Half Life 2 - An Appreciation Post

I’ve been thinking a lot about Half Life 2 recently. I recently booted up the game again for the first time since Christmas Day, 2014. Back then, I was trying to play through the game for the first time. This time, I’m going back to study what I remember about the game. To try to remember what makes Half Life 2, and the other Source Engine games, just so special.

Disclaimer: I never finished Half Life 2. I’m no expert on Valve, Half Life, or gaming in general. None of the stuff I’m going to say is new to the people who have played and appreciate this game. But I couldn’t help but going back and trying to understand why I still think about Half Life 2 years later.

Source Engine

I never played Half Life. I never finished Half Life 2. My first introduction to Steam, Valve, and the Source Engine came from Portal.

In Portal, the physics of the world are the star. The Portal gun and game mechanic is the catalyst that brings those incredible physics to the forefront. However, what I really remember from Portal, and later in Portal 2, is the world building that happened around the physics puzzles.

That said…the reason Half Life 2 is so compelling, and the reason why it’s the game I keep finding myself thinking about, is because the world of Half Life is immersive, alive, and huge in a way that Portal (by design) never is.

But the beauty and fun of the Source Engine isn’t lost in HL2. You still have puzzles. You still have the realistic physics. You still have incredible level design. And most importantly, you have that insanely deep implicit world-building and storytelling.

Directorial Freedom

Much has already been written about how incredible and organic the storytelling in Half Life 2 is. Never sitting through a cutscene. Always being in control of Gordon in the world. Being enabled to pick up, throw, or destroy anything around you. And, importantly, never getting stuck despite that freedom. It’s a marvel in video game design.

But I’m a ‘cinematic’ gamer. I come to appreciate games through my love of good stories, dramatic set-pieces, and beautifully shot scenes. I don’t get annoyed by cutscenes. In fact, what turns me off in a game is open worlds that don’t engage you with a storyline or make you stare at static NPC’s to get snippets of information.

Half Life 2 is different. Every corner of the world is injected with story. It is open and huge while also being direct and linear. The story compels you forward, all without anyone telling you what to do or where to go. It’s organic. It’s beautiful. You can participate in the set-pieces however you’d like, and it’s different every time.

And it is beautiful. Games in the Source engine, especially the original engine, have this crisp realistic feeling that other game engines have never since captured to me. It’s the lighting, the water, the textures. Every alley and room is crafted with care. It’s hard to explain, but you feel it when you play. It stands the test of time.

Let’s take a look at what I mean.

Half Life 2, Directed by AJ

Without any further ado, let me show you what I mean. Let’s walk through the first few scenes of Half Life 2 to illustrate some of the most compelling facets of the game that are on display from the start.

Scenes in the Train Station

Half Life 2 begins with you aboard a train being located to the mysterious City 17. Right away, you’re greeted with impressive views of the station’s tall ceilings and sterile lighting on worn and battered interiors.

station welcome

As you work your way through the station, you get more of this awesome world building.

Already, I begin to get the feeling that I’m directing a scene as I push the camera around the world. Take a look at these simple but beautiful next two panels.

Staring through this next dark hallway, you feel the oppressive nature of this facility already. It’s dark and grim, with busted tile, rusted equipment, and litter scattered about from those who were processed before you.

entering train station

Pushing through though, you’re met with more soaring ceilings and natural light. Like the architect/game designer intended, I couldn’t help but stare up at this huge room in admiration.


Of course, the perfectly placed animation of a NPC next to me calls out, and he warns me not to drink the water for fear of it being poisoned. Meanwhile, another NPC paces back and forth in front of the Departures/Arrivals signs murmuring endlessly about trains that never arrive. Just in case we forget we’re in a dystopia.

After being ‘processed’ and rescued from imminent torture, you’re faced with your first physics puzzle of the game: pick up a box and jump out a window.

The world building doesn’t end when you’re in the back alleys of City 17. I’m struck by even this ancient dark courtyard and it’s trash and overgrowth.


Pushing ahead, you’re back in familiar train station corridors. Another beautiful shot down this hallway with the natural sunlight casting rays on the walls and floors.

This antagonistic guard is about to introduce you to physics puzzle no. 2.

guard by trash can

Pick up the can. Throw it away.

guard by trash close up

And away we go.

More beautiful architecture, downtrodden NPC’s, and incredible lighting.

ticket line train station

Scenes in City 17

When you finally make your way outside the station, you’re met with a stunning view of the city street. Towering above is a massive skyscraper ascending into the clouds. The world feels old and new simultaneously.

city 17

Turning down the first side street, we’re met with a few compelling vignettes that continue to build out this world in subtle ways.

