Welcome to our new feature where we take a look at our “piles of shame” – videogames we’ve bought, but never played – and play games from them. This week, I’m taking a look at classic FPS Half-Life , which in 1998 catapulted the developers of Valve to the attention of PC gamers worldwide. Thanks to Paul Blewitt for providing me with the questions below.
There are spoilers below.
Why has it taken you so long to get around to playing Half-Life?
I played a demo of the game when I was in secondary school, around year 10 or 11. The game’s enemies scared me so much that I didn’t want to try playing the full game and had, until working on this article, left the first game in the series well alone. The enemies scared me so much, because I spent most of the demo with a crowbar and could never get far enough to getting my hands on a gun, so I found it incredibly difficult to swat enemies away when I couldn’t outrun them.
How did you find the early bits of the game? (i.e. without guns)?
Obviously the view’s FPS, but having played so many FPS games where you start out with a gun as opposed to a melee weapon, I was perhaps extra scared for Gordon and myself. Still, it made sense that you wouldn’t have immediate access to a gun, because you’re in a sensitive scientific environment – they’re something that security wouldn’t automatically bring out.
You’ve played Half-Life 2. How does this one compare?
The graphics in Half-Life 2 and its episodes are far more advanced than the original game. Part of the terror from playing the original, for me, comes from not being able to see things clearly – it’s all fear of the unknown – so my mind’s going into hyperdrive on top of some already gruesome graphics as I play through the game. But you’re also far more alone in the original game. In the sequels you’re working and talking with way more people, while in the first you’re lucky if you can get some scientists or guards to survive long enough to have a conversation with them.
The sequels made you feel like you were in control more than the original. They’re still very difficult in places, but the control scheme itself is far more competent and reflects in getting Gordon to interact with the world. In the original, dealing with ladders could be just as dangerous as facing off against five headcrabs at a time.
What are the scariest enemies for you in this game, and why?
The headcrabs. They’re so small and agile and have this habit of sneaking up on you. Everything else is a bit more in your face, while it can take you several heart thumping moments to realise you’ve walked in to a nest of headcrabs and still only have a crowbar for company.
Half-Life seems very linear. Does the linearity suit the type of game it is?
Yes, because you’re trying to get the hell out of Black Mesa. While today they may have made it with alternative paths for you to take as you head towards the surface, you’re still heading in one direction and back tracking only makes sense in a few instances. It makes sense, for instance, that in some sections you can seal fire doors, blocking out the horrible nasties that are trying to kill you, but that you won’t be able to go fully back.
Half-Life has been held up as a pinnacle of storytelling in games. Do you find it more compelling how it doesn’t switch to cinematic or third person views?
I don’t think the points of view undertaken by a game or whether it uses cinematics necessarily affects how good the storytelling is (unless you overuse cinematics like the more recent iterations of Metal Gear Solid games). However what Half-Life does really well is showing rather than telling. You don’t have big, long explanations from characters to tell you what is happening, you see what is happening and dialogue is kept to a minimum. The exposition in the game is at a level that you want to keep playing – who’s that guy you keep seeing walking around the place in areas you can’t reach yet? And so on.
The character that you play as – Gordon Freeman doesn’t speak at all. Do you feel this is effective in the overall narrative of the game?
Playing it through and having played the sequels, I’m use to Gordon not talking. And when characters talk at him, I can’t imagine him talking back either, the dialogue is arranged in such a way that his responses don’t necessarily need to be verbalised. It doesn’t feel like he needs to be able to talk for the story to unfold and as you don’t see his face when you are playing, his lack of speech also helps you to inhabit that first person perspective you’re being given – becoming Gordon.
The game borrows quite heavily from the horror genre. Why do you think it’s not considered a survival horror game?
Because it’s an FPS. The games that were considered to be survival horror at the time of the game’s release, Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark and so on all used a third person perspective. And there’s not many obvious puzzles, something that a lot of people appear to associate with the survival horror genre. Yet I would want to call Half-Life a survival horror FPS, because you can’t just swan around shooting and blowing stuff up and you do have to think about how you navigate levels, which are often puzzles in of themselves.
Sound is used quite extensively in the game to heighten the experience. Were there any situations that particularly stuck in your mind?
Any instance there were headcrabs crawling around in the ceiling above me. I hated being able to hear them and being unable to do anything about them. It made things very claustrophobic.
Were there any parts of the game that annoyed you or caused unnecessary problems?
Ladders. Frelling ladders. I could never figure out how to safely go down them, so inevitably I would fall and die or suddenly be left with very little health.
Will you be completing the game?
I am tempted to go back to it, however when I stopped playing I was having ladder problems on a rather grand scale. We’ll see.