Diary: Never Been Half-Lifed, Part One

By Cara Ellison on November 7th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.

what a terrible person

In the depths of late night despair you might sometimes lie awake thinking about how you are a life-long PC gamer and have never played through the original 1998 PC darling Half-Life. The thought lingers on you like some grotesque bug with the ability to whisper: ‘You are an impostor. You are fake. You are phoney.’ Well even if you don’t have terrible self-esteem, I do. I’m like Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed. Except the kiss is Half-Life. And Gordon Freeman is that guy from Alias that ends up kissing Drew Barrymore awkwardly on a baseball pitch.

Or whatever.

Here’s my first time with Half-Life, documented in badly made videos recorded whilst I was travelling Europe.

What strikes me most about my first time experience, now a few hours into the sci-fi epic Half-Life, is how much it makes me think of the golden age of Steven Spielberg’s movies.

Okay, so that was a joke trailer. But there’s no Youtube video online that can let you immediately see the delayed entrance of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, so I can’t show you that. But you remember don’t you? The noise of South American cicadas, the fade in to the Paramount logo on a mountaintop. The tense music. A man is on a journey through the jungle. We cannot see his face. The main character is voiceless as others bustle around him. It’s tense; we’re on a journey but we don’t know where. The audio puts us on edge. Intimidating things are happening around the characters, but we get the sense that the main character knows what he’s doing – has been in this environment before. Voices imply that things could go wrong. Suddenly, we are introduced to our hero. He steps into the light.

Gordon Freeman has a delayed entrance – we are not only held at arms length as to who we are as we go along for the ride, but Gordon too has a literal delayed entrance to his workplace. It’s a commute, and all the things that could go wrong are encircling his consciousness, through the polite, creepy lady who narrates, to the robots at work around him. It is implied that someone has recently died in the hazardous materials section of Black Mesa because they are recruiting for a replacement. Suddenly, we are introduced to our hero. You are Gordon Freeman, you are twenty seven years old, and you have a crappy level of security access.

(There is no way this guy is 27.)

Though I make jokes throughout the video, what I’m really feeling most of the time is a tenseness created by the level designers; an almost surveillance-like awareness of the player. The huge amount of meticulously scripted events are designed to scare or to provide a feeling of helplessness. There is a concerted attempt by the designers to make the player aware of how little power or control over the environment they have – just like Indiana Jones or whoever Jeff Goldblum plays in Jurassic Park, the tension comes from always feeling like they’re arriving late to the problem, and then getting too deep into the problem, necessitating escape.

This creates in the player a permanent sense that they are running to catch up – and if you think about how both Raiders and Jurassic Park function, the tension is of 1) both writer and director conspiring to consistently make the characters feel like something is going to go wrong and 2) making the characters run, panicked, away from something that has gone wrong (‘must go faster!’). The tension both in those films and in this game is one of desperation.

The very essence of Indiana Jones is that he is underprepared for what is about to happen but is resourceful in a clinch – Half-Life’s makers couldn’t have set Gordon up in a better mirror. He’s a person who belongs in his environment, but is not prepared for what will happen. When you get a crowbar it feels like clinging to a lifejacket in an ocean that’s actively trying to drown you. The level design is one of calculated cruelty that has only been subsumed by Dark Souls in complexity and scope.

oh………………………… bugger

Imagine, in Aliens: Colonial Marines, if they had made you feel powerless for most of your journey through the environment. Imagine they’d focussed on how to take player power away, how to make the player feel intimidated, make the player run or feel disgusted or conflicted with their own actions. Imagine they’d made the guns feeble – like in Aliens the actual film, where guns are nothing, the characters’ macho stances and posturing meaning nothing in the face of the aliens. We’re so gorged on making people feel powerful, godlike, that it was never considered.

Imagine if Call of Duty focussed on making the player run desperately instead of shooting liberally. It would connect more meaningfully with the player, that’s narrative ammunition you can work with. Half-Life does this effortlessly, drops in absurd humour too. Scientists who moments before discussed their neckties with you are devoured in air vents and you feel bad. The dark joke of it is that you laughed and at the same time it gave you the willies.

More interesting still is that the fault for the initial meltdown appears (at least in the beginning) to be your own; the idea of game choice is more discussed these days with regard to The Stanley Parable, but if the only thing left to do in a room is push something into a reactor, and it triggers dire consequences, it stays with you that everything might be your fault. The narrative burden is on you, somewhat like the choices that The Walking Dead plays upon. You did it. Bioshock would use this sort of motif as a twist in 2007, but for me it came too late in the game to make a bigger impact: is the player’s lack of choice really something that is a shock? Or is it more interesting that we willingly buy into the lack of choice if we have a small amount of autonomy or power over the immediate environment? Is it the Stanford Prison Experiment? Is it that we react this way to this kind of situation that makes human beings awful? All this from that one moment where I knew I’d make Black Mesa melt down.

Then there’s the part in the first video where all I say is, ‘I get it now. I get it.’ I’ve played games with jump cuts before. But only at that one point does it become obvious to me how skilled in storytelling the Half-Life designers were, how completely certain of the player’s experience they were. To show a flashforward without it being a cutscene – it still seems absurd. Why aren’t we doing more games like this now? Why are cutscenes still around when storytelling can be this good without them? Instead of moving the camera, why don’t we move the player character? I guess that’s what you call vision. It’s Kubrick.

And then there’s the microwave. It’s those little moments they constructed – those drinks machines that don’t work, the soup exploding. Whenever I talk to anyone who has any affection for this game, it’s the microwave they always mention, with a grin.

In any case, the First Aid points might not be the BRILLIANT GENIUS in design I… initially envisioned. It might actually just be a mistake. But I like to think that they created the player facing the box function just to mess with us.

