On the beach

Some milestones in video game history just race past me. When I finally got to play Half-Life 2 shortly after its release, after much anticipation, I wasn’t particularly impressed. Much of it seemed arbitrary, empty and inconsequential, and also less refined than its predecessor. Great animated faces and physics gimmicks seemed to me like glitter on a tech demo.

It therefore took me almost seventeen years before I wanted to get back on the train to City 17. The countless references and comparisons, in which Half-life 2 was used as a pioneer for this and that, and not least the never-dying hope for a final third part, are also partly to blame for this.

Perhaps it’s also our not exactly apolitical everyday life that makes me experience the first steps in Gordon Freeman’s skin much more intensely than at the beginning of the noughties. The oppressive regime installed by a foreign superior power, forcing me to flee from a police apparatus across alleys and through narrow hallways, seems disturbingly authentic. The prefab aesthetics and abandoned playgrounds do the rest.

I squeeze through air shafts and sewers, speedboat down sewers, and escape the heavily armed state force (if you can call it that) again and again by the skin of my teeth. A short breather with friends in the underground – a group of scientists – ends with the realization that I now have to fight my way through a city full of zombies in the middle of the night. Thereby it was said before, we didn’t go to Ravenholm anymore.

Only with the help of a real martyr do I reach the subsequent game section, which finally shows me what Valve so brilliantly kicked off so many years ago. In a beach buggy I race along a coast fogged by dawn. In principle it goes, as in the hours before, always only in one direction: Straight ahead. But on these beaches, in addition to sand, there are houses where people must have once lived, lighthouses that were once something other than ammunition depots of the underground militia. Now they are infested with danger – either the trigger-happy Combines, headcrabs and zombies, or the oversized molehoppers called ant lions.

As an impatient youth, I only saw the loot in the individual stops off the road, only the hopefully next best weapon and was disappointed when the price/performance ratio of some detours was beneath contempt. What I see today are the stories hidden in environmental storytelling: boarded-up windows of a once idyllic house on the cliff, in whose bedroom someone didn’t manage to escape the headcrabs and now spends a miserable half-dead existence there. A small farm that must have been overrun by the Combines and now serves as a barricade for public enemy number one, namely me. And these strange shockwave devices, which are supposed to keep the mass of ant lions, which react sensitively to vibration, in check.

On my road trip, I only have to actually stop at a few of these stations to make progress in the game. And yet they are there to give my journey meaning. And it’s also here that I first realize how well and robustly the incorporation of physics mechanics works, and that Breath of the Wild’s Shieka Stone also has a Gravity Gun built into it.

I’ve long since left my buggy when my journey is recontextualized once again, as I gain the ability to now use the formerly fiercely fought giant locusts as my allies. With their help, I am to break into a maximum security prison. I use my entourage of NPCs as equal parts cannon fodder and storm front, and can’t remember the last time I had this much fun on an escort mission.

Half-Life 2 was released in 2004 as a sequel to the much-praised Half-Life from 1998. Both games were developed by Valve and are considered the forefathers of modern shooters, differentiating themselves from the more arcade-heavy Dooms, Quakes or Unreals of their time by emphasizing storytelling and immersion through more realistic settings. With Half-Life: Alyx, a much praised VR spin-off was released in 2020, which unfortunately could only partially compensate for the hunger for the once planned but never released third part.

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