In the popular video game Half-Life 2 and its sequels, the players fight against the Combine Empire. This empire may be fictional, but it has many aspects that are all too real. The universe of Half-Life 2 has been created with patience and a lot of work, as one can guess from the number of tryouts for designing one of the game’s most important buildings. The result is a very well-thought, sometimes subtle universe that goes often unseen because players are more concerned with solving a particular riddle or fighting a particular battle.
In this article, I will analyze the Combine Empire in order to answer the questions of how it rules, how it reshapes the identities of human populations, how it constitutes a totalizing culture, and who are the beings behind it. Note: this article uses data from all Half-Life games and other relevant sources (analysis of game files, articles from Combine Overwiki or Half-Life Wikia, and developers’ comments). It contains spoilers.
A Shattering Empire
The first Half-Life game starts in Black Mesa, an American secret scientific base. There, a team of researchers are working on a crystal of alien origin. The player is put in the shoes of one of them, the now-legendary Gordon Freeman, who leads an experiment on the alien crystal. Unfortunately, the experiment causes the crystal to “resonate,” opening a multidimensional portal connecting the Earth with other dimensions. The portal attracts exogenous creatures, alien animals that flood the place and start attacking humans. Eventually, the open portal also attracts the attention of a much more dangerous entity: the Combine, an empire already spanning several dimensions. The Combine launches such a tremendous attack through the portal that the whole planet surrenders after a war of seven hours.
Half-Life 2 starts about twenty years later. Released from a hole in space-time, Gordon Freeman wakes up in a train, somewhere in Eastern Europe. The train heads towards City 17, an important city that, like other places, has been stripped of its original name and is designated by a mere number. When he gets there, the player finds out a universe not unlike the Soviet Union. The city is fragmented into small public spaces, separated by police walls and checkpoints. Citizens must pass through a checkpoint for going from a street to another street or block. They require licenses to live in their own homes. Homes have been reduced to collective flats where front doors are often missing due to police raids. Privacy and comfort are things of the past. The police are everywhere, from checkpoints and patrols to flying cameras. Giant screens display the face of the new official leader of humanity, Wallace Breen (the former boss of Gordon Freeman), who was appointed by the Combine as their spokesman.
The most striking characteristic of the Combine Empire is how it shatters and impoverishes everything else. City buildings are gradually absorbed into a “Smart Barrier” device, actually a metallic wall in constant expansion that “eats” man-made structures. Public spaces are sites of soul-crushing servitude, under the eyes of masked policemen, while private spaces have lost both personality and intimacy. Another device, the Suppression Field, prevents humans from procreating by hindering the production of a crucial fetal protein. Courtyards exhibit abandoned playgrounds. Reduced to slave workers and administrative serial numbers, the citizens may also be the last human generation alive.
Although as long as they stay in the permitted places, citizens are also relatively safe. Outside the Combine-ruled cities – or even inside their abandoned parts – exogenous animals have colonized every possible place. Sewers are full of barnacles, deserted subway tunnels swarm with headcrabs, while beaches and caves are often populated by giant insects, the antlions. All those animals are dangerous and have harmed much of Earth’s original biodiversity. The Combine uses devices to protect its own territories from them. It also uses them as weapons, for example putting headcrabs into missiles fired at human rebels. Places that have no interest for the Combine are left to rot. Places that attract Combine interest, on the other hand, are mercilessly exploited: the oceans are emptied by giant pumps, sending Earth water to other worlds.
In the aftermath of the Seven-Hour War came the Citadels. When Freeman comes out of the City 17 train station, the first thing he faces is an extremely high metallic skyscraper. The skyscraper is so high that its top is obscured by clouds. It is linked to the rest of the city by high-voltage cables and protected by a circular Smart Barrier. With its blue-gray metal, typical of the Combine constructions, vertiginous height, and unnecessarily complex details, a Citadel is an obvious symbol of alien domination. Indeed, Citadels have been constructed outside of the Earth and teleported through Combine portals: the Citadel of City 17 has been thrown on the top of the original city center. Citizens cannot access the building but see it every day towering over them.
