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January 23, 2005

Four Minutes

It seems like not a lot can happen in four minutes. After all, four minutes is all it takes to steep a pot of french pressed coffee¹.

But in four minutes in Half-Life 2, you can

  • Learn to play catch with the gravity gun...
  • Overtake a heavily fortified position with the help of ant lions...
  • Pull into a friendly outpost on your dune buggy and prepare to defend it...
  • Make your way from basement to rooftop of an enemy-held building...

This last week, I've been playing Half-Life 2 in the mornings before I head upstairs to paint my sons' bedrooms. Typically I'll have a pot of coffee or two while I play, which stretches out into a couple of hours on most days.

Brewing a pot of coffee once the water's all boiled takes about four minutes in a french press, as I mentioned. But that time passes in an instant while I'm playing Half-Life 2. No sooner have I sat down and done something extraordinary than I'm up at the request of the kitchen timer to finish brewing. It is a mark of the game's genius that real time can flow so quickly while you're playing.

This genius isn't necessarily easily achieved, though Valve certainly makes it look easy. Having played through once for fun, I feel like I should go back and play through again, taking careful note of just how they do it. There's the story-telling, which is accomplished by methods both direct (moderately interactive cutscenes) and indirect (background). There's the million little audio touches, from the myriad sounds of each of your guns to the death throes of your enemies. There's the little graphical touches -- a bit of light on each of your guns, the motion of a character's skin as he walks away from you.

Each medium has its crucial elements, those building blocks that, properly executed, drives the work forward. In television, for example, it's the scene, usually no more than a couple of minutes in length. The first season of The Sopranos expertly delivered on each scene, which caused me to burn through those fifteen or so hours in just a week of watching. In music it might be the melodic line, or a recurrent theme (think opera).

I think that games have many crucial building blocks, from a micro level to a macro level -- and that's part of what makes producing a truly superior product really really hard.

One of the crucial elements for a first person shooter like Half-Life 2 is to deliver a compelling experience from the beginning of an enemy encounter to the end -- from enemy introduction to enemy death. If everything that's a part of that experience is great, that shooter has achieved that building block. On this reasonably micro level, Half-Life 2 does very well -- weapons are satisfying, the interface provides the required information with a minimum of fuss, enemies die well (with nice physics provided by Havok).

But with games, we need to take it a bit further -- that single element, repeated for hours and hours, can grow stale without something to drive you on. That's where the macro level can come in.

In Half-Life 2, there are a few things going on at the macro level. There's a storyline evolving, which drives you on if you're the sort of person who really enjoys storytelling in games. But there's also a good deal of gameplay variety -- vehicles, simple squad play, ant-lion control, in-engine cutscenes -- that keep it fresh from section to section.

I may come back and review Half-Life 2 again: the game developer in me wants to take this apart bit by bit and really understand what's going on from moment to moment. The player in me just wants to play it through again. Four minutes at a time.

¹I recommend the Bodum double wall press (called the "Columbia"), myself, in chrome. Keeps the coffee hot long enough to drink the pot.

Posted by Brett Douville at January 23, 2005 10:32 AM


And I'm the first to comment on the new blog! I win. Woo!

Posted by: Jamie Fristrom at January 23, 2005 12:45 PM

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