@NeowinGaming: Revisiting Valve's Half-Life franchise

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Most of us can remember the first time we saw the initial installment of Half-Life. It was one of those games that pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved on the hardware of the time. Be it in my case a computer with a measly 24MB memory - which was not enough mind you - or state of the art equipment for the time. The franchise has found its way into the hearts and minds of those who played it, and could do so to the many that are yet to experience its greatness.

The second title in the game introduced some of the most fluid gaming mechanics, intriguing narratives, and memorable characters to the franchise, and mixed it up with a heavy dose of Lovecraftian and Stephen King influences, as we will discuss below. Beyond that, Valve released several additional story DLC packs that expanded upon the narrative, however, fans of the series still wish for the day that the developer will grace us with the mythical third installment.

It's not DOOM per se, but there is blood on the walls | Image via Bolloxed (Youtube)

Beyond just pixels

When Half-Life launched on PC in 1998, Valve was barely on the radar for anyone beyond the select few who dedicated their lives to the industry. The company was founded by two former Microsoft employees, Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington in 1996, and for its first project, the two developers decided to settle on something that 'scared you like Doom did'. Back then, games like Quake were the belle of the ball, with them revolving around the classic tale of the underdog, setting the standard for the genre - and the gaming industry as a whole - giving gamers one of the greatest gaming experiences of the time. Completely free of cutscenes - like Half-Life 2 that came after it - the original kept the player engaged throughout the whole story and pushed the limits of what was possible with the silicon inside our beloved PCs.

Although playing the game today might put some people off due to it being graphically-dated, Half-Life truly was a masterpiece and is still regarded as one of the best games of all time. Games like Halo and Unreal Tournament have several inspirations in relation to that franchise, with their respective fast-paced gameplay mechanics; and in the case of Halo, some similarities could be drawn with the Flood and the aliens - especially the head snatchers - in Half-Life 2.

But even more spectacular was the ability of this upstart independent developer to push itself to sheer dominance on PC, where the name Valve is now synonymous with gaming on that platform.But even more spectacular was the ability of this upstart independent developer to push itself to sheer dominance on PC, where the name Valve has now become synonymous with gaming on that platform. The company launched its Steam client in September of 2003, as a way to prevent piracy and cheating in games like Counter Strike, which to this day remains one of the most played games on PC. It also aimed to make the update process easier for developers, which was key in titles that had a steady stream of updates. When Half-Life 2 launched, the company implemented the aforementioned Steam client into the game. One could be forgiven to have never imagined that the DRM software some struggled with endlessly would be the de facto standard several years later, to the point where companies like Blizzard and EA tried to copy it with varying degrees of success.

But even all this would have been for naught if Half-Life didn't make such an impact on us all. The game won a multitude of awards, and has sold over 10 million copies to date based on the latest official numbers, giving the developer ample room to expand this franchise, and of course, lay the groundwork for what came after with its domination in the PC space.

Dr. Freeman extraordinaire

Image via Half-Life Wiki - Fandom

Dr. Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of the franchise, was introduced to the gaming audience being late for work in Half-Life, something we can all relate to. With that, we were thrust into a massive cover-up conspiracy after an accidental explosion during an experiment by the aforementioned doctor ripped through space and time, causing his laboratory to be overrun by aliens from another dimension. This was further complicated when the government attempted to contain the flood of supernatural beings, and you becoming the so-called 'collateral damage' in this interstellar battle.

The interesting part about the Half-Life series has been how Dr. Freeman always starts the game on his way to a specific place and needs to achieve some goal that seems to be pre-determined.

Although the story does add a different layer to the overall plot in Half-Life 2, where Dr. Freeman is awoken from stasis several years after the Black Mesa event, and is then sent off on a train with other so-called workers to City 17. You're quickly embroiled in an attempt to overthrow the dictatorship of an organization headed by the Combine; an extremely efficient race - unless they encounter one guy and a crow bar - that apparently conquered the entire world in seven hours.

Here you meet several other key characters - some of whom were colleagues at your laboratory in Black Mesa, who has led a group of rebels with one goal in mind, to destroy their overlords. You are sent off on several missions trying to save Eli from the Combine after being kidnapped. Frustratingly, even though the individuals in the game clearly idolize you, the consistent reliance on Dr. Freeman to save them and seemingly overthrow the entire organization by himself seems to imply that he is the savior to these people. The standard 'hero' trope in games has become quite stale since then, with it already pushing the boundary in Halo as well. Luckily, 343 Industries fixed that in Halo 5: Guardians teaming you up with - somewhat annoying and useless - Spartans, which could make you wish you were alone instead.

