In 2007, my wife and I moved to England for a year. She was working for the Council we were living in as a social worker, and I was mostly just bumming around, temping and piggybacking on our landlord’s Internet to be able to play The Orange Box. Along with this, I pretty much had Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero album on constant play; because I was spending a lot of time by myself in a country where you are caught on CCTV 200 times per day, it seemed like a fitting thing to have in my iPod.
The more I played and listened, the more apparent it became to me that not only do they deal with similar themes about subjugation and rebellion in a dystopian near-future, but in many ways Year Zero almost feels like the perfect soundtrack for Half Life 2. Below are some of the more evocative tracks from the album.
[Beginning of the End]
Down on your knees
You’ll be left behind
This is the beginning
Watch what you think
They can read your mind
This is the beginning
This song sets the tone of Year Zero’s world, much like how Freeman’s early exploration around the streets of City 17 sets it in that of Half-Life 2. He gets bullied by a guard (“Pick up that can”) and witnesses a number of violent and intimidating images of a population under the boot of the Combine. Beginning of the End piles on noises and becomes almost uncomfortable, much like the tension of Freeman’s frantic attempt to escape from the Combine through an apartment and across a rooftop, all while unable to defend himself. Suddenly the music eases off and ends on a quiet and controlled note, in perfect timing with the arrival of his primary companion, Alyx Vance.
Hypnotic sound of sirens
Echoing through the street
The cocking of the rifles
The marching of the feet
Barney throws Freeman a crowbar, tells him to get the fuck out of town, and leaves him to fend for himself. Like the beginning of the game, he is on the run. This time however, Freeman has his HEV suit and the ability to defend himself. Enemies come in waves, and never really feel that far behind. Musically, the feverish pace of this song mirrors the pacing of the game with its ‘quiet/loud/quiet’ aesthetic and it captures the simmering fury of a population yearning to strike back. Certainly on multiple playthroughs, one can see the level design more clearly, and the event triggers between shootouts and puzzles. I would wager however that most people ran through this section with heart pumping, trying to stay one step ahead of the Combine.
Freeman arrives in Ravenholm and discovers one of the more terrifying environments in video game history. At some point prior to the events of Half-Life 2, Ravenholm had been carpet bombed by the Combine with missiles filled with headcrabs. What resulted is a town completely infested with zombies of all types; regular shambling headcrab zombies, fast-moving ones, and (the fuel of my nightmares) slow-moving zombies with multiple poison headcrabs on it. The way this song works nicely with this part of the game is in how it provides a chilling account of an infected headcrab host as s/he slowly transforms into a monster:
Some say it was a warning
Some say it was a sign
I was standing right there
When it came down from the sky
The way it spoke to us
You felt it from inside
Said it was up to us
Up to us to decide
You’ve become a virus
The keeper of this host
We’ve been watching you with all of our eyes
And what you seem to value most
“So much potential” or so we used to say
Your greed, self-importance and your arrogance
You piss it all away
Your time is tick-tick-ticking away
Not only is this my favorite song on the album, but I think it’s the most moving thing Trent Reznor has ever written. Lyrically, musically, and thematically, it is the perfect theme to the Half-Life universe. It addresses the hubris that caused the original resonance cascade in Half-Life, the Seven-Hour War and Dr. Breen’s selling-out of humanity, and the thankless task which has been thrust upon Freeman. In both stories, there are no easy answers and no real happy endings.
And all of this is a consequence, brought on by our own hand
If you believe in that sort of thing.
And did you ever really find, when you closed your eyes,
Any place that was still, and at peace?
And I guess I just wanted to tell you, as the heavens will fall,
We will be together soon if we will be anything at all.
Shame on us, doomed from the start
May God have mercy on our dirty little hearts
Shame on us for all we have done
And all we ever were. Just zeroes and ones
Sadly, the odds of Trent Reznor revisiting the world of Year Zero is about as likely as Valve continuing the Half-Life series in the forseeable future. Then again, I’m pretty happy with what I have because it’s better to have something that’s amazing than pine for something that doesn’t exist.
I imagine there are a lot of other games and albums that sync up really nicely. If there are any that you’d like to talk about, drop a comment here or check out our forum and start a thread. For example, this is what my daughter thinks Half-Life 2 is all about so it’s all open to interpretation.