Half-Life 2: Level Transitions

If there’s one thing the Half-Life games do well, it’s keep the player playing. Partly they do this by keeping the gameplay varied, following up an intense firefight with a puzzle area, or a tunnel crawl where headcrabs leap at you from close up with a rooftop scene where you have to take down a flying gunship by means of steerable missiles.

More insidiously, though, they keep you playing by simply never giving you permission to stop. Most FPS games divide play into levels, and make it very clear when you go from one level to the next, usually in advance, making it easy to say “I’ll just finish this level and quit”. In Portal, for example, level transitions are signalled by arriving at an elevator. When you get in the elevator, the next level loads, as signalled by the word “Loading…” appearing in the middle of the screen. When you emerge from the elevator, the first thing you see is a sign indicating what level you’re on — the idea of levels is part of the story as well as part of the underlying technology. When you reach the point in the story where the levels stop, you no longer get the elevators, but you still occasionally get that “Loading…” message as you walk along.

And that’s mainly what happens in Half-Life. The transition is something you don’t see coming, and once it happens, you’re already in the next level, so you might as well keep playing. Beyond levels as unit-of-loading, the game is divided into Chapters, which are units of story and which are often themed around new gameplay elements (kind of like in DROD). But even the transitions between chapters are subtle, only signalled by a chapter title briefly overlaid on the screen while play continues as normal. The new weapon or monster or whatever that defines the chapter doesn’t necessarily show up right away, either.

The game is not without obvious stopping points — every once in a while there’s a Resistance base where you can replenish your ammo and listen to people talking plot. But I’ve been finding that I don’t stop at those places. I stop when I’m repeatedly failing to get through a fight. I figure that if I’m making no progress, it’s because I’m approaching it wrong, and should try it with a fresh mind later. This means that my typical session starts with a tough battle. This can’t be what the designers had in mind.

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