Half-Life (1998)

Sad as it is, I bet many young people think Citizen Kane is just some overrated old movie about an asshole who misses his sled. Despite having so much to offer as merely a straightforward story, the age-old line about Kane is that out of all the great Hollywood pictures, it is the one that requires the keenest eye toward technical and structural innovations. No matter how invested you are in the tragic tale of Charles Foster Kane, it’s undeniable that the movie is at its jaw-dropping best when plot works in tandem with the viewer’s awe of Welles’ deep-focus shots and oddball narrative framework. To be unaware of these novelties is to miss an entire motif of the film. I am not saying that Half-Life is “the Citizen Kane video games” (partly just because I believe that label is absurd); if it were a movie, its story and themes could barely support mid-tier John Carpenter, much less one of cinema’s undisputed masterworks. But like Kane, an integral part of understanding Half-Life is not only recognizing what Valve did differently, but how those changes created a deeper, more emotionally satisfying product.

Has there ever been a greater champion of “it’s not the story, but the way it’s told” than Half-Life? Nothing about this tale of a man’s escape from an alien-infested research facility should have worried the Dooms and Quakes of the world that the first-person shooter revolution was at hand, but here we are. More than a decade past its inception, Half-Life still plays like a game your younger self only dreamt up, one in which you never have to surrender control of your player character for the sake of plot but, conversely, contains scenarios so cleverly written and conceived that you never mind or question its linearity. While cutscenes certainly have their place in some genres and games, Valve’s ability to spin a totally involving yarn without them makes you tempted to swear off them out of principle.

No matter how many times you replay a scenario in Half-Life to get it exactly right – such as a firefight between soldiers and aliens in which you are caught in the middle – it is so well-rendered every time that there is no questioning the artifice. Credit not just that the world of  Half-Life is inhabited by a believable, practical artificial intelligence, but that the setting is so coherent that its internal logic becomes second nature. Black Mesa might not be as aesthetically bold a setting as City 17 or Aperture Science, but it set the Valve standard for creating living, breathing environments, sprawling but entirely believable in context. It is a standard-bearer for one of the gaming medium’s greatest accomplishments: the realization of a setting that does not simply exist for the sake of a single plot or set of characters – as is the case with most filmed entertainment – but one that is recognizably tangible and inhabitable beyond the story being told.

Half-Life is, as I’m sure you’re aware, the saga of one Gordon Freeman, AKA the promotional image that reassured thousands of nerds that they could wear Rivers Cuomo glasses and still be badasses. Freeman’s everyman quality cannot be overstated when discussing Half-Life’s effectiveness; he’s a sobering Jeff Goldblum to Duke Nukem’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. His arc of rising from lowly scientist to humanity’s last great hope goes beyond mere wish fulfillment or instant identification for the pale-skinned computer gamer crowd; it grants Half-Life a subtly implemented narrative structure that will hold up far beyond the its dated graphics and poor voice-over. Think back to the game’s iconic, foreboding tram ride into Black Mesa and how it not only establishes the game’s gloomy descent into hell, but is also the only time you do not have complete autonomy of Freeman’s direction and progress. From there, the game slowly gives you more control and tools until you arrive on the aliens’ homeworld, hardly even gravity’s slave at the end of your quest. Our mastery of Freeman as an avatar parallels his own journey to right the wrongs of his employers.

If there is a central problem with Half-Life, it is an obvious one: you kill a lot of people. For all its innovation and newfangled storytelling, the game can’t quite overcome the fact that the first-person shooter is a murderer’s genre. It at least gets some points for trying; Freeman really only kills out of self-defense, as the military invades Black Mesa to do away with both aliens and anyone who can later speak about the disaster. Also, I appreciate the twist that Freeman’s enemies are both extraterrestrial hordes and his fellow man; it certainly crossed my mind that while I had no objection to stuffing a foreign but clearly still self-aware brute full of bullets, it was more difficult justifying the same violence toward a human NPC. (Also, it makes the human-like factories and hierarchy of the alien world Xen all the more eerie and familiar once you finally arrive there.) However, while this would be effective if Freeman laid into a mere handful of army grunts as he made his escape, as the kill count reaches the dozens, the game comes off as equally bloodthirsty and unsympathetic as the titles it’s supposedly so above. It is not only morally questionable, but one of its few elements that proves immersion-breaking: is there seriously no one on the opposing force that would try to reason with Freeman after he offs his fiftieth soldier? Despite the absurd body count, these violent situations are luckily just as thought-provoking and puzzle-like as the rooms in which you flip switches or jump between teleporters. While making conflict a strategic game of cat-and-mouse doesn’t excuse Half-Life’s absurd amount of bloodshed, it at least makes experiencing them a hell of a lot more fun. (However, my favorite scenario in the game remains sneaking past the tentacle creature, pictured above, that hunts through sound.)

I’ve heard many people complain about the game’s final hours spent on Xen, but I thought they were a validating, off-the-wall counterpoint to the sobering halls of Black Mesa. And while the final battle with the Nihilanth might not rank among the great boss fights, the creature’s aborted-fetus appearance is a sort of amusing, harrowing antithesis to the 2001 Star Child. It is also a perfect metaphor for Half-Life within the current gaming culture: a bit ugly and crude, maybe even stillborn in parts, but undeniably fascinating and like nothing seen before or since. The game’s excellent and equally revolutionary sequel (which I admittedly have not completed as of this writing) ensures that Half-Life will always be more than just a footnote for its innovations. Yet there is enough here worth experiencing in its own right that I hope new generations never regard it as some overrated old game about an asshole with a crowbar.

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