Archive for August, 2013

Science Fiction Round 25: Rogue Physicist

2013/08/30 Leave a comment

First lesson from Half Life:  Don’t argue with a rogue physicist.  It’s not worth the effort.

Second lesson:  Seriously, don’t mess with Gordon Freeman.  Let’s discuss Half-Life 2, shall we?

Awesome fan art.  From left to right, Alyx, Gordon, and a Vortigaunt.  (I've linked to the source as a courtesy.)

Awesome fan art. From left to right, Alyx, Gordon, and a Vortigaunt. (The image links to the maker.)

Where’s Batman when you need him?

Grappling hook.  Would be nifty.

Why does Gordon’s Hazard Suit, which protects against bullets and radiation and acid, and also does such things as automatically resort partially used magazines of ammo, not include a grappling hook?  This would be very useful, given how often you have to jump across broken catwalks or cliffs or gigantic turbines… this is a failing of Portal as well.  A lot of parts would be made a lot easier with a bit of rope.

[Edit: I am informed that the Opposing Force expansion for the original Half Life had a grappling gun.  Made out of a barnacle, one of the aliens that is usually trying to eat you while it sits on the ceiling with its long tongue waiting for someone to bump into it.  Intriguing.]

The Vorigaunts

I have to say it — these aliens are awesome.  They certainly have fun with the mysterious, rather-alien perspective on things, now that they’ve learned English for the sequel and aren’t enemies.

They do have a couple of caveats, though.  They’re… still bipedal humanoids with two arms.  They’re not really different enough… okay, fine, they actually have a third arm.  But how does that third arm fit in?  It doesn’t really make much sense to me.

Also… it’s apparently the case that the vortigaunts are telepathic.  It’s explicitly nifty for espionage.

How does that work?  I really, really hope that it boils down to a deeply-encrypted built-in biological radio.  We’ve seen enough of their biotech in the first game that it’s not unreasonable.  But if that’s the case… why haven’t the Combine, the evil invaders of this game, figured out how to hack it?  I mean, they’re already using headcrabs as bioweapons (which is awesome… er, I mean, terrible).

Where did they all go?

We still have the vortigaunts and the headcrabs from the first game.  But what happened to the controllers — the annoying flying things that look kind of like the final boss?  Well, maybe they went down, or away, when it died.  The lack of grunts, the heavily armed-and-armored guys apparently being manufactured by the vortigaunts, could be explained by their factories having been destroyed in the fighting in the interim.

But what about the other invasive species?  The bullsquid (an annoying monster that spits something nasty at you), or the houndeyes, which would be kind of cool if they skipped the painfully loud barks?  Maybe you could argue that those didn’t escape the initial incursion at Black Mesa, but the little swimming leech-fish things?  They screamed annoying, invasive critter than could escape through the drains.

In short, I am a bit perturbed that none of these guys showed up in the sequel.  In the words of TVTropes — what happened to the mouse?


Breen is this game’s head of the equivalent of the Vichy regime in France during WWII.  Earth fought a war.  For seven hours.  And then surrendered.  Breen is the human “administrator.”

He monologues.

A lot.

On loudspeakers to the whole darn city.

Come on, man, if you didn’t monologue, you might have gotten away with it.

Alyx and Company

One major (and partly technological) improvement in this game is that the other characters didn’t come out of cookie cutters.  Eli Vance, a major scientist, is a cheerful black guy with a prosthetic leg.  (Who knows how that happened?)  He’s supposedly one of the scientists who helped you in the first game, now with more personality.  The resistance members you meet have a reasonable mix of gender and ethnicity and appearance, keeping everyone from looking too much like carbon-copies.

Meanwhile, Alyx Vance (Eli’s daughter) is a bit of a counter to the usual let’s-go-rescue-the-princess thing.  She shoots bad guys with you, hacks computer systems for you, explains how the world works… and that kind of thing.  She helps you try to rescue Eli when he gets kidnapped, and she spends a relatively small fraction of the game as a prisoner herself.  Judith Mossman is a delightful double/triple agent, and she’s the one who gets you all out of the penultimate mess.  And Barney the former Black Mesa security guy is hilarious in general.

In short, I liked the characters a lot better in the second game.

The G-man

What is with this guy?

