Half-Life 2 – Aesthetic Review

It’s noisy and uncomfortable, mechanical and pseudo-colloquial, both familiar and alien. Five o’clock shadow, short and well-managed hair, but something about the eyes is as off-putting as the voice. The thing speaks, but it speaks the same way a Speak-and-Spell does, just a little too tinny and uninflected. It speaks in abstracts, concepts that relate in English but not to the context we’re born in. This not-quite-human is speaking at me, not to me. Maybe I’m something similar, but I am most certainly not a person. Persons can act, persons can move, persons can feel, remember, understand. I can’t.

As the noise relents, I find myself on a subway car, moving to a place I’ve never been, from a place I can’t remember. The other riders seem surprised to see me. I’m a little surprised to see me, too. We get off the train, and it feels a little terminal. Prisons have a certain sterile order to their architecture, a way to direct the eyes, thoughts, and personalities through a funnel of authority. Travel hubs are called “terminals,” too, but rarely feel as halting as this place. Ushered here and there. Fences are walls. Fingers grasp between the slats in the metal. Humans plead with other humans, as if there are only other refugees to plea to.

Turn the corner, reach a fence, wait in line, follow orders, stand in place. It all feels like it’s hemmed in, but in my newfound freedom of movement—birthed by the modulating voiced alien relinquishing control—I don’t feel as walled in as I should. There are cans to pick up, buttons to press, I can jump, I can crouch, I can blunder into things. When a guard threatens to pull me aside, I’m already shoving impatiently against their armor-plated back. While they walk, I’m peering through slats in doors. I am undermining the oppression with my insatiable curiosity.

When I’m finally in the room, the guard chatters and turns off cameras. I’m busy knocking over books with the head of a table lamp. When he takes off his mask, I don’t recognize the man who is supposed to be my friend. He introduces himself, and calls one of his friends. This friend should be one of mine, but I’m not entirely in the moment. I’m still enjoying the semi-wooden tumbling of a hardback novel, wondering why it’s so important that books fit within the physics but they have no titles or covers. The two other men discuss where I should go, and seem to emphatically blather about the importance of my being there. I’m stuck in a world where I could either stand stoically and listen to exposition, or continue to bash the spine of a novel into the doorknob to see if the telekinetic control I have on this book can survive trying to be forced into solid objects.

As Barney opens a door and ushers me through, I find joy in hurling the book as fast as I can. I am at-once Gordon Freeman and an Olympic shot-put competitor. My shot-put medium careens rigidly from the ceiling, and Barney hurries me out of the door, with the command-advice to use whatever I can to get outside.

I am again an agent, and also not. I can’t open the door again, I can only climb. Up and over, crashing into boxes, jumping, concrete, streets, swingsets, dolls, guards, corpses, victims, stairs, panic, rooftops, guards, guards, companions, and an elevator.

What’s happening around Gordon is fascinating, and ostensibly important, but I’m still not. I can’t be. Gordon Freeman is important, but whatever ghostly spirit I am isn’t. Everything that’s happening is happening to me, not because of me. Kleiner and Barney are friends, but they aren’t my friends. They speak to Gordon as a colleague, but I can’t join that. It’s a fraternity to which I have no access. So as they speak, I am curiously placing an old CRT monitor on a teleporter pad. Lights, sound, and it snaps several feet through the air. The doctor and Barney are speaking on important subjects, but I’m jumping up and down on a pet carrier trying to jump somewhere I wouldn’t normally try to get. I am just a ghost in this room, but I can press buttons and throw expensive chipboards through the air. Wouldn’t doctor Kleiner notice if I rubbed a cactus on his face?

As the teleporter succeeds and fails, one after the other, I feel as if I’m not really a part of this film. I’m a camera-man, or a crowbar-swinging dolly. Gordon is having a marvelous adventure, and I’m just here offering a hand. A swing here, a shot there. Things that happen happen regardless of how much attention I’m paying, so my input in this scene is about giving myself a purpose that the narrative doesn’t. Gordon wouldn’t be doing these things, but Gordon likely wouldn’t stand mute, staring into infinity. All of my behaviors are equal, which gives me a particular lack of reason to try to be anything. Perhaps Gordon Freeman really had lived his life through the lens of a player-character in a physics sandbox. While his professors gave important notes on a chalkboard about particle physics and specific mathematical proofs, Gordon was sprinting across the desks of his classmates, wondering how a man stomping on top of their notes didn’t disrupt their trains of thought or writing. Perhaps Gordon bunny-hopped up to the stage when he received his diploma from MIT.