It’s passe, or not de rigeur, and other French phrases, to discuss games with regard to film now to a certain extent. Part of me thinks that this is due to David Cage prancing about like a ninny all over things thinking that eliciting an emotional reaction stems from our ability to look at a high-res cryface. This without ever thinking that our most emotional moments with games are always created by the red hot soldering of intelligent game mechanic to narrative, like the pang that you are taking away necessities from your family to help others in Papers, Please or the heartbreak that you are accompanying a stranger to both your doom in Journey. There’s also a sense that games are cowed by film; ‘Films are accepted!’ we cry, ‘Games are not!’ But that isn’t important. Games matter to us, and that’s enough.

CRAB PEOPLE

And yet I think we still have something to learn from film – just not the things we have so far most frequently stolen. Take the cutscene/violence dynamic. ‘You know the thing that doesn’t work for me in these games,’ Steven Spielberg said to Tom Chick, ‘are the little movies where they attempt to tell a story in between the playable levels. That’s where there hasn’t been a synergy between storytelling and gaming. They go to a lot of trouble to do these [motion-capture] movies that explain the characters. And then the second the game is returned to you and it’s under your control, you forget everything the interstitials are trying to impact you with, and you just go back to shooting things. And that has not found its way into a universal narrative. And I think more has to be done in that arena.’

But perhaps we’re learning from film. Don’t you remember feeling surprise and delight at Thirty Flights of Loving’s jump cuts? Do you remember the first time you played Shadow of the Colossus and as you rode out into green haze on your horse, the camera drifted to a cinematic wide shot and the sun scarred the camera, making the hoofbeat into a pulse and the game stretch out into a possibility space where you, the lowly wanderer, had control over everything? Cutscenes can only do so much. Here’s what Half-Life gave us: The ability to believe that cutscenes might not be necessary to narrative for the traditional FPS game. And that messing with the player’s sense of control and power in an environment is not only okay – that it’s what makes us pay attention, what makes us respond, what makes our heart beat faster. It puts us in Jurassic Park.

I’ve still to see Half-Life’s Tyrannosaurus Rex though. Perhaps that is being saved for later.

Part two is now here.

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167 Comments »

  1. KDR_11k says:

    I spent a lot of time with Half-Life but never got very far in the campaign, always just trying various mods and whatever. HL2 was similar except I didn’t do any messing around outside the campaign, I just forgot about it after I got to Ravenholm.

  2. shagohad says:

    nice, thats a good point about the lack of cut scenes, just scripted in game events that often had you doing stuff while it was going on. I remeber once reloading a few times to try and stop a scientist falling down an elevator shaft…game didn’t want me to though so in the end he perished.

    now I just have to play HL2, thats the one I always get in shit for

    • Waltorious says:

      Actually, you can save that guy, but you have to be REALLY fast. Unless you’re thinking of a different guy-about-to-fall-down-an-elevator-shaft, which you very well could be.

      • LionsPhil says:

        I’m pretty sure I remember the security guy behind that locked grating dying if you don’t help him kill the headcrab zombie like Cara did, so that’s at least one person you can have some influence on. (If he dies, he won’t unlock it, obviously, so you can’t get to the shotgun ammo.)

        Which is infinity percent more deviation than most modern games.

        (Going back, it’s a shame it eclipsed SiN, though.)

        • Yglorba says:

          There’s someone who you can save in Skyrim, too — a vendor who gets murdered by this assailant shortly after you enter town. If you attack him too soon (that is, before anyone has any way to know he’s a murderer) the guards will go after you, your implicit insistence that you can see the future and that he’s guilty of precrimes aside; but if you time it just right and slam the Fos-Ro-Dah button just as he lunges at her with a knife, you can save her and everyone will thank you.

          Unfortunately, you can’t save the guy who’s being executed in another town, but…

      • analydilatedcorporatestyle says:

        I think Cara saved more than ingame video NPC’s

    • Mman says:

      There’s actually at least a few seemingly inevitable deaths in HL1 you can prevent; it’s almost an extra challenge in the game to do so.

      • Rob Maguire says:

        Of course, doing so means you can end up with a small army of followers…

        • shagohad says:

          lol I loved collecting as many as possible, opposing force had a few too, dang maybe coulda saved the elevator guy, I feel bad now, I WAS TOO YOUNG TO KNOW

          also I remember being stuck on HL 1 for ages in the room with the big fan, an episode of popular mechanics for kids solved the puzzle for me

          edit: btw that picture is from the room with the elevator I was talking about! oh the memories, I think the administrator walks across the glass bridge overtop just as you arrive

  3. enderwiggum says:

    Yep, the first one was decent. I was caught up in Quake II multi-player madness at the time, HL multi-player always seamed like a cheap knock-off. The second game is a _must_ play.

    Back to Q2DM5.

    • HothMonster says:

      The base HL mulitplayer was junk, but with mods like TF and CS and Action! it didn’t matter.

    • Viscera says:

      Funny, I think it’s the other way round. HL1 is a true classic, but HL2, while a good game, didn’t impress me very much.

      • Sic says:

        Yeah, I would say that it is pretty obviously so. Half-Life was revolutionary. Half-Life 2 wasn’t.

        I remember really having a good time playing the original Unreal at around the same time too. The discussion was always which one was the better. The Unreal graphics were ridiculously good, so at the time, that was a major factor in why it was even discussed at all. I was using a 3Dfx card, so I got those ludicrously good looking detail textures as well. HL was the better game (obviously), but Unreal looked absolutely spectacular.

  4. age says:

    As a 30 y/o pc gamer who has never been Half Lifed this series really speaks to me.

    • Premium User Badge Gap Gen says:

      GET OUT.

      • Ross Angus says:

        OF YOUR HALF-LIFE CLOSET, and welcome. You are among friends here.

        • Horg says:

          WE WILL BURY YOU in mountains of other superb games you have probably skipped. You have so much to look forward to.

