A Return to Black Mesa

It is very nearly a rule that when my flatmate Gavin gets ahold of some shiny, new PC game, you may find me hunched before my aged rig, playing the prior iteration thereof, and pretending to be just as happy as he. He plays Oblivion; I "re-explore" Morrowind. He plays Half-Life 2: Episode One; I "revisit" the original Half-Life. While he lives in the year 2006, I make as if the last generation or two of gaming progress never transpired. This habit of self-deception is something of a defensive mechanism on my part, meant to guard against the frequent bouts of insanity that beset any avid gamer who has fallen behind the curve of obsolescence.

So, during these last few days I've been making my way through the Black Mesa Research Facility all over again. This happy occasion has prompted me to reflect on the undiminished glory that is the original Half-Life: why it was so special in its day, why it surpasses in many respects every shooter made in the eight years since its release, and why we can never really grow beyond it, even if we so desired.

Half-Life would have achieved no small measure of notoriety in 1998, even if everything beyond the first ten minutes of the game had been a terrible, derivative slog of the kind common to most shooters of the day. This is because Half-Life opens with a mesmerizing first-person train sequence, as scientist Gordon Freeman begins a typical day at work. Reviewers of the day raved about the moody music, the hypnotic voice emanating from the tram speaker, and the intriguing flashes of Black Mesa through the windows; and make no mistake about it, these touches of immersion and verisimilitude are powerful indeed. In his November, 1998 review of Half-Life for GameSpot, Ron Dulin stressed the importance of these little details in achieving a sense of reality and believability:

The plot of the game is typical (in fact, it's little more than an elaborate version of Doom). You are Gordon Freeman, scientist at the Black Mesa Research Facility, involved in some mysterious experiments. These experiments go awry, and foul creatures begin taking over the complex. It gets more complicated, but there's no need to ruin the surprises that await. Suffice it to say that Half-Life isn't a great game because of its story; it's a great game because of how it presents that story. From the opening moments of the game to the final showdown (and even beyond) all hell is continually breaking loose, and there is never a moment where you are not seeing things through Freeman's eyes. There are scripted events in the game. There are opening and closing scenes. But they all occur naturally within the game environment. It may sound simple, but it goes a long way toward helping create a believable world.

When Dulin says that Half-Life's greatness lies not in its story, but in its presentation, he is referring to the game's many scripted sequences, its excellent level (i.e., environmental) design, and its remarkable sidestepping of the traditional, rigid "level" system, whereby the player completes one level of the game and then, somehow, teleports to the beginning of the next level. Dulin contends that these contributions to Half-Life's environment and atmosphere are what make the game stand out from its predecessors in the genre. I agree with Dulin on all counts, but I would go even further in pointing out the remarkable narrative skill of Half-Life's designers--which we may distinguish from the environmental/atmospheric craftsmanship that Dulin notes. I shall illustrate by way of a contrasting example:

I recently played through the first episode of 1994's Doom II. In the very first level, at the very instant that gameplay commenced, I was already staring at several soldiers whose bodies had become possessed by hellish demons, which had somehow intruded upon the mortal plane. In my hand was a loaded pistol; to my left, on the ground, a chainsaw. The first thing I did was to pick up the chainsaw, leap among the monsters, and reduce them to puddles of gore. Other possessed soldiers heard the noise and came running, and within sixty seconds the entire first level was littered with spent liches.

Three days ago, when I began replaying Half-Life from its beginning (while striving mightily, you will recall, to feign disinterest in Gavin's adventures in Half-Life 2: Episode One in the next room over) the first thing I did was to ride a train across an enormous military-industrial complex on my way to work. I entertained small-talk from security guards and fellow scientists as I walked to the locker room to suit up in my protective coveralls. I stopped off in the rec-lounge and microwaved a burrito until it exploded. I finally made the long walk, past labs, offices, and security checkpoints, to an interior test-chamber, where I proceeded to scuttle a very delicate plasma experiment, destroy the entire lab facility, and usher in a flood of violent aliens from an alternate dimension. I awoke from a daze and, to my astonishment, found the entire Black Mesa facility transformed into a horrible perversion of its former self, with equipment either running amok or destroyed outright, strange creatures trying to kill me, and scientists and soldiers alike succumbing to panic and madness. With every incident of violence and death that I came upon, I confronted the terrible prospect that I was responsible for it all (although later developments, relating to the enigmatic Man in Blue, would allay those fears).

