It was December 1998, and I had just picked up the latest issue (#031) of PC Powerplay magazine from the local newsagency, as I did every month. In it was a review for a first-person shooter (FPS) that had been generating quite a bit of interest in the gaming community, from then-completely unknown developer Valve, LLC. The game had impressive graphics, based on a heavily modified version of id Software’s Quake engine, and there was significant buzz in the community about this ambitious new title’s mechanics and artificial intelligence.
Half-Life (released in November 1998) received glowing praise from PC Powerplay magazine, achieving one of the highest review scores since the publication’s inception. As review scores trickled in from around the world, it became apparent that praise for Half-Life was unanimous, and this was a game that was rapidly displaying all the hallmarks of a title that would forever revolutionise the industry. As IGN would later say in their list of the Top 100 Shooters of All-Time (http://au.ign.com/lists/shooters/1), “When you look at the history of first-person shooters, it all breaks down pretty cleanly into pre-Half-Life and post-Half-Life eras”.
I eventually got my hands on Half-Life UpLink (released in February, 1999), the title of Valve’s demo of Half-Life, which featured unique levels that were cut from the main game. I played through the demo dozens of times, becoming obsessed with this unique shooter. Thirteen-year-old me was too young and poor to purchase Half-Life on my own, but thankfully my local VideoEzy stocked some PC games for rental, and Half-Life was soon on the shelves. Thanks to VideoEzy and a no-CD patch from a less-than-reputable source, I was able to experience this revolutionary shooter (if Valve’s legal team is reading this, don’t worry — I eventually purchased a legitimate copy).
IGN’s statement about the significance of Half-Life isn’t hyperbole; the game shattered FPS genre norms. Half-Life’s story was well-developed, with believable characters and a mature science-fiction setting. Rather than having a meathead, action-hero protagonist like Duke Nukem or the DOOM marine, Dr. Gordon Freeman is an MIT graduate who has just completed his thesis in theoretical particle physics. The introductory sequence is particularly memorable — a ominous commute to work that takes the player through the Black Mesa Facility, providing glimpses of areas that will later descend into chaos, and the first appearance of the mysterious character known as the G-Man.
Half-Life’s opening scenes were revolutionary. FPS games usually threw the player into action immediately. The idea of the first 20 minutes of a game being little more than a walking simulator would have seemed quite risky and a difficult sell at the time, and this is probably one of the reasons why Valve had problems finding a publisher. Yet it was this sequence that received the most praise in reviews, and interactive introductory sequences such as these are practically a requirement in modern FPS games.
Another standout feature of Half-Life was the level design. The aesthetic strove for realism, a trend that was only just beginning to appear in the industry thanks to advances in graphics and texturing. Level were immense, transitions seamless, and often involved glimpses of future areas. This contributed to the realism in depicting a secret government nuclear facility, as well as maintaining a sense of continuity throughout the game.
Half-Life multiplayer was fairly standard fare, but it was the combination of entertaining weapons, unique and interactive levels and rock-solid network code that helped Half-Life stand out against its major competitors, Quake II (id Software, 1997) and Unreal (Epic MegaGames, 1999). Half-Life was also designed with modding in mind, and during the golden age of game modification at the turn of the century, one of the biggest games in the world was the Half-Life modification Counter-Strike (Minh “Gooseman” Le, Jess Cliffe, 1999). Counter-Strike alone helped Half-Life sell millions of copies, increasing the games exposure to a wider audience.
At most of the LAN parties I attended in the early 2000s, Half-Life and its immensely popular mod Counter-Strike were a frequent feature on the playlist. One particularly popular map named “Crossfire” provided endless hours of entertainment. The map’s central feature was a nuclear bunker, where players could press a button sealing themselves inside and triggering a nuclear blast outside that would kill all other players. However, the approach to the bunker was across open ground, exposing the player to enemy fire. Furthermore, the bunker doors closed slowly, and occasionally an opposing player would gain entry before they were fully closed. Hiding in a dark corner of the bunker, weapon ready and waiting to see if any other players had managed to enter, remains one of the tensest multiplayer experiences in my life.