          • CookPassBabtridge says:

            BUNNY FARTS SMELL LIKE GRASS I would like to recommend Far Cry 1 and Rainbow Six: Raven Shield as these are old games I played around release and was totally blown away by. Oh hang on I was meant to say something funny with the first sentence **edits**. Also i think I missed the joke.

          • Horg says:

            …..partial credit.

          • Groove says:

            IT IS THE END of boredom, you will have so many games to play.

    • Dezmiatu says:

      You played Doom 2, Duke Nukem 3D, or Quake instead, didn’t you? The lapse can be forgiven since we were old enough that free time had become a premium and who the hell could jump into a new game when we had Rise of the Triad and Hexen to replay.

    • Pumkins says:

      Being immortal, Pumkins often wonders what it must be like to be of a certain age at a certain time. Say Pumkins was but 27 years of age and had not played the Half Life. Would Pumkins not be utterly taken aback by such a remarkable game? The answer is yes. Pumkins. Was. Amazed.

    • SuicideKing says:

      I’m 10 years younger than you and have had the CD ever since i was 7. Have never had the balls to play the game properly. Don’t think i’ve gone beyond the part where i have to break the door with the crowbar.

  5. almostDead says:

    I never played Half-Life either.

    I did get into gaming and had my first gaming PC delivered (the timing when the famous 9700 pro graphics card came out and blew everything else away) when Doom 3 and HL2 came out. I played both of those. Such different qualities. I remember with Doom 3 I had to take regular breaks as it was just so intense for me at the time.

    But I remember playing HL2 and thinking that it was a whole quantum level above Doom 3 in quality of experience.

  6. SillyWizard says:

    I was never able to complete any of the Halves-Life due the the motion-sickness issue (which I’ve never experienced with any other game, including the 4 iterations of CounterStrike which I’ve collectively put at least 5,000 hours of playtime into over the last 12 years. Also, the Portal games, L4D series, TF2, and sundry mods for HL and HL2).

    I’ve also been on a ship in the Pacific Ocean in the middle of a typhoon without the slightest tinge of motion sickness. Granted, it was an aircraft carrier, but it still got bucking pretty good and suffered millions of dollars of damage (which kept us in port in South Korea for a nice extended port call).

    Anyway. Hopefully I can watch these without too much trouble! I don’t know what sort of eye-fucking technology Valve insists on injecting into the the Half-Life games, exclusively.

    • Premium User Badge Gap Gen says:

      Might be worth looking up some console hacks to play with the fov, etc.

    • iucounu says:

      FPS motion sickness is a weird thing and I suspect it’s very personalised. I used to get it once upon a time – in the N64/PS2 eras – but never since. What I think is, some combination of the 4:3 TV screen and the FOV and the resolution and framerate used to trigger it – and on some games more than others (Timesplitters was a bad one.)

      These days, I don’t get motion sickness from FPSs at all, and I suspect it’s more because the tech has changed than because I have. Maybe give those old games a go with the benefit of better hardware and the odd mod or config tweak.

      • Premium User Badge Zephro says:

        Or try Half Life Source or Black Mesa. They should have all the bells and whistles to avoid it as they both run inside the Half Life 2 engine.

      • Bull0 says:

        I get motion sick very quickly if I play anything Doom-era but with modern stuff I’m usually OK. It’s as you say, different people are affected by different games. My kid sister can barely play anything first-person. But then she also gets chronic motion sickness on any car ride longer than 20 minutes. I affectionately call her Sickbag.

        • Svardskampe says:

          I have huge problems with Far Cry Blood Dragon. I think it’s the neon that makes me nauseous. I’m generally not susceptible to motion sickness, and have only been in cars where the driver plainly sucked at driving.

        • Voronwer says:

          I avoid all first person games, to be honest. I easily get motion sick and even with third person view, it still happens. I usually turn down mouse sensitivity as much as possible. I think I got motion sick the worst when I played the first Assassin’s Creed and somehow Fable did it to me too, but to a lesser extent.

      • Conehead The Barbarian says:

        The only game ever to give me motion sickness is Red Alert 2, that said I get horrible motion sickness when on long car journeys or on diggers. (Side to side motion seems to blow my mind)

  7. rockman29 says:

    I think HL1 is overrated. I never thought that much of it then or now.

    HL2 is definitely a much finer game. A little overrated as well, but that comes with anything Valve these days. I think it did a lot more to earn the praise. The graphics were great, gameplay was smooth, and the physics engine was really top notch for the time.

    Black Mesa is a really good re-imagining of HL1, I think it’s the best game in the “series” if it can be included as part of it. Extremely fun. HL2 has a more interesting narrative though.

  8. DickSocrates says:

    All those nice words and I still think Half Life 1 and 2 are shite. Valve view player freedom with contempt. They invented the strictly linear, ghost train FPS, dressing it up in sub B-movie scifi with goofy enemy designs. And then you reach Xen, the worst thing that has ever happened.

  9. Premium User Badge amateurviking says:

    That was really interesting.

  10. Shuck says:

    Highly entertaining. (Though I have been made slightly nauseous by the musical interlude.)
    The first paragraph also reminds me of a job interview at a game company where I was asked about favorite games, and talked about, in addition to Half-Life (because of that level design), Planescape:Torment. A design lead said he had never played it. I felt like leaping out of my chair and shouting: Impostor! But I didn’t. I’m polite that way. Still didn’t get the job, though.

  11. I Got Pineapples says:

    I liked Half Life.

    But it wasn’t as good as Goldeneye.

    I’m gonna stand by that statement.

    • Jamesworkshop says:

      i liked goldeneye at the time, but man does it control like cack, it never stood the test of time

      except tricking the game into giving me a dual wield of laser rifle and grenade launcher, thats always been fun

  12. Premium User Badge jrodman says:

    Me either.

  13. Rao Dao Zao says:

    I played Half-Life when I was about… 15. I was all hyped up, all the magazines were “this is the best game ever”.

