Valve’s Half-Life is a lot like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Hm. Let me back up a moment.
In my quest to further my gaming education and make myself familiar with as many gaming classics as I can, Steam’s holiday sale has been enormously useful. Valve seems to think that it is okay to tax everyone’s wallet by selling gaming history at a fraction of its cost every December, and, not being one to argue, I picked up several choice titles this year in the hope of experiencing brilliant games which my pitiful computers were never able to run back in the day.
Naturally, Half-Life was a prime candidate.
Half-Life, originally released in 1998, is widely credited with revolutionizing the way that first-person shooters told their stories. Gordon Freeman’s crowbar-wielding escape from the Black Mesa Facility is one of those escapades that form a central part of gaming canon. It frequently appears near the top of “Best Game of All Time” lists.
A brief tangent: When I was in college as an English major, I was asked to read something like twenty works of literature my senior year in order to prepare for comprehensive exams. One of these was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, a book which is the origin of an entire genre (castaway stories) and in many respects is the first modern novel. Without Crusoe, we can’t have Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or classic Bob Denver vehicle Gilligan’s Island.
The thing about all of these stories that pay homage to Robinson Crusoe, however, is that most of them are improvements upon the original, taking a revolutionary development in storytelling and using their own individual quirks and tropes to make something unique and memorable. What I discovered in college (somewhat to my disappointment) was that having taken in and enjoyed all of these more complicated, more interesting stories, it was somewhat difficult to go back and really enjoy the book that started it all.
You can probably see where I’m going with this.
Half-Life deserves credit where credit is due: it revolutionized a genre, and at the time of its release was one of the most cinematic gaming experiences available on any system. It’s a game that establishes a mood very early on, and it creates tension to such a degree that even though its graphics are outdated and blocky, the player holds their breath when edging around a corner.
At this point, however, most of us have played narrative-based FPSs that are able to deliver much more compelling cinematic experiences. If we are a modern gamer, it’s likely we have played Bioshock. We’ve played Call of Duty. Most well-versed gamers (and here I have to lower my hand meekly) have played Valve’s follow-up, Half-Life 2: Life Harder.
For my part, while stalking the halls of Black Mesa in search of headcrabs to murder, I continually compared my experience to another FPS from the same era, which I had not played until early last year: Deus Ex.
Deus Ex, which doesn’t look much better than Half-Life despite being released a year and a half later, has several layers of systems and mechanics which make gameplay complicated, interesting, and fresh. Half-Life has some pretty good shootin’, some so-so platforming, and some occasional puzzles which don’t do a very good job at giving you clues within the environment. Deus Ex is more complex, and it feels more modern.
One of the major differences between Half-Life and Deus Ex is that the former tries its best to tell you its story from entirely within the gameplay–no cutscenes here. As a general rule, I would say that HL‘s approach to storytelling is one which games should shoot for: the more you take control away from your player, the more they will be reminded that they are playing a game. Of course, the dialogue choices in Deus Ex‘s cutscenes allow for player choice in a way that keeps them engaged, but my main point is that the story happening all around the player in Half-Life can’t achieve the kind of depth and complexity that Valve achieved in later efforts like Portal, Half-Life 2, and even the Left 4 Dead games.
So, should you go pick up a copy of Half-Life and give it a go? That depends. If you’re looking for a first-person shooter with an engaging story and solid gameplay, I would have to recommend picking up a copy of something more recent–though Half-Life has both of these things, it hasn’t aged as well as some of its contemporaries. If you’re like me, however, and are interested in the history and evolution of gaming, then you really owe it to yourself to grab a crowbar and hunker down with Mr. Freeman for as much of his first adventure as you can get through: your path through Rapture, Omaha Beach, and even cyberpunk Hong Kong has its origins in a tiny chunk of the New Mexico desert called Black Mesa.