We may sum up the difference between these two narrative approaches in the straightforward words of the mythologist Joseph Campbell: crossing the threshold. Doom II is a fun game in its own right, but its narrative clumsiness is never for one moment in dispute, whether in its opening level or any other, for that matter. In contrast, the designers at Valve Software understood what Campbell had so elegantly elucidated in his seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces: in good stories, the hero must begin in a familiar setting, before being called to adventure and crossing an important threshold that prevents the hero from ever returning home, or from restoring affairs to the way things used to be, no matter how much he or she might wish to do so. Half-Life's success is not only due to masterful world-smithing and cohesive level-design, but also to a general recognition at the broadest levels of design that the game's narrative structure should conform to this most successful of molds.

In fact, in spite of its frequent attention to realistic detail, Half-Life displays at all times an equal consciousness of the importance of mythic symbolism and dramatic motif, and a recognition that these elements can oftentimes trump meticulous attention to detail in painting a convincing scene. The Black Mesa complex is unrealistically extensive, splaying across a huge expanse of desert and mountain terrain, and comprised as it is of monumental architectures that, when I pause to consider their form, utterly defy belief. These include a huge, indoor blast-chamber surrounded by a sea of radioactive ooze, the inner workings of which can only be reached via narrow catwalks with no handrails; fully-automated waste-processing plants in which toxic chemicals are stored in perilous, open vats; needless (and needlessly elaborate) elevators, railways, mechanized doors, and computer consoles; pointless ditches, canals, pools, and sluices; and titanic, churning machinery that seems to do nothing at all but spin in place. But during normal gameplay, these elements do not strain my credulity in accepting the game at face value, and they never threaten to shatter the spell of immersion. They constitute an exaggeration of the many power plants, oil refineries, military bases, office buildings, and laboratories I've seen in the real world, but they are so powerfully evocative of their real-world counterparts that they rest easily within the confines of the game-world. Their ultimate effect, as far as the player is concerned, is to lend to Black Mesa the feeling that everything within serves some arcane purpose--and what that purpose might be, Gordon Freeman has more important things on his mind than to wonder.

This same approach to reconciling the requisite attention to realism with an appropriate poetic license is evident in all aspects of Half-Life's design--not just in the level design. The humans don't hold realistic conversations (in fact, the protagonist Freeman never speaks a word in the entire game); the weapons do not conform to reality; the shadowy, mysterious forces of the government are a caricature of real bureaucracy, etc. But through patience, skill, and uncanny prospicience, Valve managed to interweave these exaggerative elements with the myriad realistic details noted by Dulin, in such a manner that the juxtaposition enhances the game, rather than detracting from it. I am reminded of the impressionistic painter, who exaggerates the gleam of the water, the curvature of the arch, or the color of the blossom, in order to achieve a more compelling visual and emotional effect.

For quite some time, upon playing a new first-person shooter, I would ask myself, "Is this game better than Half-Life?" In revisiting that great title, I have now realized what a silly and broken question that is. One cannot create a "better" game than Half-Life, any more than Milton wrote "better" poetry than Virgil, or Virgil than Homer. There comes a point when a poem, a sculpture, a painting, or a game is wrought with such eminent skill, that any future works can only hope to take their place alongside them, and to achieve status as a classic that will persist in the consciousness of mankind for as long as mankind remains interested in the classics.

Half-Life is one such game.

Comments

One cannot create a "better" game than Half-Life

Indeed. My only fear is that one day we forget the importance of the game, the way things were before it came along and showed us the way.