    I thought it was crap. It just rubbed me the wrong way. I swore off it for ten-ish years, then mellowed a bit, decided to give it another shot… I was almost going to enjoy it then it just annoyed me all over again. This time, though, I wrote words that you will no doubt disagree with: http://raodaozao.net/2013/06/09/blog-553/

    Since everyeboy else loves it, I’m going to have to assume I don’t “get” it.

    • Mman says:

      The rest is pretty subjective but lacking enemy variety? I can only think of a tiny portion of FPS that even come close to matching HL1′s enemy variety, let alone surpassing it.

      Edit: And I actually completely agree about Xen being a great concept with bad execution.

    • Derpa says:

      Seems you didn’t even pay much attention to the story with your idea of the rocket and the government.

    • Bull0 says:

      A big part of why people love Half-Life is that it was fucking revolutionary. A lot of the stuff we take for granted in first-person shooters now simply didn’t exist before Half-Life. It blew all our minds. It’s still a great game, but to an extent, you had to be there.

    • Horg says:

      An invitation to be nerd baited? Hmm, nah.

    • Ravey says:

      I think the 20 minute demo Half-Life: Uplink was probably better than the real game.

  14. FurryLippedSquid says:

    I’m just glad you’re back, Cara.

    Great read, too.

    • Kyrius says:

      This! I was wondering for a long time when you’d show up again! Welcome back and great job!

  15. Laurentius says:

    I never played HL and only played HL2 demo and I’m gamer since literally ages.

  16. HothMonster says:

    I can’t express how sad I was when I played Black Mesa and realized I was now older than Gordon. :(

    • Premium User Badge Gap Gen says:

      Yeah but it’s easy to stay youthful when a creepy person locks you in stasis in a subway car.

  17. Premium User Badge Gap Gen says:

    Oh yeah, making that difficult decision right at the start to save that scientist was totally worth it when he shows you that t-rex later and it chews through all those enemies.

  18. CookPassBabtridge says:

    Half Life was my reintroduction back into gaming after about a decade of not playing at all. I went from an Amiga 500 that I loved when I was about 14, then nothing for ages until I finally got a computer capable of playing games at about age 24. My dad showed me a half life demo and both of us were blown away by it. A load of my uni mates got me into Doom 3 and Far Cry 1 too. For me the whole Half Life series occupies a particularly special place – the discovery of PC Gaming, that connection with my Dad, all the time spent with mates, and the story of Black Mesa. Its sort of like the first car you own – nothing ever quite compares to it. In this case I also feel like my first car was a really good one, rather than having rose tinted specs over a shitty old mini metro :)

  19. NotToBeLiked says:

    I always wondered if HL1 would be as good as I and others remember it, going back to it now. Nice to have this confirmed. Especially since the COD’s of this world have taken the narrative gameplay that HL pioneered to the extreme, to the annoyance of many.

    There will be of course many who hate HL just because it’s so popular, and will call it overhyped. But the game does deserve all the credit. It got it by merit, seeing as it was the first game by a completely unknown studio. There was no promotion machine behind it, but just a well made demo to get people excited.

    That said, while the HL games are pretty damn good and the first one set a new standard in narrative gameplay, I still think Valve as a game studio is overrated. Outside of HL, all their other franchises have been either mods they absorbed or other studio’s they bought.

    • Exuro says:

      That doesn’t really make sense as a reason why they’re over-rated though. Just because they got those ideas from mod teams, that doesn’t mean they deserve any less credit for their involvement. What Valve excel at, above all else, is making creative decisions and discovering talent. You can’t argue that their successful franchises being other peoples work makes them over-rated, because that was all them. They chose who to pick up, they chose whose ideas they thought would work, and they gave them the tools, resources and manpower to make them work better than they ever could’ve on their own.

      The fact is, Valve deserve credit for all the Half Life games and both Portal games, even if the initial Portal concept was not theirs. They also deserve credit for so, so much more. The certainly are not over-rated, because they have not made a bad game yet. One bad hire, one bad creative decision, that would not be the case. I think they deserve credit for that.

      • NotToBeLiked says:

        They deserve credit for recognizing a good idea, sure. They also deserve credit for the HL games. They are definitely a good developer. But having only one good franchise they created themselves does not give them the godlike status some people bestow upon them. Besides that, they pretty much did save PC gaming with Steam, which I has earned them godlike status for that. Just not for game development imo.

  20. cptgone says:

    i always pictured Cara as too radiant to have a half life. the map above puts her in – or over – the dark heart of Africa. could Cara be… the sun? you carazy diamond you!

  21. Jerkzilla says:

    I think it’s really admirable how they achieved spectacular set pieces without ever* taking control away from the player or, more importantly imo, corrupting their own gameplay mechanics for specific situations. Valve’s attention to pacing is also noteworthy.

    *except for those few expositions, but they never interrupted proper gameplay.

  22. Ganjatron says:

    Cara is back, yay! You are easily one of the best writers this site has, we need moar Cara!

  23. Sardonic says:

    I too committed a cardinal sin against PC gaming, I owned a copy of Deus Ex for 5 years before I played it :(.

    • Horg says:

      Deus Ex is much like a fine wine. If left aside for 5 years in a cool, dark space before being opened, it will be very, very dusty.

    • Deadly Sinner says:

      I’m really glad that I played Deus Ex near when it came out. I don’t know if I would be able to stomach the bad graphics and animation today (I still haven’t played the Thief series because of that.)

      • TheDR says:

        I recommend playing the original Thief as In my opinion it has lived up to it’s reputation all these years later. Sure the graphics are minimalist, but they aren’t horrible. The sound design however stands out and is amazing. There is a level where you have to sneak through mines into a prison. I was genuinely freaked out by the groaning zombies.

