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Half-Life 2: The Bridge Scene

So I replayed Half-Life 2 last weekend, due in no small part to Spoiler Warning‘s week-long coverage of it. (Now I can say I beat it on hard mode. Woo!)

Half-Life 2 is a very polarizing game. That’s inevitable for any game with so much critical acclaim. There will never be a game that everybody likes (with the possible exception of Plants vs. Zombies) and if somebody dislikes a game that everybody else appears to love, the instinctive reaction is to rage against it.

I’ve seen this happen with Portal, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Halo, Farmville, Team Fortress 2, the list goes on.

So when you play Half-Life 2, you’ll either love it or despise it. There is no middle ground. You’ll think it’s either a shining example of fantastic interactive storytelling or a cavalcade of mediocrity and boredom.

And if it isn’t already clear, I am of the former.

And I’m glad Spoiler Warning did this special block for Half-Life 2, because I always knew it was a really great game, but there were many little things they pointed out that I hadn’t even thought about when I played the game before. When they pointed out the flawless introduction to the Barnacle in their third episode, that blew my mind. If id Software designed this game, the camera would have been wrestled from the player to zoom in on the barnacle for several needless seconds just to make sure you know that HEY, THIS IS A MONSTER. SHOOT IT.

Valve really knows what they’re doing when it comes to visual design, storytelling and pacing, and it’s depressing to see that so few other studios have picked up on it.

So I figure I might as well jump on the bandwagon and spill out some praise for this game. And they didn’t get to show my favorite part of it, so I want to talk about that today. It’s a sequence that thrilled me and terrified me so much that it’s stood out for me as the most memorable scene in the whole game, one that I couldn’t wait to get to again in my new playthrough.

And no, it wasn’t in Ravenholm.

Don’t get me wrong — Ravenholm was a cool level. The atmosphere was solid, the traps were fun, and I loved how it let you utilize the gravity gun by grabbing and firing all the saws and barrels lying around. But other than that it just didn’t feel very special to me.

Anyway, I’m referring to the bridge scene in Highway 17. And if you haven’t played the game or can’t remember what I’m talking about, let me fill you in.

Now, part of what makes Valve so great is that they’re willing to try new things. They’re not afraid to change up their formulas and see what comes out of it. So with that in mind, I’m going to try something I’ve never done before: I’m going to describe the scene in second-person narrative form. This might technically classify as a text-based Let’s Play, but whatever.

Go easy on me, it’s my first time.

The gate to your next destination is blocked by a force field. To deactivate it, you must press a button located on the opposite side of a bridge.

A horribly mangled bridge.

You see no alternative to get across, so after taking a deep breath, you jump onto the piece of staircase. Once you can tell you’ve stuck the landing, you walk slowly across the few metal poles holding the whole bridge together.

You reach the first building, empty save for one headcrab. Once you start walking across the next few poles, the entire bridge begins to rattle and shake. All you can do is move forward, holding your breath and hoping that the bridge holds together.

Thankfully it does, and you reach the second platform. Here you find a crate full of rockets next to a rotting corpse.

You hear gunshots from the distance. It seems even broken bridges aren’t out of reach of the iron hand of the Combine.

Fortunately by this point you have a full arsenal of weapons, and two Combine troops is hardly a challenge.

A bit more walking and you reach the end of the bridge. Here you find an outpost full of troops, and after wiping them out you finally find the console that controls the gate.

You deactivate the bridge. Moments later you hear more gunshots. Outside the window you see a gunship firing at your position.

You have a rocket launcher, but you’ve only got three rockets in stock, and that’s not enough to destroy it. Then you remember the rocket crate on the bridge.

Seeing no other option available, you can do nothing but run to the crate.

The first time you crossed the bridge, you had the option to be careful. You were in peaceful solitude. This time you have to run. Caution is not an option.

You sprint across the bridge as quickly as you can. You feel a few inevitable shots strike your HEV suit, and wonder how many more shots you can withstand.

Finally you reach the crate, and use all the rockets you must to take down the ship.

Eventually the ship falls into the water. With no other immediate danger present, you walk back to solid ground.

So yeah, there’s a number of reasons why I love this scene. Every bit of it is designed cleverly to look cohesive and believable while also fitting together to form a tight jumping puzzle (or rather, a “walking” puzzle, I suppose). The first time you cross it feels tense walking across this broken, ruined bridge and hoping none of the pieces fall off when you step onto them. The second time you cross it feels tense because you’re being chased by a gunship.

Valve talked about this technique of theirs in their Lost Coast developer commentary. When they introduce you to a big set piece, they let you explore it first and get a feel for it. They’ll often include it with a puzzle so you have to really examine the area to figure out what to do next. Then, once you’re really familiar with the area, they throw the combat at you. That way you don’t end up overwhelmed.

It’s not a very long scene. It’s concise and it’s only as long as it needs to be. But those moments crossing the bridge for the first and second time gave me a sense of unease and excitement that few games can hope to match.

If anybody wants to say that first person platforming just doesn’t work and doesn’t add to an experience, I think this sequence would serve well as a counter-point.

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3 responses

  1. Yeah, I have to agree with… pretty much everyone: the reason Half-Life 2 works for some and falls flat for others is that it tells a story by not explicitly telling a story. The barnacle thing is a good example, and I agree that if it had been in Doom 3, that raven bit would have been a camera-stealing cutscene.

    My little brother actually doesn’t like Half-Life 2 at all. He thought it was boring, that it didn’t tell you anything and just let you loose on long stretches of walking-and-shooting-dudes. I thought it was pretty good for pretty much the same reasons.

    Also: I’m totally reading that descriptive text in the Twilight Zone announcer’s voice.

    July 25, 2011 at 3:22 PM

    • Now I want to see a whole Let’s Play narrated by someone impersonating Rod Serling.

      July 25, 2011 at 4:38 PM

      • JPH

        Challenge accepted.

        July 25, 2011 at 7:00 PM

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