Half-Life 2 is a game that’s invested in and wrapped around the language and mission of science. It offers puzzles based on physics principles like gravity or weight, and the game’s hero has a PhD in theoretical physics. However, looking back from the perspective of 2021, the series feels most like a celebration of the potential and promise of the video game form. In Half-Life 2, the heroes are a plucky group of physicists, pursuing knowledge in a field that has come to define the video game medium. Dynamic physics calculations underpin most game graphics, whether it’s the light spilling across a room, or flowing water, or bodies that ragdoll when you shoot them. The scientists in Half-Life 2 are exploring concepts like teleportation and theoretical physics, things at the absolute frontiers of human knowledge – and it’s hard not to think of how video games in turn have pushed at the limits, carrying out increasingly complex modelling and calculation on an utterly unprecedented scale. The computer on the Apollo 11 had about 4KB of RAM. The minimum requirement for your computer to run Half-Life 2 is 512MB of RAM – that is, 512,000KB. And that game is sixteen years old.
In playing Half-Life 2, we enter into a fictional story that echoes the experience of its creators. We take on the role of a physicist at the frontier of human knowledge in a game made by people who were themselves pushing at the boundaries of physics calculations in video games. As players, we get to share in that act of pushing, both by engaging in the fictional world and by solving the game’s physics puzzles. We don’t just observe Valve’s ground-breaking physics system: we’re expected to pick it up and use it, manipulating the environment according to the laws of physics so that we can proceed through the game. The context of the story thus speaks to the historical context surrounding the game’s systems. In both cases, you exist at the frontier of what was possible.
With all of that in mind, I want to look at how Half-Life 2 actually talks about science. This was, after all, first released in 2004. The New Atheists were just around the corner (Dawkins’ book was released in 2006, and Hitchens’ was ’07). It’s maybe not a coincidence that the rational skeptic crowd, who are largely modelled after the New Atheists, also have a large following within the gaming community. There’s a certain subset of Very Rational Logical Thinkers getting extremely angry about minorities in video games, and it just makes you wonder – did Half-Life 2 have anything to do with that? How did its depiction of science and the scientific process feed into the discourse we see today?
Firstly, obviously, the game is pro-science. The heroes are able to save the day by using their scientific knowledge. It’s the crucial toolset for overcoming the bad guys. It crops up both in the physics puzzles that you have to complete, and in the activities of your allies. You rely on inventions like the Gravity Gun, or the teleport system, or the zoological knowledge that gets you the pheropods and allow you to control the antlions. Science is how you save the world. It’s the profession of all of the main characters except Barney. The main villain is even a scientist, which – well, let’s talk about that for a second.
So the villain of Half-Life 2 is Dr Wallace Breen. If you’re not familiar with the story of these games, a bunch of aliens came to Earth in the original Half-Life, and Half-Life 2 shows the consequences some twenty years later. The aliens have completely taken over, and have appointed Dr Breen as humanity’s puppet leader. He answers to the Combine, the aliens, and is responsible for maintaining their repressive rule. You mostly see him making propaganda broadcasts throughout the game. Breen, like all the other characters in Half-Life 2, was at the Black Mesa facility, which is where the aliens arrived in Half-Life. He’s a scientist like all the others – he is, at least in theory, a proponent of the value and importance of the scientific method. Many of his broadcasts draw on scientific language, focusing on ideas like evolution and rationality. In one broadcast, you learn that the Combine have set up some sort of field around Earth that stops people from reproducing. Breen explains that this field is to help humanity overcome its primal instincts, which “coddled us and kept us safe in those hardscrabble years when we hardened our sticks and cooked our first meals above a meager fire and startled at the shadows.” He’s using the language of evolution – we have these instincts because of our genetic history, but we need to transcend them and become higher beings. “Instinct, therefore, must be expunged. It must be fought tooth and nail, beginning with the basest of human urges: the urge to reproduce.” In other moments, he decries the resistance movement as self-destructive, as trying to resist humanity’s evolution into higher beings. Again, he uses analogies from evolution. “Did the lungfish refuse to breathe air? It did not. It crept forth boldly while its brethren remained in the blackest ocean abyss … ignorant and doomed despite their eternal vigilance.” Breen rationalizes the Combine’s violent, oppressive control by pitching the language of scientific enlightenment against the dark forces of ignorance, superstition, and instinct. He uses the language and terms of the game’s heroes, deploying the same values in order to justify evil things.
And the problem is not the scientific language in itself. Half-Life isn’t suggesting that Breen’s behaviour arises as a normal consequence of scientific thinking. In fact, if anything, the opposite is the case. Breen is a liar. He says things that are not true. Where science attempts to describe the world as it actually is, Breen uses scientific language to obscure reality. Broadly speaking, the obscuring function of language is evident everywhere in the Combine’s actions. Local police are called Civil Protection, which is ironic, because you only ever see them assaulting people. The Combine themselves are referred to as Our Benefactors. Commands from the Combine HQ also use coded language to obscure their plain meaning. For example, in Nova Prospekt, after defeating the Antlion Guard, you hear this message over the speakers:
“Attention Nova Prospekt internal containment team. De-service all political conscripts in Block A7. Prohibit external contact.”
There are some pretty obvious double meanings here, right. The ‘internal containment team’ are prison guards. ‘De-service’ means fucking murder, and ‘political conscripts’ are political prisoners. They locked a bunch of people up for political reasons, and are killing them rather than letting them potentially escape. This kind of obscuring double-speak is core to the Combine’s efforts to contain and repress humanity. Breen supports those efforts with his propaganda, using the scientific language of evolution and progress and rationality to obscure the reality of this hostile occupation. He is a traitor to humanity, but also to the scientific principles that he espouses.
Insofar as Half-Life 2 celebrates scientific progress, then, it’s also aware of some of the ways in which science can be misused. The race science of the Nazis flits around the fringes, never quite becoming part of the main text, but never totally out of view. And, the game suggests, the best solution to the misuses of science is better, stronger science. The more honest and objective we are, the more we’re able to interrogate the facts and take a holistic view of all of the evidence, the better off we’ll be. That’s a healthy, balanced attitude towards the uses and abuses of science. In the game’s closing chapter, Breen tries to talk round Eli Vance, one of the leaders of the revolution. He describes some of the wonders that he’s seen, some of the possibilities under Combine authority, and Eli responds “What I’ve seen is also beyond words, Breen. Genocide. Indescribable evil.” Eli refuses to take an unbalanced view of the situation, to be persuaded away from the facts. He isn’t interested in Breen’s marvels. He keeps a hold on the truth of what’s going on. And Breen doesn’t really have anything further to say. It’s an ideal that maybe hasn’t aged well, in this era of climate denial and the frankly abysmal response of many Western leaders to COVID-19. Eli knows what’s right, but I’m not sure it’s possible to believe that scientific knowledge is enough on its own. Maybe it’s just as much about direct action. There’s some of that in Half-Life too: scientists lead the revolution. You could say that’s idealistic, or you could see it more as an attitude towards facts and evidence that we all need to adopt if we’re to progress as a species. Arguably, we’re all scientists now. We have a responsibility to uphold what’s true as much as to correct those who are wrong – and to resist those who are deliberately misusing truth for their own ends.