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“It constantly presents you with variety, surprises, and new challenges to keep you hooked. It is a tour de force in game design, the definitive single player game in a first person shooter.” ­–wrote an IGN reviewer in 1998.

The last decade of the 1900s witnessed an era of constant revolution and renovation in video games. It was the onset of an epoch when the popular 8bit and 16bit genre lost the position they earlier had, as industries took a more anti-isometric approach, providing more camera-liberty to the players. It was a time when the ‘free roam’ genre emerged with the release of the first Grand Theft Auto. It was also a time when PC gaming reached its zenith as the market was packed with original and innovative content. A part of the same was experienced in 1993 as gamers from across the globe got their hands on the world’s first FPS game(Wolf 3D), a genre that gained so much popularity that it would inspire a third of the games for generations to come.

The success of Wolf 3D was swiftly followed by Doom. Just over the span of a year, the world found itself occupied with yet another FPS game that was ever so riveting as the one before. Duke Nukem 3D was released in 1996 and soon thereafter came Quake. The emergence of FPS games whizzed through the crowd like a hurricane and spun the gaming industry around to such an extent that even to this day, the presence of these games have not faded away.

However, little did anyone know, that a second hurricane was on its way that would change the architecture and engineering of video games entirely from the core as well as the shell.

In 1998 Half-Life, developed on the newly fabricated GoldSrc engine which was based of the Quake engine, was launched by Valve which signaled the arrival of massive restructures in video game design. Ever since its release, Half-Life has been idolized by millions. What is surprising is the immense support surrounding the series even after 20 years of release, which brings us to the question: What is it that makes Half-Life so special?

To even begin answering this question, it is imperative to understand the most fundamental aspect of Half-Life, which indubitably is one of the primary reasons it gained so much attention and was so well received by the community.

This is one of the very basic questions surrounding the Half-Life anthology apart from the other hundreds if not thousands of complex ones. Don’t let your eyes deceive you. No matter how simple this question appears, the explanation supporting the claims that ‘Half-Life is indeed one of the best FPS games ever made’ branches down to several directions and that too, so much so that it becomes extremely difficult to keep up with. Our list runs short but the content in it is tremendous. So, for the sake of ‘fun reading’ we have narrowed it down and would only explicate the absolute necessary ones.

Story Telling

How the Odyssey of Gordon Freeman Unfolded

The Mode of Story-Telling:

The mode of story telling is perhaps one of the most distinct features that Half-Life possesses. Unlike other games which heavily rely upon cutscenes, Half-Life manifests the story in a sequential manner without the need to ever animate scenes separately for the purpose of narration. It provides the player immense freedom within a closed arc.

To know more about the lore, one would simple have to explore. In addition to that the player would also have to engage in talks with friendly NPCs in the game, who would without any hesitation inform the players about the occurrences, their relation with anomalies and the challenges that lie ahead. NPCs would also simultaneously drop hints and essential segments related to the lore. Perceiving these is a necessary step to forming a conclusion. The only pet peeve of this section is Gordon Freeman’s incorrigible silence.

Hence, this system encourages the player to be extremely attentive during the gameplay session in order to acquire information pertaining to the plot. Once the information is garnered, it observably becomes a mini puzzle for the players to decipher. The players could then engage in putting all the pieces together until they obtain something meaningful. This is what adds an extra layer of intricacy to the game. By allowing the players to figure out the story, Half-Life took the quality of complex story building a step forward.

Dropping Hints:
In order to surpass certain levels in the game, the players are required to be heedful. The NPCs will constantly drop hints during the course of the game to make it easier for the player to accomplish the mission in hand. A vigilant player can therefore, by taking into account these clues, surpass the level with ease while the oblivious one would be stuck there until they get down to brass tacks and start focusing on NPC speeches.

For example, the level ‘Blast Pits’ is impossible to transcend unless the player is attentive to NPC speech. A certain guard in that level would hint the player that the tentacle monster is easily distracted by sound. The presence of grenades on a crate right next to the guard is an indicator that the player has to utilize these armaments in order to distract the monster to quietly sneak past it, since killing it with normal weapons is out of the question. There are many such instances of hints provided by NPCs through out the game.

The G-Man Conundrum— Crux of the Suspense:
Half-Life’s decisive success on the road of innovation resides on multiple aspects. At the core of which is suspense. This allowed it to set yet another milestone in the long run. The G-Man Conundrum is an ambiguous mystery which has managed to keep itself encrypted ever since the game’s release.

The character G-Man is at the center of it (the character did not have a formal name in the game but the source file containing the codes of this character was given the name G-Man). During the course of the game, the player will encounter this enigmatic character several times. In the last chapter, after the player defeats the final boss the G-Man appears in-front of the player and tells him that the G-Man and his ’employers’ have assumed control of Xen and have decided to offer the player another job. Considering the odds, the player can either choose to enter a portal opened by  the G-Man himself or refuse. Choosing the latter will teleport the player back to Xen, inside a room full of aliens similar to the ones that the player was killing through out the game.