Valve’s success with Half-Life had propelled them from unknown developer to industry heavyweight. They teamed up with Gearbox Software to produce the expansion packs Half-Life: Opposing Force (1999) and Half-Life: Blue Shift (2001), both well-regarded expansions that told the Half-Life story from a different perspective. Then, in 2003, they launched the now ubiquitous digital distribution platform Steam, and in 2004, after five years and a huge production budget, Half-Life 2 was released. By this point, FPS games were beginning to really refine many of the techniques the originated with Half-Life, but Half-Life 2 raised the bar even higher. Valve increased the depth of the narrative, adding named characters like Alyx Vance, Barney, Eli and Dr. Kleiner. Additionally, Half-Life 2 stepped up the world design. No longer confined to the hallways of a nuclear research facility, the player now found themselves in and around City 17, controlled by the Combine, the primary antagonists of Half-Life 2. City 17 and its surrounding areas evoked feelings of late-Soviet architecture, and the Combine’s totalitarian regime highlighted the link even further.
The new game engine, Source, was immensely versatile. Source allowed Valve to create detailed, interactive environments, both interior and exterior, beautiful in their restraint and realism. The versatility of the engine led to its use in other well-known games of the era, such as Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines (Troika Games, 2004), Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (Arkane Studios, 2006) and even more recent games like Titanfall (Respawn Entertainment, 2014). Counter-Strike, now owned by Valve Software, was remade in the Source engine, as was the follow-up, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (Hidden Path Entertainment, Valve Corporation, 2012), currently one of the biggest multiplayer games in the world.
In my opinion, and the opinion of many others, Half-Life 2 still stands as one of the greatest games ever released. The storyline is gripping, the mechanics and gameplay are fluid and entertaining, and then there is the famous Gravity Gun. Introduced early in the story, the “Zero-point Energy Field Manipulator” allowed the player to pick up objects and move them around, or fire them as projectiles. This allowed a player low on ammunition to use literally anything as a weapon — chairs, boxes, sawblades, rocks… this frequently led to hilarious moments in multiplayer games, where battlegrounds featured toilets, explosive barrels and bins flying back and forth, wiping out players with superior weaponry.
Half-Life 2’s story ranks among some of the best science fiction in any medium and details the struggle of humanity’s fight against the Combine, who invaded Earth using portals inadvertently created at Black Mesa many years earlier. The G-Man, a mysterious and sinister entity from the first game, brings Gordon Freeman back from his interdimensional limbo for unexplained reasons, and it is never clear exactly what his motives are. Half-Life 2 received two expansions, Half-Life 2: Episode One (Valve Corporation, 2006) and Half-Life 2: Episode Two (Valve Corporation, 2007).
Half-Life 2: Episode Two famously ended on a huge cliff-hanger that was to lead in to Half-Life 2: Episode Three, where gamers hoped to finally understand the motivations of the G-Man, the importance of Gordon Freeman, and the fate of Earth, humanity, and the Combine. For the time being, gamers were content with Valve’s Portal (2007) a puzzle game of sorts set in the same universe as Half-Life, and featuring an organisation known as Aperture Science, one of Black Mesa’s competitors, that had been developing a device that could create portals. Mentions of Aperture Science in Half-Life 2: Episode Two hinted that the Portal Gun would have some role to play in Half-Life 2: Episode Three, and Portal itself contained many hidden references to the next Half-Life game.
Months turned to years, and still, there was no news of the impending Half-Life 2: Episode Three, outside of some concept artwork. In 2011, Valve released the hugely successful Portal 2, featuring exceptional voice acting from Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons, as well as expanding on the threadbare storyline of Portal. By the time Portal 2 was released, many gamers had either given up on Half-Life 2: Episode Three or had begun to believe that Valve had instead started developing a fully-fledged sequel, Half-Life 3. This idea was spurred on by the fact that Portal 2 also featured many hidden references to Half-Life, and several statements by Valve staff seemed to hint that something was in development — although these statements were rare and often contradictory.
