Since my childhood, not sure why, I have been really into ‘top X of all time’ lists and discussions on many topics. Be it Wayne Gretzky, the Beatles, Citizen Kane or Half-Life 2. I always wanted to know what exactly made the majority of reviewers, critics or specialists in a given field put those in the top spots on the lists. Of course, not all disciplines of culture or media have their clear favorites, however I always needed to decide that for myself. I was curious about ‘the best’ and what it actually means to be ‘the best’.
Nowadays, thanks to my job as a game dev industry recruiter I have a chance of discussing different aspects of the game development craft with hundreds of industry professionals from all over the globe. Those fascinating conversations made me change the way I perceive games - not only from the perspective of a player, but also from the perspective of game developers.
The very first medium I was able to perceive somehow was definitely computer games. Having played hundreds of games on NES and SNES like everyone else in the 90’s Poland. I started to recognize them as something more ‘serious’ and rather ‘worthy’ only around the year 2000 when I got my first PC. Games like Baldur’s Gate, Unreal Tournament, TES:3 Morrowind, Starcraft and Warcraft 3 all shaped my taste buds and reinforced my belief that games are much more than just a mindless pastime. In the early 2005, when I finished playing Half-Life 2 for the first time, I felt it was the best video game experience I have ever had, however I wasn't able to tell why. Since then, thinking about it for many many hours, reading countless articles and finishing the game probably 20 times I think I have finally got my answer. The recent industry experience made it also much clearier to comprehend it all. G-Man, Antlions, City 17, Gravity Gun and Steam are the masterful elements making it so great. Wait… What? Why? What do you mean? Let me elaborate on those a little…
G-man is a mysterious character from the Half-Life 2, that somehow controls our protagonist in time and space. In some sense, we start thinking of him as the writer of the plot, which is the first element making that game so memorable . The immersive story of Earth’s fall to the Alien Combine and rise of the resistance is filled with lively characters, story twists and many mysteries which makes the player really eager to explore the game and advance to the further chapters. No game can become memorable without a great story, characters, and world – after all, we play games to explore worlds that were not given to us.
In the course of exploration of the game’s world, our protagonist ends up on beachy shores outside of the main city. There, he must face one of the most interesting and innovative gameplay elements in the video game history – the Antlions. Those huge bugs are really captivating as well as disturbing: they swarm around the player endlessly, unless we are really careful with our movement and avoid touching the sand and waking them up. Surprisingly though, at some point in the game, we obtain their pheromone and are able to channel their fury upon our enemies. In a space of 50 minutes, one of the most frustrating enemies in the game becomes one of the strongest weapons in the player’s arsenal. That’s why I have chosen Antlions to be the symbol of the next element making the game legendary – it’s exquisite gameplay. Hardly ever in the history of computer entertainment have we encountered so many different genres and types of gameplay in one product: from running away from the Combine police without a weapon, through zombie survival episode, to sieging up the streets alongside the resistance among many others. And guess what? All of those parts of the game are way more fun than in any other game.
The third element of Valve’s masterpiece I chose to showcase is its greatness - City 17, being the main location in the game. Superbly envisioned by Viktor Antonov it is a place like no other we have encountered before. It is a truly jaw-dropping landscape: a post-apocalyptic, Eastern-European city bringing to mind Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ with omnipresent surveillance from camera-drones and faceless officers of the Combine police. The city’s central part called the Citadel built by the aliens completes the bold and sharp, yet dire and hopeless feeling of the Half-Life world. The epic art direction of the games stays with the player long after finishing the game!
The penultimate factor that makes a game outstanding is its technical advancement exemplified here by superbly-designed and flawlessly executed weapon – the gravity gun. This piece in our arsenal is able to pull many different in-game objects from a distance and then throw them at enemies or relocate them to places that could not be reached by the player. In 2020, maybe it does not sound very innovative, however prior to Half-Life 2 there were no games in which we had fully functional physics systems where you could throw, break, move so many different objects and they acted almost like in real-life. Adding up numerous innovations in terms of animation, graphics, sounds or AI the game still does not feel old, so you can imagine how gargantuan of an impression it was leaving on the players back in the 2000's.
Last but not least, it would also be a shame not to mention the game’s impact on the industry which was even bigger thanks to the simultaneous release of Steam. As we all know this platform has changed the way games are published and sold to the players, however, in 2004 it was a very bold move, despite the fact that it was met with huge resistance especially in countries where internet was not something that common.
I hope this analysis of mine on the example of Half-Life 2 helped you guys to understand what building blocks make a spectacular, legendary and memorable game. For me and hopefully, for most players as well as critics those would be: plot, gameplay, art direction, technical advancement and impact on the game industry. Of course, a game can be great even if only one of those five elements is superbly executed. But you know what? Then it will not be a ‘Wayne Gretzky kind of game’ and that’s still fine, it is just me who likes to search for the best of the best in every medium. And, I really still do not know why it is the way it is ;)