Criticism

The War Came Down on Us Here: Domestic Space in Half-Life 2

‘O the crossbones of Galway,
The hollow grey houses,
The rubbish and sewage,
The grass-grown pier,
And the dredger grumbling
All night in the harbour:
The war came down on us here.’
– Louis MacNeice, ‘The Coming of War, Section VII’

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Driving along the coast in Half-Life 2 is my favourite part of the game. For me, it reinforces the biggest change between the game and its predecessor, which is scope. Half-Life takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single underground research facility, whereas the second spans a vast stretch of the world in which it’s set; going from City 17 to Eli’s bunker, through Ravenholm, along the coastal road to Nova Prospekt, then back to City 17 again. Half-Life is structured like an anabasis from Hell, whereas Half-Life 2 is more like the Odyssey, and it is during this driving section* that I feel this sense of voyage reaches the height of its power as the bombast of the section’s action set-pieces is punctuated by the quietude and solace of driving alone on the open road, waves crashing on the cliffsides below you.

The threat in this section comes from the outposts that Combine forces have established in houses along the coastal road, and this ties into what I think is the other big change between the two games. The spaces in Half-Life are largely industrial: you navigate elevators, air ducts, offices, processing plants, silos. These are present in parts of Half-Life 2 as well, but there are a lot of chapters where the setting is more domestic. There are the apartment blocks of City 17, the clustered houses of Ravenholm, and, along the coastal road of the driving section, a small handful of seaside cottages. Here, I want to focus on these latter houses, how they function in the coastal road section, and how they reflect the themes of the game spatially.

The first thing worth pointing out about these houses is that a good number of them can be skipped. I count fourteen houses, or clusters of houses on the road during the vehicle section. Of these, half required the player to get out of the buggy and interact with them (either as the setting of a fight with a small contingent of Combine forces or as a puzzle that has to be solved to let your buggy through) in order for the player to proceed along the critical path. The other half all contain enemies, loot, or both, but can easily be driven past without affecting the progress of the game in any appreciable way. Instead, these houses have a thematic relevance that grounds the narrative of the Half-Life world in these incidental architectures. Take, for instance, the second house you encounter in “Highway 17”.

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