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Videogame Deathmatch Nerdfight: Stephen Johnson and Jake Gaskill Bang Heads Over GTA and Half-Life

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Posted March 30, 2011 - By Kevin Kelly


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Videogame Deathmatch Nerdfight: Steven Johnson and Jake Gaskill Bang Heads Over GTA and Half-Life

Videogame Deathmatch is in full swing, and it has unexpectedly created rifts between brothers-in-arms. Case in point, our own Stephen "Carjacker" Johnson is a lifelong fan of all things Grand Theft Auto, while Jake "Crowbar" Gaskill has some serious love for Gordon Freeman and the futuretech of Half-Life.

Take a sideline seat as the two pit science against thuggery to decide which franchise comes out on top, then head over to cast your own vote. Unless, you know, you want Jake and Steve to do all the debating for you. Here's a taste: 

Steve: Jake Gaskill is so poor, I saw him kicking a can down the street, so I said, “What are you doing?” And he goes, “Moving!” Also: Grand Theft Auto is clearly a superior franchise to Half-Life. Sure, game nerds will be like “Morgan Freeman is so great!” and “Oh my god! Pick up this can.”  But I’m like, “What about Vice City’s constant references to Scarface?”

Read on for the rest!

Steve: Seriously, though. Think back to when GTA 3 came out. Prior to its release, there was nothing even remotely like it. Other than a few ponderous RPGs, there weren’t any open-world games. There were few action games without a linear structure. The whole idea of a miniature world that seems to exist without the player’s input was so revolutionary, it’s hard to even comprehend of gaming before that idea existed. GTA invented an entire genre, where Half-Life was cool and all, but really was just a refinement of Doom/Wolfenstein 3D.

GTA didn’t stop with creating a major game genre, though. Rockstar went on to develop more games in that style, refining it graphically and gameplay wise, and expanding the scope of the series until it has become the goal toward which every other open-world game strives toward. 

Jake: Half-Life pioneered first-person narrative storytelling in games. It told its story, not through elaborate, over-CGIed cutscenes, but through the eyes of its main character and the world laid out before him, and by giving the environments more story-driven relevance than the formulaic corridors and settings seen in FPS’s before it (Doom, Wolfenstein, etc.). I must have played the opening lab section of the original HL 200 times, because it does a pitch perfect job of making you feel like you’re just starting another typical day of work (well, as typical as working at a facility the builds/tests interdimensional time portals and whatnot could ever be). 

I mean, you know you giggled heartily when you blew up that dude’s breakfast in the microwave in the break room. Or, even before that, seeing the G-Man on a passing tram being extra creepy. Or later on when you are about to meet up with the Marines who you think have been sent in to save you, and then, just before you’re all, “Hey guys! Over here!,” they blow away that scientist in cold blood, and you realize that they aren’t there to save you, but rather exterminate any survivors they find. The developers at Valve are masters of details, and are the premier story-show-ers (vs. storytellers) in the industry, and Half-Life was just the brilliant tip of the iceberg that was to follow in subsequent years.

Steve: You want to talk story, Gaskill? Fine. I concede the point. GTA’s strength was never in its nuanced drama, even if the series’ warmed over gangster-movie cliches have become the default setting for every urban game.  But when it comes to details, GTA is undeniable. The level of detail in even an “early” GTA game like Grand Theft Auto 3 is amazing, still.  If you walk down a street, minding your own business, you’ll note at least 4,000 true-to-life touches, from the overheard snatches of conversation among other pedestrians, to the snatches of car-radio noise, to the cleverly designed signage, to the design of the cars. Each neighborhood feels different from every other neighborhood. GTA creates a breathing world that feels like you actually live there.  

All respect to Half-Life games, but they’re almost entirely linear and feel very “last-generation.”  Enemies are perfectly placed next to explody barrels. Convenient dumps of ammo foreshadow upcoming boss battles. Ridiculously out-of-place puzzles show off what was once cutting-edge physics technology, but now seems out of date and pointless. Most heinous of all: Half-Life 2 features puzzles that require turning valves to raise and lower water levels. Shouldn’t that have been banned after the Water Temple in Legend of Zelda annoyed everyone on earth? All of the GTA games, on the other hand, still hold up. Even in the cruder-looking form of, say, Vice City, the design of the games themselves-- the combination of a missions structure and a breathing world -- still works perfectly.