It just needs some green sludge, and it will look right at home in a Lovecraft novel | Image via Bolloxed (YouTube)

Subsequently, Half-Life 2: Episode One takes place after the explosion, which was caused in the second game after you confronted the spokesperson for the Combine Wallace Breen in the Citadel, where the alien species called the Vortigauts teleport you out of the clutches of the mysterious G-Man and the entity he works for. You are then dug out of the rubble and face a challenging task as you attempt to delay the collapsing Dark Energy reactor so the citizens of City 17 can escape, including yourself. Your endeavor is slightly inconvenienced by the fact that the Combine is on its own quest to accelerate the process of decay so it can cause a large enough explosion to draw the attention of their leaders.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two takes place after this third explosion, which ruptured space and time again to create a 'super portal' which allowed the large armed forces of the Combine to advance on Earth. You set off to close this inter-dimensional portal thanks to some help from an unexpected hand. You off against some really strange looking aliens, which kind of brings us back to the weird imaginations of writers like Stephen King and HP Lovecraft. You are also given some classified information relating to a secret vessel owned by a company called Aperture Science - see Portal - that has been working on humanity's version of the portal technology. This is where one can assume Valve got some inspiration for its other critically acclaimed franchise.

Not exactly R'lyeh but it's close| Image via Bolloxed (YouTube)

From inspiration to brilliance

The franchise was inspired by several novels and games, most notably Steven King's novel called The Mist, two works by Marc Laidlaw - discussed later -, first-person games like Doom and Quake, and interestingly enough, an episode of an old TV show called The Outer Limits. The inspiration drawn from the book The Mist can be quite confusing, since it revolves around a small town being engulfed by a mist that drives the citizens delirious after some mysterious creature starts picking them off one by one - in standard King fashion - or they end up killing each other. Similarities to Half-Life and this book being few and far between, however, the monsters do look the same.

Even though once you play Half-Life, you do not instantly think of Lovecraft, it does have the undertones of the absurd for which the writer was known for.As previously mentioned, the game took inspiration from Quake, since it was mostly based on the same engine that was licensed from id Software and then heavily modified to include support for Direct3D. Although the aforementioned game was an arena based shooter, which has become a cultural phenomenon itself, you could argue that Valve truly brought the engine to life. Quake and Doom had rather distinct, monotone color schemes, and rarely had very inspired level design.

Turning the spotlight onto Half-Life's main story, as some of you know, it was written by Marc Laidlaw who left the company in 2016 to focus on other endeavors. He wrote two books that were, for the most part, the main driving force behind the Half-Life narrative.

Image via Marc Laidlaw

The first book, Dad's Nuke, was a comedy surrounding a family in a Fallout-like post-nuclear world, with children that were augmented and biologically engineered. The families, fearful of each other, live in relative isolation, but the book explores the nature of the American family, trying to outdo their neighbors with bigger and better gadgets in true 'Keeping up with the Joneses' style. The book again does not scream Half-Life at first, but one can find similarities between these individuals and the citizens of City 17, being fearful of outsiders, quietly living their lives in solitude, which intrinsically does form an intricate part of the Half-Life narrative in the second game.

With that said, the second book written by Laidlaw called The 37th Mandala, heavily leans towards the Lovecraftian style of horror. The story is roughly based on a writer called Dave Crowe, who discovers archaic scripts and subsequently writes a best-selling book about them.

Image via Marc Laidlaw

The work gains mass appeal and then angers the 37 Mandalas it was based on. These haunt Crowe's steps and can be compared to the god-like creature named Cthulhu. Even though once you do play Half-Life, you do not instantly think of Lovecraft, it does have the undertones of the absurd of which the writer was known for, not to mention the constant return to the authoritarianism of religion. During the last few sequences of the game, these comparisons became truly apparent with the monolithic structures dominating the scenery inside the Citadel. It does bring to the fore the arcane visuals depicted in Lovecraft's The Mountain of Madness, and Shadow over Innsmouth, among others. The above-mentioned book does make an appearance in Half-Life, alongside The Orchid Eater, inside Freeman's locker.

Story-wise, the Half-Life series has one of the most intriguing narratives, mostly because of its lack of closure. Most recently, Laidlaw revealed in a leak his initial vision for the ending of the second installment, and even then it raised more questions. It can be compared to the question as to what John 117 looks like in the Halo series, which has spanned nearly two decades without even giving fans a glimpse.

Whatever the actual ending may be, the game does give those who played it enough room for interpretation, which very few games achieve.

Final Thoughts

Half-Life and its subsequent sequels have become the standard when it comes to narrative-driven games with stellar gameplay mechanics. This is something that, to date, has rarely been achieved by other developers. The franchise will stand the test of time mainly due to its deep story and fluidity. Valve should consider launching official remastered versions of these titles, which will instantly be snapped up by the masses, since a classic franchise like Half-Life is definitely deserving of such a revision.

The G-Man | Image via Half-Life Wiki - Fandom

As for the overall story, the game does leave the player with the sense that there must be more going on behind the scenes, especially with the 'other dimension' that the character G-Man resides in. Who does he work for, and why does he exert so much control over the main protagonist? Is the entire franchise based on a simulation? Even though we might never know the answers to these questions, it still gives us something to ponder about while we patiently wait for Valve to grace us with a third installment in the series.

The entire Half-Life series is available for purchase through Steam. If you are lucky enough to find a copy of The Orange Box for Xbox 360, you can enjoy the second installment on your Xbox One through Backwards Compatibility. If you happen to have the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, you can experience this classic as if you're there, thanks to a community project aptly named Half-Life 2 VR.

Have you played any of the games in the series, and if so, which is your favorite? Feel like we might have missed some nuance in our assessment? Any idea who G-Man is and why he keeps appearing out of thin air? Comment below and let us know!


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