What We Learned From Half-Life, What We Should Have Learned, & What We Should Forget

Chris Farnell revisits one of his favourite games and realises that it's still got a lot left to teach the gaming industry.

Half Life screenshot

“Well, um, hello. This is awkward.”

Would you care to join me for a nice tall glass of nostalgia? Let’s go back to 1998. Toni Morrison was claiming Bill Clinton was “the first Black president”, everybody who went to see Titanic knew it was based on historical events, and the music world was being set on fire by a little band called Next. It was a year that would give future historians much to pick over, but in amongst all that there was released a little game called Half-Life.

I bought Half-Life because the stuff I’d read about the story and the exciting new AI features sounded cool, and it ran on the Quake 1 engine, which at the time was still the most advanced game I could get to run smoothly on my PC.

Over the next few years I played that game more times than I’ve played any game before or since, and that was because of the story. Half-Life was the first game I played to find out what happened next rather than to “complete” it.

If you’re playing a videogame brought out after 1998, it’s been influenced by Half-Life. It’s the textbook on how to tell stories in action games. Looking at the latest games though, it seems a few of those lessons need to be relearned, and some of them we could actually use unlearning.

Scripted Events

Half Life screenshot

“Good God, man, come down from that explosion! You could get hurt!”

As iconic and memorable as any scene I’ve ever watched on film is that moment where you’re crawling through an air shaft in Black Mesa, only to hear a creak and suddenly see bullet holes poking through the floor ahead of you before you’re dropped through the ceiling into a room full of marines. Maybe you’ve got a different favourite. If you do, it probably involved watching a scientist die in a horrifying but hilarious way.

What We Learned: Scripted events taught us that story could be part of the game. If you had plot you needed to give to the player you didn’t need to pause the game so that you could show them a little film or a wall of text.

What We Should Have Learned: The other thing scripted events did in Half-Life was make you feel like you were part of a larger set of events. You weren’t the only person trying to escape from Black Mesa, you were just the only one wearing a sophisticated set of power armour and smart enough not to run screaming right into enemy machinegun fire. Even when events were triggered by you walking into a room, you still felt like those events would have happened whether you were there or not.

There are modern games that still pull this off – the busy streets of Liberty City being a good example. But with too many games, Modern Warfare, and Bulletstorm leap immediately to mind, you are led from scripted event to scripted event by the nose, being told LOOK AT THIS. In the case of Bulletstorm, the game literally does that, giving you points to look at their carefully choreographed explosions. This sort of design reduces the scope of your world, leaving you feeling less like you’re exploring and more like you’re being taken along on a pyrotechnic ghost train ride, dutifully stopping every few minutes so automata can jump out and shout “Oogadiboogidy!” before exploding.

Half Life screenshot

Helicopters: surprisingly boring to shoot down

Why Maybe We Should Forget This Lesson Anyway: It’s quite telling that, unless they shock us all stupid by releasing Half-Life 3 next week, Valve’s latest games have actually been veering away from the scripted-event format they invented. Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 have ditched scripted events in favour of procedurally generated bad guys and dialogue exchanges. In Portal the world is almost entirely static apart from events instigated by your character and GLaDOS’s reassuring voiceover, and the increased scriptiness of the sequel was part of the reason it didn’t quite live up its predecessor (while, admittedly, still being brilliant). Scripted events have served us well, but maybe it’s time to experiment with more emergent storytelling?

Setting is Story

Half Life Screenshot

No-one knows what the G-Man keeps in his briefcase. I’m guessing it’s sandwiches

Black Mesa is as much a character as any one of those weirdly identical, tragically short-lived scientists. From the very moment you start off on that train journey, you’re granted countless glimpses into the rest of the facility, throwing up questions such as what’s the real purpose behind the experiment at the mass spectrometer? Who’s really behind all this? Why do laboratories dealing with extremely toxic chemicals have windows you can break with a crowbar, but the window to the office tea-room can withstand a point-blank rocket propelled grenade?

What We Learned: Not all the scientists in Black Mesa die horrible deaths just as we reach them. Many of them died long before we got anywhere near. By looking around at warning signs, barricades, and where the dead bodies are, you build up a picture of what happened before you arrive on the scene.

