As of today, Valve’s seminal first-person shooter Half-Life is 18 years of age. Here in the UK, uncomfortably silent MIT graduate and scourge of inter-dimensional aliens Gordon Freeman is legally old enough to drink, get sued, and regret a tattoo. Now that he’s leaving his troubled teens behind, just how well has gaming’s favourite taciturn protagonist fared? How far have we come from the halcyon days of 1998? Does staring down the blurrily textured maw of a headcrab in mid-flight still get the blood pumping?
The answer is yes, yes it does.
And that is perhaps the most striking thing about it. While today’s shooters may race mercilessly towards photorealism, Half-Life, which was once the height of technical achievement, beautifully illustrates just how well good design holds up, despite looking a little lumpen in its old age. Released five years after Doom, and based on the Quake engine, all the lessons from those early first-person shooters had been well and truly internalised. From the terror-inducing gibbering (and probably slobbering) of nearby aliens and the cold mechanical voices of the game’s deeply unfriendly government operatives, to the meticulous set, lighting, and level design, Half-Life still delivers that wonderful cocktail of adrenaline and the uncanny that only sci-fi horror can. Oh! And the speed of movement. It may be that with its more realistic weapon physics and arsenal Half-Life marked the FPS genre’s move away from those balletic kinetics that defined the early pioneers, but Gordon still knows how to shake that booty. The boy can shift.
Given writer Marc Laidlaw’s recent account of finishing the development of Half-Life, it seems something of a miracle it came together at all. Today, swathes of developers seem happy to admit how terrible even games that end up great are while still in development, but it’s not often I hear tell of games that undergo this kind of massive restructuring and stay standing – let alone ground-breaking. It’s a fascinating read; not just for that ever-welcome glimpse into the pure chaos of game development, but also as it brings a little light to one of Half-Life’s most lauded design choices: to never remove the player from that first person perspective, to never ‘break character’. Of course that was the writer’s preferred choice, how could it not be?
“Gordon still knows how to shake that booty. The boy can shift.”
Reading Laidlaw’s account, I can’t help but begin to see the parallels between the process of creating Half-Life and the experience of playing it. As players we spend endless, unbearably tense moments winding towards a known but previously inaccessible destination, a destination that was so often visible when we began – through the window of a locked door more often than not. That vision is obscured by the journey, by the endless tangle of waste pipes, ventilation, and xenomorphic intelligences that lie between us and it. Half-Life plays a truly impressive level-design trick of being utterly navigable yet totally unfathomable – we are rarely lost for where to go, but almost always uncertain of where we are. We are totally at the mercy of an outside intelligence, and the structures they have built around us. Why shouldn’t we feel this as viscerally as possible – the creators certainly seemed to. Laidlaw also illuminates the deepening quality of revision – the re-use of themes and metaphor – and perhaps clues us in to the key to understanding the magic of Half-Life: through the recurring metaphor of trains.
He mostly talked about recurring metaphors, I’ve added the trains.
A few weeks ago, I sat in a not-quite-full cinema as a man claiming to be a philosopher told me about one Karl Marx. Dr Marx to his detractors. Big Karl to his comrades. Most pertinently, this philosopher-man explained that the central idea behind Marxist thinking is that people’s actions are guided and constrained by the social structures and contexts that surround them. He also said that the thing about good philosophers is they tend to say things which seem incredibly obvious once they’ve been said. I thought that was a bit of a cop-out, personally.
“Half-Life creates tension and drama using situation, context, and player reaction, not cinematics.”
This notion should not be unfamiliar to the player of games. In games we are (ironically, given the supposed escapism) far more constrained than we are in our actual lives, at least in the breadth of actions available to us. Mostly we do not mind these constraints; they are within the realms of what we expect from this experience. These constraints become frustrations when some god-hand intervenes to impugn on even that limited agency, when some influence outside of the systems we’re operating in rears its ugly head. Some reviewers would describe this as ‘immersion breaking’. Half-Life never makes this mistake, because it is fundamentally a train – a machine with fixed path and destination that one operates within – it forces the player’s hand through systemic means rather than brute force scripting. Half-Life creates tension and drama using situation, context, and player reaction, not cinematics. In doing so it embodies the truth of that Marxist paradigm, rather than cruelly reminding of us of this truth as the cold restraint of the in-game cinematic does.
The thing with Half-Life though, is that it’s not just a train in a ham-fisted metaphor kind of way. It’s trains all the way down. Both Half-Life and its successor, the imaginatively named Half-Life 2, begin on trains in a literal sense. That is the obvious train-based comparison. The less obvious locomotive echo is between the rail-roaded tour of the Black Mesa facility in the opening of Half-Life and the spectacular semi-imprisoned trip through the Citadel in Half-Life 2. The similarities between these two set pieces are just too good to pass up. Both (naturally) move you through vast, complicated, heavily mechanized facilities. Both show a snapshot of life within their respective hulking, industrial behemoths. Crushingly, Freeman’s latter journey through the Citadel is a haunted mirror of the former through Black Mesa. Where in the original Half-Life we’re treated to a coquettish glimpse of the everyday happenings of a top-secret government research facility, by the time we’ve made our way through the Orwellian nightmare world of Half-Life 2 we’re left with a harrowing vision of grotesque, industrial slavery. Where once hapless, but hopeful, scientists struggled with the enigmatic structure of the universe, now hideous cyborg slaves construct ever more destructive machines of war and oppression.
“He mostly talked about recurring metaphors, I’ve added the trains.”
And why do these games do this to us? To show us what we are in this context: agents on a fixed path, moving through structures and machines far larger, far more complex than ourselves. These structures are called games, these agents are called players, and that agency is a thin and fragile thing. Yet, there is within the Half-Life universe a being with true agency, an omnipresent observer, a being able to violate those structural constraints, able to put the ‘right man in the wrong place’, able to create change, chaos, emergence, and narrative where none existed prior. An agent able to act in the way a viewer of cinematic horror wishes they could, able to make disconnected, ‘rational’ decisions. But it is certainly not the player.
Back in a realer world I am left wondering whether we should be lauding Half-Life for its seamlessness – for its immersive theatrics – or despairing at just how easily a sense of agency is inculcated. How willing are we, the player, the person, to accept the constraints presented to us so long as they allow that most basic level of control? The freedom to view what interests us, the freedom to move as we please through these confined, perfectly structured spaces. Is that enough?