Thanks to Valve’s strict culture of confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements, the mystery of Half-Life 3 reached meme-level. Gamers would jokingly claim that almost anything vaguely referencing the number 3 was evidence of “half life 3 confirmed”. Yet the years wore on, and still there was no confirmation from Valve. Although I desperately hoped for a follow up to Half-Life 2: Episode Two for many years, I think I had begun to accept that one of the best stories I had ever experienced would never be resolved, and in 2017, gamers received what many believed to be confirmation of the end of Half-Life.
In 2017, Marc Laidlaw, Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek left Valve. These were three of the main writers for the Half-Life series, and their departure did not fare well for the sequel. Then, in August, Laidlaw published some “fan fiction” on his blog, a story titled “Epistle 3” and featuring characters such as “Gertie Freemont” and “Alex Vaunt”. Laidlaw’s thinly-veiled exposition of what appeared to be the plot of Half-Life 2: Episode Three was, to many, confirmation that Half-Life 2: Episode Three, Half-Life 3, or any variation on it had been abandoned by Valve. Once a developer of some of the greatest games to grace the PC, Valve was now a corporate juggernaut with a near-monopoly of computer game digital distribution with their Steam platform. Development was no longer a priority.
Sadly, apart from a few isolated pockets of anger and resentment, this revelation did not generate a huge amount of community backlash or commentary. Ten years after the release of Half-Life 2: Episode Two, most gamers had either moved on or were too young to have ever experienced the Half-Life series in any big way. Laidlaw’s blog post seemed to many as a benevolent act of closure for the few remaining diehards living in hope for the resolution of Gordon Freeman’s story.
A few gamers still hold on to hope that one day, Valve will return and finish the story. Others have begun to try produce an Episode Three modification for Half-Life 2 based on Laidlaw’s plot. Lastly, there are those who have simply given up, or never cared in the first place.
Where do I sit on that spectrum of Half-Life fans? I’m not sure. A part of me, the “fanboy” part, still holds on to hope somewhere deep in my heart. But the rational part on me has given up and accepted the death of Half-Life as a reality of the modern games industry. Half-Life was born in the Golden Age of PC gaming, when market demands were poorly understood, and studios were willing to throw millions of dollars at unique, risky ideas. Today, the games industry is the biggest entertainment industry of all, and unless a game is thoroughly costed and assessed as profitable and safe, no major studio will back it. Innovation is mostly confined to independent developers, and few of those studios possess the money or the longevity to sustain a huge project such as Half-Life.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Half-Life ended as it did. Expectations for Half-Life 3 reached astronomical levels, and the expectations of gamers are rarely reasonable. It is hard to imagine that Half-Life 3 would ever have reached those expectations, no matter how good it was. Perhaps it is partly the fault of the gamers that Valve abandoned Half-Life, fearing the angry backlash of legions of fans, and how that might affect their bottom line, and their reputation. We may never know.
And, so it goes. One of the greatest computer game series of all time ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. Yet this tragic demise is not all bad. Thanks to the Half-Life series, gamers had been given an immensely powerful game engine, Source. Not only that, the series gave birth to a huge number of fantastic games, and forever raised the bar for player experience in first-person shooters. Half-Life’s success, for better or worse, led to a revolution in games distribution with Steam, and never before have gamers had as much choice in their games as they do today.
Perhaps that is the big lesson in all of this. Many of us have spent years and years waiting for a game that would never come, yet every month, other developers release brilliant games inspired by Half-Life that are arguably far better, thanks to advances in technology and game design philosophy. Half-Life is but one amongst legions of brilliant stories in games, a medium that, in my opinion, is the most powerful story telling medium there is. So, I bid Half-Life a fond farewell, and hope that one day, we will meet again. But for now, I will turn my mouse to other games and, if I’m lucky, I will be there to experience another series as revolutionary as Half-Life was.