A quick look back… Half-Life
Has Half-Life outlived its full life?
For those of you of PC gaming in the ’90s, there are a handful of games that were so influential to the genre that the ripples of their innovations can be still seen today, especially in the FPS genre. Quake, Doom, Unreal Tournament, Counter-Strike and Wolfenstein all jump to mind. But there’s one that completely decimated the bar for first-person experiences. Half-Life by the now legendary Valve Software.
Released at the end of 1998, Half-Life was one of the first games to tell a deep and interesting story without ever taking the player out of the experience in front of them. RPG’s at the time were still heavily relying on text and long exposition, and most FPS’s used basic scenery and background imagery to convey the setting. And even then, the stories rarely got past ‘there are bad guys/aliens/monsters, go get them.’ And while this worked for the time, as you moved from level to level you got the impression that the designers had thought of a bunch of fun environments, and then came up with the narrative connection afterwards.
Intricate set pieces like a giant alien tactical bursting through a window and dragging a scientist away without any break in gameplay was revolutionary for its day
Half-Life was the first game many of us ever played that told its complex story without text boxes or cutscenes and instead relied on a single continuous and uninterrupted experience with impressive set pieces and dialogue from NPC’s, all without ever taking control away from the player. Played inhabited the silent protagonist Gordon Freeman, who (besides on the games box art) is never shown to the player, and only has very basic details about him revealed. While silent protagonists are common today, a character with little backstory and almost no visual presence within the world itself was unusual for the time and allowed the player to immerse themselves in a way that few games had attempted.
But how has it held up in 2019? What lessons were learned and for better or for worse, what has been left behind, a relic of the era?
To research I went back and played some of the most memorable moments on the updated ‘Half-Life: Source’ version of the game, which does boast slightly improved visuals, more intricate physics and some updated background technical aspects from the original release, but for the most part is the original game in all it’s glory.
However, what impressed me the most on this playthrough wasn’t that its gameplay and story innovations stuck around, and that we still use them today, because we already know that. But rather how the things we took for granted then, are only just coming back into fashion. Non-regenerating health, fast-paced and varied movement options, holding large amounts of weapons and equipment are all things that disappeared from mainstream games from the mid-2000s until recently and It’s only the last few years we’re seeing these sorts of ideas come back but in new forms. While Half-Life (and similar games of the time) all had general fast movement and superhuman jumping abilities, we now see those things in the form of jetpacks, sprinting and clambering, and I can’t even remember the last game I played that didn’t have some form of grapple hook in it. Non-regenerating health has also seen a massive resurgence within the survival/battle royal genre, as well as team-based shooters like overwatch. But these are things that disappeared from mainstream games during our edgy, desaturated visuals, cover mechanics phase.
While most of the game took place in a single research facility, the designers still managed to create environments that played in vastly different ways and required the player to think about their approach differently from moment to moment. In one instant, you’re being attacked by a helicopter on top of a dam, before jumping into the water to fight a giant alien fish with a crossbow, then you get sucked through the turbines and spat out into intricate tiny canyons.
Fighting the giant shark/alien/fish monsters are some of the stressful moments in the game
(Spoilers for a 20-year-old game). The game’s setting also pulls a serious 180 on you for the last quarter or so. The greys and browns of the research facility are suddenly replaced by beautifully-eerie reds, blues, greens and purples of the alien alternate dimension ‘Xen’. By using a teleporter, you are transported to this world which adds new mechanics like low gravity, more intricate platforming, boss fights and even more strange alien creatures.
The alien words of Xen are vastly different from the rest of the game and come out of nowhere
The game then wraps up with a boss fight against what can only be described as a giant cross between a baby, a scarecrow, an octopus and a marshmallow, and the story is left very mysterious and open-ended which can be a little confusing, but the payoff received several years later with Half-Life 2 makes it worth it.
If you’ve never played it, I highly recommend picking it up. Being as old as it is the game can run on a toaster and then you get the advantage of getting toast too. As I said previously, playing it in 2019 isn’t just a retro throw-back, it’s the genesis of many games and mechanics we enjoy today. This is probably sacrilegious to say, and maybe I’m stretching but I see a little Uncharted in there, with its impressive storytelling through set pieces. There’s a little bit of the new Halo and Call of Duty games, with its fast-paced movement and boosted jumps. I’m not saying these games were inspired by Half-Life, but for a game so influential in its day, it’s not too hard to see how the games that inspired these games, may have taken a thing or two, from the standards that Half-Life brought to the table.