First appearance?  Another train car in the very beginning of the first game.  He walks through dangerous areas with impunity in both games, teleporting at a whim, and always carrying a briefcase.  At the end of the first game, he’s apparently decided that Gordon is useful, and puts him on ice… and pulls him out for the second, ten years later.  At the end of the second game, he stops time while your final target is blowing up.  If the G-man is that awesome, why not go himself with his teleportation and time-stop of win?  Who is he working for?  Especially given that Breen says Gordon’s contract is “negotiable”?  Why does he have such a terribly obvious accent?  Why is he after Gordon from the beginning?  Why does he dump Gordon back into a nasty situation ten years later with no information, no hazard suit, and not even his trusty crowbar?  And what’s in the briefcase?

This also leads to a fascinating irony within the game — Freeman is a legend.  The Vortigaunts think he’s awesome because he freed them from the Nihilanth.  The humans think he’s awesome, too, and the legend keeps going as you play.  Freeman is the “one free man.”  The irony is that he is not free at all — at the end of the game, he is under the thumb of the G-man.

Final Comments

My first reaction upon finish this game was “ARGH!”  More questions raised than questions answered.  Fascinating but frustrating.  There are a couple of “episodes” for after this game, which are shorter sequel games that may answer some of them… but, based on trying to skim without getting too many spoilers, not nearly enough.

So, Valve, when’s Half-Life 3 coming out?


Choose Your Own Adventure 71: A Message For Thedane Lehhev

2013/08/26 3 comments

The previous post in this sequence is here.

Your choice:  Retrieve your disguise as a messenger, though without the going all-out on the magical facial shift (sorry, Alex!).  Mundane makeup and care will be the order of the day…

Part 71

You duck out of sight, into a public bathhouse several streets away from the mage’s academy.  You change back into a messenger’s garb after cleaning off some of the dirt of the road.  You also take the time to clean your face, and mark it enough to look somewhat different from whatever warnings may be circulating in Alederik.  Once you are outside, you ride in enough circles to regain just enough dirt and sweat for a recent ride through the city to be plausible.  You decide that a magical enhancement of this disguise would be unwise.  In a school full of mages-in-training, it’s likely that someone will see through it.

Shortly thereafter, you ride quickly up to the entrance, and wave at one of the visible guards.  They are quite visible, in fact, with the traditional red-and-green flourishes of Alederik’s academy on their armor and helmets.

“Sir!  I have an important and time-sensitive message for Scholar Thedane Lehhev!  You must let me in at once!”  You dismount with a bit of flair, and walk forward as though you have everything right in the world to be where you are.

“Hold on a moment, ma’am.  We’ll take the message to him, and he’ll call if he needs to send a reply.”

You shake your head.  “It’s very sensitive.  It couldn’t be trusted to paper.  You know how that goes.”  You give him an irritated look, implying that he should know exactly what you’re talking about.

And he does.  Very few such messages occur… unless they involve either some scandal or the Emperor’s own private communications.  “Oh…” he says.  “Oh, dear, I see.  Well, Terrin, you stay here and call another guard to replace me.  Ma’am, I’ll accompany you to Scholar Lehhev’s office.  I think he’s in today.”

An adolescent girl runs up to take your horse, and the guard leads you through the labyrinthine halls of the mage’s academy.  They twist back and forth in vaguely familiar ways.  You can almost remember getting lost here before, though today you’re certain you could find your way back to the entrance on your own.  Part of the confusion of the many narrow hallways is from progressive construction over the past centuries of studies and sponsorship of various emperors, but the rest is deliberate.  You don’t remember exactly why.  Something to do with making it harder for outsiders to steal delicate instruments.  Or perhaps it’s merely the magical tradition of being mysterious.

Regardless, after a few more minutes of walking past classrooms, and up a couple of flights of stairs, the guard shows you to the office.  Politely respecting the importance of the secret, nonexistent message, he stands to one side of the door as you enter.  He’ll be able to hear if Lehhev calls for help, although you’re sure such a respected magical scholar will be able to defend himself.

You step in the door without knocking, and then close it behind you.  You turn, to see Lehhev hastily scribbling at his desk, which contains the expected expanse of texts and papers, unexpectedly neatly arranged.  Distracted, he says quietly, “Ah, a messenger… one moment, I need to finish writing this exam question…”

When he does look up from his work, you don’t even need to say anything.  His eyebrows nearly jump off his forehead.  For now, at least, you don’t quite recognize the salt-and-pepper hair, the dark brown eyes, or his apparent habit of rolling up the sleeves of his robes past his elbows — but he surely recognizes you.

