LIKE: The Strider
25th Jul 2012 | 15:00
Welcome to LIKE, our new semi-regular series where we praise the wonderful oddities, small miracles and flashes of genius that, in their own specific ways, have enriched videogame history.
This series is not intended as an exploration into grand or pioneering games, but instead a focus on one specific thing that the whole medium wouldn't be quite the same without.
We have intentionally called this series LIKE because, if you happen to love the thing we are praising, you can press the LIKE Facebook button as a way of democratically supporting its inclusion into the series. We hope you enjoy!
LIKE: The Strider
First appearance: Half-Life 2 (2004)
Created by: Ted Backman (Valve)
Animations: Bill Fletcher (Valve)
Gordon Freeman is a scientist forced into the suit of an action hero and the Striders are a graceful alien species forced into the exoskeleton of his enemy.
There is a sense of loss and missed opportunity to their encounters. Had their paths crossed under different circumstances, the MIT graduate would perhaps have made the most extraordinary scientific sighting of his career.
Yet instead they battle through the heart of City 17 with that irony lingering. Buildings are pulverised, roads collapse, cars are kicked into the air and bullets scatter across the floor as both attempt to end each other.
In pure videogame terms, it's a gripping game of cat-and-mouse. In one of the final levels of Half-Life 2 ("Follow Freeman"), Dr Freeman must dash between increasingly vulnerable hiding points and scavenge for rocket launcher ammunition in a bid to defend himself:
The Strider is an imposing, fascinating creature; A tripedal giant roughly fifty feet in height, most of which is accounted for by its awkward, gangly legs. Like most adversaries in the Half-Life 2 narrative, it is a synth; not strictly organic nor purely mechanical either.
Half-Life 2's prime antagonists, an alien race known locally as the Combine, routinely invade planets, capture and indoctrinate the alpha species, before enhancing them with complex weaponry as part of a wider plan to create an evolving army of the most dominant organisms in the universe.
Because there is no record of what Striders were before they were captured, their evolved design carries a visual tension between what is organic and what is applied; an ambiguity between the natural and the augmented.
Striders have brains of similar size to humans yet placed above their skull is a manufacturer's logo. They stroll like elephants when upright and scuttle like spiders when in chase. They have an exoskeleton tough enough to resist rocket fire and a pulse beam that eradicates entire buildings, yet if defeated, a deeply mournful cry lifts out from them as their heavy amour crumples to the ground. They are not destroyed, but killed.
Valve artist Ted Backman finished design on the creature in 2001, but his work was given new life when animator Bill Fletcher (also at Valve) began to collaborate.
"As animation reference for the strider, I used a giraffe/gorilla combo. I wanted him to capture the gracefulness of a giraffe, but also have the Strider stomp and lead with his elbows like a gorilla when he walks, to convey a simian power." - Bill Fletcher
In line with horror film convention, the player's first sighting of a Strider will be a fleeting, distant glimpse. The monster walks between buildings on the first level of Half-Life 2, but Dr Freeman will only face them at the concluding moments of the game. To describe them as 'end-level bosses' would be unfairly blunt, though Striders are generally considered to be the final serious resistance in Half-Life 2, as well as in Episode One and Episode Two.
Striders are feared and unrelenting adversaries, yet a testament to how much depth can be given to a character if its design is focused on origins rather than the final look.
Had its design brief been "make it look as frightening as possible", the Strider would have likely lost the nuance but included razor-sharp teeth, wild glaring eyes and other such trappings. Instead, Valve has created a character that feels authentically alien; a peculiar, towering species that the player, in brief moments between running and hiding, will gaze up at in awe.