Half Life 2 – Level Design Deconstruction
Developer & Publisher: Valve Corporation
Platforms: PC, PS3, and Xbox 360
Genre: Single Player First-Person Shooter
Guiding the Player through the Level
The Linear Path
Ultimately, it is impossible for the player to get completely lost or turned around within a Half Life 2 map because all of the levels are almost exclusively linear. No matter how hard the player tries, they will not be able to get off the course intended for that particular bit of gameplay. However, the designers at Valve used several different methods to ensure that navigating through these levels is easy and smooth, and the player is easily able to find the correct path forward should the space open up into a wider area.
Due to the fact that all Half Life 2 maps are built with BSP, the levels themselves are built using simple, geometric shapes. However, these simple shapes more easily allow players to pick out available paths within a space. Players are able to tell at a glance whether or not they are walled in, and are therefore able to more quickly deduce whether or not that’s a direction they can continue to travel.
This makes traveling through the levels a lot more intuitive, because players don’t struggle to know whether or not their current path is somewhere they can continue to travel.
Landscape and Distance Views
Half Life 2 often uses long-distance shots to allow the player to orient, both within the level itself and in the game as a whole. The towering form of the Citadel always allows players to place themselves within the scope of the world when they are outdoors. Within a level itself, giving the players the ability to see where they came from or where they are going allows players to track or revisit their progress. Seeing where they came from will allow a player to understand their progression. Letting them see forward will give them a hint on what is to come, and allow them to better prepare for the future.
A common method of guiding the player’s attention, the designers of Half Life 2 regularly use the difference between a well lit and a dark passageway to guide players intuitively onto the correct path. Whether that be the difference between a dark and light passageway, where the dark one is likely to dead end a short distance later, or guiding the player towards the open door in a row of buildings by having illumination stream through the door from an inside lamp. A similar method is used to attract player’s attention to medkits, with the glowing green light that makes them easy to notice.
In addition to serving as a great reward for exploration and reward a player’s curiosity and understanding of the level, pickups also serve as a great way to guide a player through a space where the path might not be quite as clear. Players know that they will be able to acquire pickups one way or another, so when they are placed in plain sight, it lets the player know that pickup is somehow accessible. Either they will reach that place in the future, or they already have some tool in hand to grant them access.
The Supply Box
The supply box is a unique and notable form of the pickup. Because the supply box drops are visually distinctive from other crates and always contain a goody that the player is most likely to need at the moment, supply boxes are a great way to both guide and engage the player, because they are more likely to try and seek them out (thus making the crates a great reward for exploration), and the player will travel directly to them if they are in plain sight, making it easier to guide the player through a larger area.
Fencing and Containment
Fencing is a very common method of containing the player within a level in Half Life 2. This is due to the fact that fences, unlike walls or boxes, do not block the player’s line of sight or their gunshots, but players and NPC’s aren’t able to walk through them. This helps to open up a space, without sacrificing the ability to direct the player.
Obstructions to player movement doesn’t have to come in the form of physical blocks, like walls or fences. Just as often, especially in the opening areas of the map, the block comes from NPCs, who prevent the player from going in a certain direction, and stand as a clear sign that “this is not the way to go”.
When the player first arrives in City 17 and is attempting to make their way to the lab, they are guided through the winding and seemingly sprawling streets of the city by two main obstacles. The first of these, only introduced right at the beginning of the city, are the checkpoint gates, which the player has been informed they can’t pass through. However, most of the other blocks in this level come in the form of Combine officers. At first they are passive, standing in the way of a certain route of travel. However, when Freeman enters a building in the middle of a Combine raid, the appearance of the various Combine officers requires the player to pick unoccupied paths to avoid running into, and being captured by, the soldiers.
Unlike pickups and level geometry, which are used to direct the player’s physical movement through the level, well-placed and well timed cinematics direct the player’s gaze rather than their direction. By using the motion of NPCs and objects, players can learn more about their world, or be guided to look towards the direction of something they need to see or do.
Engaging and Challenging the Player
The primary method that is used to challenge players is the enemies that are present within the level. Because most first person shooters are about twitch reflexes and quick decision making, the balance of enemies within the level, and what is standing in the way of enemies reaching a player. If there are more enemies in a narrower space, players are going to feel at greater risk, and the challenge of winning the fight will increase. When enemies are spaced further apart or more easily dealt with, the player will be able to progress forward with less stress.
Decision Making in Combat
The maps in Half Life 2 almost always ensure that there are multiple methods to take care of an enemy. While a standard shoot-out is always an option, there are oftentimes other methods available for dealing with enemies. In the beginning of the game this is primarily represented by explosive barrels and traps, but as the player starts getting access to more weapons more choices open up. This is especially true when the player is introduced to the Gravity Gun, and can start using multiple items in the environment as new, improvised weapons.
Surprise Attacks VS Standard Combat
The placement of enemies is always designed to give players a challenge, without being unfair. When players are exposed to standard combat, they are always given some sort of warning that it is about to come, giving them just enough time to react to what is approaching. However, if there is ever a situation where the player takes damage before they are aware of the enemy’s arrival, this attack will never be deadly, or put the player into a position where it is impossible to recover. This creates a feeling of fear, but the remainder of the nearby level is organized in such a manner that the player will not be put in a great deal of risk due to the attack, and will have an opportunity to recover before the next standard choice.
“Minigames” and other Path Obstacles
Even though most of the levels in Half Life 2 are fairly linear and straightforward to follow, they oftentimes cannot be traversed particularly quickly. This is due to the fact that there are many opportunities presented for players to do things as they explore the map. This most commonly takes the form of obstacles that have to be broken through with the crowbar, although it occasionally takes the form of little “minigames” that allow the player to change up how they are playing the game, solve a puzzle, or do something else that gains their interest.
The Purpose of a Room
Ultimately, every room in the Half Life maps have a reason for being there, and every room offers the player something to do or a unique experience. Some of these are as simple as clearing the path, but they can often be more complex, allowing the player to experience something new, interesting, or fun. This is the primary thing that keeps the repeating rooms in Half Life 2 so interesting, because the player is never simply trying to get through the space as quickly as possible. There is always something with which the player can interact.
The “Cool” Factor
Not everything put into Half Life 2 levels has a specific purpose when it comes to gameplay or progressing the plot. Sometimes things are put in because it is fun and feels satisfying. This can range from blowing things up unnecessarily, to getting your hands on a more powerful weapon or infinite ammo, to doing something that feels neat, like using a saw blade to shear through multiple zombies with the Gravity Gun. These moments allow the player to do something that causes them feel that they have done something particularly impressive or badass, and encourages them to seek out such opportunities as they travel.
The designers at Valve put in a great deal of time to add small details to the world that help bring the space to life right from the start of the game. As soon as Gordon steps off the train in City 17, he is greeted by the sight of trash rolling down the street. These little details never stop appearing, and are used to flesh out the story, normally by making the world feel more real, alive, and lived in, but also sometimes by offering the player the ability to gather new information.
Telling a Simple Story
Like most good storytellers, the designers at Valve do their best to allow players to understand a story through seeing it, rather than directly telling them what is going on. The most common method to do this is to take simple environmental details and let the player work out how they ended up that way now that they have been found.