        • zarnywoop says:

          i find the best way to play thief is with the lights out in the dark, with speakers up, so you hear every footstep. it also scares the bejesus out of you when you die. you become Garrett in the shadows, you may even start wearing your hood up so you’re less likely to be seen by the guards ;)

      • Zekiel says:

        Deus Ex was one of a batch* of classic games I played significantly (like, 4 years or so) after release. I could stomach the graphics, I moderately enjoyed it, but I never cared to replay. Considering it is one of the most replayable games ever I always felt I’d missed something.

        The others being Fallout 2 and Thief 2 – and I didn’t complete either of them. I think that makes me a terrible gamer. Or a terrible person.

        • Enkinan says:

          You…didn’t finish Fallout 2? My brain is stuttering and stammering in horror.

      • Shadowcat says:

        Never having played Half Life isn’t a big deal, but never having played Thief is madness.

  24. Premium User Badge Zephro says:

    It really was that good. It’s hard to remember how brilliant it was in the day, replaying it never quite captures the novelty of it all.

  25. Granath says:

    I’d have loved to play Half-Life. But due to motion sickness (only on computers – not in real life) I can’t play any first-person games. Why more of them don’t offer a 3rd person view – at least for non-multiplayer play – is beyond me.

  26. Jockie says:

    So, what i’m mostly getting from this comments section is that a hell of a lot of you either A. Haven’t played Half-life or B. Didn’t really like it.

    Well, Shame on you. Shame on ALL of you!

  27. BooleanBob says:

    If you want an encounter with the (/a, inverted commas) T-Rex, I’d recommend looking out Uplink, Valve’s standalone demo for Half-Life that ended up getting cut from the final game. It’s a really polished 90 minutes or so of completely additional content. I think playing that demo, and the one for Deus Ex, must have been the last times I really felt gaming was moving forward at a substantial pace.

  28. Mark says:

    For me games, are divided up into Pre and Post Half-Life. It’s the single most important game i’ve ever played and permanently changed my view of what games could potentially be and do.

    When it came out a good friend of mine called me up out of the blue and said “you have to come round and see this new game”. We used to hang out and play games together a lot but he’d never called me like this before. He’d played an hour or so already but started a new game when I arrived. I remember starting that tram ride at the beginning – by the time it was finished I knew this was something completely different from what we’d ever seen before. We kept playing and after 10 minutes realised we still hadn’t shot anything in the face, fallen in any lava pits, and no monsters had tried or kill us. The world was credible and interesting, scientists were chatting away, thing’s were happening in rooms we couldn’t reach. Black Mesa felt like a real place and one that existed for more than just shooting monsters. We kept playing for a few days and it completely blew our minds, I’ve never enjoyed playing through something so much. To witness an epochal change like that in a single game was really special.

    Games haven’t been the same since.

    • Jericho says:

      My experience with Half-Life was similar, although I can’t for the life of me remember what urged me to play it for the first time. I think I was at an electronics store and saw the strategy guide for it, which was bright orange and looked silly. Somehow, I ended up picking up a copy that day and starting it up in the evening. The next thing I knew it was 7am the next day, and my mind was completely shot.

      Before Half-Life, PC gaming was just Sim City, flight sims, and the Lucas Arts adventure games to me. Fun, but nothing totally consuming. I invited my closest friends over the next day and had them play it from the beginning. Soon, we discovered the mod scene for Half-Life, and ran into a guy named ‘Gooseman’ on some forgotten forum who wanted to make a “realistic” modern swat vs baddies multiplayer mod. I didn’t have any art skills, but I taught myself how to use 3DS Max and started contributing weapon models. Other people made maps, and we all helped beta test the mod. They ended up calling it Counter-Strike, which I always thought was a dumb name, but it was fun, and more mods kept coming out. I helped with some more modeling and testing for Action Half-Life (better than CS, IMO) and what ended up being my favorite Half-Life mod, The Opera, which I’m pretty sure no one even remembers anymore.

      Ahh… Those were the days… *nostalgia tear-drop*

      • Mark says:

        That’s really awesome you were involved in CS in the early days. Counter-Strike (I first played it around beta 3 I think) did for multiplayer FPS’s what Half-Life did for single player games. Call of Duty, Battlefield, all that stuff is a result of CS.

        Funnily enough I started making levels for CS and HL using Worldcraft (which later became Valve’s Hammer editor later on when they bought it) because i’d used it to make crappy Quake 1 levels before. I never lost my interest in making level models and mods and i’m actually a professional game developer for a living now with 6 years experience working as an environment artist.

        I also remember The Opera mod – maybe a bit hard to control in the 56k era with all that diving around but I loved the feeling / setting for sure. HL and it’s mods spawned so much of modern gaming. Zombie games, realistic shooters, decent narrative driven games without FMV/cutscenes.

        • The Random One says:

          I remember thinking that Counter-Strike was great because it only let you carry two weapons and you had very little health and the grapix were realistic. How times have changed.

        • Jericho says:

          Oh yeah, Worldcraft… I couldn’t remember its original name because now its called Hammer. God, that editor always confused the hell out of me, heh! It’s funny, because I didn’t find out about The Opera until I had been working on Action HL for a bit, but I’m glad someone pointed me to it. They had just released their initial beta-esque version and were working on a new, nearly completely re-made version. They already had all of the weapon and player models taken care of, so I helped out with maps, which it turned out they were sorely lacking in. I stayed on with the Opera team all the way through the release of Half-Life 2 and Source, contributed a completely new set of high-poly weapon models for use in the better engine, and then disappeared off to college to become an engineer/physicist. I do kind of regret not following up with game design as a career, but after all I’ve read here and elsewhere about the stability of the industry, I think I would rather work at something I’m actually good at (physics and engineering) and just enjoy gaming in my free time.

          Still, looking back, I probably owe my interest in engineering and physics to Gordon Freeman. Plus, I’m 27 this year, but unfortunately (or thankfully?) I’m not working at Black Mesa. ;P

          A few more HL mods that really blew my mind: Wasteland HL (also called The Wastes), They Hunger (too bad they never finished the Source version), Sven Coop, Rocket Crowbar (squee!), and last but CERTAINLY not least, Science and Industry.

