Let's talk about Half-Life 2 for a minute, and hopefully its still current enough we don't have to jump into the Wayback Machine. I bought The Orange Box as my reward for getting a new job. I really just wanted to play Portal, because the Internet community can't shut up about it, and I know they're offering the individual games up soon, but I didn't want to wait (I couldn't since I have a two month old and no time), plus it was a hell of a bargain - Half-Life 2 + Episode 1 + Episode 2 + Team Fortress + Portal. I just got finished playing all the Half-Life 2 content, and I've got to say, as far as storytelling, I'm not impressed.
Why am I not impressed? Because not enough backstory is explained. Like I said in my essay about Shadow of the Colossus, if I don't know why I'm there, why should I do anything.
When you start Half-Life 1, you know who you are and where you are by the time you finish the tram ride. By the time you shove the crystal up the laser's ass, you know who's important and what's going to be important. And by the end of the game, you know what happened, why it happened, and what's probably going to happen next. I loved the sensation that you start as this genius MIT physics geek, hand-picked to work in the most advanced and secret scientific facility in the world, and you seem to be nothing more than a cart jockey.
As the game went on, you were introduced to plot twists (the marines infiltration, the animal testing area) that kept the revelations going, while keeping intrigue (the G-Man, lambda complex) to have the character guessing what all this means. By the end of the game, I was satisfied, but eager for more. Not so with Half-Life 2.
Half-Life 2's biggest problem is that you're instantly teleported from Half-Life 1 to 2. No explanation why, no transition from one to the other. The G-Man says some cryptic shit, then you appear on a train. Why am I on a train? Where am I going? Who are these guys with me and when did denim get so popular? Who's that guy on the TV screen? Where did he come from? Am I in City 17? What happened to Cities 1-16? Not good enough for City 7, am I? Is the world in trouble? Where'd my guns go? Did I stop the Xen aliens? Where am I supposed to go? Who are my friends here? Who is the enemy? How long have I been out? What happened while I was gone? Will there be cake?
Only half these questions are ever answered, and then, sparsely. Unless I looked on the Wikipedia, I would never know that Dr. Breen was the former administrator of Black Mesa, or that the Combine are here to harvest Earth's water and change the chemical composition of the air. I would never know that the Vortigaunts are now friendly and why they are friendly. Yet the headcrabs aren't. If this was real life, there'd be a lot of Vortigaunts limbs lying around City 17 right now.
So all of this boils down to 'what should I be doing?'. This is the first question I ask myself when I start a video game. When Cloud bounced out of the train, that was the first question I asked, and it was answered quickly (blowing up an evil energy reactor as part of a eco-terrorist organization). In Resident Evil 4, when Leon rolled out of the car into some Spanish villa, I knew where I should go (start exploring and discover the zombies). In these cases, there are clearly defined enemies, allies, and motivations. Unless I know what I'm doing and why, I just can't get into the game.
The other reason Half-Life 2 fails to produce emotional attachment is the lack of compelling characters (and this ties into the motivation for the player). You wanted to seek vengeance for Aeris. You wanted to save Rinoa from space. You wanted to see what Midna had to say. Half-Life 1 didn't really have compelling characters either, but it made up for it with compelling character models, such as Barney the security escort, and the headcrabs. These didn't become memorable because of who they were, but because of their behavior, which was part of the game mechanic.
True, Half-Life's audience isn't the same as Twilight Princess's audience, but at least Half-Life 1 had the newness behind it. In Half-Life 2, the programmers created even more newness, but didn't exploit it. The Combine are little more than targets. The headcrabs have no new information revealed story-wise (besides they like watermelons). The ally characters are hardly more than background noise.
Alyx is a memorable and popular character, but she's not much more than a partner. She doesn't initiate things, she doesn't have a history, and her personality is the same as everyone else. Who else do we got? The bumbling Dr. Kleiner? The wizened Eli Vance? The Vortigaunts? They're nothing more than rest stops to break up the action. They don't dispense anything useful and they don't move the plot. The only character I wanted to see more of in the future was Lamarr.
Besides, the whole point of Half-Life is that you are Gordon and Gordon is alone. I should feel more alone, more empty, like in Silent Hill. Half-Life 2's world is vast, but not empty. It's detailed, but not thematic. I feel like they created this beautiful dam and then plopped some Combine soldiers in there for me to shoot, like Hogan's Alley.
So how do you tell back story well, without boring the player with ten-minute long intros or endless files to read? (I'm looking at you Resident Evil) Well, God of War put you right in the action, and explained Kratos's backstory in periodic flashbacks. But this probably wouldn't work for Half-Life because the nature of its storytelling was always from the perspective of the player, and it never deviates. God of War is all about high action, quick events, and visceral art. Half-Life is about life-like detail, realism, and freedom.
Twilight Princess used Midna as a medium, as well as other characters. As the both of you confronted Zant, their dialogue revealed what happened to Hyrule. But the Combine don't talk to each other, and Dr. Breen never calls to say hi. All you know is what the rebels know, and they always seem to get interrupted when they're going to tell you something. That's irritating to a gamer. Let the brother talk, man. Let's see the seven-hour war. Let there be a few meetings to discuss the current situation. Let me pick up a newspaper and read it. That way you can allow the player to be Gordon (and never a movie viewer) and still keep the game consistent.
I feel like Half-Life 2 didn't capture the same spirit that Half-Life 1 created. It didn't have the same zest, the same alien themes. It replaced the intrigue with unanswered hanging questions (the difference between the two is the desire to learn more and how much becomes revealed/resolved). Whenever you make a product based on existing material, such as a movie based on a book, you can basically do anything as long as you stay within the spirit of the material.
That's what Mortal Kombat (1) did. That's what Silent Hill did. That's what Batman did. Even Resident Evil 4, a radical departure from the gameplay, was still awesome because you were still fighting zombies in scary enclosed places. They kept the fans happy because they kept true to the spirit of the source material. They didn't make Leon fight in an nu-tech industrial warehouse. They didn't make Batman into a struggling teenager trying to cope with his identity as a superhero.
So, despite it winning this year's Gamespot award for best story (which I think was really for Portal, so I don't know why they didn't just give it to Portal itself instead of the Orange Box), Half-Life 2 gets a C+ for storytelling. Okay, not great. Now, I must return to my computer to catch the end of a thousand year old Final Fantasy rom hack.