Inside the oppressive world of Half-Life 2 roleplaying

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Trying not to piss off the Combine.

This feature originally ran in issue 310 of PC Gamer UK. You can currently subscribe to both US and UK versions of the magazine for less than their usual price thanks to a holiday promotion.  

My name is Pritus Jenkins, Citizen #00670. I know this number by heart because in the last few hours I’ve had to recite it around five times. Such is life as a citizen in City 17, where the alien Combine which patrol the streets love nothing more than to stop and harass me. I’m playing on a multiplayer Garry’s Mod server, roleplaying Half-Life 2. But the role I play isn’t that of a hero. I am no Gordon Freeman. I am Pritus Jenkins, a 55-year-old man with a limp. And I’m hungry.

If Half-Life 2’s roleplaying community were a food, it’d be the bland, mushy packet of rations I receive hourly from the dispensary located just off the central square of the dystopian city. This isn’t a place for grand adventures and bravery, but a community of hundreds dedicated to experiencing the hopeless oppression of a society crushed under authoritarian alien rule.

Half-Life 2 roleplayers are a hardcore bunch. Even the Combine soldiers, toting weapons and bureaucratic power, are hopelessly chained by their dedication to believable roleplay. When it’s my turn to receive my rations, which are handed out by Combine players every hour, I’m asked to ‘apply’—to state my name and Citizen ID. The Combine soldier uses emotes to inform me that they’re looking up my file in the tablet they’re holding. I stand there, silent, for an uncomfortably long number of seconds. Then the Combine soldier turns around, grabs a unit of rations, and shoves them into my character’s hands. That player will do this countless times as other citizens, like me, stop by to get their food.

As I walk around and explore the ruined alleys and dilapidated streets of this City 17 district, I can see the other citizens looking at me. Some talk amongst one another in whispers, while others lean against walls using in-game emotes to smoke imaginary cigarettes. It’s an almost perfect recreation of the mood of Half-Life 2’s opening hour, only with real players instead of computer actors playing out the mundane minutes of their pointless lives.

After a few minutes, one player approaches me but just as he’s about to say something, a Combine soldier comes around the corner. He turns away. When the Combine soldier passes, the man immediately turns back and heads back my way.

“Ugly,” he says.

“What did you just call me?” I type back. There is no voice chat, so every exchange is written in a text box on the lower left of my screen.

The man turns and walks away. Hesitant about what I should do, I decide to pursue him at a distance. I don’t know these streets, I don’t know these people. But maybe if I follow this man to his destination, he’ll do something suspicious and I can report him to a Combine soldier and get him arrested.

After a few minutes of stalking him, the man stands before a locked gate. I crouch behind a piece of corrugated steel, watching and hoping he’ll do something dumb.

“Citizen, apply!”

I turn around to find a Combine soldier right behind me. Without complaint, I tell him my name and Citizen ID.

“Face the wall,” the soldier commands, and I wonder if the few minutes I spent on this server are about to come to a depressing end. “What were you doing?”

“N-nothing, sir,” I say. “I thought I dropped something.”

Without another question, the Combine places a zip tie around my hands, binding them so that I can’t attack him—not that I’d be able put up a fight anyway. Out of the corner of my eye I see the citizen I was following scoff at me.

“I’ve been watching you for a while,” the Combine soldier tells me. “You’re acting pretty suspicious. I’m going to take you in for questioning. Follow me.”

Not sure what to do—or even what I could do—I turn around and begin to follow the soldier.

“Ugly.”

I turn around and see the other citizen staring at me. His character wears a blank expression, but there’s a smugness about it too. I’ve been roleplaying in Garry’s Mod for maybe 20 minutes now, and already I’ve come face to face with the cruelty of its world. Somewhere, far from here, Gordon Freeman and the Resistance might be fighting to liberate the people of City 17, I imagine. But as the Combine soldier leads me to the ebony black doors of the Combine headquarters in this area, I fear I won’t be one of them. 

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