Later in Half-Life 2, the player enters the Citadel. He discovers a place of unusual architecture, full of vertical empty spaces, assembly lines, and power sources without security protection. Some of the lines inside the building can transport humans in the same way that they transport inanimate objects. The whole building seems made of the same blue-grey metallic and glass materials and sometimes features complex asymmetries that convey a sense of strangeness. There are humans there too, but the Citadel architecture was clearly not designed for them. A few exceptions aside, the only humans allowed into the Citadel have been surgically transformed into tools of the Combine. The other living organisms Freeman sees are exogenous animals that have also been surgically altered.
The Combine Empire and its Citadels seem to embody exactly what Heidegger feared about technoscience. It is completely oriented towards exploiting the world, human and material alike. The Combine gathers everything it can and moves it around according to its own organization. The Earth has been reduced to a mere stock, carelessly depleted or confined – or abandoned. Everything is subordinated to an overweening will to power. Analogous to the Citadel factory lines and the external depletion of nature is a huge bureaucratic organization: cities, police patrols, citizens, ships and many other things have serial numbers, which means that a world already framed by the technoscientific accumulation of power is also framed by the formalism of a managerial administration. This aspect of the Combine makes it appear like an embodiment of the Heidegger’s technological “mode of existence” – according to which everything is a stock waiting for exploitation – at the same time than it embodies the bureaucratic, managerial State Nietzsche called a “cold monster.” Everything is subordinated to the Combine totality, and humans are either shattered or fundamentally altered if they accept to become an active part of the system.
Betraying One’s Own: The Combine Forces
Citizens live in poverty and humiliation, dwelling in small spaces deprived of intimacy. They are usually malnourished. Some join the Resistance, a loose network organizing in secrecy for avoiding the Combine’s grip, but as such a move is harshly punished, it remains rare. The only legal hope for any individual to escape a life of misery is joining the ranks of the Combine, which is usually done by becoming a Civil Protection officer. Belonging to the CP means being a bit higher in the system. CP officers receive decent meals, bear arms, and enjoy some (small) authority over their fellow citizens.
The Combine ranks are open to human volunteers, but rising through them comes at a terrible cost. CP officers wear a ghastly mask and speak through a voice filter. Their uniform covers the totality of their bodies, giving them a completely Combine-engineered appearance. Being a CP officer does not mean having a day job but receiving a wholly new identity, then interacting only as an embodiment of it. There is no difference between one CP officer and another one – with the exception of Barney Calhoun, an undercover agent who secretly helps the Resistance. CP officers enjoy decent food and social status but must betray their fellow humans in order to earn them.
A CP officer can keep climbing the ladder by joining the Combine Overwatch. Whereas Civil Protection polices the cities, the Overwatch is an army. Overwatch soldiers can be met in expeditions, guarding prisons or remote industrial facilities. It seems that Overwatch forces enjoy a higher status and lead a less burdensome life than CP officers. However, the journey from police officer to Overwatch includes more than receiving a new uniform and guns: the candidate must go through transhuman surgery. Reenginered officers lose some of their memories and have mechanisms protruding from their bodies, including one that seem to be a throat appendix replacing the mouth. It may be speculated that Overwatch soldiers lose the ability to speak and eat but through the devices built into their uniforms.
The pattern repeats once more in the case of Overwatch soldiers becoming Elite soldiers. To do so, they must go through surgery again: more of their memories are removed and they sport a special white uniform, featuring a skull on the arm and a unique red, glowing eye.
The higher a human rises on the Combine career ladder, the more his humanity is stripped away. The most important step is not the first. CP officers are merely humans in a uniform. Overwatch soldiers, on the other hand, have physically merged with their job.
