at a rather climactic moment, with G-man suddenly reappearing to return Gordon Freeman to stasis.

Eli Vance, an old coworker of Gordon’s, enjoying a video chat with his daughter and pet robot. This is probably the happiest point in the game and it occurs only two minutes in.

Narratively speaking, the character of Gordon Freeman has very little agency. He is placed into the dangerous situations by G-Man. In the beginning of the Half-Life 2, Gordon is literally forced into the game on rails. Wherever he goes, he is either hailed as a hero, come to save humanity from the Combine, or vilified a a dangerous rebel, threatening to destabilize what little peace humanity has with their alien oppressors.

However, it’s worth remembering that he has had no contact with the world for nearly twenty years. His reputation is based entirely upon his actions from the first game, and, quite likely, the behind-the-scenes manipulation of G-Man. Gordon is dropped into the game, and G-Man intends to pull you out as soon as his goals are realized, never mind your own.

Episode 1 begins with you being freed from his control, immediately after the events of Half-Life 2.. Whatever G-man’s intentions, his intervention would have prevented you from seeing the consequences of your actions. In Episode 1, those consequences thrown into stark contrast.

The Citadel, the headquarters of the Combine and their connection back to the rest of the Empire, is dangerously unstable, casting bolts of light and forming threatening clouds in the skies over the city. The Combine are not defeated; they are as dangerous as they ever were, now spurred on by desperation and vengeance. The forces once controlled by the Combine, the insectoid antlions and undead headcrabs, now run rampant the world over, attacking everything in sight.

Gordon Freeman may be, momentarily, free of G-Man’s control, but as Episode 1 shows us, freedom means consequences. Granted, his presence as radically destabilized the Combine’s police-state on earth, but he certainly hasn’t saved the world.

The Half-Life series is frequently praised for its atmosphere-building with it’s action and horror sequences. However, something I admire in Episode 1 is the moments of down time. These moments of people with their heads in their hands, hunched over in their seats. Some people are excited to see Freeman, sure, but mostly people are just numb, broken by years of systematic oppression. If you look, there are plenty of these small moments. The world spins madly on, and now Gordon Freeman has to walk among the survivors.

Hope is a victory, but we don’t always win.

Fighting back doesn’t fix the problem. It’s hard, and more dangerous than ever. However, it’s the choice of these people to do so, and for the first time since being awoken by G-Man, it’s Gordon’s choice. It is, if you’ll excuse the humourless play on words, a free man’s choice.

While in development, Episode 1 was called “Aftermath”, and rightly so. The story of Half-Life doesn’t end with G-Man’s intervention. Despite his handler’s efforts, Freeman’s story continues, showing what little triumphs and great tragedies his actions have brought to light.

I wish more developers put this much thought into their games and they stories they can tell. Played on its own, Episode 1 takes only a few hours to complete. I spent four hours on the playthrough for Full Steam Ahead, but I got more out of those few hours than I could in a whole week of some other games. Of course, Episode 1 benefits by being merely a single episode in a vast series. Without the context of the previous game, or the knowledge of another episode to follow, Episode 1 wouldn’t mean nearly as much. However, despite having a mute protagonist, this game still manages to say plenty.

Next Episode: Mass Effect

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