Ties & Tragedy: Half-Life’s Zombies

By Alec Meer on May 27th, 2010 at 5:54 pm.

Preparing for a much-needed Windows reinstall, I’m currently unearthing all manner of old pieces from my freelance past. Many are… well, you know how it can feel to read something you wrote many moons ago. For the sake of all humankind, most of these documents must never see the light of day again. This heartfelt paean to the original Half-Life’s zombies (originally published in PC Gamer) remained reasonably proud, however. So, after some heavy jiggery and some light pokery, here it is…

Half-Life is credited with doing a great many things to save the first-person shooter from the Doom-derived rut it seemed stuck in during the late 90s – its perspective, its sense of place, its uncutscenes, its Rick Dangerousness – but rarely given so proud a nod are its zombies.

Zombies are, admittedly, now a videogame foe of such omnispresence that half the world will roll their eyes when one of these groaning, festering chaps shuffles his way onto our screens. It is cruel to overlook the original Half-Life’s treatment of them because of this, however. This was the game that made that old horror staple genuinely terrifying again.

Granted, the living dead were already having something of a renaissance in 1998, the first two Resident Evil games having established them as videogame hot property. After the initial jump-in-your-seat moments, their zombies’ unsettling power diminished sharply, alas. Resi’s work-a-day undead were just the same old shambling idiots from forty years of b-movies.

Sure, the zombie dogs crashing through the window in Resi 1 is one of those moments that gentlemen of a certain generation may reminisce about on their death-beds, but they’re also a sign of the problem – it took setpieces and increasingly fantastical mutations of the formula to keep spines a-shiverin’.

Half-Life, by contrast, went back to the root of the terror: what zombies are, not what they can do. It built to it carefully, obfuscating the encounter to come with the confusion of exactly why the weak, tiny Headcrabs would try to attack you, and then with glimpses of bloodied corpses slumped in dark offices, limbs seeming to still twitch. Must be a trick of the light. Mustn’t it?

The first time we encounter a zombie, it takes a few seconds to work out what it is. It’s a bizarre, gruesome sight – bulbous, faceless head, foot-long talons, a gaping, bleeding maw in its chest, with the split ribs horribly resembling teeth. Is it an alien? A monster? A hallucination Then, you notice it’s wearing a tie.

A… tie? Well, maybe just a labcoat. Maybe some comfortable slacks and a sensible belt. In any case, a man’s clothes. Why would a monster wear trousers?

Oh god.

It’s not a monster. It’s a person.

It’s a person who was very probably still alive when this horrific transformation occured. When you beat it to a pulp with a crowbar, you’re not simply restoring a mindless corpse to its natural state, but you’re actually killing a human being.

In fact, it’s one of those charmingly geeky scientists you saw earlier on, who greeted you by name. You’re killing a colleague, a friend. The puzzle-pieces fall together. Headcrabs go for the face. Then they do /something/ to their still-living prey. Something unspeakable. We’ve all seen Aliens. We all know how this works. If it wasn’t for that HEV suit that Gordon Freeman is wearing, this could have happened to him/you too.

Half-Life’s zombies are not cannon fodder – they’re walking tragedies. Valve’s most recent depiction of the living dead, with the Left 4 Dead series, does the opposite, reducing zombies to comedy swarms to be killed in the most cartoonish fashion possible. The legacy of HL1′s tortured victim perhaps lingers in The Witch – she cries for the humanity she’s lost and the monster she’s become. Are Half-Life 1′s zombies similarly aware of the horror of their bloodthirsty circumstance?

Years later, Half-Life 2 would confirm they were s, revisiting Headcrab zombies and adding tortured, muffled screams to make it horrifyingly clear that the human hosts were somehow still alive and worse, maybe even conscious.

While they’re perhaps a little too plentiful and familiar in HL2 to keep up the scares, if there’s one thing that really kills any sense of safety during the Black Mesa stages of the original Half-Life, it’s the zombies.

There are mangled corpses lying in every corridor, brutally disfigured victims of the headcrab assault. It’s pure guesswork as to which ones are going to suddenly lurch upwards and take a swipe at you. Panicked, you’ll empty half a precious cartridge into something wearing a bloodied labcoat before you realise it’s not getting up, and was never going to in the first place.

As Half-Life rolls on, it (in)famously goes for far broader shocks – giant spiders, huge armoured aliens, head-swimming vertigo and anti-gravity platforming. None of its many escalations are a patch on that first moment a spine-fingered zombie crashed out of a storage cabinet at you, and having just a split-second to realise that it’s a man, a man who’s suffered horribly, before you have to cave in whatever’s left of his skull with two foot of sharpened stainless steel.

It’s not really something to be proud of, is it?

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122 Comments »

  1. kikito says:

    They call them zombies, but “infected” would be more appropiate.

