August 29, 2017
Half-Life turns nineteen this year. Half-life 2 turns thirteen. Yet, aged graphics aside, they are still one of the best games—or rather, one of the best experiences—the PC has to offer. The first Half-Life was influential not just because it played well, but because it immersed you into its world with great skill, gripping you with its atmosphere and actually putting you in the shoes of a (sort of) Average Joe, who’s unlucky enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. From his perspective, at least.
It was a game that let the environments and actions tell the story as much as some of the dialogue did. Not to mention the fact that the protagonist was silent so players could feel like they were the hero instead of playing a written character.
I say this not with nostalgia, or spurred on by a curmudgeonly knee-jerk against the smoky linearity of the modern military shooter (in truth, a dominant genre now only in the minds of those still affronted by its last-gen ubiquity). No. You see while Half-Life 2 undeniably laid the foundations for a staggering proportion of the then-future of game design – genre be damned – it is no mere historically lauded precursor. It’s no aged benefactor, thanked yearly at the annual commemoration ceremony before being shuffled off back to the care home. The fact is that Half-Life 2 still executes its concepts, conceits and mechanics more effectively, deftly, and powerfully than almost any of its imitators have in the 13 years since. That’s why it’s still the best, and that’s why I still play it.
There’s something obviously different about Half-Life 2 from the opening moments. There’s no expository cut scene. No lengthy ‘In a time of war…’ cinematic, detailing a bombastic tale of humanity’s fall in lurid detail. There’s just an unsettlingly alien normality. City 17’s railway station might be defaced by the brutal deco surrealism of Combine technology, but in every other sense it’s a familiar place. And for all of the escalating inter-dimensional fascism on show, its stranger elements are made all the more dangerously mundane by the populace’s broken-down acceptance of them. Eschewing dramatic ‘Bad men are bad’ set-pieces and other such blunt attempts to convey traumatic drama, it’s in the hushed whispers, the defeated grumbles of the everyday people around you, that the completeness of Half-Life 2’s darkness really speaks.
I very deliberately say “you” rather than “Gordon” there, because that’s the genius stroke that really amplifies City 17’s palpable realness. Unlike in most action games, you’re not playing the hero character. The hero character is playing you. His dearth of dialogue not a failing of narrative, but rather a deliberately hollowed conduit through which the player threads their own persona into Half-Life 2’s hostile world, Gordon is a container for the player’s experiences, reactions, and internalized responses.
It’s about more than letting the player fill in the gaps. Your story, your experience, filled with your details, your personality, your anecdotes, your victories. That’s why there are no cut scenes to show you the developers’ version of what’s going on. That’s why there’s no third-person Gordon model to remind you that he doesn’t look like you.
The FPS genre has been full of significant technological accomplishments, but these have come to be expected by each iteration of the game. Half-life was monumental in its story telling and first-person cinematography. Before Marc Laidlaw introduced us to Gordon Freeman, the genre remained mired in the same “no plot to get in the way of the story” that marked the genre since Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Half-Life drew us in with characters that fascinated, leaving us begging for a sequel — not just for greater gameplay, but for a continuation of the story.