Tuesday, February 15, 2011

HL2 Pacing

My favorite example of reducing gameplay challenge to speed up narrative pacing for a climax is Half-Life 2. Effectively, the game turns on cheat mode and asks you to complete basic gameplay challenges with this new wrapper until the game ends. What I found so interesting about this is the sense of "speed" and "fun" I had at game end as opposed to the "grind" and "frustration" via the small platforms and death pits of a typical end-level in Mario.

What happens is Gordon Freeman has all his equipment stripped away and replaces your most interesting item -- the gravity gun -- with a much more powerful version of the same item. Where before you could grab planks of wood and relatively minor items to complete gameplay challenges, now you could rip large panels out of walls and grab enemies, energizing them with a supercharged field of energy that destroyed everything that entered its throw-trajectory. It made dealing with enemies very easy, and puzzles were either new-but-easy or just super-sized versions of puzzles you had already mastered. But the novelty and sense of power kept me hooked gave me a thrilling antithesis to the usual end-game grind.

Some knock Half-Life 2 for a muddied and unsatisfactory ending -- I won't defend the quality of its climax -- but among its more-than-fair-share of amazing moments, it demonstrated that game design could make the final moments leading to climax thrilling rather than painful, and better mirror the pace of a dramatic arc.


  1. You may remember that I'm an incurable Half-Life 2 fanboy, but I think its ending is incredible. And yes, I'm talking about the actual ending with the G-Man that so many people hate. I'm embarrassed to be the classic snob that defends something by playing the "people who like it didn't get it" card, but I really think the way it ended was the perfect resolution (non-resolution?) to the themes that were explored through the entire game.

    Anyway, I'm ignoring the main point of your post, which I also enthusiastically and whole-heartedly support. Maybe I should comment on Monday's post and stay more on topic :)

  2. I just like comments -- off-topic is as good as on, as far as I'm concerned. For as emotionally enthralling as Half-Life 2 was in moments, I think I've mentioned before that I didn't totally digest the whole, and may be one of those who "didn't get it." I didn't dislike the ending; I just kind of shrugged at it. Would being more in-your-face with its themes take away their power? (I should use it as an excuse to play again.)

    Despite enjoying analyzing what I play, it's usually not done in the moment; I tend to just go with the rollercoaster ride, remember ups and downs were and reflect later on what might have caused it. The hopeful upside is that I absorb experiences a bit more similarly to the way Joe Public might (with a grain of salt, as being a game designer makes that a bit impossible). The downside is that if developers have a more cerebral experience planned for me, I more-than-often miss it.