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.
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.
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.
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.