2. Half-Life [official site] (1998)
Yeah, I’m gonna be that guy. Half-Life 2 is a towering accomplishment and particularly an unbeatable exercise in making the environment the lead character, but for me the first Half-Life has so much more character and so many more surprises. As every boring old fart has observed over almost 20 years, it’s Indiana Jones: the unexpected dangers, the daring escapes, the semi-comic deaths of anyone who isn’t the hero, the quest to stay alive as the situation becomes more and more disastrous, the threat which comes as much from a trap-filled place as it does your foes. But what foes: like Doom before it, Half-Life has an iconic rogue’s gallery not simply because it was early, but because it wasn’t following any rules. Great visual ideas went in because they were great visual ideas, so it’s the hodge-podge of monster tropes which somehow seems like it belongs together. The pinnacle of this is the tentacle monster, a boss fight that isn’t a fight, but which has an entire level built around it and turned into one giant environmental puzzle in the process. No slathering maw, death ray or gruesome decapitator has ever been as threatening as the sad tap, tap, tap of a lost, blind giant trying to escape its metal prison, and undiscerning about who it blames for it. It’s just one example of a story which tells itself as you play, often wordlessly, almost never interrupting you. Even Half-Life 2 has lessons to learn from that.
Let us not forget, too, that Half-Life might just be the greatest gift there ever was to modding, with the exception of DOOM. An awful lot of PC gaming as we know it hinges upon Gordon Freeman’s first adventure.
Notes: In truth, Half-Life has been superseded by its own, second remastering, the fan mod gone standalone Black Mesa. Although incomplete (it’s taking its time working out how to make the notorious Xen sections not be focused around horrible platforming), it’s both a striking visual overhaul and willing to take a scalpel to some of HL’s less loveable aspects. If you don’t want to play something incomplete and aren’t a purist, Valve’s own semi-remaster Half-Life: Source has a slight edge over the original.
Where can I buy it: Steam, or second-hand on disc.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Linear story-telling aside, it took shooters a long time to pick up Half-Life’s baton. Of Valve’s own back catalogue, first-person puzzler Portal (which I’ve not included in this list because it is primarily a puzzle game, but I don’t know how comfortable with that decision I am) is almost closer than Half-Life 2, due to its focus on conundrums, hinted backstory and sight gags. Other than that, BioShock is your best bet for a voyage through a collapsing construct with excellent environmental story-telling.