Finally, the most drastic example of Combine reengineering is to be found in another class of servants: the Stalkers. These are captured resisters who are surgically mutilated. Stalkers have no hands or feet – merely bolted-on metallic augmentations – and no genitals. Most of their digestive system has been removed, as well as their hair, and their face is partly hidden behind a grafted metal plate. Stalkers seem completely resigned to the life the Combine has designated for them, which consists in working on factory lines, repairing machines and Synth units, and maintaining the energy Core – most of these tasks being performed under the vigilant eyes of the Overwatch. Though Stalkers are locked inside the Citadels, the Resistance is aware of their existence: “they won’t make a Stalker out of me,” some of them vow.
Betraying One’s Own: The Rationalizer
After the Seven-Hour War, the administrator of Black Mesa, Wallace Breen, negotiated with the Combine as a self-proclaimed representative of Earth. As a result, he was appointed as the new global leader and is the Combine’s human face. Breen’s speeches, designated as “breencasts,” are broadcasted through giant screens and the citizens’ televisions.
When Gordon Freeman arrives at City 17, he can hear Breen commenting on “the letter of a concerned citizen.” The letter complains about the Suppression Field and the impossibility of procreation. Breen thanks the purported author for his “concern” and answers by rationalizing the constraint through positive framing. Instinct, Breen says, is something low: it is good that the “benefactors” have suppressed it for us. They were entitled to decide for humanity, because humans could not have done alone what the “benefactors” made for them. The interference in human affairs is justified in the name of a higher realization that overrides self-determination. The Suppression Field, Breen adds, is a test as well as a path for becoming better humans: once people prove they “don’t need it anymore” and freely renounce their “instincts,” the Field may be abolished.
It is clear that, behind his “wise old” appearance, Breen acts more as a press secretary than as a leader. He rationalizes the Combine’s decisions. His real power seems quite limited: in Half-Life 2 Breen only gives direct orders when it comes to breaking the Resistance and chasing Freeman. The rest of the time, Breen endlessly pours out his broadcasts. The power he enjoys is essentially moral norm-shaping. His behavior seems analogous to what many real-life clerics do: by working with “white privilege,” “gender studies,” and other metapolitical memes forged by the Left, they pursue the goals of their hidden superiors.
Though Breen’s rationalization of the Suppression Field may seem appalling to the player, one’s perception of it might be different if one had lived twenty years in the Combine-dominated world. Unsurprisingly, the rationalization covers a lie: the best elements of the CP and Overwatch are rewarded with “non-mechanical reproductive simulation,” indicating that the sexual desire is not really suppressed but reactivatable at will.
Ultimately, Breen is a shab. His situation is comparatively better than most individuals’: living in an office at the top of the Citadel, Breen is one of the very few humans to have been admitted there without undergoing surgery. He has achieved comfort and official recognition by betraying his own people and endorsing everything the Combine perpetrated. Breen refuses to employ the world “Combine,” calling his masters “our benefactors” instead.
Just like in the real world, though, being a shab is like making a deal with Satan: it rarely ends well. At the end of Half-Life 2, a fleeing Breen asks one of his masters to open him the door of another dimension. The master accepts on the condition that Breen enters a new body. The rationalizer is quite reluctant but quickly accepts. Not even Breen, officially the most powerful human on the planet, can escape reengineering surgery.
Exogenous Animals and the Real Enemy
As a result of the multidimensional portal in Black Mesa, the Earth has been invaded by a variety of exogenous life forms. Most of them can be described as animals, and indeed some – like the Antlions – were clearly modeled on real-life animals. Only the Vortigaunts, a specific breed of aliens that became an ally of humankind, and the Advisors (more on them later), are endowed with a human-like intelligence.
Many exogenous animals are treated as resources and reengineered by the Combine in order to become Synth military units. The Dropship and the Gunship, respectively transport and fighting vessels, are living organisms that have been grafted with modules allowing them to fly and shoot at enemies. The Strider, too, is a giant three-legged insect equipped with armor and a laser. Headcrabs, though not reengineered, are used as a biological weapon, placed inside missiles and fired at enemies.
