You have to grant one thing to Half-Life fans: they're patient.
After five years of silence, there's still no sign of Half-Life 2: Episode 3, or official confirmation that Valve is simply going to skip forward to Half-Life 3. Even the fan-made HD remake of the original Half-Life, titled Black mesa, took eight years to make.
Having just completed my play-through of Black Mesa, I have been thinking about what it was that made the original Half-Life so special, and why it has had such a lasting impact.
The funny thing is that it is hard to explain to modern gamers, because all of the new things it did are now standard. Of course you can interact with other characters in the world in games these days, but it's hard to imagine a world of gaming in which that was a startling novelty. In Half-Life, I could meet a random security guard, ask him to follow me, and he would then fight alongside me, adding his firepower to my own.
Even more mind-blowing, if I met a second guard and got him to follow me as well, my two companions would have conversations. Sure, they were stilted and basic, but having two video game characters chat amongst themselves, completely ignoring you, was amazing.
That, I think, is the core of what made Half-Life such a special experience in 1998: the world gave the impression of existing apart from you. Instead of a game where everything exists just to interact with you, there was a sense that the Black Mesa research facility was real, and huge, and people actually worked there.
This sense of a dynamic world that would carry on whether you were around or not was further aided by the soldiers and aliens in the game doing battle amongst themselves. I had never played a game in which I could simply keep my head down and let two independent enemy factions duke it out.
Half-Life also featured astonishing artificial intelligence, especially in the hostile marines. In 1998, the standard video game enemy would run toward you idiotically, heedless of danger. In contrast, the soldiers invading Black Mesa would work together, flush you out of cover with strategically thrown grenades, take cover while reloading, and even shout out messages to each other. The net effect was that you were being intelligently hunted, a simultaneously thrilling and unnerving experience.
The overall effect of all of this, though, was the story. Despite featuring a totally mute protagonist and no voice-overs or on-screen narration, Half-Life was carried along by a strong plot. Snippets of story would give you context as you played through - a helpful scientist would give you directions, or an abandoned military radio would blast out instructions to the marines.
The funny thing is that this sense of a living, dynamic world was an artfully-created illusion. There was no moral choice or branching story in Half-Life; the entire game is one long corridor, though its walls were cleverly obscured. Apparently random events were most often carefully-timed scripted sequences. Even so, within these confined boundaries, Half-Life gave the player an amazing sense of freedom.
Considering all of this, it is unsurprising that so many fans, myself included, are still eager for more Half-Life. It seems that every entry in the series breaks more ground. Half-Life: Opposing Force set the bar for game expansions, providing a staggering amount of content in a budget package. Half-Life 2 introduced never-seen-before facial animation and detailed physics that really affected the game.
I am still waiting for Half-Life 3, and I am definitely not alone.
Over to you, readers. Are you one of the Half-Life faithful? Alternatively, can you nominate another game that really opened your eyes to the creative possibilities of games? Please share your experiences in the comments below.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez