Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s entry covers a series so titanically towering over storytelling in games that it might almost be a joke to invoke its name…
#15. HALF-LIFE (series)
HALF-LIFE, by Mitchell Akhurst
If I like one thing more than science fiction, it is 1990s science fiction. Pick a medium and the 90s was overflowing with the genre: Babylon 5, Battle Angel Alita, Cowboy Bebop, Dark City, Deep Space Nine, Doom, Fallout, The Fifth Element, Ghost in the Shell, the Mars trilogy, The Matrix, Resident Evil, Sid Meyer’s Civilization (and Alpha Centauri), Snow Crash, Starcraft, System Shock, Terminator 2, 12 Monkeys, Wing Commander (not the movie), X-Com, The X-Files… and those are not even the top 10%.
With so much canonical sci-fi goodness, suggesting that Valve’s 1998 masterpiece Half-Life easily sits within that canon might come off as madness. A shooting game of all things (a world already pioneered in Doom), with dorky sound effects, cardboard people, poor quality VO, butt-electronica for a soundtrack, and a famously bad final third? Pish!
Yet, the game has aged like any fine cultural text: can you see the strings, if pointed out? Of course! But does Half-Life still envelope the player in a fascinating world, weaving a dramatic science fiction yarn, while being darn fun to boot? Indubitably.
Beginning with a long tram ride, players are introduced to the POV character Gordon Freeman’s new workplace, Black Mesa: a huge decommissioned military base in the southern United States. This yellow-and-black striped complex is a science fiction fan’s dream, mixing X-Files-esque Area 51 mystery with the domineering industrial design of Aliens‘s Weyland-Yutani. The place is filled to the brim with dark science experiments, ventilation ducts, rockets, loader mechs, and pools of toxic sludge.
Without spoiling the how and why, the research station is soon overrun by alien creatures, after an incident involving portals. Half-Life immediately evokes the basic premise of Doom, but rather than hellish heavy-metal demons, the monsters are cosmic enigmas out of something like Stephen King’s The Mist—no less scary than heaven and hell, but even more unsettling. More disturbing than the creatures of Xen is the G-Man—whose recurring presence, watching Gordon from afar, haunts the player until his final appearance, suggesting forces outside human understanding.
What is definitely within understanding, though, is that Half-Life took the first person shooter genre by storm when it released, outshining all competition (very rarely does anyone, for example, bring up Blood II, SiN, or the first Unreal, by comparison). Among writers, critics, or high-profile Hollywood directors, the game remains an important evolution in level design, worldbuilding, and FPS narrative in particular.
After years of FPS games to this point—games that were, for example, an action-packed dungeon-crawl with guns (Doom), or Super Mario World with more realistic dinosaurs (Turok), or the countless corridor shooters that might as well have been Mega Man in 3D—Half-Life forged a new path to the cinematic action games of today.
Much praise has been made of its uninterrupted POV, using cut scenes only sparingly and always from the player’s perspective. Most of the time, this meant that ‘cinematic’ scripted sequences happened in real time, forcing the player to participate in the goings-on like a true action hero, rather than just instigating destruction as was often the case in Doom or Quake.
Additionally, these sequences are as well paced as the cinematic classics that inspired the game—from room to room, and challenge after new challenge, no element of action or puzzle is reused ad nauseam as so many of Half-Life‘s contemporaries. (I dig Turok, but it has a lot of reused assets.) Finally, the pacing is not always about action, either. Rather than always presenting targets for the thrill of the fight, much of Half-Life is chilling and creepy. Many of the Xen creatures boast shades of Gigeresque monstrosity, as terrifying as they are grotesque.
One of the best examples of all of these features is the famous Blast Pit chapter, where an enormous tentacle creature must be avoided, using an occasional grenade to clear the path.
I came to the first Half-Life after the release of Half-Life 2, and this magnificent and quirky experience was none the worse for wear because of it. However, what does grate is the beautiful yet aggravating Xen portion at the end. Telling that, after remaking the first two thirds of Half-Life with the Black Mesa project, developer Crowbar Collective has taken many years and still not released their own heavily reworked version of the alien world.
Even as one who can forgive a lot of a game that I enjoy, the last third of Half-Life is a frustrating conclusion to what was such a rip-roaring adventure until then but, you know what? By the time the mysterious G-Man shows back up at the end and offers the player a difficult choice, the game has run Gordon and the player through such a ringer; told such a remarkable tale that the Xen chapters almost do no harm at all. Half-Life is a truly excellent game.
HALF-LIFE 2, by Ben Newman
How, then, do you improve on that? Perhaps “improve on” is the incorrect turn of phrase, how do you even extend or expand upon Half-Life’s industry-shaking splash? Valve, in 2004, attempted to add on to what many believe is gaming’s perfection with a title that was, well, even more perfect in the eyes of some fans. By taking Half-Life’s smaller, corridor-ridden scale and expanding it city wide, Valve’s few small additions and refinements led to a game that retained its predecessor’s sense of simplicity whilst taking a totalitarian narrative to grander, yet more personal levels.
