Right, now brace yourselves but… To properly understand the significance of the story elements in Half-Life 2, we must look at the work of Russian structuralist Vladimir Propp, who in his academic work on narrative in traditional folk tales identified a recurring series of archetypal story elements – or narratemes – which always appear in order to construct the flow of a hero’s developmental journey. Seriously, come back. We promise this bit’s good. While not all of these narratemes appear in every story ever written, every story does include a few of them in some form, and Half-Life 2 uses a great deal of them in absolute textbook sequence in order to create a journey of character progression. In Half-Life 2 though, the archetypal hero developing through this journey is the player/Gordon hybrid, who gets to directly experience the whole process themselves rather than just witnessing it.
At the beginning of the game, Gordon is cast into the chaos of a world he does not know, having existed outside of its reality since the end of the original Half-Life. Time has moved on without him, and he must learn to adapt to and triumph in this new alien world. This is Propp’s initialising narrateme of “The hero leaves home”, and blends with the player’s real world experience of being introduced to a new game world for the first time. The Combine’s fascistic domination of the citizens of Earth and their search for Gordon give us Propp’s “An interdiction is addressed to the hero” and “The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance”, immediately putting the player and Gordon on the back foot and forcing them to spend the early sections of the game running for their shared life. The intimidating dystopian society they see while escaping City 17 also gives us the key narratemes of the hero being oriented to his purpose and being dispatched, albeit under a hail of heavy gunfire. All good so far? Phew.
Throughout the course of the rest of the game, the player’s/Gordon’s sense of self and place in the world is consistently strengthened. After being victimised, they get a first taste of rebellion and personal empowerment through taking down a gunship with the newly-armed airboat, which in turn leads to the physical empowerment of the gravity gun (“Hero is tested”/“Hero aquires use of a magical agent”). They then grow stronger and more independent after being forced through the dark and solitary rite of passage that is Ravenholme, which is made more significant and personally affecting through its religious overtones of ascension. It can hardly be seen as a coincidence that this sequence ends with the player/Gordon exiting the darkness into the blinding daylight at the end of a tunnel. This also has the effect of being the metaphorical rebirth of a stronger Gordon back into the world, which makes it all the more important that his next major action is to rescue some allies in need.