Updated: Feb 24
In the last article, we took an in-depth look at GoldenEye 007 - the first truly great console FPS. The next major evolution of FPS gaming would use a version of the Quake engine, but it would not come from i.d. Software.
It would go on to set the standard for immersivity for all story-driven single-player FPS games to come. The year was 1998, the company was Valve, and the name of the game that won over 50 ‘Game of the Year’ awards? You all saw this one coming - Half-Life.
Half-Life was the debut title of the Valve Corporation, or simply ‘Valve’ as it is more commonly known. Valve was founded by former Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington. This programming background was likely a significant boon to the fledgeling company.
Newell has stated that the Half-Life team wished to create an immersive world as opposed to ‘a shooting gallery’. As such Valve set out to create an FPS quite unlike the ‘Doom clones’ that had gone before. Half-Life was to be far more story-focused than earlier FPS titles, which tended to be rather ‘lite’ when it came to narrative. It has been suggested that Half-Life’s plot was inspired by Steven King’s short story ‘The Mist’. Indeed, Half-Life’s earlier working title was ‘Quiver’, allegedly a reference to The Mist’s ‘Arrowhead project’. It was the Arrowhead project’s misadventures that led to the titular Mist and its monstrous creatures being unleashed upon the world. The similarities to this and the events in Half-Life are clear.
A Sense of Place
To create a sense of immersion, the events of the game would need to take place in a believable environment. To this end Valve created the infamous ‘Black Mesa Research Facility’. Black Mesa was a decommissioned ICBM nuclear site repurposed for conducting bleeding edge and clandestine research for Uncle Sam. An ‘accident’ when performing a teleportation test created a ‘resonance cascade event’. This resulted in an interdimensional breach to the border world of Xen, through which Xen’s dangerous fauna and flora came spilling through with disastrous results.
Top survival tip - if it isn’t wearing a lab coat or a security guard uniform - shoot it.
Video by Captain Hell Knight
The decision to house Black Mesa in a former ICBM site was perhaps intended as cryptic foreshadowing. The site formerly housed nukes, but would go on to house something far far worse, which would trigger global events every bit as apocalyptic as WW3.
Black Mesa felt like a working and plausible real-world location, its various areas all serving a purpose as opposed to the random chambers and corridors of many earlier FPS games. If a government were to carry out such exotic experiments, then a facility very much like Black Mesa is where you would expect them to happen, i.e. a location that is secure, self-sufficient, isolated and unseen by the public.
Placing the bleeding-edge technology of anti-mass spectrometers and high-power test lasers alongside the day-to-day offices, car parks, cafeterias, garages, warehouses and the (often out-of-order) restrooms that a facility the size of Black Mesa would require aided the suspension of disbelief. The lesser-seen areas were quite run-down in places which helped cement this; Speaking from personal experience the maintenance of the seldom travelled areas of real-world government buildings, hospitals, military bases and even science labs is often neglected.
This inclusion of the mundane alongside the fantastic made the events that would transpire there all the more believable. This ‘sense of place’ has since been incorporated into many iconic franchises. Notable examples include the cramped interiors of the disaster-stricken ships Von Braun and Ishimura from System Shock 2 and Dead Space, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the sprawling cityscapes of GTA and of course the titular ring worlds of Halo.
Something else that set Half-Life apart from earlier games was its lack of distinct levels. Your journey through the Black Mesa Research Facility (henceforth ‘Black Mesa’) was one continuous excursion divided into ‘chapters’, which emphasised its story-driven nature. As a result, your orange suited protagonist could back-track to areas already passed through, useful for picking up health packs and ammo. When backtracking was prevented it was for purely physical reasons, such as a collapsed ladder or a cave in. Although these were scripted events, they felt far less ‘artificial’ than the end of level stats screens of DooM.
Speaking of scripted sequences, Half-Life’s storytelling was entirely experiential. There were no cut scenes to pull you out of the immersion, nor were there any ‘walls-of-text’ to read. Instead, events would happen around you entirely in-engine and in-game from your first-person perspective. This helped to cement the immersion - you were not simply playing as Gordon Freeman; you were Gordon Freeman. This has gone on to become something of a signature storytelling technique for Valve, with almost all of Valve’s first-person games using it to one degree or another.
Half-Life Tram Intro
All 'cutscenes' in Half-Life are shown from this perspective and are interactive.
Video by rumraket38
What’s more, you were given the distinct impression that events were being orchestrated behind the scenes. More troublingly, being Gordon Freeman gave you the feeling you were merely an unwitting puppet in someone - or something - else’s grand plan.
This ‘deceitful puppet master’ trope would go on to be seen in many games, including SHODAN from System Shock 2, ‘Atlas’ from Bioshock and the Vishnan and ‘Ken’ entities from the Blue Planet mod for FreeSpace 2.
The G-Man was obviously inspired by the mysterious ‘Smoking Man’ from the X-Files TV show, which was popular at the time. In addition, Half-Life tapped into the interest in conspiracy theories in general that the X-Files had helped make popular. Most notably the theme that the government and the military cannot be trusted and will ‘disappear’ those that witness something they shouldn’t. In-game, the military are shown ‘silencing’ witnesses to keep the existence of Black Mesa, its research, Xen and its inhabitants covered up. This ‘Don’t trust the military, they are not the good guys’ trope would also be repeated in later video games, as anyone who has played ‘The Last of Us’ heartbreaking opening chapter will attest to.
Half-Life had an interesting tongue in cheek art style, highly reminiscent of ‘50s and 60’s B-movie alien invasion films. It is unclear if this was a deliberate choice or the limitations of the Quake 2 based GoldSrc engine. The Source-based Half-Life 2 redesigned many aspects to look grittier and more realistic, so perhaps it was the latter.