It’s 1998, a friend of the family buys a new computer. It’s a Time PC (remember them?). I get a call to go round and help ‘set it up’ for them. In the box with all the cables there’s the usual ‘Nero Burning Rom’ trial CD’s but with the graphics card came a free game.
It was Half Life. I’d never heard of it – but as thanks (and because it was a PC for office use) I was given the CD to take home with me.
Fast forward 13 years. I still think it has the best and most effective introduction to any video game to date. Allow me to take you on my 16 minute journey as we plunge headfirst into the work of Black Mesa, Gordon Freeman and crowbars.
(Before reading on, why not watch my play-through video of the first bit of Half Life 1 as a refresher. . )
The first 5 or 6 minutes and I am literally on-rails. A mono-rail to be exact, it’s taking me deep into the heart of Black Mesa. It’s a bold move, as 5 or 6 ‘gaming’ minutes is an eternity to have your movement restricted. But it works, it’s effective. (I’m probably going to be using the word ‘effective’ a lot during this article as that’s what I feel Valve achieved with Half Life 1’s introduction)
The way the credits fade on and fade off the screen combined with this themepark-style mono-rail experience makes it feel rather film-like. I like it, it looks slick. A female voice echoes around me factually (and convincingly) announcing safety notices to adhere to. By now, I’ve stopped trying open the doors the monorail, and I’ve stopped sprinting up and down the carriage or jumping up and down on the spot like a lunatic. Now I’m looking out of the windows – spotting the various scenes of people ‘at work’, machinery moving boxes around – it’s convincing, it feels like I’m entering a busy research facility!
Something doesn’t seem right here?
The seeds of terror are very subtly planted right from the start – there’s unrest at Black Mesa. You feel it from the moment you step onto the monorail – you spot workers running around, a man bangs his fist on an emergency exit door. Somethings happening, right? But what?
My monorail passes another stationary one – a man stands there in a blue suit with a briefcase in hand, motionless. My carriage stops. Hang on, is he watching me? He straightens his tie, dusts down his suit and my carriage sets off again. That was weird? (damn you g-man, man of zero identity or obvious motive – and yet pivotal to the Half Life Universe. .)
The mono rail has docked. I still can’t disembark. A guard has to verify my identity before I’m allowed off. This place must be important. Next obstacle – an air-lock, and it needs a damn retinal-scan from the guard.. This must be a top top-secret facility.
(ok, to break the illusion there for a second, I need to acknowledge that Half Life really is just a collection of very small maps creating the illusion of a large place (hence frequent loading times), and also hence a lot of pointless doors… anyway, back to Gordon’s journey…)
Hello Black mesa, everyone can stop worrying now. Gordon is here.
Finally, I’m in the Black Mesa facility – I approach the desk and am told to collect my suit and head straight to the test chamber. No messing around here! But hang on, this is brilliant. I have no way point, no map, no clumsy AI running off with the text ‘follow me’ popping to march the game along. I know what I need to do, but I can take my time. This is a mysterious research facility – I can wander around and explore. OK, it’s not too exciting – I can turn some taps on and off, speak to some pretty ill-mannered scientists and make someone’s dinner explode in the microwave. Yet it’s so effective at nudging the story along, and pushing you in the right direction.
Walking into a lab, two scientists are writing on a blackboard. I turn off the lights, plunging them into darkness – “my God man, what are you doing??” – exclaims one of them. Despite it being the same snippet of dialogue you get for blowing up someone’s dinner, running into them, or doing anything annoying – it’s a well delivered and very funny line.
The scientists dotted around the place are a mixture of “leave me alone!” and “good to see you Gordon, we’ve been waiting for you” etc. If you poke around enough, you get the message; “the sample was just delivered to the test chamber..”. I’m needed down at the test chamber.. OK, OK, I’m going..
I walk past a window – G-Man again, talking to a scientist. The door is locked. It would be.
As I make my way down to the test chamber, the suspense and intrigue are taken up a few notches. From the weird looking lab equipment, the fact I get down to another ‘clearance level’ to the scientists stood around muttering worried statements about things being ‘off the scale’ and ‘not normal’. .
Level design – it’s good.
To break once again from the narrative of playing the game one has to admire the level design in this 13 year old game. The way they designed the Black Mesa facility map so you could travel through it in two states is really clever. First we walk through with everything neat, and symmetrical with all the scientists acting prim and proper, we’re then treated to the exact opposite – the same level but everything broken and fighting your through way the ensuing carnage.
As I pushed on for this play through, it’s easy to spot signs of things to come.. .
From the experimentation tubes (above) to big glass panels in the doors Gordon will eventually crawl through, to the fire-ladder clearly visible in the lift when descending to the test chamber level that we end up using to scale the life shaft after the ‘explosion’ –
What’s also great is at any time you can turn back. You can catch the lifts back up to the Black Mesa reception and keep poking around. It’s on your terms, the player. It really makes you feel that YOU are in control and it’s YOU moving the story along.
This is classic Sci-Fi
Entering the final rooms of Black Mesa before the test chamber, it feels like a classic ‘set up’ from a sci-fi movie. Scientists scratching heads, worried voices speaking to you. A scientist clears his throat and says, confidently “I’m afraid we’ll be deviating from normal test procedures. . “, another pipes up with “everything will be fine”.
A piece of dialogue as obvious as this is perhaps the clearest indication so far that everything will be pretty far from fine. .
The test chamber
As I enter the test chamber, for only the second time the pace of the game is taken out of my hands. The meek voice of a scientist sounds over a tannoy telling me I should start the combine when I’m ready.
After I flick the big red switch, cranking up the turbine in the middle of the room, it’s then up to me to shove the ‘specimen’ these mad scientists have been harping on about into the centre of it – obviously, I comply without question. After all, Gordon is a man of little words.
The sequence that follows is just great. Rubble is falling from the ceiling, a warning siren is wailing away, the mixture of explosions and the building quaking – the sound is deafening. The experiment went wrong, we think.
Suddenly you’re plunged into silence, and met with a black screen no indication of where you are or what’s happening. The first time I played Half Life I may even have moved my mouse to see if the game had crashed. From the silence comes the breathless sounds of panic coming from Gordon, before being teleported back to the chamber. .
A few more seconds of carnage, and then it’s another WTF moment:
Finally back in the chamber the game really begins; and this is where this article ends. That’s 16 minutes before you’re ‘on your own’ so to speak. . except that’s not true. The beauty of Half Life is there was no tutorial mission (OK there was that entirely separate hazard training game), no quick time events and no pre-rendered cut scenes. It’s just you against the world, your motivation is to escape.
At the point we leave Gordon, you really feel part of the game-world. You’re immersed. You’re there, you’re in Black Mesa. Left to pick up the pieces – you and your crowbar. There’s too much else to mention of why this game was so important – I haven’t even touched on why the enemy AI was so clever for it’s time (particularly when you reach ‘the surface’) or how scary the Headcrabs still are, or how many games since Half-life are so blatantly inspired by half life (any game where you climb through air vents?)
I haven’t mentioned that Counter Strike wouldn’t have happened without Half Life, and some might argue that modern day Team Deathmach wouldn’t exist without CounterStrike.
That’s my favourite start. What’s your favourite end to a video game?