Half-Life: the game that changed the game

December 1 2021

Half-Life: the game that changed the game
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When we talk about Half-Life, it’s like talking about the Internet. It wasn’t always there, but after it arrived, the video game industry was forever changed.

Out of all the games that haven’t received a sequel in years, Half-Life is probably the biggest and the most important. Memes aside, a Half-Life sequel means more than a sequel to a game. Every time a Half-Life game was released, it meant a shift in the world of game development. From its narrative to its technical aspects, Half-Life is synonymous with progress. In this article, we’re going to take a look at what makes Half-Life one of the most important video games of all time.

Point Insertion

I have recommended your services to my... employers, and they have authorized me to offer you a job.

When Half-Life first came out, it brought many unique ideas to the First Person Shooter genre. While we’ll go over the graphics and the movement system, what Half-Life really influenced was the narrative design of video games.

In Half-Life, you’re Dr. Gordon Freeman. An M.I.T. graduate theoretical physicist working at a science corporation called Black Mesa. Gordon Freeman is a silent protagonist, a narrative decision by Valve to allow the players to put themselves in Dr. Freeman’s shoes, or HEV suit in this case. “Man of a few words,” they call him, but that’s mostly to help you react however you want to what’s happening around you. Since it’s a linear game, having Dr. Freeman say lines would take the player’s perspective away from them.

Half Life

“I, for one, welcome our new Combine overlords.” -Dr. Wallace Breen (Image: Valve)

In addition to a silent protagonist, there are no cutscenes in Half-Life. When you think about First Person Shooters with stories, the hard-hitting moments and great memories you’ll remember are all in the first person. Seeing everything unfold first-hand—being immersed in the situation—adds so much to its impact. So Valve decided to have no cutscenes and instead put Dr. Freeman in situations where he can’t change the outcome but can watch. Everything from other scientists talking to each other or you to alien creatures abducting or possessing your fellow scientist can be observed in real-time. But if you don’t want to watch your fellow science people get devoured by aliens, you can also proceed to the next obstacle without being hindered in most cases.

This freedom also made Half-Life incredibly immersive in two significant ways. One, Dr. Gordon Freeman, is, as his title implies, a scientist and nothing else. He’s not a soldier, not a fighter, not even a brawler. He’s just a regular guy who finds himself in an extremely complicated situation. Coupled with his silent attitude, you can easily imagine yourself in that situation. Gordon Freeman is not special, which helps the players relate with him easier. Well, except being a doctor of theoretical physics.

The second reason for Half-Life’s immersion is that events are constantly happening whether you pay attention to them or not. Just like in real life, the world doesn’t stop to let you breathe and watch a cutscene. Instead, you can be fully invested or utterly uninterested in what’s unfolding around you. You’re a scientist guy in a warzone between Special Forces and literal alien monsters. You might just want to get yourself out of dire straits.

Half-Life Vent

If a scientist gets horribly disemboweled in a ventilation shaft and no one is around to hear it, does he make a sound? My guess is yes

Gordon Freeman’s normal-guy status is further supported by the first weapon you get your hands on: the crowbar. The iconic weapon of the Half-Life series—and one of the most classic video game items ever—the crowbar gives you a very clear understanding of where Dr. Gordon Freeman stands in this whole ordeal. You’re the crowbar. You’re not a fighter; you’re a problem solver. You open doors or bash people’s heads in. One way or the other, you get things done to the point where Gordon’s ability to solve problems (and in some cases cause them) is “recognized” by certain overseeing parties.

Questionable Ethics

So, wake up, Mister Freeman... wake up and... smell the ashes.

As a 1998 video game, Half-Life had proven that video games could have much bigger narratives than “kill enemies and run towards the next level.” While you do kill enemies and run towards the next level in Half-Life, there’s a complex and interesting story if you care to stop and listen. Not all characters are there to kill you, and even the ones that are there to kill you have their own reasons or orders from above.

For example, everyone’s favorite mysterious character, G-Man, is there with you throughout the game. If you look for him, you can see him quietly observing your progress everywhere. From the tram that brings you to work, to the end of the game, G-Man is there to watch you. To make matters even more complex, G-Man claims to be just an employee of certain parties that are watching the events unfold. G-Man appears to have (or is granted by his employers) control over time and space, which he uses to “nudge” some events at his employers’ request.

