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Ties & Tragedy: Half-Life's Zombies

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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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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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