          1999 to 2004 was a friggin awesome time for FPSs… What the hell happened after that? I mean, we got Portal and Bioshock, but past that FPS has just sort of wallowed in its own filth for the last decade… :(

      • Fellblade says:

        The Opera was fantastic. Absolutely loved it. It was responsible for my interest in HKBO.

        • Bull0 says:

          Braintwin. I remember The Opera too, and it was brilliant. It’s what made me watch Hard Boiled, which puts American action flicks (including before or since) to shame.

        • Jericho says:

          Same here, Fellblade. I only found the Opera because of Action HL, but I’m sure glad I did. It really opened my eyes up to watching more internationally made films. It’s surprising just how good the HKBO sub-genre was, and even more surprising that it never really made it out of the 90′s, or to America.

          What made Action HL and the Opera so fun for me was how they openly embraced the zany tropes of American and Asian action movies (respectively) and managed to tie it all together with actually FUN gameplay mechanics. They were the first FPSs I ever played where you could dive, roll, somersault, and wall-jump; a movement set that you almost never see even today. And both games embraced the hectic movement ability of the player and designed their maps around having to use those moves in order to get to otherwise impossible to reach areas. Plus, there was always glass windows looking out over arena-type rooms so you could do crazy stuff like dive through a window, somersault in mid-air, and then faceplant a kick off of an opponent on the floor below. WHY CAN’T I DO THAT IN MODERN FIRST PERSON GAMES?!? It’s all chest-high walls, tight corridors, and huge open maps made for sniping. :(

  29. Tom Servo says:

    About time Cara! I have been gaming for decades and the first time a headcrab jumped at me in Half Life is by far the scariest gaming moment I have ever had. While Half Life 2 was great and had the gravity gun at all, I think Half Life was better in terms of doing things that hadn’t been done before, e.g. all the cutscenes being in game.

  30. Mister_Inveigler says:

    Such a well written piece. I really think you’ve captured the essence of what Valve were trying to do. Or at least it corresponded with how I reacted.
    Wandering around, knowing that the entire place is going to become a disaster area, probably because of something you did or didn’t do or pressed. Then, that seminal moment where you know everything is going to turn on its head if you press a single button but you have no other choice but to go forward. Unless you turni off the game, safe in the knowledge you’ve saved the lives of thousands of pixel people by suspending them in perpetuity by not proceeding. You hero, you.

    Anyway, there needs to be more of that tension, and I think we’re missing that as a medium. We’re missing out on pacing something wicked.

    I quite liked the fact you connected it to the golden age of cinema, though I find your use of Indiana Jones interesting.
    Gordon Freeman has a significant impact on everything that takes places, he’s the lynch pin on which the progression of the story relies upon, despite being swept up in circumstances that are quite beyond his ability to control. He is both empowered and powerless at the same time.
    Indiana Jones had no impact in Raiders beyond ineffectual meddling. (Suffice to say, I guffawed when I saw this turn up in Big Bang Theory). He chose to involve himself, yet his impact throughout is marginal.

    Excellent diary entry. Looking forward to Part 2.

  31. LionsPhil says:

    Agh. You were playing with a trackpad or trackball or something, weren’t you.

    And the “high resolution” pack? Tsk. It only makes things uglier, you know.

  32. Bull0 says:

    Where did all these people who think Half-Life was overrated come from!? Where have they been hiding all this time?

    • SillyWizard says:

      What did you expect, FLOWERS TO WOMANS?!

      • Jamesworkshop says:

        okay what is this flowers to woomans thing i keep seeing round here
        https://twitter.com/Flowerstowomans

        found this but it’s very obtuse and confusing, can’t tell if this is what is being referred to, or is a reference to something else

        saw it turn up in typing of the dead overkill

        • Viscera says:

          I think it comes from a reaction to certain criticism against GTA V. Someone said something like “It’s a MALE CRIME GAME, what did you expect? FLOWERS TO WOMANS?” (I can’t remember what exactly he said and I’m too lazy to look it up). It’s so dumb that some people found it funny.

          • tormos says:

            To be precise,
            Cara got an email which evidently read in part “GTA is a MALE CRIME WORLD simulation. What did you expect, a FLOWERS TO WOMANS game”?

          • Jamesworkshop says:

            was it written by a lolcat

            something about GTA but they just don’t work on me so i don’t read up on any gaming press about tem

        • Premium User Badge Durkonkell says:

          Someone e-mailed Cara with a long, ranty diatribe about how GTAV was covered (despite the fact that she hasn’t ACTUALLY published anything about GTAV I think). It included the phrase “GTA V is a MALE CRIME WORLD simulation, what do you expect? Flowers to womans?”. She twittered that and the whole thing grew from there.

        • Bull0 says:

          What the others said. I find it quite funny myself, in an “all your base” sort of way.

  33. sd4f says:

    By the time I actually played HL1, I really couldn’t see what the fuss was about, and when I asked other gamers on forums, noone could tell me either, yet they were fans. In my opinion, it was a different game, and pushed the envelope for the day, but seems to be quite a dated, ordinary experience, like crysis 1 (which, apart from lots of graphics, was also, a nothing special game).

  34. Jamesworkshop says:

    Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness was more important than half-life

    This should be good :)

    thinking about it the least likely game for a pc gamer to not to have played is the sims

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      Hello. My name is Ergates and I’ve never played a Sims game.

      • Jamesworkshop says:

        hi Ergates

        here is your badge, it’s shaped like a cookie

  35. Aberaham says:

    omg you’ve never played one video game. stop the presses this is front page news! i have a confession to make, i’ve never played leisure suit larry: magna cum laude.

