I had originally bought The Orange Box for the PS3 because I wanted to play Portal on a console rather than a PC. The collection also came with Team Fortress 2, plus Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One and Two, and while I had always heard very positive things about Half-Life, I knew nothing else about the games and, frankly, had no interest in playing them. Eventually, I ran out of games on my PS3 that I felt like playing, and my curiosity began to grow in regards to trying Half-Life 2 and finding out just what everyone likes so much about it.
My initial experience with the game was unsettling, but that, strangely enough, is what kept me playing.
Games can make us feel a lot of things. Cary discussed this very topic a little while ago in her post about the top 5 emotional moments in gaming. We can be made to laugh or cry, or we may simply feel immense satisfaction after completing a tough challenge. Games can make us feel fear, as well, as is the case in horror games like Five Nights at Freddy’s and Slender. Even then, however, this fear doesn’t feel totally real. I might be scared, or startled, at the very least, but it never feels…personal, if that makes sense. I never felt in danger despite my anxiety over the next time Slender Man was going to pop up behind me. Yes, it’s creepy. Yes, I had a decent number of nightmares thanks to these horror games, but it still never felt real.
There’s something different about Half-Life 2. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe that was Valve’s intention. I think there are two main things to blame: this game is in first-person and has fairly realistic graphics, and for this reason, my environment felt pretty real to me. I think it’s this realism and the perspective that’s made everything that’s happened thus far feel a bit more personal, to the point that any uncomfortable situation made me feel threatened beyond how I would normally feel when in “danger” in a video game. It has been both stressful and, as I said before, strangely appealing because, as much as I love playing games, there is always a feeling of disconnect between me and the game. When my character is in peril, I don’t feel any of that danger personally, as I know there is no risk to myself. Of course, I know the same is the case with Half-Life 2, but sometimes common sense alone isn’t very comforting.
My first moment of anxiety came when one of the strange soldiers led me into this hallway. At first, I was like…um, okay…. Until a door opened, and I looked into a room containing a chair…and blood on the floor. At this point, game or not, a very real part of me felt pretty freaked out. Okay, changed my mind. I really, really don’t want to go in there. All ended up being fine, as the guy in the room was under cover and not an enemy as I had previously suspected. After that, I was left to my own devices, and I began wandering the city streets. I eventually found my way into an apartment complex, I believe. The people there were clearly nervous, and those soldiers were prevalent in the area, as well, blocking stairways and some of them even raiding one of the apartments. Needless to say, I kept my distance, feeling like there was something I should do to help the poor people in danger, but I was unarmed at the time and currently defenseless.
That was my first sign that something was up. The second came when a soldier cornered me. Expecting the worse, I winced, but all he did was push me a few times and leave. Again, this simple act left me feeling strangely threatened, and immensely relieved, that nothing more had happened.
It wasn’t long later when people started screaming. I began running for my life, feeling as if I had abandoned them to some cruel fate, but what could I do? I ran, and I screamed, and I got cornered. The soldiers closed in on me, and I suffered my first death of the game. And all within about a half hour.
This was really starting off great, wasn’t it?
My second attempt proved more successful, and after a prolonged period of fleeing from my pursuers, I found relief in the form of allies. To avoid any spoilers, I won’t get into detail, but it wasn’t long before I was back out in the open, armed with nothing but a crowbar. Gee, I feel so safe now. I eventually found a much needed gun, and I forged onward, with no clear goal but to keep moving and stay alive. The soldiers were relentless, and in my desperation, I recall multiple occasions where my health was low, and I had no choice but to quit being a coward and fight those scumbags head on when attempting to hide was only causing more harm than good. I can only imagine how it must really feel to be hunted down in such a manner, but let me tell you, I felt so alone. And hopeless.
Thus far, this game has been one of the toughest I’ve played. Your chances for a little breathing room feel few and far between. If I’m not being shot at, I’m discovering all kinds of new horrors in my environment, like these…things that hang overhead and try to drag you up to them if you accidentally step into their…tentacle, or what have you. Now sprinting from place to place in terror was no longer the best option, as it was very easy sometimes to run into these things if I wasn’t paying attention. And any rare time I would run into a human of the actually friendly variety, I was thrilled to finally see someone who didn’t want me dead for once. Ah, that’s always nice.
My last experience worth sharing at the moment was one of the most startling gaming moments of my life. About three hours in (about the time you get a machine gun), I found this tunnel. Curious as to what was inside, I crawled in and turned on my flashlight. I eventually found a body. Okay, creepy. And then, immediately afterward, this box broke open. Um…that was weird. And then, what do I see but a body crawling towards me.
Let me tell you, I was seriously scared at this point. I’m in this dark, narrow tunnel, with very little room to move and a light with limited power, and…I froze. I was unable to do anything but stare, for all but a few moments, and then I was shooting like mad. The thing stopped moving, and I crept closer to find it had been no more than a torso, with the poor victim’s head in the embrace of one of those freaky headcrabs, one of the only things about the games I knew about before playing. And people think lice is bad….
That moment was truly one of the most chilling things in any video game I have played. I could not stop thinking about it for the longest time, and I share it with you all now.
I don’t know yet what it is about Half-Life 2 that people love about it. I’m still early into it, so I’m sure I’ll find out in time. But for now, I know that I am already enthralled by the game’s ability to make me feel raw emotion, fear and anxiety and isolation, in just a few short hours. There’s a difference between dreading a tough boss fight and feeling inexplicably, personally in danger, even if my mind knows the threat is not real. I don’t know if any other game has made me feel these things like Half-Life 2 has. It’s…interesting to say the least. It’s the very thing keeping my going, and the very thing making me want to curl up in a ball and never play again.
I rarely start a game without completing it, and I shall continue to forge onward. I’m starting to get numb to the constant threat of being shot at. To be honest, I’ve become more aggravated than anything, and I have begun to get quite aggressive at those little robots that keep taking my picture. I have destroyed a decent number of them already in a rage. When I find a little peace, I don’t want those things coming up and flashing lights at me. Give me a little space, darn it!
Sigh, yeah…so I ask you all, which game or games feel the most real to you? And if you’ve played any of the Half-Life games, are your experiences similar to mine? (Or am I just insane…?) Please let me know in the comments below.
Half-Duck, Half-Gamer, All Poultry