Jake: Don’t get me wrong. GTA is on my shortlist of favorite franchises, and some of my most cherished gaming moments are from various GTA games. In fact, when the game came out, I would go over to my friend’s house, and we’d just hop in a car, park at some scenic spot near the river, and just listen to Chatterbox for hours on end (even after it looped) to the point where we could recite every line. But this was all a couple years after Half-Life had already changed my perception of gaming, and then Half-Life 2 came out in 2004 and blew my mind even more completely. Funny HL2 story: I bought a new laptop in college specifically because I knew I would be studying abroad when the game released, and I wanted to make sure I could play it. I also pre-ordered the game, and had it shipped to our study center, so I was able to play it as soon as it came out...and avoid taking in London’s unending wealth of culture and history for a couple of days while I played through it in draw-dropped awe. Top that, Johnson! Unless you have some deeply emotional anecdote about the healing power of video games, I’d say this one is over! 

Steve: The release date of a GTA milestone coincided almost exactly with a time of great tragedy in my life. I lost someone very close to me (curse you, Death), and after the funeral ended and I thanked everyone for their condolence cards, I sat in my living room and played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.  I didn’t stop for a month. 

I spent all day,  literally, in a chair close to the TV, with the shades down and the stereo all the way up, riding the streets of Los Santos with my boys from Grove Street, completing every mission, taking over ever territory, and unlocking every secret. I even completed those horrible RC plane missions with David Cross. 

I don’t think any other game from any other series could have completely filled up those days and kept me from thinking the way Grand Theft Auto did. Finally, when I figured out how to get the last frickin’ horseshoe in Las Venturas, I knew it was time to get up and do something else. It was as if the game was planned to last exactly as long as you needed to, and, in a way, the open world style works perfectly for that. So thanks, Rockstar, for helping me out, and thanks for making such an immersive series of games. Vote GTA

Jake: Your personal tale of grief and solemnly turning your heart towards video games to help you maintain your perilous grip on the ledge overhanging the pit of soul crushing despair is moving, but come on! Hazmat suit, headcrabs, crowbar, bug bait, bisecting fools with projectile saw blades?! Case closed, party of one. Case closed. (Throws plastic army man at Stephen’s head and storms out with arms raised). 

To be honest though, for as massively popular as GTA is, and for as much speculation and rumors the franchise generates on a regular basis (mainly about where the next one will be set), Half-Life 2: Episode 3 has achieved mythical status and sits atop the list of the most anticipated and sought after games of this generation.

People are obviously champing at the bit for the next GTA, but between GTA IV, GTA: Lost and the Damned, GTA: The Ballad of Gay Tony (all brilliant by the way), and Red Dead Redemption (which is essentially GTA 5: Western), GTA lovers have had a lot to keep them busy and to satisfy their sandbox lust. Half-Life fans have been waiting (not so) patiently for almost four years, since the release of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, for the next installment. Granted, Portal and Left 4 Dead have provided spectacular distractions, it’s Episode 3 people really want more than anything, and I think if you asked gamers what they’d rather be able to play tomorrow,  HL2: Episode 3 or GTA 5, I would bet Episode 3 would win handily. Double case closed!

Steve: I might argue that making your fans wait forever for the next installment of a game is a bad thing for a franchise, not something to recommend it. 

Jake: Fair point, but I think the fact that gamers are still dying to get their hands on Episode 3 even after all these years (and without zero information about it, by the way) is a testament to just how beloved and singularly respected the Half-Life franchise is. In an era of yearly sequels, Valve has stayed true to themselves and refused to take the ever so popular path of selling out their IPs for a quick buck. Rockstar has a similarly high standard, which is why this battle is so perfectly matched, but I think Valve edges them out here, because of just how anticipated Episode 3 really is.

Steve: Jake, I’m going to kill you and bury your bones in a garbage dump.

What do you think? Is Grand Theft Auto better than Half-Life as a franchise? Or is it the other way around? Jump into Videogame Deatchmatch right now and let your vote be heard!

Videogame Deathmatch Nerdfight: Stephen Johnson and Jake Gaskill Bang Heads Over GTA and Half-Life
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