  2. bleeters says:

    I’d be lying if I said I gave this much thought into HL1′s various zombie foes before emptying shotguns fire into them. I do still remember pounding on that window, that damn impenetrable window, watching another scientist push over a filing cabinet onto a headcrab and cheering, unaware that another is lurching at him from a vent.

    Damn that bloody window. Who has bullet proof glass in their office, anyway?

    • Dagda says:

      The people who run top-secret research programs at government facilities guarded by military operatives?

    • bleeters says:

      Well yes. But now they’re disfigured husks, wandering around at the whim of a parasitic alien, all because their windows were impervious to gunfire so I couldn’t help.

      Thus, damn that window. Damn it for preventing me from helping.

  3. HairCute says:

    “Half-Life is credited with doing a great many things to save the first-person shooter from the Doom-derived rut it seemed stuck in during the late 80s

    I don’t really remember 80′s doom. Was that a British thing?

    I think this is the first time I’ve ever been very annoyed with this site. I need to get out of the house for a bit today.

    • Jesse says:

      That’s kind of a tiny nit to pick. I suggest you take your own advice.

    • HairCute says:

      I…am…huh? I am taking my own advice. I am doing what I said I was going to do. Why did you say that? If you’re still reading this can you explain yourself to me? Do you feel better?

      Hmm…

    • Wednesday says:

      …why would you be “very annoyed” at a small mistake?

    • GetOutOfHereStalker says:

      80′s doom is like regular doom but the protagonist has an afro and all the music tracks have been replaced with disco music

    • Jakkar says:

      I have to agree, this article is generally just a bit of a whine, and I don’t find much of it very accurate =\

  4. Grunt says:

    Considering this was Gordon’s first day at Black Mesa I doubt he’d be killing “friends”. His guilt would be from a humanist, moral level which as we all know means that anyone not intimately connected with the character and threatens said character in some way is usually fair game for a hot-lead sandwich.

    Headcrabs are one of gaming’s finest creations, and possibly Valve’s finest ever.. You just can’t help but love to kill the little blighters, especially if you’re rewarded by that trademark rolling death-gurgle. But stick ‘em on a human body and they’re just annoying, although they do telegraph their movements somewhat for easy dodging.

    • DeepSleeper says:

      I didn’t think it was Gordon’s first day at Black Mesa. Everyone knew him by name, he had a locker with some books and stuff in it, there was a running interpersonal rivalry over the microwave…

      Plus you don’t hand an HEV suit to a guy just off the bench and go “Hey. Push the cart into the stream.” That’s not a job for the noobs, man. Years of training.

    • Bret says:

      And he and Barney had the vent duct races. Probably there for a while.

    • jeremypeel says:

      @ Bret: Well, that depends on how well you trust Alyx’s version of events.

      …Who am I kidding, I’ve trusted that fictional girl with my life and will do so again (please let me do so again, Valve).

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      total reply fail. sorry.

  5. MarkSide says:

    The first time I realised what a headcrab-zombie was: seeing a scientist’s body slumped against a corridor wall with a headcrab vibrating on his scalp; the slowly dawning realisation that, hey, I remember that guy! I quit the game in terror. It took me about a week to work up the nerve to get back in the game.

  6. Dervish says:

    “Corpses” get up in Half-Life? Um, like, maybe one or two in the entire game that are pretty obviously telegraphed. Also, “emptying half a precious cartridge” makes no sense, and if you meant “magazine” then… wow. I’m pretty sure no one who played Half-Life panicked at the sight of harmless corpses and sprayed bullets into them reflexively.

    In fact, it’s hard to read any of this write-up and not believe that this is all comedic exaggeration. If you have a disquieting moment of reflective horror when playing HL1 you need to get a grip.

    • Nemon says:

      You are brave can you have my babies?

    • Dervish says:

      It’s not about bragging or being tough, it’s about not saying stupid shit about video games. Trumping up simplistic stuff with this kind of forced analysis is just embarrassing. There’s nothing wrong with feeling that way about the zombies in Half-Life, but 1) I highly doubt the sincerity of this kind of purported reaction (hindsight, rose-colored glasses, etc.), and 2) it’s projecting. It’s using fancy words to pretend something was in the game when it wasn’t, just like when people say HL had great storytelling or plot.

      The game was great in ways that don’t require navel-gazing to appreciate. This kind of slobbering just drags it down.

    • DrGonzo says:

      It did have amazing storytelling, for the time. In fact most games now still have worse story telling. Before Half Life there were cutscenes, or even just text that explained the story. It was the first time I remember a game that had the story unfold in front of you.

      I don’t think people think that the plot was amazing and I don’t know of anyone who would say it’s anything more than a B movie plot. It’s just that it was told in a very original and innovative way for its day.

      I don’t see why you feel the need to attack this article. You didn’t like it, that’s fine but don’t be rude about it.

