Prima Games’ making-of book Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar is a good read and a worthwhile purchase, if you really enjoy the Half-Life series, the story of the universe Valve has created, and are interested in game design.
Unfortunately, the most interesting part of the book is also the least prevelant: the writing. While the sketches, early character, vehicle and monster models, level designs, and other visuals are gorgeous and fascinating, and provide the subject matter for the text, they are just a large collection of pretty pictures without the narrative. And, frankly, the text that is there is great.
The descriptions are fascinating, and they cover not only the character design, story development, and level concepts in Raising the Bar, but also a little about the team responsible. The oddest part about the book is how much backstory and world-development was in the game, but not explained during the course of play. One example is the story of the Synths, a self-replicating synthetic race. In the game, they are just oddly organic, eerily animalistic, large-scale machines that fly, stalk, and transport (among other things). However, the book reveals that they are actually an enslaved race. The Combine don’t subjugate and destroy worlds, they subjugate and incorporate the worlds, eliminating those who resist. They exploit the darker parts of the races they subjugate, using them to destroy the rest, which is apparent in the game once you know that, but doesn’t make itself apparent in any direct way. The only way to get that reading is to know things the game does not tell you. This makes the book pretty damn handy.
The writing is at its best when it’s purely anecdotal, which is a good percentage of the book. Many blocks of text are contained in quotation marks, with little-to-no embellishment from an outside author. I won’t list any here, but they give a lot of depth in a very subtle way. You get a sense of the character of a few of the key players in the development. However, much like the game, you’re only seeing one small slice of a very large, very lush project.
Unfortunately, as I’m wont to do, I desire a bible-thick tome that includes every sketch, a detailed layout of each scene not included, endless interviews, and a view into the work of everyone who even breathed around the project. In this sense, Raising the Bar was a bit of a let-down. However, what Valve and Prima did include is very illuminating and very enjoyable. If you’re into Half-Life, videogames, or even cinematic design, this is a worthwhile book to read.