When people think about both Half-Life games, the openings are what stick out. The quiet, cluttered hallways of Half-Life’s Black Mesa and the imposing, depressed state of City 17 are highlights not for any discernible gameplay reason, but because they embed the players in the world of both titles so easily.
As the train into City 17 pulls into the platform, players have roughly 30 minutes of walking through its Eastern Bloc-style architecture and streets, witnessing different levels of oppression, poverty, and depression from its inhabitants. Gordon Freeman, and by extension the player, are immediately members of the disenfranchised by merely existing; in just 30 minutes, players have shifted their mentalities from a hero who can defeat intergalactic entities to just another victim of politics that exist well above their head.
As a result, players are already aware at what is at stake without the need for exposition: The Combine are an enemy to humanity as a concept, and something must be done to stop them. There, then, all motivations for felling this seemingly omnipotent enemy are established quickly without sacrificing pacing.
The allusions to real-life totalitarian regimes and Bloc-style poverty are not lost on even the most politically non-astute players; by presenting an enemy that exists so close to real life, Half-Life 2 just seems to have a more intimate, personal sense of risk compared to the world-ending scale of its predecessor. The rest of the story and sense of pacing lay with the game’s endearing cast of supporting characters. While the adjective “unforgettable” is thrown around a lot in games criticism, the term is apt for the majority of Half-Life 2’s characters. Does a single gamer exist who doesn’t look back on Alyx Vance and Barney with a smile?
A lot can be done by sticking to first-person perspectives without compromise. As discussed with Half-Life, by not leaving Gordon’s HEV Suit, players become instantly invested in the characters he meets on his journey. The writing for each of the supporting cast, Alyx Vance in particular, is excellent.
While Half-Life had secondary characters to support the story, none had the same emotional depth and development as a character like Alyx who, in some ways, is the real protagonist of the game. Alyx joins players through most of their journey but is never an annoyance.
As her and Gordon’s relationship develops, Alyx stands out as one of the best-written sidekicks in videogame history. In a time where videogame writing was still prone to cliché and overstatement, Alyx stood out as the way to create a good character.
Gameplay-wise, too, Alyx’s AI was a welcome friend. Her evaluation of skirmishes makes sense, with her flanking and calling out enemy movements easily. In a time where the game industry was still having serious teething issues on how to create decent friendly AI, Half-Life 2 strolled into town to show the industry how to do it.
When replaying Half-Life 2, the intelligence and emotional depth of its cast of NPCs still marvels. Small touches like Alyx covering her face if you shine a flashlight on her to the emotive reactions of rebellion fighters when one of them dies show the two polarising points that Valve do so well: moments of subtlety and moments of maximalism.
When replaying the game, I noticed that if you turn off the flashlight when you’re in a darkened area with Alyx, she will comment on it, while slowly panicking in the pitch black the longer the player waits to turn the light back on. For 2004, that can be nothing more than a sublime touch of true artistic love. Valve’s delicate care on how to match the small strokes with bold displays of action is its biggest selling point, but is something that the company has lost.
Half-Life 2’s careful narrative balance extends to its gameplay. Oh, the gameplay – the game is still an absolute joy to play to this day, with its fast-paced set-pieces and horror-infused ambience excelling at even modern standards. The array of weapons, projectiles and, of course, the gravity gun leave players with a toolkit that is literally perfect. Each weapon gets used, but the true genius in Half-Life 2 is the gravity gun.
By creating a weapon that can manipulate gravity to turn everyday objects into ammunition, as well as the opportunity to counter-attack gargantuan enemies and projectiles alike, Valve made sure that the game became a canvas for player self-expression and inventiveness. The Source engine left the rest of the weapons feel weighty and responsive, but the gravity gun sort of encapsulated what Half-Life 2 was all about: creating a game that set a precedent.
By trusting players with a gameplay canvas they could fully manipulate, topped off by a world drenched in atmosphere, complimented by an array of supporting characters that truly felt like friends, the game was a statement of intent to the rest of the industry, a primal scream of “see if you can top this.”
From Half-Life 2 onwards, Valve only really wanted to create a game if it had something genre-pushing or defining at its core, a potentially damaging habit that began with the gravity gun. While Valve went on to release some truly excellent games from then on, with Portal being the clear highlight, the studio’s tendency to consistently try something new was germinated during Half-Life 2. As a result, the company is still scratching its head on how to continue the series, only half-dedicated to turning the valve of inspiration back on.
Could be difficult to come up with more influential and genre-defining games than these, but more of this nature are certainly on the way. Next week’s game may even have taken the crown from Half-Life 2 in one or more areas. Do you have a favourite game as influential as the Half-Life series that you would like to recommend—why not share it in the comments? As for the latest from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP.com, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and join our community Discord server.