There are also exogenous animals that the Combine consider useless and consequently leave alone. They are often dangerous. They had a devastating impact on the natural fauna, not unlike our familiar cats, dogs, rats, and rabbits when brought to remote places by European explorers.
An important lesson to be learned here is that though those animals are problems, they are not the ultimate problem the player must face. They are just animals in the usual sense. Having neither culture of their own nor social organization (the ant-inspired Antlions aside), they wander in search for food. Encountering them ranges from mildly annoying to downright dangerous. But the main enemy is the Combine Empire. Indeed, the Combine themselves make use the animals in a twofold manner: it justifies its own iron rule by the threat they represent and uses weaponized headcrabs against its enemies.
It is also important to notice that if one is skilled enough and/or the Combine rule weakens, the animals can be turned against it. In Half-Life 2, the player must beat a tough Guardian Antlion. After he wins, he extracts the antlion’s pheromones. Using these pheromones, the player can order antlions to attack Overwatch soldiers while the player remains hidden and (almost) idle. In Half-Life 2: Episode 1, as the rule of the Combine is weakening, some of the Overwatch forces are overthrown by headcrabs, and soldiers turn into “zombines.”
In real life, the Hollow Empire — led by the synagogue and the bank — and the globalist Left use “minorities” to subvert White European societies. They train and finance so-called terrorists in order to justify their own iron rule. On the other hand, they encourage massive influxes of immigrants in the White world, then encourage them to be “active minorities” aggressively attacking the original ethnos and culture. Those System-fed “minorities” are more than an annoyance, but we should focus on their original manufacturers. It becomes especially interesting when the golem “minorities” turn against their own creators. If you have finished Half-Life 2, you must have noticed how the game gets much easier once you can sic packs of antlions on the Overwatch instead of facing them alone. This is true in real life too.
For a superficial observer, the enemy is everywhere in Half-Life 2. Yet, though peculiar beings and machines must be faced at each level of the game, the core of the oppression lies in Combine facilities and especially in the Citadel. (There is an obvious analogy between the Citadel and what the “neoreactionaries” call the Cathedral.).
At this point, you might wonder who is behind the Combine. Half-Life 2 shows the official face of the Empire by featuring a breencast during the first minutes of the game. The whole course of the game shows many Combine structures and facilities, as well as numerous enemies. But it is hard to see anyone or anything actually leading the Combine. The exogenous animals live in the wild. Though sharing an alien origin, they are by no means responsible for what the Combine decides. Synth units, Civil Protection officers, and the Overwatch soldiers are enforcers but not leaders. Breen himself is merely a spokesperson, which means he is not really in charge. So who is in charge?
The answer remains a mystery during much of Half-Life 2. We merely know that the Combine forces on Earth communicate with other worlds or dimensions. Only at the end of the game do we glimpse a pale, featureless face with glowing artificial eyes. When Breen flees the player, he can be seen talking with one of these beings on a screen. He begs the being to open the dimensional portal for him and reluctantly accepts being grafted into a new body. In Half-Life: Episode 1, it becomes clear that as the Combine rule is pulled down, these beings cannot remain hidden and must expose themselves.
These strange maggot-like beings are the actual masters of the Combine Empire. During the twenty years of Combine rule, they lived secluded in the Citadel, ruling the Earth through Dr. Breen. The Advisors – as they are eventually called – live in comfortable individual pods in the Citadel, completely separated from the assembly lines and other industrial facilities.
A highly intelligent species, the Advisors seem to be behind most, if not all, of the Combine technology and structures. They are endowed with telekinetic powers which allow them to fly, though their bodies are grub-like and have no appendages. When one sees what the Advisors look like and how they live, it becomes apparent that the Citadel architecture was made for them and only later adapted to humanoids: their pods move smoothly through horizontal and vertical paths. A proof of the Advisors’ domination is the fact that – Breen and some collaborators aside – they are the only non-mutilated beings inside the Citadel.