    • AlexW says:

      Look, Dervish, just because you can’t get immersed into a game doesn’t mean other people can’t. And believe me, when I first played the game at about twelve years old, not knowing what the game was about, they were (and still mostly remain) goddamn terrifying, and much like some of the other anecdotes I honestly stopped playing the game in favour of Counter-Strike for months a short way in. Did you never stop to wonder what the headcrab cracking open your skull and injecting its mutagenic venom into your still-conscious head would feel like? Sympathise with the innocent civilians suddenly thrown into living hell and then an unfathomable agony as their limbs are twisted to the purpose of slicing up their colleagues and friends?

    • ET says:

      I first played HL when I was 17, and I can assure you that the headcrab zombies horrified me in a way few other games ever did. It wasn’t fear-type horror that makes me jump at shadows, no, but the kind that makes me go ‘omigod this can’t be happening, did that just happen’? Yes. I’ve been looking for that kind of feeling from games ever since, but unfortunately it’s been somewhat lacking.

    • jeremypeel says:

      AlexW and DrGonzo are right on the money here. No, it’s never spelled out exactly what the headcrabs do once they’re wrapped around your head in that final embrace, and yes, it is projecting to talk about them in the way Alec did and the way I am doing now. But did it ever occur to you that we’re led to project by what the game does show us, that Valve are telling the story through implication? That’s the great storytelling achievement of Half Life. Many of us remember a detailed plotline that was never really there; all we ever know is the little that Gordon manages to see and the rest is, as you say, projected, an imagined whole truth infinitely better than anything the developers could weave for us.

      You had a different experience to Alec, clearly, but I remember my own open-mouthed horror the first time I heard the muffled scream of the flaming zombies in HL2, and I also acted in similarly twitchy ways as a result. I don’t think describing the experience of playing the game counts as exagurration or “stupid shit”; if I wanted to read purely about the mechanics and technical aspects of games I certainly wouldn’t be here.

    • Dervish says:

      “That’s the great storytelling achievement of Half Life. Many of us remember a detailed plotline that was never really there”

      No, this is a big failing of a lot of what passes for video game writing these days–taking what is essentially glorified fanfiction and praising a game for the player’s ability to make stuff up. Pretty much any discussion about “immersion” or “emergent narrative” or “role playing” ends up turning into this. People have strong reactions, sure. But people have strong reactions to all sorts of pap, and at some point you need to grow up and admit that crying over Aeris is not a high point for games but a low point for their audience.

      Anyway, If this piece had focused solely on HL2, I would be a lot more forgiving, given the more gruesome/realistic gore and agonized screaming. HL2 has a strong horror theme, sure. The zombies are clearly still partially human, and that’s kinda messed up. HL1 simply does not have these horror elements barring a few creepy moment (like the twitching zombie in front of the monitor). And this entry is clearly NOT taking the “it might be horror for me even if it’s not horror for you” stance that the headcrabaphobes might insist on, because it asks the reader to acknowledge HL’s legacy.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      No, this is a big failing of a lot of what passes for video game writing these days–taking what is essentially glorified fanfiction and praising a game for the player’s ability to make stuff up. Pretty much any discussion about “immersion” or “emergent narrative” or “role playing” ends up turning into this.

      Very true. And it’s a shame really, because neither immersion, emergent narrative or role playing have anything to do with this. None of them exempt the game from having to produce a visible and coherent plot.

      Certainly we don’t necessarily need to know the biology of headcrabs. But this lack of knowledge is not a mandate to start tossing theories and claiming the power of narrative is no narrative at all. That is just the nonsense produced by too much relativism; an unfortunate trait of this pop culture we live in.

    • Saul says:

      HL did have a strong horror plot, although for me the horror came more when the human soldiers started going after you. Whatever, though, I don’t think I’ve ever been as immersed in a gaming world than I was in Half-Life. The plot may have been paper-thin, but the story-telling was second-to-none.

    • Jayt says:

      Dervish your a bit of a wanker, yeah?

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      @Saul,

      I don’t think of HL plot as paper-thin. Not just yet. But this whole notion that “no information” is “great information” has really to stop. I think we players deserve more than that. We deserve all the richness and depth of a great story. The “no information” plot device is just that. A plot device. Not to be abused. Unless, we start defending such hollow and relativistic concepts. Then indeed we deserve nothing better than the shallow plots many games are already gifting us with.

      HL however is yet quite not there. The story is unfinished. Currently what I think is that Valve has a great narrative debt to its gamers. There’s too much that is still left unexplained. To me it sometimes even feels that for the past 4 games, not even Valve knows what the story really is. They are just throwing stuff on top of stuff and think of connecting the dots later. I don’t mind. I just think the game needs both a closure and a climax. Unless Valve wants to be known as a no-show in terms of storytelling.