  36. Waltorious says:

    Am I the only one who did not interpret those cuts in the reactor scene to be flash-forwards? I always thought that Gordon was zapped into Xen for a few seconds during the meltdown, before reappearing back in the reactor chamber. It was a cool way to show that a connection to an alien world had been made, but I didn’t see them as jumping in time at all. Perhaps others did, though?

    • derbefrier says:

      no i always thought he was teleported there for an instant before being teleported back to Bleck Mesa. There was no indication I saw that any substantial time had past.

    • LionsPhil says:

      I saw it the same way you did.

    • Viscera says:

      I’m pretty sure that most people interpreted it that way. I certainly did (and still do).

    • Mman says:

      I always just saw it as Gordon being teleported around, but I think it’s a strength of the scene that it’s open to interpretation like that.

    • Deadly Sinner says:

      Well, I hope she meant “flash forward” as in seeing things that you will see later in the game (which is how I took her comment.) Because it definitely wasn’t a literal flash forward.

      • onecardlarry says:

        That’s how I read it – a flash forward to a later part of the game, not a fore-seeing of events.

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      No, you’re right. Definately a teleportation – the effect that accompanies it is the same one that accompanies the aliens who teleport in later in the game.

  37. derbefrier says:

    all these people who haven’t played the original half life in these comments only serves to remind me that game came out 15 years ago and that I am old now.

  38. FCA says:

    Aha, so this is the post, where I can go: My name is FCA, and I’ve only recently completed Half Life (2 months ago). And to be frank, I found it to be…. OK? I’m not an FPS player at all, and some parts dragged on too long, other bits were genuinely good, and I was always running out of ammo (those damn headcrabs). And I hate FPS platforming…. Also, it seems very linear. There is only one good way forward, and if you don’t see it, you’re stuck (I got this in Ravenholm a lot, also in HL1 in the tunnels). There is some good spectacle, the storytelling is OK and most times, the level design is good.

    Now I’m doing HL2, just passed Ravenholm (man, that took long), and it seems to suffer from the same weaknesses as HL1, and has the same strengths, plus the NPC facial expression is rather good, even compared to modern games. The physics puzzles are mostly annoying fiddling until the games declares it to be right. The engine is really dated, the graphics don’t bother me, but the loading sure does. The old engine is probably also the cause of the enemies just appearing out of nowhere. I like to fully `clear’ areas before starting on the puzzles, and then suddenly enemies come out of corners I had thoroughly checked! I detest that.

    I really don’t think that these games deserve the praise they seem to be getting, I thought the storytelling in, for example, Portal 2 to be much better. But then, I’m an RPG gamer mostly, and for me the defining games were Baldur’s Gate 2 and Fallout. HL1 is not a bad game at all, don’t get me wrong (it’s the first FPS I’ve completed in forever), but for me it’s not the pinnacle of gaming it’s made out to be.

    • Syphus says:

      Sure, if it came out now it wouldn’t be a big deal at all. However, there is such a huge leap in the game from the FPS games that came before it, that so many ideas that were inconceivable, or a pipe dream before, were suddenly reality.

      The genius is not in the 100% perfect game, it is in doing things that no one had even really tried before, and doing them well.

    • bill says:

      Imagine that almost everything that you experienced in Half Life was a first for video gaming.

      Which it effectively was for a lot of people. First interactive cutscenes. First FPS with a decent story. First FPS with decent NPCs. First FPS with scripted events. First FPS with battles between 2 groups of NPCs. First FPS with realistic enemy AI. First FPS with some kind of physics. First FPS with things like an enemy helicopter dropping abseiling enemies. Etc…

      I’m sure there are some other niche games that did some of these before HL1, but it was the first major game that most people experienced that did them.. and it did them all at once, in a very well designed and polished package.
      It also was, as cara says, one of the games that seemed to promise that gaming could rival cinema, but in its own way – not through cutscenes and players losing control.

      It was a massive step from what went before – which was basically Quake 2. (although I rather rate Jedi Knight as well).
      It also had a massive imfluence on many games that followed – for good or bad – and without it we wouldn’t be seeing games like CoD, etc…

      • Ravey says:

        “It was a massive step from what went before – which was basically Quake 2. (although I rather rate Jedi Knight as well).
        It also had a massive influence on many games that followed – for good or bad – and without it we wouldn’t be seeing games like CoD, etc…”

        HUGE oversight – GoldenEye 007 (Nintendo 64)

        The shooter market before GoldenEye was Doom, Duke3D and Quake.

        Seriously, if you haven’t played it – Here’s a mission from GoldenEye.

  39. Syphus says:

    There are two parts of Half-Life that will always stick out to me. First, the first time I saw a Helicopter drop some grunts I go “Oh, I bet I can’t blow that up” took out the gauss gun and tried to shoot at it. Then as it started to fall I had an “oh crap its real” moment and started backpeddling before the explosion hit me in the face.

    Secondly, having 2 health left and getting killed from a grenade, not because it blew up, but because they guy throwing it hit me in the face with the grenade.

    • Convolvulus says:

      One that sticks out to me was the time I escaped behind some shipping containers and then waited to shoot the soldiers who would, according to established FPS laws, chase after me blindly. When they failed to come around the corner, I slowly backtracked, heard something like Flush him out!, and was flushed out by a grenade bounced into my hiding spot. After being gunned down I remember just staring at the screen for a while. It was one of the creepiest AI moments I’ve ever experienced.

      • bill says:

        That moment sticks out for everyone!
        It was very cleverly done. To this day there are still lots of peolple who claim HL1 had the best enemy AI. It was actually pretty limited, but they definitely used it to make a great impression

      • Enkinan says:

        I remember the same feeling dawning on me. “Oh shit, they arent dumb anymore”.

  40. Tusque D'Ivoire says:

    Fun video!

    But seriously? What ARE these gun grafix? I distinctly remember Gordon carrying a conveniently rectangular Glock in Half Life, not that thing in the video. Did they change that through some patch? is it a mod? hum?