The threat the patrols pose to Gordon feels immediate, but only in a mechanical sort of way. Shooting guards in their facemasks produces a thick spatter of blood on the rear wall, a small grunt, and a squeal of radio feedback on the Combine scanner to which Gordon has inexplicable access. Gordon gets shot, but the flashes of red and insistent voice of the HEV suit still feel disconnected and remote. Gordon grunts, and gasps rarely, but he never jolts. His aim never waivers. His shooting never has to stop. I’m entirely removed from the experience until death physically removes me from the experience. The movement of the dolly feels very robotic, very sterile. Jumping gives temporary acceleration that can be abused at will. Sprinting moves faster but confers no weighty momentum. Corners and slopes produce a weird kind of burden to movement that hinders the way a bicycle might, not like a pair of legs. I don’t feel right. Is Gordon an android? On some sort of tread?

The tunnels grow tighter, people continue to talk at Gordon, but I feel myself too far removed to really understand how it’s all of any importance. The lambda is painted on the walls, but I don’t feel its significance. I hardly understand why any of this is happening. The cameraman has no need to understand the script, supposedly, but it feels like I should. I have no horse in this race, though, and I don’t feel the game making an effort to include me. Throwing books across the room is no longer of any physics-curiosity importance, but I still feel no particular draw to looking at the person speaking at me. I feel like my decisions should be important, but they don’t feel important to me.

Outside, more aliens and bullets and explosions and water. My decisions are important here, but only because of my fragility. I don’t feel much satisfaction in rolling the explosive barrel down the slope toward the tongue of the alien hanging from the underpass. It feels like a puzzle given to a child: circle hole, cylindrical peg. Two shots with the pistol catch the barrel on fire, a third beat of silence, a fourth of explosion. Bones rain from overhead. But it doesn’t feel meaningful. This world hasn’t changed, just been made less immediately threatening. I cannot impact the world in any way beyond the superficial.

Black Mesa East feels a little more natural. Things still happen around me and at me, but here I feel something more akin to inclusion. Things are being explained to me and Gordon, when people ask Gordon things, they’re things I can do to. I don’t have answers, but I can swing a crowbar. I can shoot a gun. I can use a zero-point gravity field manipulation device. Dog likes to play fetch, and I like to catch. It’s the most fun I’ve had since the blue-tinged man dumped me in this world. I’m a little sad when the bombs start. I don’t particularly care about these people, they’re still strangers, but I enjoy interacting with the world in a way I can and I don’t want to see it go. I could finally, briefly do something other than fight or amuse myself. Things were no longer being spoken above me.

The fighting resumes, I separate from Dog and Alyx, and I go to Ravenholm. The alleys are dark and dangerous. This town feels cataclysmic. Screaming, fire, blades, bullets, traps, explosions, cackling laughter, climbing, running, jumping, zombies, deadly poison, shotgun, graveyard, and mines. Things are happening at me again. Perhaps this is what’s happened to the Speak-and-Spellien. Too many years of disconnected happenings, and everything else disconnects too. I’m in this world, but I don’t believe for a moment that I’m a part of it. As time goes on, I understand this world better, but it still feels something like an ant farm. There is logic and reason, but there’s still a layer of abstraction. I am just tapping the glass, I’m not in the dirt.

Somehow a rebellion coalesces around me. Gordon Freeman is a hero of the people, but I am a crowbar and an assault rifle. There are repeated attempts on my life, but in return I am given the opportunity to drive, to use a crane, to dodge sniper fire, to operate rocket launchers, to control colossal insects, to lead an armed riot. There’s a small, childish part of me that wonders if the disconnect I have with this world would feel the same in a child’s show. Would Dora the Explorer have liberated City 17 while speaking to me the same way? “Can you figure out you need to reload before Dr. Freeman does?”

At the end of it all, Gordon and I stand atop a tower. I am built on the shoulder of giants, empowered by a universe that has given my disembodied crowbar a path to this point, to the majesty of the moment, but it’s all so far away from me. The things that happen to me don’t happen because I’ve made them. I’ve been carried here by the hands and hard work of everyone around me, but they don’t recognize themselves. They recognize me. I wish they wouldn’t.

It ends as it began. Noise and discomfort. Mechanical but pseudo-colloquial. It’s just familiar enough, but still alien. I was never here. Gordon was. My android body, my floating steadicam, my crowbar, my antlions. It was a good film.

But I’m afraid I may have come away from it perhaps only barely touched, but unmoved.