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      drewski says:

      It worked for Lost.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      I rest my case.

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      skalpadda says:

      @Dervish, Mario:

      Not everything needs to be detailed and spelled out to make a story or fictional world good though. I’m not talking about Half Life specifically here but in more general terms which include it. Hinting at something without explicitly showing or explaining it can be a great way to engage your audience and one of my pet peeves with much fiction is that whenever there’s an important element introduced the creators often feel the need to virtually glue big red arrows around it to draw attention to it. A bit of subtlety doesn’t hurt, especially in a horror setting. Not assuming your audience is devoid of imagination is a good idea as well.

      On the headcrab zombies, I wouldn’t put them up among the scariest video game enemies out there, but their humanity did make them very creepy and uncomfortable for me. Of course that won’t happen if you just treat them as targets to drop as quickly as possible, but that’s someone else’s loss, not mine.

  7. EthZee says:

    Worst part was fairly early on: coming across a scientist, recently turned (or still turning), sat in a chair in a darkened room, in front of a screen – maybe showing something useful before, but now just tuned to static – and twitching. Twitching violently.

    That was messed up.

    (And I have to disagree with your talk of the Left 4 Dead zombies; you may not think much of it at the time, but in hindsight the sheer volume of people you kill – insane and mutated, perhaps, but still people – is quite disturbing.

    • sana says:

      Messed up? It was hilarious. The headcrab was obviously not used to the visual trauma of TV static.

    • ha says:

      I find it disturbing that you find a convulsing corpse to be hilarious.

      But anyway.

    • sana says:

      Inhuman, isn’t it? Like all those godless freaks that play this “Team Fortress 2″… I mean, the objective is to blow people to bits with rockets! What an abomination of a game… Games turn our children into satanists!

  8. LionsPhil says:

    If memory serves, it’s a laptop displaying flickering TV-style static snow (um, I’ll just assume that that gross technical inaccuracy is a deliberate piece of B-movie science), and you can either use or shoot it to turn it off, causing the epileptic zombie to stop twitching.

    I have to say the identikit scientists somewhat undermined all this—they were comic foibles. Heck, backtrack to the tram after the accident. Also, Scientist Hunt, although I might just have built monster_maker scientists-in-a-room-of-barnacles maps before then.

    What?

  9. Karthik says:

    This article raises the question: why are all the zombies in Half Life 2, presumably blue-uniformed residents of City 17, wearing white lab coats?

    Also, apart from at first contact, they’ve pretty much devolved to cannon fodder. Especially in HL2.

    • LordCraigus says:

      @Karthik: I think the headcrab zombies in HL2 are wearing the white Citizen clothing that some Citizens wear, though that’s still pretty unusual when you think about it.

  10. airtekh says:

    I can’t really say I’ve been affected too much by the zombies in HL1. The screams of a burning zombie in HL2 however ….. brrrrr!

  11. Vanger says:

    It wasn’t Gordon’s first day at Black Mesa.

    Remember one of the posters, where he is depicted as an “Employee of the month”?

    • Susan says:

      That was an easter egg in Opposing Force (I think?), which is non-canon.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Your right it was in Opposing Force. Though he is still correct that it wasn’t his first day at work, in fact at no point does it suggest it is your first day.

    • Bret says:

      Semi non canon.

      Really, the whole thing’s a bit of a mess.

    • Spacewalk says:

      It’s about as canon as the expansions for FEAR are.

  12. Huggster says:

    The zombie infections in HL2 were very creepy, especially as you explored the villages which had been hit by headcrab mortars – when you reach a rebel outpost only to find its strangely quiet and overrun. Incidentally the tendril arms, noises, screeching and setting on fire of the zombies was almost a straight lift from John Carpenters “The Thing”, if you see the parts when the team are partially transformed. (Bennings and Windows)

    Garry quotes something like: “I’ve known Bennings for 10 years … he was my friend”

    • Vinraith says:

      “We don’t got to Ravenholm anymore…”

      Creepiest section of any shooter I’d ever played at the time.

    • Huggster says:

      Half Life 2 works so well because it lets you fill in the details. Superb production values and art direction. I still rate that even today.

    • Huggster says:

      Also I used to hate being on the street in Ravenholm and felt scared and exposed, and would always run to the rooftops, only to confront those blasted horrid fast zombies.

    • Sarlix says:

      “blasted horrid fast zombies”

      They were pretty bad :(

      But the absolute worst were the hunched-up bunched-up type, with all the black head crabs that sound like rattle snakes!

      It’s the only time I have ever been put on edge by a game. If I knew one was ahead of me I would toss fuel barrels in the general direction in hopes of hitting it. Anything to avoid making contact, or even seeing it! The amount of ammo I would waste trying to kill one of those things was totally illogical.