Here’s a look at the alleyway. It’s dim, lit by the natural sunlight at the end of the street drawing us clearly forward. To our left, the harsh fluorescent blue building light and another guard.

city 17 alley

If you approach, he warns you to stay back. Inside, a dark scene plays out.

city 17 alley guard back room

Further down the street, we run into a roadblock. Military vehicles and suddenly something out of a Dali painting as a massive creature trundles past between two buildings.

This is so cool to me. It colors this world so well, teases you for later, but doesn’t reveal too much. Plus, nobody says anything about it, and it happens in seconds of natural gameplay.

city 17 monster passing

Turning down the next alley, a similar scene. More guards, a man up against the wall and another prone on the cobblestones. Don’t go towards the blue light is a clear pattern.

city 17 back alley beating

Scenes in Apartments

We eventually make our way to an apartment courtyard, as the game pulls us forward with more natural yellow light.

Scenes like this one continue to impress me. Just this incredible architecture and level design that I see at a glimpse as a run forward through the game.

city 17 apt entry

Taking a left to avoid the guards and head upstairs, we make our way up into this apartment that is being actively searched.

This scene right here is always so cool to me. You turn down the hallway to see this scene playing out in the distance. Guards are busting down the door of an apartment and you immediately get the feeling for what is happening and who these guys are. You know you should be careful.

city 17 apt hallway 1

But don’t stare too long, because these guys are aware of you too.

city 17 apt hallway 2

Once you begin ducking into apartments, the fugitive feeling is real. No more appreciating scenes, because you’re sprinting past NPC’s to make it to safety. They keep you in the story though, shouting encouragement and aid as you sprint through run down apartments.

city 17 apt

I stopped to take a minute to admire this attic scene, though.

city 17 apt attic

The Lab

After your quick tour of City 17, you finally find Alex and make it into the lab. This lab is one of my favorite rooms of the game. You can tell it, too, has been elegantly crafted.

lab 1

Every piece of equipment is modeled down to the last detail. The computer racks and consoles look especially cool now in a retro-futuristic way. Spot the space-travel screensaver. Details like the rug flavor the scene in ways that are hard to describe, but don’t go unnoticed.

lab 2

And then you get your iconic suit. More epic hero lighting.

lab suit

After a trippy vision in teleportation-space, you’re back on the run.

Route Kanal

When you step outside the lab, you’re met once again with that ominous tower. The fog, the clouds, and the flock of birds that surround it give it a dramatic scale. You can run, but you can’t hide.

city 17 tower

In this portion of the game, you’re running and gunning through the city’s canals. The canals, too, look aged and weathered. Some of the games most beautiful shots happen in these dark spaces.

I had to stop here to appreciate the water. I could go on forever about my appreciation for video game water, but the water in the Source Engine is by far a favorite.

Just look at the water in this canal scene.

canal water

It’s crisp, reflective, and dynamic. It’s clear, with only a slight atmospheric tint to color it. It’s so impressive and so beautiful to me in a way that’s hard to describe.

Not all scenes are quite as pretty though. Half Life 2 does a good job of being scary too. Scenes like the one below highlight the danger you’re always in.

canal bloody scene

A few fellow refugees get gunned down, and you’re back in a sprint - running and gunning for your life.

Back in the tunnels, you only get a momentary reprise. I couldn’t help but watch this water sparkle before being interrupted by burning oil barrels falling down on my head through that hole in the ceiling.

tunnels water and light

Few more dead guards, and deeper into the tunnels we go.


This is the first true physics game I remember in Half Life 2. The cinderblock teeter-totter.

We’re met with a very clear lever, and no way up this tall brick platform. What else do we have? A room full of bricks.

block puzzle 1

A minute of hauling concrete later, and we’re up here.

block puzzle 2

Just another small, but satisfying, puzzle as a reprise from the battle.

Water and Light

Finally, I just wanted to take a moment to look at a few scenes I couldn’t help but capture.

A beautiful exterior. It is huge, deep, and layered. Look at the pooled water, the tunnels up ahead, the streets above.

canal exterior buildings

Later, in those tunnels, we get striking views of a dark tunnel emerging into light. The outside light bouncing off the water and glowing on the brick ceilings.

canal tunnels lighting

Outside in the canals, we get more water, sun, and another puzzle (learning to swim!).

canal water turbine

One Step in an Epic Journey

The amazing thing about this micro analysis of Half Life 2, is that we are at such a small % of the way through this game. And the game delivers this level of quality, beauty, and drama all the way through.

This is just an introduction to my appreciation for this game. I hope to continue to explore it, and games like it, and maybe someday I’ll be able to encapsulate my appreciation in a better way.

For now though, let’s just appreciate the incredible first act of Half Life 2.