Some of the Half-Life series’ best and worst aspects are invisible to the average player. How did Valve get players engaged in the narrative without cutscenes? How do they signal which items are important and which are not? What does a building say about the people who created it?
Game developer and professor Robert Yang considers these questions and more in his let’s play series, Level With Me. Through 28 episodes and counting, he’s guided viewers through the first two Half-Life games. While most of the best known let’s players and Twitch streamers tackle games as a hobby, Yang’s design and programming background brings Level with Me to the status of a retrospective or postmortem.
The small decisions that Valve’s designers made are of particular interest to Yang. In the most recent episode, he walked his viewers through Half-Life 2’s chapter 9a, “Entanglement.” Towards the start of the stream, he points out a Combine structure grafted to the side of a prison wall originally built by humans. Yang observes that some of the structure overlaps with a door behind it.
At first glance, this seems to be a sloppy oversight by Valve’s level designers. But Yang argues that it also may serve a narrative purpose, indicating the oppressive Combine’s indifference towards humanity’s institutions.
Yang makes a point to criticize the series where it’s fallen short, particularly the first game’s chapter “On a Rail.” Many players found this level complicated to navigate, and Yang explains exactly why. By revealing the entire stage’s architecture, he showed that it’s actually two very simple intersecting loops.
“That goes down to this classic game design rule,” he explains. “If you as the game designer think it’s pretty easy, when the player actually does it, it’s two or three times harder and more confusing and more complicated for the player.”
Level with Me isn’t all niche structural deep-diving, though. Yang’s games have always showcased his saucy brand of humor, and he brings that same attitude to his streams. At the end of his latest video, for example, he grows attached to a phallic-looking potted cactus and decides to take his new “husband” with him throughout the rest of the game.
If your heart aches for Gabe Newell’s refusal to discuss that game, Yang’s playthrough may satiate some of your cravings for added discourse. You may also come to the realization that one of the most consecrated game series of all time may not be just as infallible as many believe.