Half-Life 1 (PC/PS2) and the writing on the wall

Replaying the original Half-Life recently has been fun for all kinds of reasons. After several years absence from the Black Mesa facility it all feels very fresh. Alongside the entertaining (if at times infuriating) gameplay, there’s the story. Obsessing over storytelling in games is nothing new for this blog and I’m afraid that’s where I want to go with this post too. There’s also a bonus at the end…but you’ll have to see.

halflife 2

As many will no doubt recall, one of the “innovations” in Half-Life was a complete lack of cutscenes at a time (1998) when cutscenes were quickly becoming ubiquitous. In place of cutscenes, the game relies heavily on setpieces to create drama. With setpieces, you have control of the character practically all of the time, but out of the ordinary things are frequently happening, be it to you or the environment. Your on-rails vehicle, for instance, bursts through a wall and falls two floors into water, with you still in it. Whenever there’s character interaction you still maintain control. You get to dick around all you like. I like it plenty – no one even blinks twice at the most bizarre antics. There’s evidence too of how heartless the Black Mesa staff are – I’ve deliberately jumped to my death in the presence of guards and scientists and no one said anything, let alone tried to stop me.

Part of the novelty with Half-Life is how a lack of cutscenes seems at once forward-looking and influential (particularly in the FPS genre – Portal, Bioshock, etc), and on the other hand backwards-looking and retro. In particular what struck me was how you only have to go back a few short years to 1994’s Super Metroid to find many of those same elements that made Half-Life stand out in 1998.

The most obvious is the lack of cutscenes in both games. Of course it’s hardly a surprise given the SNES’s capabilities – hardly any cartridge-based game had anything we would recognise as a cutscene today. But Super Metroid is more extreme than most in that it almost never takes control away from the player. There’s no dialogue necessary when everything goes nuts around you and a timer suddenly appears on the screen. You want me to get the hell out of the space station, gotcha.

halflife 3

The most important similarity though, and it’s one of Half-Life’s most impressive features to this day, is story. Unlike other action games at the time, Half-Life isn’t split into easily defined levels. Instead it has episodes, which all take place within a single, contiguous world, the Black Mesa facility. The same approach is in Super Metroid: Zebes is loosely divided into different sections, connected by lifts, but not in such a straightforward way that you could speak about levels. This structure allows for stories to take the form of crises, rather than more straightforward globe(s)-trotting adventures. Both games revolve around something that has GONE WRONG (in all caps) and require the protagonist to survive and contain a situation happening right here, right now.

The why’s, who’s and where’s are of course very different in the two games, but my point is that both games share an organic approach to storytelling. That’s the sense of a story that isn’t told to you as much as a story gradually emerges and unfolds over an extended period of exploration and discovery. The result in both cases are highly atmospheric games with a powerful sense of discovery. A recent piece over at United We Game about Super Metroid’s etecoons and dachoras makes the case for Super Metroid very convincingly in that regard. That same approach makes for similarly powerful moments in Half-Life.


Fifteen years after my last playthrough, I hadn’t forgotten certain key moments when you learn just how alone you are in this whole alien invasion thing. After the experiment you run at the start of the game goes awry and aliens start showing up, the friendly scientists you happen upon that are still alive are sure that someone will come along to rescue everyone soon. Not long after, when you see some soldiers a few scientists run over to them, overjoyed. Without a word of explanation, the soldiers proceed to shoot them dead before taking you on. The reason behind this brutal slaughter is never explained – the soldiers don’t exactly talk to you, only to their radios in incomprehensible SWAT talk – but eventually as you continue on your escape mission you come across misspelled graffiti by soliders that clearly indicates that you, Gordon Freeman, are the military’s primary target. Why? I couldn’t say. But regardless, the graffiti is a great storytelling device, not to mention spooky when you come across it. It’s the total opposite of your typical chatty James Bond movie villain.

Anyway, satisfying singleplayer aside, I’m playing the PS2 version for the first time and getting a surprising amount of mileage out of the multiplayer modes. I used to enjoy playing multiplayer Half-Life mods on PC using a LAN connection, and despite being good in terms of having your own screen etc, it was always a hassle to set up a match even with only two players. The deathmatch mode on PS2 by contrast is very quick to get started in, plus it has a very solid set of small to medium sized maps for two players to run around in. Of course the real reason I want to write about the versus multiplayer is to show off my cardboard crafting skills – I went to town on this one.

cardboard screen divider splitscreen

It’s a cut up Cheerios box. Doesn’t scream gamer cred maybe but then again the whole cardboard edifice is held down by a Wii Remote.

half-life ps2 splitscreen 2

“Eat steel, nerd!”

half-life ps2 splitscreen

Now’s the time for payback. And cereal.

Have to admit this is the first time I’ve used anything like this before: most of my splitscreen gaming wasn’t divided vertically, and those games that were didn’t require any kind of privacy (Burnout, Tony Hawk, SSX for instance). It’s been a lot of fun though, the tension definitely ratchets up knowing that someone could sneak up on you at any time without any warning. At the same time I think it’s completely legit to play competitive splitscreen without any kind of barrier. After all, a whole new element of strategy comes into play when some or all players know where everyone else is.