    • Hidden_7 says:

      Oh dear, the black headcrabs. Those things terrified me. Just having one come at me would set me on the edge. Shades of 2000′s AvP where getting hit with a facehugger would cause me to literally fall backwards out of my chair, arms covering my face, trying to keep it off me.

      I distinctly remember a moment in HL2 where you are driving along the coast, and there’s various cottages along the road that you can usually find supplies in. I got out to investigate one of them, heard that terrible snake moaning of the black headcrab zombie and just got in my little cart and drove away Not worth it.

      Another time I was exploring a sewer, and rounded a corner to come face to face with one of those things. I don’t know how I missed the audio cues, wasn’t paying attention probably. I immediately hit escape to pause the game, and just sat there for a good few minutes trying to formulate a plan to get myself out of this. “Ok, immedately back up round the corner, pull the SMG, grenade to the face, then quickly switch to revolver to finish off any headcrabs that survive it, ok, ready, GO.”

      There’s been a few enemies in games that have really frightened me, and they usually follow two key traits. One, they should play on my arachnophobia some, so looking like a spider is always a good idea. Two, they should be incredibly dangerous to my in game character. Instant death, or near it. Forces me to play like I’m scared of them, instead of just tough guy rushing them. Bonus points if their attack forces me to look at them.

      Interestingly the black headcrabs only really had the illusion of the second one. The hit that brought your health down to 1 immediately, but then let it regenerate back up gave you the immediate gut reaction fear of “ohno! my health!” without the annoyance of an actual one shot one kill enemy. Ironically this meant that, logically, a single blackhead crab in a room was the least dangerous enemy in the game, it couldn’t actually hurt you. Still didn’t stop them terrifying me.

    • Spacewalk says:

      That bit in Ravenholm, where you go down the little elevator shaft and there’s one there, right outside, and you can’t run away from it… that was the worst bit.

      Provided that I am remembering this correctly.

  13. Barnz says:

    Hey Alec, did you play Half-Life: Uplink? There is a scientist with Headcrab on his head. When you approach him, he says: “Is someone there? I can’t see a thing…”. It’s up to you to determine his fate.

  14. shnyker says:

    I stand by that Ravenholm is the scariest level ever put in a video game. Sure Eternal Darkness may have it beat in terms of overall scare, but as a level in a shooter, of all things, it blew my mind then pissed my pants for me.

    It has the atmosphere, the lack of ammo, the gruesomeness, the insanity, the number of enemies, the jumps and shocks. And if you try it with the gravity gun only it becomes this adrenaline rush as you run around trying to find, something, ANYTHING, to kill that sprinter with. That is more like a real zombie problem than any other game has caused for me.

    • airtekh says:

      @shnyker

      I’m sorry but you can’t make a comment like that and expect no-one to mention The Cradle, from Thief: Deadly Shadows.

      I can’t ever remember wanting to finish a level so badly just to get out of it. Awesomely atmospheric and terrifying in one meaty combo.

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      Vandelay says:

      Agreed. I like Ravenholm, but it isn’t as terrifying as some make it out to be. The Fast zombies and poison Headcrabs do give me a chill though.

      Then again, Headcrabs have nothing on those Face-huggers from the original AvP. I only played that for the first time a month or so ago and they are still terrifying compared to modern horror attempts in games.

    • Nick says:

      Large portions of Call of Cthulhu DCotE put it to shame in so far as scares go. And the Haunted Mansion in Vampire.

    • cyrenic says:

      @shnyker

      I guess you haven’t played the first STALKER, then? That first underground lab/factory blew Ravenholm out of the water :).

    • stahlwerk says:

      @Nick yeah, The Hollowbrook Hotel in bloodlines get’s my vote for most suspenseful level ever, I literally had to stop playing for half an hour shortly after the kitchen section.

      But, as soon as you realize that nothing except the flames upstairs can really hurt you most of the effect is lost (and thankfully so, as it reduces risk of cardiac arrest on repeated playthroughs).

    • ha says:

      I think the reason the kitchen is so scary is that it CAN hurt you…at least a little. And immediately after you activate the power.

      So i think the idea is to make something that CAN hurt you, but you don’t know how it will…

    • DrGonzo says:

      Call of Cthulu and Condemned for me. I stopped playing Call of Cthulu because I found it too scary and I’m not usually easily scared.

    • stahlwerk says:

      @Ha

      You mean switching on the power in the boiler room?

      The Boiler Room that is most definetly empty, no good sir, there is no one in there. Boiler room, population: 0.

      Oh my, that boiler room. Good times were had in this empty, empty boiler room.

    • jeremypeel says:

      Ravenholm was terrifying, partly because of what it was and partly because of the masterful build-up to it. We don’t go to Ravenholm…

      But I’m with airtekh on this one – nothing has ever come close to The Cradle for me, I still don’t think enough people have played it. A guy named Kieron Gillen wrote a fantastic feature on it once upon a time.