You have a moment to get a word in edgewise if you want to, before he gets past his surprise.

The Choices

Option 74:  Say nothing.  Wait and let him speak first, and then act in whatever way gets his help most easily.

Option 75:  Dash forwards, and make sure he doesn’t make a sound until he calms down.  You’ve got a knife stashed in your messenger’s uniform as additional incentive if you need it.

Option 76:  Explain that you have a message of critical importance from the Emperor.  This way, you’ll ultimately explain that the Emperor wants your spellbook analyzed immediately.  Pass off any resemblance to an infamous traitor as an unfortunate coincidence.

Option 77:  Explain honestly.  If it looks like he’s someone who knows you personally (which he may), try to play on that connection for his help.

Science Fiction Round 24: Half-Life

2013/08/21 4 comments

We made the silly decision to get a whole bunch of Valve games.  (There was a sale!)

Consequence:  We’ve spent rather a while over the last several weeks playing through the Half-Life and Half-Life 2 games.  Clearly, it’s time for a review, starting with Half-Life.

Also, these games are awesome.  Play them before reading if you don’t want spoilers.



Its mouth is its bottom side.  And it wants to hug your face.

Its mouth is its bottom side. And it wants to hug your face.

I hated these.  They hide in all sorts of annoying places, behind crates, in ducts in the ceiling… and then they jump out and try to eat your face.

While they’re very effective for weak enemies, they do lead to a general problem.  Why are they successful at eating people’s faces?  These are alien critters — why are they so good at eating the brains of aliens, taking them over, and turning them into zombies?  Why don’t our brains make them sick?  There’s no good reason to assume that alien biology is sufficiently similar to our own to make us good eating.

I could theorize that they were engineered by the biotech-savvy natives of Xen.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t work either, since we later learn that Earth-side scientists were abducting alien samples (including headcrabs) long before the Vortigaunts (one kind of sentient locals) start doing things to Earth.  (Edit — based on reading the Half-Life Wiki, it’s theorized Vortigaunts and company were actually planning to invade Earth for reasons presented in Half-Life 2… and then Earth started poking them, so the bioweapon idea may work after all.)

On the plus side, the actual mechanism of I-eat-your-face-and-control-your-body-now isn’t entirely unprecedented.  There are some examples of parasites in the insect world that do something like this, hijacking the host to help the parasite propagate itself.  (Which has some lovely implications about headcrabs.  We also get to meet what we can describe as the “mother of all headcrabs.”  I assume that’s what happen if you don’t shoot them while they’re small.)  It’s still weird that it works, but hey… it’s suitably creepy.

Gordon Freeman, MIT PhD in Theoretical Physics (with a minor in Butt-Kicking)

Okay, so I’m getting a PhD in mostly-theoretical physics at Stanford.  And I don’t know anything about killing aliens or firing RPGs.  Or gauss guns.

Well, except for using them in a video game, that is.  Which doesn’t give you experience that translates into actual alien-extermination skills.

Freeman, on the other hand, has apparently picked up these skills somewhere.  Which is rather unusual.  (Perhaps he’s ex-military of some kind, prior to that PhD?)  Either that, or Black Mesa has a very thorough employee training program.

It’s also a bit odd that a theoretical physicist is the person doing the experimental research… although it’s implied that this is punishment for Freeman always being late to work.

Meet Gordon Freeman, PhD physicist.  He's also really good with a crowbar.

Meet Gordon Freeman, PhD physicist. He’s also really good with a crowbar.


Kill All The Scientists

You are in charge of the military.  Contrary to the usual rules about the army not operating domestically, you’re sent in to deal with an extra-dimensional alien incursion.  (This is okay if you count it as an invasion straight-up.)  So… what’s the strategy?  You could find the people who were there, figure out what’s going on before you start bombing things, find the engineers who constructed the various equipment… or you could just kill all the scientists because they know too much, or something.

This is a bad plan.  You’re going out of your way to kill valuable, highly-educated people who are well-motivated to work with you (before you start shooting them) and are likely to know exactly what’s going on and how to fix it.