Half-Life G-Man

G-Man looks ominous and sounds very disturbing, thanks to Michael Shapiro’s incredible voice acting. (Image: Valve)

While the whole plot with aliens and mysterious powers personally watching Dr. Gordon Freeman is happening, the US Government also sends troops to clean up the Black Mesa facility so that no witnesses remain after “the Incident.”

So, imagine yourself as a regular guy, going about your business when you accidentally open a portal to another planet from which countless monsters invade to conquer the Earth. Just when you’re about to run away from all that mess, Special Forces soldiers arrive to kill you because you’re an inconvenient witness. Everyone and everything is trying to kill you in the building where you go to work every day.

Speaking of the Special Forces, Half-Life was also one of the first FPS games where you fought against actual human enemies. Killing demons and monsters (looking at you, Wolfenstein) were common in shooter games, but fighting against a squad of soldiers who act as a unit and react to your actions was revolutionary for its time.

While Half-Life was a revolutionary game on its own, its legacy became something much bigger than a single first-person shooter game. Counter-Strike, arguably the godfather of modern esports, started its life as a Half-Life mod. Even Team Fortress, which was actually a Quake mod at first, became Team Fortress Classic because Valve wanted to showcase the abilities of Half-Life’s engine, GoldSrc. We’ll talk about Half-Life’s legacy more, so let’s move on.

Half-Life 2 Confirmed

Time, Dr. Freeman? Is it really that time again?

Following Half-Life’s success, Valve began developing Half-Life 2 just six months after the release of the former. As I mentioned in the intro of the article, a new Half-Life game meant the whole industry was about to shift gears. Gabe Newell, president of Valve and our lord and savior, approached the development with an industry-changing mindset. He once said, “if Half-Life 2 isn't viewed as the best PC game of all time, it's going to completely bum out most of the guys on this team; because why spend years developing something that’s not innovative?” This goes to show how much Valve wanted Half-Life 2 to influence the FPS genre.

Half-Life character model

Ivan the Space Biker, the initial design that eventually became Dr. Gordon Freeman. (Image: Valve)

Half-Life 2 had a rough development process, with delays and source code leaks, but it was finally released in November 2004 to global acclaim. As the release was delayed and Gabe Newell revealed that he gave the team virtually no deadlines and an infinite budget, fans’ expectations had reached the Moon. And with good reason. During this time, Valve managed to develop so much more than just Half-Life 2. They also developed their new in-house game engine, Source, not to mention Valve’s real moneymaker, Steam. So when Half-Life 2 was released, Source Engine dropped like a meteor into the video game industry. It was such a versatile engine that games are still using it to this day.

Welcome to City 17

Rather than offer you the illusion of free choice, I will take the liberty of choosing for you.

Half-Life 2 brought the story out of Black Mesa to the real world, showing us the ramifications of Gordon Freeman’s actions back in Black Mesa. In the aptly named Seven Hour War, an alien species called the Combine had invaded Earth and completely decimated our planet’s entire military force in seven hours.

Earth quickly declares its surrender. Local militia and some resistance forces scattered across the cities end up being Dr. Freeman’s only allies. Dr. Freeman is brought out of stasis and mysteriously placed, by the mysterious G-Man, on a tram heading into City 17. We meet Dr. Eli Vance, a former Black Mesa scientist who leads the Resistance forces against the Combine, and his daughter Alyx Vance who becomes our trusted ally in the fight against our alien overlords.

Half-Life Alyx Gun

“Maybe don’t try the Gravity Gun on living beings, okay?” (Image: Valve)

Half-Life 2’s physics-based Source Engine was revolutionary for its time. Valve made sure to show it off with a unique weapon in the game, called Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator. You know, the Gravity Gun. This weapon can pull and push objects with great force, showcasing how much the world of Half-Life 2 was realistically interactable, thanks to the Source Engine. With the Gravity Gun, you could pull pretty much every non-living object you could see and use it as a weapon or tool to reach your goal.

Source Engine’s potential, of course, was realized and utilized by a lot of mods and games such as Garry’s Mod, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, Counter-Strike: Source, Portal, and even Apex Legends.

Valve can’t count to 3

The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.

After releasing Half-Life 2 to high praise, Valve followed it up with Half-Life 2: Episode One and Half-Life 2: Episode Two. When Half-Life 2: Episode Two was being released, Valve again broke through the industry norms and included it in the Orange Box. The Orange Box included not just Half-Life 2, Episodes One and Two, but two other new games: Team Fortress 2 and Portal.

