Half-Life - Retro Reflections - TBT

Half-Life by developer Valve Corporation and publisher Sierra Studios—PC Throwback Thursday retro reflection written by Hamza. 1990.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.


Calling Half-Life great is a gross understatement. It is The Godfather of video games. In the same way how the film forever changed the face of crime and gangster movies, Half-Life set an everlasting benchmark for anything first-person shooter.

Originality is rarely seen in every video game, even less when it’s your debut in the medium: but a couple of ex-Microsoft employees with a borrowed game engine raised the bar by which all future fps’ were judged. When programmer Mike Abrash left Microsoft to work on the Quake title at id Software, Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington followed suit and founded Valve Corporation. In 1998, they released Half-Life.

Half-Life’s release on the PC caused waves of gigantic proportions across the world. Never had anyone seen anything like it. Never had anyone felt so immersed in a first-person shooter ever before.  The introductory three-minute long train ride with a cool female voice addressing various issues and updates to the player is easily among the greatest intros in video gaming, with it also being an example of a cinematic experience in video games. In a scripted-manner, the various robots, helicopters, scientists and guards go about their jobs, often coming in the way of the train, causing it to slow down a little or come to a complete halt. This feeling of a grandiose environment quickly tells the player that Half-Life is not just about the character; but also the world at large and that they play an equally important role in the in-universe as you.


When the ride’s over, the still-impressive facial movements and motions are witnessed. Though a majority of them have only a few lines and really don’t seem to be doing anything other than going through some rote animations, the atmosphere is that of a living, breathing, realistic world. As realistic as a world soon-to-be-populated-with-aliens anyway.

Officially, the actual storyline gets triggered when you trigger the resonance cascade. Unofficially, when Gordon Freeman picks up the crowbar. What follows after is an onslaught of headcrabs, Vortigaunts, houndeyes, zombies, bull squids, and effectively eerie cameo appearances of the G-Man. When I first saw him standing on the top platform just when the first houndeye appeared, I was terrified beyond words. So emphatically spooky was his first appearance that the houndeye killed me and I had to restart the game.

What separated Half-Life from the rest back in the day was its omitting of cut-scenes entirely, thus resulting in a flowing narrative. You walked from one chapter into another without even realising it. In Doom, for example, you had to reach a checkpoint to clear that chapter, then your achievements would be tallied up on a separate screen. There’s no such score keeping in Half-Life. Apart from a few chapters closing with a fade to black, there’s practically no loading screen either. The game never rests, just slows down occasionally and for justifiable reasons.


The story is strictly seen through Gordon Freeman’s eyes. Although the scientists and security guards have scripted dialogues that they keep repeating over, a few of them have ‘special’ lines that reveal more about the backstory of the current chapter. In the Questionable Ethics chapter, for example, a group of fellow scientists are trapped and cornered by headcrabs, houndeyes, and the rogue assault team. When you clear the area of them, one of the scientists will tell you everything that happened offscreen. This mechanic constantly serves as a reminder that whatever that’s happening in out-of-reach areas or ‘on the other side of the fence’ are equal to whatever that’s happening in your line of sight, and are equally as ‘real’ and ‘happening’. It also further reinforces the philosophically larger-than-life vibe of the game perfectly.

The one thing Half-Life excels in is the memorable scenes. The three-minute long introduction perfectly sets the mood and character of the game, but it’s just a taste for all the wonderful things to come. The first real bite granted to you I believe is when you’re in the first-quarter of the Unforeseen Circumstances - roughly 20 minutes into the game. There’s a part where you have to take a freight elevator to a lower level. Fans of the Akira manga know exactly what I’m talking about. As you’re slowly descending, a seemingly endless horde of headcrabs rain upon you. In my initial playthrough I had no bullets, so I had to fend for myself with the crowbar. To say I was all sweaty would be an understatement.

In conclusion, Half-Life is a sublime product by a superb, dedicated team. The spectacular level designs, then-rich textures and graphics, and an unusually steady balance of slow, quiet moments and quick one-off bloody battles all contribute to a rich and satisfying experience.

Note: Screenshots from all platforms that were available at the time can be found here at Moby Games.


Score: 10 / 10


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