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.