I must confess, I missed out on the Half-Life franchise at first. Yes, I know, that was stupid. Do you know what a busy year 1998 was in video games? Starcraft and Unreal launched that same year, I got distracted, OK? I was dimly aware of Half-Life in the background during the thriving turn of the century video game PC Renaissance, but didn’t pay attention to it until Portal came out in 2007. Then I decided to go back and check out everything up to that, because I hate coming into something in the middle. By the time I was caught up, the spin-offs were getting spin-offs.
We’re up to a VR game, Half-Life : Alyx, now, just released four months ago as of this writing. If you lack the time and / or wallet to buy all the fancy VR equipment and play through it, we found this silly guy to do it for you:
“Give me back my rat!”
For you next-generation players, if you have just come into the Half-Life series now because of a 2020 release, you have even more work cut out for you. If you count every expansion, sequel, spin-off, and derivative, you have about 22 games on the PC, more or less as we count it:
Counter-Strike: Condition Zero (2004)
Counter-Strike: Source (2004)
Counter-Strike Online (2007)
Counter-Strike Online 2 (2013)
Counter-Strike Nexon: Zombies / Studio (2014)
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012)
Half-Life: Opposing Force (1999)
Half-Life: Blue Shift (2001)
Half-Life: Decay (2001)
Half-Life: Source (2004)
Half-Life 2 (2004)
Half-Life 2: Deathmatch (2004)
Half-Life 2: Lost Coast (2005)
Half-Life Deathmatch: Source (2006)
Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006)
Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007)
Portal 2 (2011)
Black Mesa (2020)
Half-Life: Alyx (2020)
That’s sick! That’s like a game per year, despite the recent decade-long hiatus between official releases. What is with this franchise, and why is it so damned irresistible?
What Half-Life brought to the table
Game studios who make First-Person Shooters differentiate themselves primarily by attitude. Game developers start out with a philosophy about how games should be. For instance, the philosophy of the Wolfenstein / Doom / Quake series is best summed as “the heck with a story; here’s a gun, shoot those guys.” The philosophy of the Unreal series is “not only do we weave a rich story, you get to explore it on a full-scale planet.” Then there’s Half-Life, who says “we can sneak in story elements along the way woven into what we’re doing – but first, here’s a gun, shoot those guys.”
Recall, remastered in HD, the first tram ride which serves as your cold open to the Half-Life universe:
Instead of setting up labored opening narration in cut-scenes, the voice-over and environment ease you into this world with a guided tour. You can move around the tram as it winds its way into the Black Mesa complex, gawping at warehouse robots and white-coat scientists bumbling about. By the time you get to the lab, you’re just about fully briefed, and the NPCs along the rest of the way guide you to begin your work day.
The rest of the game is basically the story of one man’s struggle to get home from a very, very bad day at work.
“Work safe – work smart – your future depends on it!”
Half-Life had the philosophy that cut-scenes suck, so all the action happens in-game, in real time, with triggered events, scripted sequences, and set-pieces. The designers had a hard time wrestling with level design at first, until they decided to just cram everything they’d come up with into one level and decided, yeah, keep doing it like that! They just threw out the idea of “levels” after that and went with chapters, which seamlessly transition as you play along.
The result is that you get the feeling of one unbroken, real-time experience from start to finish. The Half-Life series keeps this aesthetic throughout. Immersion is the most important factor to the game designers, with the effect that jumping into a Half-Life game can make time disappear like nobody’s business.
And then just when the franchise would have lost steam…
Portal changed everything
In 2007, Portal didn’t just revive the franchise; Portal became saturated into popular culture outside video games entirely. It was a complete re-think of the First-Person Shooter genre, starting with getting rid of the gun and substituting a tool, for an interactive 3D puzzle game instead. Then they created a whole miniature world to go with this brilliant new idea in trans-dimensional game-play. And finally gave it one of the best realized NPCs in any game anywhere, GlaDOS, the computer controlling this experiment with a mixture of deadpan humor and stoic darkness.
Notice that first scene, the radio is playing a samba-beat version of the Portal theme? You can feel the love baked into every pixel of this franchise. Originally done as a bonus-content spin-off tossed into the legendary Orange Box game package, Portal quickly eclipsed the rest of the Half-Life universe.
The level design is brilliant, letting you have space to play with your new toy and gradually discover its capabilities. The first time you get the orange button upgrade, you end up in a small room with a floor and ceiling perfect for setting up an endless drop – which is exactly what you’re supposed to do and exactly what everyone does. Or when you get the first two-cube / two-button puzzle (room 13), you thought you were being sneaky taking the first cube with you into the main puzzle room, only to turn out that it was exactly what was necessary to complete the puzzle. It’s a game which rewards you for trying to break the rules.
Along the way you get to explore an entirely new way of thinking, working with your spacial relation intelligence even as you melt it and reform it to Portal physics. Everybody went nuts over Portal when it came out. And then you get the end song:
That’s by voice actor Ellen McLain, a trained operatic soprano, who did not know that she would be asked to sing as part of her services. But by the time the team had finished the game, they had attended a concert by Jonathan Coulton and came up to him afterwards, providing him with pages of GlaDOS’ backstory to use for the song lyrics. It all came together because the whole game has that kind of magic running through it.
By Christmas of 2007, “Still Alive” was playing in malls. People were singing along with it out of context. Companion cube fuzzy dice were hanging form the rearview mirror of cars owned by people who had never heard of Portal. “The cake is a lie” was graffitied on subway tunnels. It was hilarious.
The rest of the story has yet to be written…
That’s without touching Counter-Strike, whose chief claim to fame is that the Half-Life engine is just really, really good for multiplayer.
Look, have some faith in Half-Life 3, OK? If Duke Nukem Forever can finally happen after a generation of waiting, Half-Life 3 by comparison is a brief break in the franchise.