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    Vandelay says:

    In other Half Life related news, I downloaded an update through Steam earlier today that adds some graphical bells and whistles (can’t find what exactly), along with achievements, to Half Life 2 and Episode 1. Means I will probably have to replay it yet again.

    • Sobric says:

      Is it a full engine update? Or just achievements?

    • DrGonzo says:

      Full engine update. HDR and all the other shinyness from Ep2. It’s really rather pretty. I think it’s the version that came with the Orange Box on the 360 and PS3.

  16. Azlin K says:

    First time around I was rooting my friend to “throw a grenade at the sucker!” (I didn’t have enough money to own HL at the time).

    After finally playing it for the first time and meeting an “infected” scientist, I realized that that sucker might just still be human inside and I hesitate, my crowbar unraised… until I remember the movie Aliens. Your probably doing a favor killing the Headcrab-Headed Scientist who probably is suffering a fate far worse than death.

    What really scares me in HL2 is that goddamn Headcrab pet. I tried to shoot it every chance I get. I mean what if the good doctor was wrong and it grew back its teeth, fangs, whatever… then he won’t have anything else to look forward to. Except trying to get into the suit of one Gordon Freeman.

  17. Urthman says:

    Favorite HL1 moments:

    1. Ripping the earbuds out of my ears when I jerked my head back from the screen because a headcrab jumped at me. Ouch! Possibly the only time a video game enemy has literally caused me physical pain.

    2. Near the beginning of the game, coming across a ladder leading down into darkness and thinking to myself, “NO WAY am I going down there.” And then having to tell myself, out loud, “It’s just a game. That’s the whole point, is going down there and fighting the monsters.”

  18. Mario Figueiredo says:

    I don’t read so deep into Half-Life creatures. But yes, they were very memorable and will remain in the minds of a whole generation of gamers.

  19. LordCraigus says:

    The HL zombies are certainly pretty scary under the right (or wrong) circumstances and a bit more original than your usual zombie fare. Personally I find them scarier in HL2 and on for the way the Combine use them as artillery to quash resistance.

    • Spacewalk says:

      I learned a good lesson playing HL2, you have to shoot them in the head. Headcrabs will jump off if you take down a zombie with body shots.

  20. ianplays says:

    Alien versus Predator (the one recently on Steam and RPS). Never been as scared as when a facehugger jumped me. Seriously disturbing.

  21. eide says:

    As annoying as the fast zombies were, the poisonous headcrabs were the worst.

    Worst part? They weren’t that dangerous. You got poisoned and left with 1 HP that would slowly regenerate. I never acctually died from one of them, as I could retreat and regenerate before anything bad happened.

    But the sound, the damn sound. If I heard it I didn’t care if there was fifteen zombies chasing me, the only thing I had to do was kill that damned poisonous headcrab.

  22. Novotny says:

    Yes indeed; the black headcrabs in HL2 utterly freaked me out more than anything else I’ve encountered in gaming, including the original Dooms – which did make me jump.

    Those black headcrabs horrified me.

    • cmo7 says:

      And that things cant even kill you themselves. Valve really did a great work with them.

  23. ha says:

    There ARE people who did. Especially when it was “top of the line” visually.

    And this type of thing IS important because it points out to people (and designers!!) what works in games and what can evoke certain emotions. If it didn’t work for you that just means it didn’t fit with your particular personality or fears. Also, you are probably less likely to allow yourself to be as immersed as other people.

    I will say that there always seems to be a bit of exaggeration going on in articles like this, and most of the articles on RPS for that matter. That’s kind of the style of their writing, and it’s one of the things that makes reading their articles interesting.

    So bleh.

  24. Zwebbie says:

    Am I the only one who found the HL zombies to be comical at best? It doesn’t take more than a few encounters to realise that they’re so horribly slow that they shouldn’t ever hit you. On top of that, they’re wearing a headcrab.
    When HL or HL2 is scary, it’s pretty cheaply so by plunging you in a very dark, cramped space and then it throws things at you that are very deadly. I’m much more impressed by games like STALKER or Vampire Bloodlines where I’m just as scared even when I’m perfectly safe.

    • Zwebbie says:

      Just to clear out my contradiction, Poison Headcrabs and Fast Zombies are scary and deadly, regular zombies are just wusses.

    • ha says:

      The hotel is absolutely amazing. And I found the part with the cannibal scary until I couldn’t get to the other side of a pile of chairs…

      JUMP DAMN YOU. NO IT’S EMPTY SPACE NOT AN INVISIBLE WALL D:

  25. RadioactiveMan says:

    Glad to see I’m not alone here- The zombie mortars in HL2 are one of my favorite parts of that game. And, I agree that STALKER was scarier: Ghosts, creepy monsters, environmental anomalies, weird disturbing sounds and visuals…etc. The icing on the cake was the poor translation and sort of half-finished feeling the game had. Everything in that game could kill you, it seemed, and there was little documentation about how, or why, or how to prevent it. So much of the game was just trying to figure out where to go or what something was for, that scary things could be totally unexpected and thus REALLY scary.

