Where do these pieces excel? In their environments, where the user is placed into a fiction that invites the attention and motivates action. Half-Life 2’s power is in the environment, its “in-game” experience, and in its use of sound; it’s the first environment I’ve seen which gives a sense of a setting sun (but this is my own limited experience). It’s weaknessess are in everything else. Once in the world, you quickly get the sense that you can do lots of things: move objects, drive, and jump. You can barricade yourself again moaning creatures with crates. Unfortunately, as a FPS, the combat and conflict hardly make sense point A to point B. Creeping about does no good, the rebel forces are inept, and the enemy seems to know exactly where to aim when you exit a tunnel, enter a room, or set up a sniper position, which just seems dumb. The fog of battle is one thing, but an enemy that seems too competent feels like an overreach. So you run, shoot, and reload the sequence for a quicker route. The physics of the space is wonderful and frustrating as it should be and is a great achievement; the AI of the enemy, however, doesn’t promote a sense of strategy or outthinking or alternatives, as in Deus Ex. In this sense, I find the AI simply misconceived. And the story concept is loaded with questionable decisions. (At least provide a sequence where Freeman and Alyx make a life, walk the beautified canals, and make love, then Freeman can be taken away in that poigniant last scene–love stories and conflicts of reunification can work as major resolutions in shooters too; but this guy with the briefcase at the end is pure “been there done that.”)
The greatest weakness to Half-Life 2 is the point of view, though. Gordon Freeman is empty space, characterless, and silent to the point of absurdity. My greatest frustration is just not being able to connect to other characters through him. This makes no sense technically or in terms of design. Restoration as objective should come with some reminder of why the story is important to tell.
This last point, however, is where Facade and the Syberia sequences are more effective as environments and storyworlds. Facade, compared to Half-Life 2 in this regard, is much more sophisticated as an interactive, human-driven place to make decisions. You interact with Grace and Trip and their environment in important ways, ways that could have build the world of the Combines into a richer more engaging experience. You learn that you are a part of their history and this knowledge as you learn it serves as another way to contribute. In addition, the environments differ only in graphical design and presentation. Facade and HL2 are very similar in the way one moves about. Both are fluid and striking (not new). But the sense of penetrating the world is more pronounced in Facade, because you can respond to the world beyond single key strokes and through listening. You may drink the digital wine. You may make observations on objects. The ability to address the inhabitants, the principles, is part of going inside the fiction.
In Syberia, Kate Walker’s character develops along a real and substantive story arc. Her decisions (which are your decisions) make sense; as the story proceeds, cut scenes and filmic visuals can be read as Kate’s imagination and inner experience visualized as further elements of the developing fiction, a narrative element which I find incredibly interesting aesthetically, which may be unique to new media. The flashbacks Kate experiences of Hans aren’t experienced by her in the same that they are viewed by the user but they may be an approximate vision of her mind at work, a visualization of her own development. Same goes with the arcs in Facade, although the weakness of the eventual stories has already been noted.
Again, this is not a question of genre; this is a question of the limits and potentials of any sort of digital environment where a user is expected to input information with meaningful intent and for meaningful outcome.
It’s a good time for big developers to consider adding teams of people who know about story and its difficulties to their rosters and to start taking independent initiatives seriously for their ability to contribute to future projects whose results aren’t “just” this sort of thing or that sort of thing with great graphics and intricate machine intelligence, but begin to take human complexity seriously, a sort of marriage of entertainment and serious games.