This is something games have learned spades from. Just glancing over at my games shelf now, I see Fallout 3, Bioshock, Alien Vs Predator, Halo, Left 4 Dead, Mass Effect and Bulletshock, all games that, at one point or another, feature you walking through an office building, military base or research facility long after it’s been ripped apart by monsters. Admittedly, Half-Life nicked this idea from Quake and Doom (in the 90s it was illegal to make a FPS that wasn’t about aliens attacking a lab through a dimensional rift), but Half-Life taught us how to make a level look like it was part of an aftermath.

What We Should Have Learned: One of my favourite bits in Half-Life is when you first climb off the train and Barney lets you into the lab, and a coloured line running along the floor tells you clearly where you’re supposed to go to progress through the game. “Fuck that noise!” you cry immediately, “I’m going rogue!” and head off in exactly the opposite direction. For your efforts you are rewarded with a heated but muffled-sounding argument between a scientist and the mysterious G-Man, and a chance to ruin someone’s dinner by messing with the microwave.

Black Mesa is extremely linear, moving you carefully from one plot point to the next, but it never feels that way. Levels go round in a circle, and leave you plenty of dead ends to go exploring down. The layout of the Advanced Biological Research Lab level, for instance, pretty much leads you round in a circle, but you’ve plenty of time to poke around, explore the various rooms of the lab and maybe even get a bit lost.

Half Life screenshot

You know, I’m starting to think that the G-Man has a crush on Gordon

Why Maybe We Should Forget This Lesson Anyway: A couple of months ago I read that Wolfenstein 3D had been uploaded as free-to-play online game. While the review was pretty adamant that games had moved on a lot since then, and rightly so, I still loaded up the game for nostalgia’s sake and within a few seconds I felt a sensation I haven’t felt playing a videogame for years. I didn’t know which way to go. There was a corridor that went two ways, and I had no idea which way would take me to the end of the level. These days games seem to either bully, shove and shepherd you into heading down their linear series of corridors, or in more open world games they will give you a flashing beacon so you always know what you should be walking towards. Level designs such as the old Quake map layouts, where more advanced levels would sometimes feature a couple of routes through the level that barely touched each other, are now a thing of the past. And sad as I am to say it, that started with Half-Life.

And Finally, a Couple of Things We Unreservedly Need to Learn From:

Half Life screenshot

I have some very bad news for all of you

You Don’t Need To Tell Me When I’m Being Evil: Morality is a big thing in games now. Mass Effect, Fallout, Bioshock, Fable, whether it’s down to dialogue choices, who you choose to shoot or whether or not you crack that child open to drink the refreshing goodness inside, it seems every game is offering you a choice between being such a goody-two-shoes you want to steal your own dinner money or picking the Be Worse Than Hitler option.

In Half-Life your moral choices are always pretty straight forward: Shall I beat this NPC to death with a crowbar, or not? Sometimes, to make the morality just a bit more grey, the NPC will be a security guard who drops a peashooter with about 17 bullets in it.

If you beat a helpless scientist to death, they would cry out for mercy until they were dead. This either made you feel bad, or it didn’t (you psychopath), you didn’t need a goodness meter to tell you you’d done a bad thing.

Half-Life ends with a moral decision – do you work for the G-Man or not? If you accept the job, he congratulates you on your new employment. If don’t, he teleports you into the middle of a pissed off alien army. But nobody tells you which is the “right” choice*.

Half Life screenshot

Gosh, I’m glad I brought that crowbar

Keep Your Tutorial Out of My Videogame: I can’t actually remember the last time I read the instruction booklet that came with a game. I’ve been playing games for a long time now, and most of them involve pushing roughly the same sequence of buttons, but that’s not true of everyone. Half-Life had a great solution to this. You could start the game, or you could complete a tutorial level. That tutorial taught you everything you needed to know to play the game, even if I never did get the hang of using the jump pack.

The last couple of games I’ve played have been incredibly irritating to get through first through levels, because I can’t go three feet without a sign flashing up telling me to press fire to fire, and pausing the game awkwardly for a scripted sequence showing me how to use whatever new gun I’ve found. It slows down gameplay and ruins your immersion in the story. Can we bring back the tutorial level please?

*At least until Half-Life 2. You should have taken the job.