This is exactly why I fell in love with Half-Life yet hated every FPS game before it. Half-Life was the first FPS game I played that had a compelling story. Hell, even the demo (Uplink) was amazing compared the the entirety of Doom 1 and 2 combined.

Lobo wrote:

game is wrought with such eminent skill, that any future works can only hope to take their place alongside

I knew this, but never realized I did. It is a relief. Thank you.

Now I have to go back and do a little Black Mesa loving too. I remember so vividly when I first started playing Half Life. I came into work and just RAVED to my partner after I'd spent all weekend crowbarring baddies and jumping on floating debris. I convinced him--a complete non gamer-- and he was hooked. We played HL deathmatch for years after that.

HL2 was, for me, nearly as immersive an experience. I'm only resisting episode one because I really want a computer upgrade first.

Sigh. It's sad when we let technology get in the way of what is, as you say, a good narrative.

I did the same thing when HL2 first came out and everything you stated struck me as well and a few other things. You mentioned that Black Messa had all of the regular industrial accoutrements but I noticed the facility has those and almost everything else a building needs. It has bathrooms, a kitchen, a place to serve the food you make in the kitchen, a place to store the food that you are going to make in the kitchen, locker rooms, medical facilities, a small cluster of offices, vending machines at proper intervals throughout the building, little fire extinguishers on the walls, and so on and so forth. Almost everything I named is completely useless in terms of game mechanics but for the immersion the value of their addition is incalculable.

So many games try to get away with this lack of world validation under the guise of "aliens" or "hell" that when Half-Life(and I mean the franchise as a whole) does go the extra mile and make an environment in its entirety it makes it stand out so much on that merit alone that when the game is actually fun it must make the other developers erase their whiteboards and start again.

Valve knew you had to make the whole city first, then you can make the giant mechanical fantasy tower worthy of Vangelis. They got it right.

Almost tempted to start blabbing about my HL2 thesis again, but I'm not going there again. Suffice to say:

Right on!

Especially the "not the story itself, but the way it was told" part.

souldaddy wrote:
One cannot create a "better" game than Half-Life

Indeed. My only fear is that one day we forget the importance of the game, the way things were before it came along and showed us the way.

Sure you can.. and its been done already.. it was called

Deus Ex

Although I agree with what you've set to... uh, keyboard, I can't shake the feeling you're just trying to make your replay fare better against HL2:E1. Not that I can fault you, of course. Episode One is fantastic!

Err, I mean, it's not bad. You know, okay if you're into that sort of thing...

What makes the game even more amazing it is that in some respects (most notably the audio) Half Life was very much a diamond in the rough. The voice acting was strictly amateur. The music was a low budget affair as well, consisting mostly of whole phrases and passages swiped from sample libraries. Incredibly, though, Valve made these weaknesses work in the context of the game, and in certain cases their implementation of the audio was nothing short of brilliant. Who can forget hearing the jarring stacatto crackle of the commandos' radio communications coming from a tunnel ahead, and knowing that it could only mean an ambush was waiting?

Half Life is a brilliant game not just for what Valve accomplished, but for the creative way in which they compensated for what they could not accomplish.

Makes me want to spring for HL: Source and play through that sucker again.

I was showing my brother, an avid non-gamer, HL's intro sequence. The quiet mutterings of "man!", "oh wow!" and "pretty cool" subsided as the sequence continued and we were both listening to the narrative. I could tell that for the first time he wasn't humoring my interest in a game, he was actually intrigued. When the train stopped, and it was time for Dr. Freeman to go to work, he smiled and said "well for god's sake don't just stand there, get off the train and play this thing!" I told him, "actually, why don't you?" And for the first time ever he sat down and started playing. After five minutes he was frustrated with his own lack of familiarity in how to move the camera along, so ceded the chair to me. But still, he watched the game all the way through the dimensional rift until I found the crowbar, feeling the same satisfaction I did in being able to finally pummel our first head-crab.
He's never played another game since, but he actually still talks about that afternoon. And I can't think of higher praise for a game than that.