Though Gordon Freeman could not know about them, his focus on the right enemy forces the Combine masters to exit their comfy hideouts. During Episode 1, the player physically meets an Advisor and sees them staring at him through screens at various moments. At the end of the episode he sees a bunch of them fleeing the Citadel in their pods before the building collapses.
The power of the Advisors comes from their minds. They can give psychological blows and headaches to humans in order to ward off their attention. When the player faces an Advisor, the latter paralyzes him and moves his body in the air as he wishes. This evident brainpower seems analogous to another, more subtle, real-life one. Nietzsche spoke of the Jews as a “people of priests.” Endowed with a high verbal IQ, a stong tribalism, and an uncanny capacity to manipulate the “stupid” goyim, many Jews are able to make the average Joe feel awkward and guilty by pronouncing a few words about the Holocaust or “white privilege.” Such is the subtle power of psychological and cultural manipulation.
Despite their tremendous brainpower, the Advisors are physically vulnerable. Their comfortable lives have turned them into cowards. When Freeman enters the Citadel, the Advisors never confront him directly but keep sending soldiers – an astonishingly stupid decision, given that he has a very powerful weapon which kills soldiers almost effortlessly. Eventually, in Episode 1, when the player physically faces an Advisor for the first time, the creature hits him with psychological blows while hiding behind a glass wall and preparing to flee the Citadel. In the next episode, Freeman witnesses a Combine convoy in which an Advisor pod crosses a bridge under the protection of a huge escort of Overwatch and Synth units.
In the same episode, Freeman arrives at a turning point. In an abandoned village, he finds a crashed and empty Advisor pod. The Advisor is hiding nearby. When Freeman approaches a particular house, he is psychically attacked, just as in the Citadel. Undeterred, he enters the house and encounters a kind of electronic shell. Freeman partially breaks through it, forcing the Advisor to exit and physically face the player. The alien immobilizes Freeman by telekinesis. He could kill him in a moment by snapping his neck or feeding on him. But a broken part of its shell explodes, wounding the creature. It panics, releases Freeman, and flees – sending troops back to finish the job. The encounter shows how cowardly the master species is.
While the humans are struggling to close the multidimensional portal, isolating the Combine on Earth from the rest of the empire, the Advisors “hatch”: they voluntarily exit their pods and shells. In Episode 2, one of them can be briefly seen flying above a human base before the Overwatch attack – a physical presence no Advisor would have assumed before. A short time later, two Advisors take advantage of human inattention to attack three individuals (Gordon Freeman and two of his closest companions), killing one in the process, with absolutely no protective escort around. When the Advisors are attacked by a robot and discover that their telekinetic powers cannot paralyze him, they flee immediately, but the very fact that they themselves attacked shows a complete change of attitude.
Here again, we see an analogy between the maggot-like but highly intelligent Advisors and the “chosen people.” Though Jews have perceived themselves as unfairly persecuted by others for a long time – and though the Talmud clearly states that non-Jews are so inferior they might be considered as mere resources – they incite states to fight each other without themselves taking part. However, after 1945, their attitude underwent a shift and they turned more assertive and combative, leaving the synagogue and the bank to appear on the battlefield.
The Limits of the Half-Life Universe
Although the creators of Half-Life 2 have a basic grasp of Realpolitik, their universe lacks subtlety. The resistance against the Combine is real, but there is no fake opposition, as there is in real life: the conservatives pretend to oppose the Left but never really do. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the official public enemy Emmanuel Goldstein turns out to be a manufactured character. A fake political opposition drives the unsatisfied into the trap of false hope. It occupies them, or leads them where the System wants them to go, while actual laissez-faire would allow the unsatisfied to create a genuine and free opposition. If an Episode 3 were ever made, it should at least include traitors and double agents inside the Resistance.
The Half-Life 2 series has been justly praised for immersing the player in a highly imaginative universe. But that very quality of immersion means that most players have failed to step back and pay attention to the universe where the game takes place. As we have seen, while on the surface the Combine Empire seems loosely inspired by the USSR, there are deeper and more interesting analogies to the current masters of this world and their mechanisms of control.