I really hope that the actual military is not this self-defeating (Freeman stops the alien invasion for the military in the game, but also personally kills several hundred marines and black-ops types who did not need to die).

Radiation Hazard

Although not so bad as Aperture Science, Black Mesa has some problems with OSHA compliance.

One of the worst offenses is probably all the various radioactive spills.  It’s so bad that it glows green in the dark.  Which is rather odd, actually.  Most radioactive waste isn’t going to glow, because the fraction of waste that is radioactive material (as opposed to acidic, caustic, or otherwise toxic) is often pretty small.  And if it does glow, because it’s a slowly decaying slug, it’ll glow red from blackbody radiation due to the fact that the radioactivity is heating the material.  In the former case, it’s not the radiation that kills you.  In the latter case, the radiation really is quite nasty.

But glowing green?  There has to be some other chemical in there that’s doing the glowing.  Maybe they mixed some glowing chemicals with their radioactive sludge to make sure they could keep track of it.  There’s a lot of it running through the sewers… and that’s not really something that you just want to dump into the nearest body of water.  I certainly hope that’s not what they were doing with it.

And speaking of compliance with rules…

“Equal Opportunity Employer”

The comment about Black Mesa following employment rules is made during the voice-over at the beginning of the game.

The catch?  I think the only women we see in the whole game are a couple of the black ops agents.  Oops.

And that’s it.  For bonus points, about a third of all the scientists we see look way too much like Einstein.  What the heck?  At least they do a better job of this in the second game, but seriously… the fraction of modern real-life scientists who look like Einstein is very, very small.


This place is strange.  It’s certainly cool that there islands floating in the air and variable gravity and cute living lamps and critters everywhere that you have to shoot…

… but that variable gravity thing is bizarre.  As is the convenience that you can breathe the air without noticeable difficulty.  (Much as the Xen locals can tolerate Earth just fine.)

But… well, gravity just doesn’t do that.  And it doesn’t look like we’re even on a planet… I’m not sure what to say about this place, aside from “somebody broke physics.”

Okay, there’s teleportation, so, yeah, somebody broke physics.  Oops.

A Comment On Mechanics

At least on the Mac port for the game, the controls are very, very touchy.  An errant twitch is enough to send Gordon Freeman careening to his doom down whichever elevator shaft or deep crevice is nearby.  Or falling off of a ladder.  This was… really annoying.  And also a bit unrealistic.  The same is true for a couple of tasks in Half-Life 2, where something that would be really easy in-person was quite difficult to manage with the given interface.

Also, doors.  I hated doors.  In order to go through an automatic door, you basically have to smash your face into it.  There were a couple of times when I thought a door was locked because I didn’t walk close enough to it for it to open.  (That’s also fixed in Half-Life 2, thankfully.)

Then again, given that Freeman survives a disgustingly large number of gunshot wounds and dips into radioactive acid, I probably shouldn’t complain too much.

Who is the G-Man?

Heck if I know.  At the end of Half-Life, based on his appearance, mysteriousness, and accent, I was torn between the competing hypotheses of “alien robot” and “vampire.”  After Half-Life 2, well… I think both options are still open.  More in the next post…

Choose Your Own Adventure 68: On Your Own Recognizance

2013/08/18 4 comments

The previous post in this series is here.

Your choice for this time — thank your old friend Karret Beleyev for her help, and go to Alederik on your own.

Part 68

Commander Beleyev returns to her camp, and you tip-toe your way out of it.  You find the horse she left for you, and use your standard tricks to ensure you are neither seen nor heard as you leave.


Relative to your previous journeys, your travel towards Alederik is relatively unimpeded.  You suspect that Beleyev is running interference for you.

Thus, you reach the city gates with a minimum of difficulty.  Getting in is more of a challenge.  The guards will surely be watching for someone of even roughly your description, even the the clothes of a messenger, and you vaguely remember from your previous training that they will almost certainly have someone looking for the invisible.

There’s a shanty town outside the city walls, occupied by those too poor to find residences within.  There’s also a small market, where a certain amount of trading takes place… particularly involving material that is difficult to get past the noses of the city guards.  With some of the money you have left, you have enough to buy a set of mage’s robes.  Once you have them, you take several hours in a back alley at night to create a more complete illusion, which changes your face, your height, your hair color.  The illusion will only last a few minutes once you trigger it, but it should be enough to get you past the city guards.

