Monday, July 6, 2009

Half-Life 2 - Constant gameplay introductions and their effect on game pacing

In my opinion, Half-Life 2 (HL2) is an example of impeccable game design. For a couple weeks now I have been mulling over in my head on how to approach writing about this 5 year old game that still sets a measuring bar which in my opinion, most games fail to reach. My intent was to approach HL2 by describing the inginuity of how Valve changes the gameplay mechanics from chapter to chapter, always introducing a new way to interact within the boundaries of their game. Upon reading Mark Sivak's entry in the Well Played collection (, I had been beaten to the punch. Mark's essay includes a chapter by chapter break-down of HL2, exploring how Valve create highs and lows in their gameplay, and how the chapters themselves, while fitting into three categories, differ.

I recommend you read the essay yourself, but perhaps I will just explain my own thoughts on the subject. I was never as indepth as Mark while musing over how the gameplay changes from chapter to chapter but I can break it down as follows...

Narrative establishment
FPS action
Introducing vehicles via the airboat
Gravity gun
Survival Horror (Ravenholm)
Driving section
Antlion avoidance
Antlion control
FPS with Alyx & turrents (defence points)
Squad combat
Stryder takedown
God gun
Narritive conclusion

Now those of you that have played HL2 might understand this list (perhaps not also as it is rather simplistic). Other mechanics were introduced in these sections (such as using the rocket launcher to take down airships during the driving section), but for my playthroughs and recollections, this is how the game split its mechanics up. Every chapter introduces something new within the confines of the game's rules. Some sections are story driven, some combat driven, but the pacing of HL2 does a great job of propelling the player forward (and it's not a short game by any means).

What's also interesting to note is that the episodes that followed HL2 follow this path as well. Episode 1 (Ep1) and Episode 2 (Ep2) change their mechanics chapter to chapter. The difference I feel is that being shorter experiences, the change in mechanics is not as substantial, as everything that happens in these games from start to finish feels like a unified goal (while HL2's narrative consisted of goals that changed as the story unfolded). Ep1's goal is to escape City 17 and Ep2's goal is to reach the rocket.

Next time you play through HL2, Ep1, Ep2, or the upcoming Episode 3 (Ep3), take notice of how the gameplay shifts even minutely during different chapters, and try and place how this affects the pacing of the overall game itself. Valve have become quite good at pacing, and the constant introduction of new gameplay mechanics I believe is the greater part of why this is.