    • Convolvulus says:

      It’s a texture upgrade patch that came with Half-Life: Blue Shift.

  41. InternetNiceGuy says:

    Re: All this talk about putting HL1 into historical context. Screw that – politely, of course.

    It is still awesome. (ps Good job Cara.)

  42. Stardog says:

    How do you get a job at a PC site not having played HL?

  43. buzzmong says:

    Cara, if you get the chance, play the demo for HL as well. It’s called Half Life Uplink.

    It is a mini adventure all of its own and well worth the 30 mins or so it lasts for.

  44. Lemming says:

    Until these videos, I assumed Cara was British. I’m not sure how to convey my totally uncalled-for disappointment.

    EDIT: Actually I’m not sure what accent that is anymore. I thought it was American, but sometimes Cara sounds Scottish..then English. Some kind of pan-continental hyper-being, I’ll wager.

    • Premium User Badge tigerfort says:

      I … really? That’s a pretty unambiguously scots accent to me.

      [edit to add: also, Yaay! Welcome back Cara!]

    • kael13 says:

      Where are you even from to not recognise that? Cara has a definite but soft Scottish accent.

      • Lemming says:

        I’m from Britain. It just didn’t sound Scottish all the time to me. The key word you used there is ‘soft’. No biggie, crisis averted. She’s British and can be claimed as one of our own, that is the main thing!

  45. luke_osullivan says:

    The camera in HL makes me nauseous so I’ve never got very far with it either. In fact, so did the camera in HL2, although I managed to get used to it and finished the game. It’s weird how a small handful of games (not all of them FPS: it happened in Alan Wake as well) give me motion sickness, and 98% of them don’t. Must have a wire in there that’s a little bit loose.

  46. TheRealHankHill says:

    You need to play through Black Mesa: Source. Newish complete recreation of HL1 which is just awesome.

  47. engion3 says:

    Dear Cara,

    I’m not sure what to say, I mean, you see this in other people’s relationships but never think it could happen to you. I think we should take a break.

  48. gi_ty says:

    So as someone who only played HL2 and not the first one is it worth going back or should I just play Black Mesa?

    • dE says:

      Black Mesa is a great feat of modding, and they deserve all respect for it. But if you can deal with the worse graphics of the original, go with that. While essentially the same game, it feels quite differently. To me the weapons feel better. But more importantly, it comes with the final part of the game, which despite many people hating it, is a central part of the Half-Life Experience.

    • Lemming says:

      Just play Black Mesa, but alter the following gameplay tweaks: jump, and difficulty/shot damage. And you’ll enjoy it immensely. Without those tweaks you’ll be swearing at the computer at the ridiculous double-jump usage throughout the game.

      The original is just a bit too ropey these days for a first-timer, and the final level can then remain a mystery to you that may be added at a later date, as opposed to a ball-ache.

  49. CrocantiDePollo says:

    I didn’t finish finish Half-Life until the third or fourth time I tried. I couldn’t get past the Blast Pit chapter because it’d scare me shitless. Then again I got scared playing Doom as a kid so maybe it’s something personal. Anyway, I eventually forced myself to play it through and really enjoyed it.
    I really liked the sense of placement they put into it. It’s as if every room an every thing was there for a reason.

    Recently I had a friend who had never played it be interested in knowing what was all the fuss about it, but he is a bit of a multiplayer nut and he was reluctant to play it in single player. So we used Sven Co-op to play it together. I thought it’d be cool at first, but in the end it really tampered the experience. I was like “oh you just missed that thing because you were bunny hopping like crazy” all the time, and the fact that every time you die you respawn with full ammo, removed the tension from the game completely.
    In the end, at least my friend now says he can understand why this game could be good, but he didn’t get the “real” experience.

    Looking forward to seeing your opinion on the rest of the game. Hope you like it!

  50. malkav11 says:

    It’s not really a game that tells a story without cutscenes, though. It’s a game that a) has way less story than people routinely give it credit for to begin with (it’s not unlike wandering around the environments of the *shock games except without the actual characters and the audiologs to convey backstory – it’s a moderately successful attempt to make a gamespace that, despite linearity, feels like an actual place, but in terms of actual narrative there’s no meat there), and b) renders the cutscenes unskippable by putting them in the world with you (though admittedly HL2 was a bigger offender there).

    It’s a solidly constructed shooter that holds up better than many of that era today, both in gameplay and looks, but there are so many other games in the genre that do more ambitious, interesting, and important things before and -certainly- since. Not least of which, its sequel.

    • Mman says:

      “It’s not really a game that tells a story without cutscenes,”

      There’s lots of information that’s never directly told to you that is inferred from the environments and events; there are stories told without words all over the game (including much of the overarching one).

      “there are so many other games in the genre that do more ambitious, interesting, and important things before and -certainly- since. Not least of which, its sequel.”

      There are certainly games you can reasonably believe are better at these things than HL1, but given what was around before it came along and how much it changed I call bullshit on there being “so many”. I guess that list could inflate a bit if genre hybrids that don’t focus on shooting are included, but HL is a pure FPS and has never shown any pretensions of being anything else.

      • malkav11 says:

        Not nearly as much story as you imagine, trust me. Half-Life is not, for the most part, directly expository, I will grant that, but it’s not replacing that to a significant degree with contextual storytelling. It’s creating combat scenarios and (wretched) jumping puzzles and attempting to give them coherence as a space in a world.

        If you write off more ambitious games as “genre hybrids”, then yes, the pickings become a lot more slim. Half-Life 1 still doesn’t stand out in the context of pure shooters, though, unless you consider being a very solid, well-playtested game to be exceptional. Which I guess may be a fair point if you do, actually.

    • Lemming says:

      This was one of the few games to use a story while embracing the fact it’s a video game. The story happens around you, rather than you just watching/reading it.