Archive for the ‘Valve’ Category

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?

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…

This is Real: Rovers on Mars!

2013/06/11 Leave a comment

I apparently have too much free time, and therefore played with GarageBand and iMovie over the weekend.  Oops.

SciFi Round Nine: Portal

2013/01/06 4 comments

Portal and Portal 2 are a couple of the best computer games I’ve ever come across.  I heartily recommend them, especially if you like puzzles and snark.  The basic idea in both is that you’re playing as Chell, a woman trying to escape from a laboratory controlled by a homicidal AI.  To aid you in your escape… or scientific “testing”… you get a device that shoots portals onto walls in pairs.  If you go in one portal, you come out the other one.  Instant wormhole, just add portal gun.

As ever… here, there be spoilers.

This is a portal.  In the words of GLaDOS, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.

This is a portal. In the words of GLaDOS, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.  The setup above is nice for getting the person pictured to fall at terminal velocity and also break conservation of energy.

Portal Guns Break The Universe

The main physics-breaking part is the Portal Gun itself.  It turns out, Larry Niven wrote a very good essay a while ago, The Theory and Practice of Teleportation, which covers a lot of different ideas in great detail.  I’ll just hit a couple of the main points about Portal’s portals, and then move on.

The first issue is conversation of energy and momentum.  Put a portal on the ceiling, and one on the floor, so that when you go into the one of the floor, you fall out of the ceiling… into the portal on the floor… and this keeps going on indefinitely until something stops you, somehow.  The problem here is that you can now accumulate energy until you hit terminal velocity — and then you keep dumping more energy into all the noise and heat you’re making while going that fast.  You essentially get to move “up” in Earth’s potential for “free” when you go from floor to ceiling.  But all that energy has to go somewhere, and a quick estimate suggests that this would raise the temperature of a room by a few degrees Celsius per second… which would rapidly cook Chell.

The other problem is momentum.  Put both portals on the same wall.  Throw a ball into one portal, and it comes out of the other with momentum in the opposite direction, without transmitting that momentum into any other object.  Oops.

While portals you shoot are limited to light speed travel times, this does suggest a nice way of colonizing other planets.  Or sending stuff to other places in our own solar system.  I’ll leave the exact details to Niven’s essay, but it includes sending fuel through portals to break the rocket equation… but that’s if only if you have to have an artificial surface to shoot onto.  Otherwise… fire, carefully, and wait.

At least there’s an explanation for why all this high-speed portal-hopping doesn’t kill Chell.  In fact, this aspect bothered initial testers of the game so much that Valve added Long-Fall Boots.  These are specifically designed to perfectly kill the wearer’s inertia so that they don’t go splat on the landing, and also ensure that you land feet down.  Nifty, right?  Totally doesn’t violate physics…

All AI is a Crapshoot

This is GLaDOS.  She promises cake and grief counseling.  What you get is a portal gun and deadly neurotoxin...

This is GLaDOS. She promises cake and grief counseling. What you get is a portal gun and deadly neurotoxin…

Your main antagonist in the first game and the first segment of the second is GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System).  As you play, it becomes increasingly clear that something is wrong with the AI.  This is even more clear after you get shunted from regular testing to the android live-fire test range.  And then it gets worse.

How hard is it to program a non-evil AI?  With a strong negative weight on harm to human lives?  And then, rather than simply cutting off its access to the deadly neurotoxin, they just stick a module on GLaDOS to keep it/her from releasing the deadly neurotoxin.  Oy.  Why can’t we downweight killing humans?  Or apply the Laws of Robotics?  That last link is interesting — turns out, there are some real-world guidelines for robot construction.  Obviously a robot?  Check.  Not designed to kill humans [by running them through deadly testing chambers for “science”]?  Fail.

The other antagonist you meet is Wheatley.  He’s friendly.  He’s helpful.  He’s also deliberately constructed to be a total moron (intended to keep GLaDOS in check) and undergoes an epic and hostile personality change when you replace GLaDOS with him.  Oops.  Nice job breaking it, hero.

Cave Johnson Failed Business Planning

As a matter of fast, OSHA came in in 1970, so this matches up with the timeline.  Otherwise, this poster is an epic lampshade.

As a matter of fast, OSHA came in in 1970, so this matches up with the timeline. Yes, this poster is an epic lampshade.

Once Wheatley turns on you in the second game, you get to explore the deeply buried history of Aperture Science.  Ignoring the problem of the absurdly deep mineshaft that’s storing everything, there’s a more serious problem:  Where is Cave Johnson, CEO of Aperture, getting all the money for this?

Millions for moon rocks to make surfaces for portals… which were originally intended to be better shower curtains.  Various other nasty things are tested by and on humans, with no regard for anybody’s safety.  Cave’s idea of science is building random crap and seeing what happens, which ranges from bouncy repulsion gel (intended as a diet product — the food bounces right out!  And does bad things to your stomach…) and things like turning people’s blood into gasoline.  Or making them into an army of mantis-men.  Among other problems too numerous to mention.  WHY HASN’T THE GOVERNMENT SHUT THESE PEOPLE DOWN ALREADY???  Then again, this is all delightfully lampshaded by various signs (such as the one above), and we never see what the exterior used to look like, back in the day.  It’s quite possible that there were protestors all the time outside the facility.  Maybe even a demonstration dedicated to the missing astronauts…

Meanwhile, the game does demonstrate the increasingly dire financial straights of the company.  Since they have trouble marketing their various deadly products.  For instance:  An ad for the long-fall boots.  If you’re bored, you can even try looking for the ad about using turrets for guarding babies.  It’s even worse.  This is not a good business plan… which explains the lack of funding, but I still wonder how they managed to get any funds in the first place.

Cave’s other major problem seems to be that he thinks of science as throwing together a bunch of random stuff, and then seeing what happens when some poor sucker tries to use it.  That’s not science.  That’s cruel and unusual.  And darkly hilarious for the player.

But anyway, Cave, you don’t know what science is.  And don’t get near my house with those combustible lemons.