Team Fortress 2 took everything from the original Team Fortress Classic and amped it up to 11. The art style, the music, the voice acting—everything in Team Fortress 2 oozed style and charisma. While it was a class-based team brawler, the strong characterization of the classes made each of them a character of their own. Team Fortress 2’s approach to characterization in team brawlers led to the creation of many character-based shooters, including Overwatch, Apex Legends, and Valorant.

Glados Shell Portal

“For science, you monster.” -GLaDOS (Image: Valve)

Meanwhile, Portal instantly became a fan-favorite. Using Source Engine’s immense physics technology, Portal was a short but concise puzzle game. But its story had the potential to become much, much bigger if allowed. Like in Half-Life, Portal’s protagonist Chell was a silent one. The whole plot was told via everyone’s favorite Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System, GLaDOS. Portal also received a sequel, Portal 2, which had Ellen McLain return as GLaDOS and bolstered the cast with J.K. Simmons and Stephen Merchant. Its design elements and great story helped Portal 2 remain the best-reviewed game on Steam to this day.

Right after the release of the Orange Box, Valve released Left 4 Dead and its sequel Left 4 Dead 2. Valve continued its trademark use of Source Engine and zombies in the Left 4 Dead series, which consisted of several movie-like scenarios where four survivors try to get themselves out of dire situations in a zombie apocalypse setting.

Half-Life 1, Half-Life 2. Portal 1, Portal 2. Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2. Each of Valve’s franchises seemed stuck at the second entry in their respective series and memes about Valve not being able to count to 3 surfaced quickly. As each Half-Life game brought incredible innovation and new tech to the industry, speculation around Half-Life 3 ran wild. Everyone knew that the release of a new Half-Life meant the dawn of a new age in gaming.

Gabe Newell

Pictured: Half-Life 3 confirmed.

Sadly, Half-Life 3 never came. While Valve kept actively developing projects, news about Half-Life 3 never became anything more than speculation. While Portal and Half-Life exist in the same universe, the clues went no further than an Aperture Science ship, Borealis, making an appearance in Half-Life 2: Episode One and Episode Two. The ship disappearing completely and reappearing in an Arctic location, only to be discovered by Dr. Judith Mossman sparked ideas that Dr. Gordon Freeman might get his hands on some sort of Portal tech; courtesy of the man, the myth, the legend Cave Johnson and his Aperture Science Innovators. 

Half-Life: Episode Two had a cliffhanger ending, and a long silence came after that on the development front. As years passed and Valve focused on Steam rather than Half-Life, fans became increasingly desperate for any clues that could point towards a new entry in the series.

Some people must have wished for “a new Half-Life game” instead of Half-Life 3 because the Monkey’s Paw curled, and Valve announced Half-Life: Alyx, a VR game. While not as big of a disappointment as Artifact’s announcement, a VR game raised some eyebrows as the new entry in the series. But to many people’s surprise, Half-Life: Alyx turned out to be a solid game and actually touched upon Half-Life 2: Episode Two’s ending, creating new possibilities for the existence of Half-Life 3. 

Point Extraction

Prepare for unforeseen consequences.

At every step along the way, Half-Life pushed the envelope in video games and paved the way for modern shooters. While they might not all be Half-Life mods or Source Engine games, modern shooters are where they are largely thanks to Half-Life and Counter-Strike’s success. Valve set out to create a game that would change the industry, inspire incredible innovation, and be remembered as the best PC game of all time, but I don’t think even they imagined their creation becoming the beast it is today.

There was a time when video games were trying different things to see what stuck, and Half-Life’s arrival changed all that. It showed the world that video games—even first-person shooters where you go “pew pew” at targets—could tell a coherent and complicated story. It aimed to expand the industry and expand the industry it did. Sure, Half-Life was not the first game to tell a story, but it told one in a unique way and proved that video games can be much more than they seem. It showed that video games have incredible potential, and we’re only just starting to explore that.

For that, we, as players, are forever thankful for Half-Life.

Barış Tekin author picture

Barış Tekin
Content Writer

Cat Whisperer, Fight Choreographer, Retired Stuntman, Semi-pro Voice Actor. I dream of a world where Wattson mains can be happy.