    Another great scary game sequence for me is in Resident Evil Four: Near the end of the game you encounter those creepy regenerating monsters that you can only kill with an infrared scope. The first time you meet them in the abandoned lab is incredibly creepy… I still remember the breathing noises!

    The other scary part about RE4 that I hated was the quick-time battles with Krauser. hate. Hate. HATE!

  26. Stromko says:

    Personally I found those huge tentacle things that sprouted from the ground left a bigger impression on me. The constant clanging and banging as they felt around for prey, the fact that you couldn’t do anything to fight back for much of the game, and that they were simply unlike anything I’ve encountered before.

  27. Ushao says:

    I haven’t played in a while but I distinctly remember a scene in HL2 where Barney talks about him and Gordon racing through the ventilation shafts at Black Mesa on occasion.

  28. Ushao says:

    Bloody reply system.

    I haven’t played in a while but I distinctly remember a scene in HL2 where Barney talks about him and Gordon racing through the ventilation shafts at Black Mesa on occasion.

  29. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I often feel that Zombies are interesting when used to similar effects as the better zombie movies. To basically frighten you. Even better if there is more dpeth and story in it, detailing/showing just how horrible and terrifying a zombie horde is.

    Which is why basic shoot the zombie game doesn’t so much appeal to me. L4D might, however, if I were into that (regardless of the zombies). Otherwise it’s just a cheap use of a humanoid-looking enemy as a punching bag.

  30. Max says:

    I remember the HL2 zombies screaming in pain when on fire, or the random sounds of gargling they made.
    I swear they said other things as well.

  31. Socaddict says:

    The thing that actually frightened me the most in HL was actually the shark things. Mostly because it made me go “I don’t want to go in the water, I don’t want to go in the water, I don’t want to go in the water…”

    And then I went in because I had to.

    thinking they were still in HL2 made me very cautious of the water, and to then find out that my fears were ungrounded…

    That annoyed me, in a good way.

    • bleeters says:

      Oh God, yes. My first playthrough of HL2 was temporarily halted for a good half hour whilst I sat staring weakly at an underwater section entrance. Are there Ichthyosaurs down there? I bet there are. Oh god oh god oh god oh god…

      Almost disappointing when there turned out to be none, anywhere.

    • Premium User Badge

      JB says:

      Add me to the list of people most afraid of ichthyosaurs. I used to dread the water sections in HL. I was very much relieved regarding their absence from HL2.

    • Spacewalk says:

      Well, there was one but that was a cutscene. Thank Christ.

      As much as I hated going underwater in HL I couldn’t help laughing the first time you see an Icthy. Same with the Tentacle.

  32. Jakkar says:

    A gross failure to understand the zombie.

    These aren’t a cliche foe – they are a part of life, and belong in all games!
    All.
    Games.

    Resident Evil’s zombies were not designed to be terrifying or challenging – the game was story-based, not gameplay. If gameplay was the emphasis of the series it would not have taken them ten years to put a decent aim and movement system in. No, Resident Evil is about atmosphere and story. The story is about the leak of a biological weapon that made victims horrible, rotten, tottering cannibals. They weren’t an enemy, so much as an environmental hazard and an item of atmospheric furniture. A constant reminder of what the game is about, and a tactical dynamic to take into account when choosing routes of travel and how to manage your inventory.

    The living dead as vengeful revenants, ghosts of warning, relict memories, revered ancestors or moral horror stories go back beyond the written word – they’re not just another kind of goblin, or another alien to shoot, not ‘terrorists’, ‘mafia’ or even ‘germans’ in a cheap shootemup.

    They’re.. fundamental, to the way we write stories. I was surprised to find just how many pieces of classic fiction are packed with the undead, and how far back this trend goes. The mistake is in making them the focus, rather than simply a part of a fictional world.

    And you somehow failed to mention that HL2 ruined the zombies of Half-Life by making them ALL wear blue jeans and white jackets, like a platoon of sad, sad chefs who all chose the wrong hat after waking up to the Portal Storms.

    That their long sharp fingers and bony mutations were removed, that Headcrabs inexplicably grew around eight times larger.. Ach.

  33. Axeman89 says:

    Ugh, the black headcrabs were always the worst for me! Scariest looking zombies, ability to instantly drain health, and arachnoid touches to play off the last remaining vestiges of my childhood arachnophobia meant that I always used my best weapons and grenades on them from the greatest difference possible, no matter how badly I needed those last few shotgun shells of SMG grenade!

    Has anyone reversed the zombie sounds, especially the one regular zombies make while burning? It’s just as shocking and scary to me as my first play-through Ravenholm, when the demo was released.

