‘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’
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”.
It’s a lone cottage, small with white walls, sitting atop a rock formation that juts out of the land over the beach. As you approach it, you see that the outside wall has been graffitied with a skull and crossbones. The door is locked from the inside, and by walking around the house you can see that the only way in is by moving debris away from the outside basement entrance. As you enter, you see an artillery shell that has torn through the house and released a payload of parasitic headcrabs. Looking up, you see the destroyed ground floor, the hole in the ceiling that the shell came through, and the headcrabs that now infest the house.
The significance of this scene starts with the significance of the space of the house. As domestic spaces, houses offer a space for people to exist outside of the public sphere, and offer a sense of rootedness and continuity. A house is a space within which we contain the notion of “home”, and through dwelling in the home we can exist as private individuals. Bachelard talks about how ‘outside and inside form a dialectic of division’,** and this dialectic informs the way we conceive of the house-as-space. Inside the house is the home, is privacy, is a space which is, if not legally then at least spiritually, “ours”. Any unwanted incursion into the house from the outside world is seen as a violation; think of unwanted guests, burglaries, evictions. It destabilises the house as a private space and undermines any sense of rootedness that we get from a space that we think of as being our own.
What is being played out in this scene is the violation of the private sphere by an invading force. The decimation of the space of the house by the shell reflects the wider narrative of Half-Life 2, in which Freeman becomes the figurehead and de facto leader of the human resistance against an invading alien force. Every person you meet on your odyssey is fighting to restore the stability and continuity of home that is reflected by the domestic spaces that you navigate. This second house is off the critical path, and the player does not need to get through it to proceed. Instead, the house gives the player a moment of pause, diverting from their purpose to show them a microcosm of the game’s themes played out in the architecture of a seaside cottage.
For me, the whole scene is tied together when you leave the house, stepping onto the rocky outcrop once again, looking out on the coastline of a quiet and ravaged world with no sound of music or bullets, but the thud of the Restrictor and the lapping of the waves.
*- This section spans from the beginning of the chapter “Highway 17” to part-way through “Sandtraps”.
**- The Poetics of Space, p.211.