The Xen Files: Half-LifeBy Kyle Mann | January 3, 2012 | Editorials | No comments | Share
With DeltaGamer’s recent shift to more original content, we’ve created a few regular series examining game design of both current games and favorites of years past. While all of us love to lavish praise upon games that we adore, in this weekly column, The Xen Files, we’re going to be taking a look at poor game design decisions, awful moments in gaming history that will forever live in infamy. Whether the game is loved by all or universally reviled, each week will bring with it a reminder of failed level design, bad execution, a lack of playtesting, and what these things can do to bring a gaming experience to its knees.
For the first Xen Files, we’ll be looking at classic shooter Half-Life, whose final levels on the inter-dimensional world of Xen comprise the namesake of this column. I’ll be the first to stand up for Valve and the Half-Life series if anyone dares to dishonor the sacred franchise; in fact, Half-Life 1 and 2 make up my two favorite games. I’ve played through all the games in the series on multiple occasions, and I await Half-Life 3 with bated breath. At the same time, however, even a superfan like me can admit that the Xen levels were poorly thought-out as well as badly designed and executed.
A quick rundown for the uninitiated: in the first Half-Life, theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman goes to work at the Black Mesa research facility just like any other morning, only to get caught up in an alien invasion and an attempt at a government cover-up. Working his way through the depths of the compound, Gordon eventually links up with a core group of surviving scientists who are forging a desperate effort to repel the attacks by closing off the interdimensional rifts. As part of this long-shot plan, Gordon is recruited to fling himself into the homeworld of the hostile alien life, less an actual planet and more a disjointed series of shards floating somewhere in time-space.
From a storyline perspective, it makes about as much sense as one could reasonably expect of a science fiction plot. We can all buy the idea that the only way to stop the enemy is a nearly hopeless mission into the heart of enemy territory, as this plot device we see many times in modern fiction and film. But the story isn’t the reason Xen took so much flak from critics and gamers alike–the problem with Xen was that it was a mechanical leap from everything the player knew up to that point, tossing aside all the player’s combat and puzzle-solving training from the first chapters of the game and forcing him to learn a whole new set of rules.
You see, leading up to Xen, Half-Life was a relatively slow-paced thinking man’s shooter. Puzzles had to be solved, soldiers had to be shot, a few short gaps had to be jumped. Then, the player is jarringly yanked to what feels like a totally different game: huge, impossibly precise platforming challenges comprise the bulk of the gameplay. Logical level design gives way to seemingly random arrangements across the alien landscapes. Rather than weaving through environmental obstacles while battling a large-scale war against two very different enemies, Gordon simply bounded about, shooting the odd alien or two.
It’s not that a well-done level of that sort wouldn’t ever work in any game, but that it should certainly not have been tacked on to the otherwise brilliant Half-Life debut. Even the boss fight was an eclectic mix of low-gravity platforming and tired “big bad” convention. The whole segment just felt rushed and unnecessary, and the whole experience would have shined all the brighter without the Xen borderworld tarnishing its otherwise brilliant surface. Thankfully, Valve abandoned any notion to return to the abhorred alien space in future sequels–at least so far.
Don’t establish a gameplay pattern, training your game’s players throughout the course of a campaign, only to shift every last rule at the final moments of the story’s crescendo. It’s like those “Peanuts” strips wherein Lucy rips the football out from Charlie Brown’s extended foot at the last minute, causing him to fall in humiliation. Keep your game’s rules as consistent as possible, then challenge the player within the framework of those guidelines. Oh, and finish Half-Life 3.