  34. Ninja says:

    Zombies don’t scare me.

    Headcrabs though, they terrify me. I’m a person that HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATES Spiders, and Headcrabs remind me of spiders.

    I’d rather go through the entire game fighting zombies with headcrabs than fight a single headcrab not attatched to a zombie.

    The flood in Halo made me feel the same way despite how weak the standard ones were.

  35. Shazbut says:

    I have never been as scared at anything, be it in a game, film, book, tv or otherwise, as I was of the headcrabs in HL1.

    Not, “Oh God, there’s going to be one in this tunnel! No! I’m not going in there!”, I’m talking burying the game CD under stacks of books. I’m talking pausing at the edge of a ventilation shaft with god mode on for about 20 minutes before finally going in, finger on “W”, eyes to the floor, rocket launcher continually firing at my feet. I’m talking being afraid to lie on my back in bed.

    Nothing that goes for my face. Never. No

  36. Spacewalk says:

    When I got hit by my first headcrab I was disappointed to find it fall to the ground in front of me instead of latching onto my head and turned me into one of those “things”. After that they seemed more bark than bite.

  37. Craig Stern says:

    Half Life’s zombies never left much of an impression on me. Maybe it’s because I was too busy shitting my pants over System Shock 2′s zombies.

    • Premium User Badge

      drewski says:

      I didn’t mind the zombies in SS2 so much, but there was something about the monkeys that creeped the absolute bejesus out of me.

  38. Gabe says:

    I’d like to feed this spammer to a nest of black headcrabs.

  39. Fumarole says:

    Headcrab zombies certainly have character but nothing has scared me more than System Shock 2‘s menagerie of horrors.

    • Hidden_7 says:

      This is actually true for me to a sort of disappointing degree. I played HL after I’d been through Thief and System Shock 2.

      Nothing in that game just had much of a zing in it when compared to those two. Again, it wasn’t until Half-Life 2 introduced those poisonous headcrabs that I was actually scared playing a Valve game.

  40. Hidden_7 says:

    And one quick one so that he can actually be killed by said nest.

  41. Idle Threats & Bad Poetry says:

    We could use some video games that try to disturb you without gratuitous gore. Some of the most disturbing, horrific things are the things you don’t see. When a game like Dead Space comes along, it puts gore everywhere and asks, “Are you scared yet?” (I haven’t played DS, but that’s the impression I have of it.)

    I think Meer is on the right track. What if a game really finds a way to play up the human tragedy? A HL zombie that moans and whimpers in pain while it walks around (implying consciousness), but that also gives a pathetic and very human reaction when you kill it or knock the headcrab off.

  42. Adrian says:

    i too remember the moment i realized the headcrabs were turning people into zombies as sheer horror. But after that i never bothered for them again. The next time i got a scary sensation from half life zombies was from half life 2 when you met the priest with the shotgun and those FAST zombies suddenly attacked you. I think they leaped at you just when they came in shotgun range so you never knew if youd kill them or be attacked instantly.
    I think the l4d zombies are not scary at all. they are just too fast and you are always too certain that you will take out at least 50 of them before they overrun you by sheer number.
    but then i played killing floor (i think that was the name) which featured painfully slow zombies which just wouldn’t die and for me those weren’T scary either.
    i guess its all about the right mix

  43. Magic H8 Ball says:

    No idea what Mr. Meer is about. Yes, HL zombies were once human. ALL zombies were once human. That’s what zombies are: ex-humans. I fail to remember anything noteworthy about HL Zombies; they didn’t even have these B-horror screams; they only got them in HL2.

  44. Richard Clayton says:

    I had to get drunk to replay the Ravenholm section “We don’t go there anymore”. Well not sober anyway.
    The way the black head crabs moved and the fact that, like large spiders, they look sooty and dirty.
    Oh yes, and the fast zombies. On that roof when the drain pipe starts rattling. I very, very nearly ran out of ammo at that point.

    • Spacewalk says:

      Seeing the drainpipes rattle is the time when I rack my brain trying to remember that console code that slows down the framerate so everything moves super slow.

  45. LionsPhil says:

    Hurry…RUN!

    • LionsPhil says:

      Oh fickle reply system, why will you not pair my SS2 quote with the SS2 discussion?

      Also, yes, those damn sharks. Fast, loud, sudden, and brutal. And a pain to target because they circle you inbetween biting off limbs.

  46. ha says:

    I distinctly remember being hurt in the boiler room by the bolts being shot off the boiler…but anyway.

  47. Bloo says:

    You know that’s because you had on your HEV suit, right? Just making sure…

  48. Bloo says:

    You know that’s because you had on your HEV suit, right? Just checking…

  49. EricFong says:

    I don’t know, but killing them are just for their good, ending their pain.