Podunk wrote:

What makes the game even more amazing it is that in some respects (most notably the audio) Half Life was very much a diamond in the rough. The voice acting was strictly amateur.

I actually loved Barney's lines and their delivery. I still hear "Let's get the hell outta here!" in my head when playing FPS games.

undiminished glory that is the original Duke Nukem 3D: why it was so special in its day, why it surpasses in many respects every shooter made in the ten years since its release, and why we can never really grow beyond it, even if we so desired.

Fixed for me. HL didn't have the same immersion value for me as Duke3D had, simply because Duke3D had far less apparent limitations on what the player could do. Hell, Duke3D had JETPACKS, the level design was far more expansive and imaginative, and weapons were a lot more fun to use in that game than in Half-Life.

shihonage wrote:
undiminished glory that is the original Duke Nukem 3D: why it was so special in its day, why it surpasses in many respects every shooter made in the ten years since its release, and why we can never really grow beyond it, even if we so desired.

Fixed for me. HL didn't have the same immersion value for me as Duke3D had, simply because Duke3D had far less apparent limitations on what the player could do. Hell, Duke3D had JETPACKS, the level design was far more expansive and imaginative, and weapons were a lot more fun to use in that game than in Half-Life.

As a game I had far more fun in DukeNukem, just because I could and would do almost anything. It had the right amount of detail vs. interaction. Half-life was awesome until you played it again, and realized that it would only do things a certain way, every time. I like the illusion that I am in an epic story, and at times that illusion is so much stronger in a video game, but at times its completely transparent, too. I usually prefer the HL story present here than in the game itself.

Eurogamer's second part of an interview with Gabe Newell delves a bit into how they're evolving their design philosophy.

Robin Walker wrote:

Playtesting drives a lot of this. Often, you'll watch a playtest and something incredibly cool happens, and the first question you ask afterwards is how can we make sure all of our customers see that? They'll say 'the gunship nearly crashed on me when I shot it down and I had to jump to the side to dodge it and that was incredibly cool'. How can we make sure that happens to almost everyone?

I'm very curious to see how their drive to ensure that most of the content they create is observed in one playthrough pans out. I have to side with the Spector, five-sixths design philosophy over the Newell philosophy which skirts a little too close to "on rails."

Lobo wrote:

There comes a point when a poem, a sculpture, a painting, or a game is wrought with such eminent skill, that any future works can only hope to take their place alongside them, and to achieve status as a classic that will persist in the consciousness of mankind for as long as mankind remains interested in the classics.

Ah, a most eloquent way of verbalising my thoughts on how Half-life 2 compares to Half-life 1! After I completed Half-life 2 I realised that I had actually just played an upgrade of Half-life 1. Nothing was better, but nothing was worse as well. And that in itself speaks volumes of Valve's skill.

The recent release of Episode 1 may actually have banged up the theory though. While still vintage Half-life 2, the entire experience has now been condensed into only a scant few hours, thereby raising it's perceived impact considerably. Maybe episodic content will have greater advantages than merely easing development cycles!

Chiggie Von Richthofen wrote:

"hell"

I'm assuming you are referring to Doom 3 here? I know this horse has been clobbered to death most heinously by now, but one thing that Doom 3 can't be faulted for is its level design. It lacks the narrative power of Valve's games, but it compares exceedingly well in the "logical gamespace" department.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

I have to side with the Spector, five-sixths design philosophy over the Newell philosophy which skirts a little too close to "on rails."

Oh nay, please let us not abandon linearity completely! Both Half-life games clearly show that cleverly disguising linearity can still provide a very enjoyable gaming experience. I would take that any day over the complete blandness of something open-ended like Oblivion.

Lord_Xan wrote:

Oh nay, please let us not abandon linearity completely! Both Half-life games clearly show that cleverly disguising linearity can still provide a very enjoyable gaming experience. I would take that any day over the complete blandness of something open-ended like Oblivion.

