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The original Half-Life borrowed technology from hard-core shoot-'em-ups and used it to spin an absorbing tale about a scientist on the run from scary-gross interdimensional aliens. This had never been done before. Half-Life 2 (PC), which arrives Nov. 16, after six years of work, is one of the most frighteningly atmospheric games I've ever seen. Humanity came out of its interdimensional scrap holding the silver medal, and now we live in an alien-run police state enforced by collaborationist thugs and towering three-legged monstrosities. Long, ringing silences, too bright sunlight and empty streets deepen the sense of Orwellian despair.
Art is generally supposed to mean something, although it's not always easy to say what. Whatever these games "mean" to the people who play them--whom, ah, ever they may be--they mean a lot. Fifteen years ago, video games were barely more than a cottage industry, if by cottage you mean the sticky back corner of a strip-mall bowling alley. Last year game sales hit $7 billion, in the same exclusive ballpark as movies (about $9 billion). We should count ourselves lucky. The video game is a brand-new medium, and we get to see it evolve from the very beginning.
Are video games art? Nobody knows yet, but the cool thing is, we're the ones who get to decide. Should games be like Hollywood? Or like interactive novels? Or maybe the NBA is the model? China already sponsors a national video-gaming team, and ESPN is covering the launch of Halo 2. So grab a joystick, sink back into the couch, and get in on Level 1. I promise, nobody has to know. Just keep some tissues handy.