That was Half-Life. It’s a classic to this day, and the PS2 port, while not perfect (dual analog controls…) is very good.


  1. Sir Gaulian

    The Playstation 2 is where I spent most of my Half Life time – which followed on with the Xbox version of Half Life 2 – so personally I find it works absolutely fine on consoles. I particularly liked the lock-on for the PS2, which almost accidentally encouraged a more ‘tactical’ style of play, given it made taking cover and/or retreating such a breeze. I revisit Half Life every year, and sure I have the ability to play the PC version, but the PS2 version is still my go to.

    On split-screen local multiplayer, there are some crackers on the PS2, Quake III and Unreal Tournament just to name a few. Despite playing a stack of time with those games though, I can honestly say I never felt the need to have ‘screen-space’ privacy, and in fact found that the odd glance over to the other person’s screen added that extra layer of depth to the experience. I still remember trying to pull the odd deception on the other person, making them think I was somewhere before quickly moving on to catch them off-guard. Great stuff, that!

    • veryverygaming

      You’re right about the lock-on feature, it’s not perfect but I did do the whole cover thing far more than I would’ve in the PC version. Overall I was impressed at the things they’d changed to make it more console friendly. For instance the fact that holding jump makes you crouch, and doing the long jump like you would a double jump in Metroid Prime. The long jump made me so happy in this version, I could never forget what a pain it was on the PC having to crouch, stand up, jump and get the timing just right. I don’t know if I’d recommend the PS2 version over the PC one, but the fact that I’m at all unsure is in itself a big surprise!

      Did you play much of the co-op mode, Decay, by the way? The few missions I’ve done have been alright, albeit challenging. Not being able to save mid-mission is annoying.

      Thanks for the recommendations too, I’ll definitely check those two out. I was completely obsessed with Unreal Tournament back in the day on PC, especially the Rocket Arena. As I said, I never tried any cardboard divider either (horizontal splitscreen is a bit trickier than vertical so maybe that’s why) despite playing similar games for years. It depends on the individual game and your preferred style, but in this case with Half-Life my brother and I agreed that sneaking up from behind and double shotgunning your opponent upclose in the back with them none the wiser is a really cool feeling and it’s not something you can feasibly do when you can see each other’s screen the entire time. I remember though playing Goldeneye splitscreen and because you could see the other person’s view a whole new set of tactics would emerge. The basic principle was to never stop moving!

      • Sir Gaulian

        Decay was brilliant – played through the whole thing an eon ago. Brilliant stuff! In hindsight feels a bit like what Portal 2 did with its multiplayer.

        There are some great split screen experiences around the place, another doozy – although not first person – is Duke Nukem: Time to Kill. MANY hours spent on that one!

  2. moresleepneeded

    I have never played this game, but I have heard of it before. When I first that the player could move around during cutscenes, I thought they were actual cutscenes, with different camera angles and a pause in the game. I did not realise they were set pieces, dramatic action that you could ignore. I did not realise they were supposed to be aliens either, I heard the main character was a scientist and the game took place in a research facility. I thought everyone was killed by some weird creatures they produced themselves.

    • veryverygaming

      The scientists don’t create the creatures, they’re experimenting with inter-dimensional travel or something when a rift opens and the creatures start coming through and wreaking havoc. If you’ve never played it, I’d certainly recommend it. The sequel is very good too, although the quality is a bit spottier. The silent protagonist moving around thing is even weirder in the second game – everyone’s talking about how sweet and funny your character is supposed to be while you’re completely silent, jumping up and down like a madman in front of them!

  3. Red Metal

    Half-Life is an amazing game. I played it for the first time about 13 years after it was originally released and I still found myself very impressed by it because it’s remarkably forward-looking. I think that the storytelling in Half-Life is superior to games which feature non-interactive cutscenes. It’s still possible to create a good story using that method, but if handled improperly, you get a story where the narrative often contradicts the story told through the actual gameplay. This is especially a problem if the game is meant to be serious. The best way to tell stories in games is to take advantage of the medium so that you get a narrative which can’t be replicated through non-interactive formats. Valve has a firm grasp on this concept, using scripted events and the environment to tell the story and letting players figure things out for themselves.

    My favorite graffiti in this game is the one that reads, “YORE DEAD FREEMAN” [sic].

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks for commenting, and I’m glad you got so much from Half-Life all those years later. The graffiti you mentioned is my favourite too, it’s what inspired this post! As you say, Half-Life’s biggest achievement was to do with establishing and maintaining the mood and tension in the gameplay as opposed to a disconnect where you have some light-hearted collectathon gameplay awkwardly sandwiched between some tense cutscenes.

      Now that I think about it, it’s no wonder Half-Life had some really excellent singleplayer mods, the game must’ve been very inspiring in showing just what games are capable of. Incidentally my favourite Half-Life mod was They Hunger, it’s a great riff on Night of the Living Dead and other zombie stories. It takes a lot of cues from Half-Life (as you might expect for a mod), but it’s extremely well-made and has its own unique feel – instead of a crowbar you start off with an umbrella to beat zombies with!

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