It's not so much open-endedness he's talking about as ensuring that every player will see all the awesome things that Valve comes up with. For instance they talked about how in a playtest session one person shot down a manatee and the exploding carapace happened to come at the player, who dodged and had a blast. Their reaction was that all players should have this experience and so the dying manatees need to veer toward the player.

Alternative: Halo's banshees will often assume an attack pattern that upon destruction will send the debris towards the player. There is no rule breaking going on with regards the game world's physics, merely a plausible likelihood that the player will come into immediate yet avoidable danger.

The two scenarios play out very similiarly:

IMAGE(http://img82.imageshack.us/img82/7255/mencrash46pb.gif)

One is rigged and the other is not, and I am simply claiming that the latter is a more satisfying experience for not having been handed on a platter.

The only other FPS game I've thought that was as good as Half-Life was the original No One Lives Forever. I think that game is certainly HL's equal. It doesn't have quite the narrative power of HL, but it's a much more polished game. It has a great deal of humor, which Half-Life entirely lacks. The characters are genuinely interesting and varied, the story is good, the dialog is superb, and the level design is more varied than any game before or since. Where Half-Life has power, NOLF has panache... an easy, relaxed polish of super-competence.

Which one is 'better' is essentially impossible to answer... but it's safe to say that every gamer should play both.

(The sequel, NOLF2, is an okay game, but it cut out most of what made the first one great.... it's a real disappointment after the first. )

One is rigged and the other is not, and I am simply claiming that the latter is a more satisfying experience for not having been handed on a platter.

I wonder if you had not involved yourself with the specifics of the design, would you have known the difference? As always, it's likely that the more you lift the layers to see what's underneath, the more you ruin the magic.

Elysium wrote:
One is rigged and the other is not, and I am simply claiming that the latter is a more satisfying experience for not having been handed on a platter.

I wonder if you had not involved yourself with the specifics of the design, would you have known the difference? As always, it's likely that the more you lift the layers to see what's underneath, the more you ruin the magic.

With only one playthrough probably not. Second time and things start to look suspicious. After that each experience is just an excercise in reconciling with the fact that perhaps Gordon never got off that train car. But I exxagerate. Half Life isn't that confining, really. I just fear that this idea of Newell's that every cool experience that can happen should happen will lead their future games towards stagnation.

I understand their argument from a business standpoint. It's intuitive that if they spend many manhours working on a certain piece of content then they should make certain each player is likely to see it. But intuitive as that may be, it's wrong.

For every nifty interaction that is forced upon the player there is one more ugly band-aid hidden behind the curtain (if I may abuse your analogy) that represents an instance of the physical game world being broken. That's why it is so important that the game world, as unscripted as possible, be the game; so that when the player invariably pulls back the curtain there is nothing there. That's the magic.

That's why it is so important that the game world, as unscripted as possible, be the game; so that when the player invariably pulls back the curtain there is nothing there. That's the magic.

Agreed 101%. There are design decisions that can be made to ensure that the player doesn't miss the cool stuff, and yet still retains freedom to do what he wants. Some of this may be accomplished through making certain events just "happen" from time to time because of how the world interacts with itself.

IMO the best kind of game design allows the player to do things with the game world that the designers haven't explicitly predicted. It also allows things to happen in the game world that the designers haven't explicitly scripted into it.

Lord_Xan wrote:

Oh nay, please let us not abandon linearity completely! Both Half-life games clearly show that cleverly disguising linearity can still provide a very enjoyable gaming experience. I would take that any day over the complete blandness of something open-ended like Oblivion.

I couldn't agree more.

No time. No patience.

I like em both, scripted linear and non-scripted "sandbox" worlds, but HL's design is a huge letdown when played thru a few times. These games are best experiences with some time in between playings.

Now, HL2DM, with it's crazy, grab-whatever-the-f*ck-you-can-before-the-other-guy playstyle, is just as much fun but I can play it more often. Which would I rather buy at the same price? Hmmm. I prefer games to be games, interactive, not just disquised movies with a customizable point of view of the action. Yet i don't mind it every now and again.

This guy over at Gamasutra tackles the exact same issue much more eloquently than myself.