February 3, 2012

Half-Life 2's opening: an example of good storytelling techniques in action

The g-man: the very first person you see upon starting the game. Kind of a creepy fellow.

In any sort of storytelling medium, one of the most important skills is to make the opening scenes immediately grab the viewers attention. In video games, this is especially important because if the player doesn't feel they're being engaged from the get-go, they're likely to shut the game off and never look back.

Crafting a good opening sequence, however, is hard. If story is to be a primary focus, then clearly you'd want to make sure the tone is set and groundwork laid quickly. That's how we often end up with heavy exposition.

Valve Software, makers of Portal and Half-life, and proprietor of the popular PC game storefront Steam, have a good understanding of this area. They forgo long explanations and refuse to take control away from the player whenever possible, instead inserting progression unobtrusively and quickly. For instance, Half-Life 2's intro.
Half-Life 2's introduction is great for many reasons, but two in particular stand out. For one, it doesn't take long for you to gain control. Anything that lets you start playing quickly is always welcome. And second, it doesn't outright tell you anything; it shows you.

Walking through the streets of City 17 reveals a lot about the state of the world following the events of the first Half-Life. Human kind is now enslaved by a masked, dictatorial race known as the Combine, who patrol the streets at all times and frequently raid citizens houses. Oppression is clear from the second you walk off the train leading into town. Citizens are forced to wear blue work uniforms and are often unjustly punished by their overseers. Security checkpoints are placed all throughout the station, the watchful eyes of the guards always on you. It's an unsettling atmosphere.

Once outside, the gravity of the situation truly hits home. Barren streets give off a ghost-town feel, security checkpoints and the occasional Combine cruiser being the only regular signs of life outside. The interior of living spaces looks old and decrepit, as though abandoned long ago and only recently taken up. Residents live in fear of their overlords, resigning themselves to merely counting the days until they become the target of the next raid to be taken god knows where.

All the while, large screens play propaganda that attempt to ease the populace. The speaker's calm voice and professional manner clearly an act, his speeches of a better life being an obvious farce merely to guise the corruption rampant throughout the city.

An example of how the Combine treat the locals. Seems that they find any reason they can to
administer their authority.

The place feels like a prison.

All that is conveyed not through words or cutscenes, but through visuals. The brief time spent jogging through the streets of that metropolis enough to show how bad the state of the world is. The incident at Black Mesa has taken a terrible tole on both human and alien kind. And never once does Valve spell out the situation or how it came to be. They trust the player to understand the circumstances, the influence of the last game's events being clear. And even if the player is not familiar with the series' debut, enough subtle hints are placed for the pieces to be aligned. It's rather incredible.

I've already had some experience with Valve's particular talents through the Portal games, but I'm still amazed at how effortlessly they handle story progression. Most developers assign such duties to lengthy, static cutscenes. That Valve's able to avoid that almost entirely is a testament to how seriously they take this matter. If everyone were to adopt their methods of doling out info, I think game stories everywhere would be much better off for it. (Better writing and acting wouldn't hurt either, though.)

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