Luckily for you, it is.  One quick comment about visiting the mage’s academy is all you need to get by.  Then you find a quiet alley, and let your normal appearance reassert itself beneath the mage’s robes.

What you remember of Alederik is as you remember it.  The usual crowd of merchants and travelers flows through the gates.  You are surrounded by the smells of oil and metal, horses and sweat and dust and manure.  A beggar here and there tries to call for alms above the din along the main street.  Footfalls and cart wheels make solid noises against the stone pavement.  Here, the crowd is your best disguise.  You make sure you keep your face turned away from any of the city guards who may pass by.

The mage’s academy is one of the increasingly tall and grandiose buildings.  At its pinnacle is a glittering illusion, which you suspect is maintained by the students as an exercise.  It’s different from when you were last here… an angular, glittering collection of rotating crystals, instead of the whirling of dancing ribbons.  You can’t remember the other details of your visit, or exactly who trained the Black Hands in the magical arts in addition to the martial ones.  Even though you put in some effort on that task as you ride down the other side of the street.

Then you have your second challenge: how to gain admittance.  There are a couple of private guards watching the main entrance, and it looks like they’re checking papers for everyone going in.

The Choices

Option 71: Using your disguise as a messenger, state that you have an important message for Thedane Lehhev which must be delivered personally.

Option 72: Using your disguise as a mage, state that you are a visitor looking for Thedane Lehhev.

Option 73: Turn yourself invisible and silent, and try to sneak in through a ground-floor window.

Choose Your Own Adventure 66: We Never Had This Conversation, Either

2013/08/10 4 comments

The last post in this series is here.

Alex wins the coin flip, but his choice isn’t too different from Dan’s, so here we go…

Part 66

“Find an expert wizard in Alederik to disentangle the details of what the spell will do. Once I know, I can act accordingly.”

She stands still for a moment.  Whatever her reaction is, she’s facing away from you — you can’t see it.  Then she ends the spell that maintains the privacy of your conversation, and walks away without another word.


The night passes slowly and uncomfortably.  You snatch a bit of sleep here and there, but only so much.  Thus, you are awake when you hear a small disturbance shortly after the men guarding you change shifts.  You start to get up just as someone drops a set of clothes in your lap.  You look up as Commander Beleyev leans down to unlock your chains.  The guards to either side of you have been knocked out.

Commander Karret Beleyev does not meet your eyes while she sets you free.  “You’ll want to change into those,” she says of the dark gray garments she dropped at your feet.  “Typical messenger’s garb.  Great for being overlooked.”  She holds up a bag.  “Gear is in here.  One of the better horses is tied in the woods for you.  You’ll find it easily enough.”

“Thanks,” is what you first say once your throat it clear.  “I didn’t think you would do something like this.”

“Let’s say I’ve had some concerns about the empire lately which your story has reinforced, and leave it at that.”

“Why not just let me escape, then?”

“I needed more information.”  Once you’re dressed, she hands you a pack of supplies and the spellbook.  “You’re going to need this.  I’ve copied out the sections that I wanted for reference.”

“Any suggestions for the best person to talk magic to in Alederik?  Not many will listen to claims against the Emperor.”

There is a split second when she gives you a slightly odd look, as though she expected you to know the answer already.  “You’ll want to ask for Thedane Lehhev at the mage’s academy.  I’ve worked with him before.  He’s discreet.”

“Then he’s still there.  Good.”

Karret Beleyev accepts your response, and starts to walk back into the camp.  “And Severel?  We never had this conversation.”

As she starts to walk away, you have a new choice before you — whether and how you will actually carry out the plan you described to Karret.

The Choices

Option 67:  Well, you’ve put up a good front.  Take the opportunity to flee from the Empire.

Option 68:  Thank Karret Beleyev for her assistance, and proceed to the capital according to the current plan.

Option 69:  Thank Karret Beleyev for her assistance, and try to talk her into joining your crusade more directly.

Option 70:  Having a whole troop know where you were, and where you’re going, is going to threaten your attempt to unravel the danger posted to the Empire.  Kill Beleyev while she isn’t expecting it and wipe out her subordinates.