Some theories suggest that the G-Man is omnipotent and omnipresent with time travelling capabilities and powers to shift between dimensions and even places within that dimension and that he is on a mission to conquer the universe. Others suggest that he is of the same species as the nefarious warlord, Nihilanth, who had been thrown out of his home planet by the combines, who will later appear in the sequel Half-Life 2 (which is entirely an article of its own for another day).

The identity of this mysterious character, his purpose and his association with these ’employers’ he so often mentions through out the anthology poses numerous questions which are still officially unanswered. There have been no efforts made by Valve to bring the matter into light but fan theories like this which still kindles the series.

Level Design

The Element of Surprise

With the arrival of the FPS genre in the late 1900s, the video game world witnessed a large-scale restructure in level design with a certain degree of intricacy and individuality administered into each IP, giving them a stroke of uniqueness.

Overcoming the Inevitable Cliche:
Half-Life, as a game was ambitious and the following consequence was the birth of a masterpiece never seen or experienced before. To achieve what the developers initially planned, they needed to switch up everything while at the same time drawing influence from previous titles. For example, Half-Life borrows the indoor-shooter aspect from Wolf 3D, and the part where the players are able to dodge bullets or avoid enemy attacks by running away from them was inspired by Doom.

But even so, we have only touched the grass root level of the game because Half-Life is far from copying other games. One of the reasons why it is notably present in every list of games that have been venerated for innovating and revolutionizing the sphere of gaming is because Half-Life expanded the scope of level design by creating concepts of its own. It didn’t simply take two or three games, combine them and create something unique out of it. It also set an example for aspiring developers by inventing ideas and structuring levels in its own way; which was unprecedented for and therefore, as a result, it would be heralded as a beacon of inspiration for several decades.

Although we can recall the first two levels from game as being plain and boring, the third level for instance(Unforeseen Consequences), where the player endeavours to escape from the lab, requires him to avoid beams of laser and sudden bursts of unstable ray emitted from the Anti-Mass Spectrometre. The player has to crouch and crawl underneath them or time them correctly in order to pass by them. For the first time, it isn’t an AI trying to kill the player but an anomaly following a defined pattern, generated as a repercussion of the failed experiment. Nothing like this was ever done in video games before. Added in is the claustrophobic feeling of crawling through vents and fissures and holes in the wall amidst the chaos. Machines inside rooms exploding, headcrabs teleporting infront of player created a sense of dread. Sometimes the game would inconspicuously spawn vortigaunts behind the players when they are busy healing themselves.

Sometimes the players are even required to backtrack in order fulfill an objective. Crates would be intelligently placed at certain locations to serve as cover. They could even be broken down to obtain health, energy for the suit or ammunition. Recharge booths and Health charge stations would be available but would be much rarer than health kit/ battery drops.

Creating Interactive Environments:
There are many ways to make a game appear interesting to the consumers. The more engrossing it is, the better chance it has of succeeding in the market. The masterminds behind Half-Life premeditated this approach. Instead of just dropping enemies infront of the players and/or unexpectedly behind them, the developers decided to add certain objectives that the player has to accomplish in order to surpass different level. Recall the level ‘Blast Pits’ where the player had to traverse around an enclosed area in order to turn on the test rocket to exterminate the tentacle monster. Mounted machine guns and artillery can also be controlled by the players in the later half of the game.

As opposed to other games, Half-Life’s capacity of supplementing interactive objects in the environment, no matter how trivial they may be increased the depth of the game by heaps. Some missions will require the player to push boxes in order to hop on top of them to reach the floor above or to be able to scale ladders fixed at a height. Random switches on the wall can be flicked to turn lights on and off. Even the vending machines, microwaves and the hand driers in the bathroom can be operated. This helped the game develop a life-like experience for the players and gave them a prolonged feeling of not merely playing a game but also living within it.

The Inclusion of Puzzles:
We don’t often get to see an FPS game create an environment similar to platformers with tons of puzzles and what not. The fact that Half-Life actually commemorates the old school platformer genre by introducing elements from the same is something you won’t find in video games from back then or today.

‘Residue Processing’ is perhaps the only level in the game which is akin to platformer games and has perplexing instances which would seldom fail to throw the players off. To surpass the level, the players had to go through numerous conveyor belts with machines which would constantly try to crush them or blow them to pieces, not to mention the hazardous material tanks and the giant hydraulic mashers stomping the neon liquid inside the containers. It is here that the player has to time the  duration of impact of the mashers correctly, hop on top of them one at a time and make it to the other side.

Creating Different Environments to Eliminate Repetitiveness:
If we go back to the games that came out before Half-Life, chances are, the environment design would appear quite lack-luster and unimpressive. Like in Wolf 3D, the players are conferred very little change in the environment. It’s the same old mundane walls, doors, pictures on the wall and food on the table. There is hardly any change to jot down. The same goes for Doom and Quake.

I have often said that History has a lot to teach and hence it must not be ignored. The developers of Half-Life learned from the games that released before it, scrutinized their designs(especially from Quake) and contemplated on how they could exhibit it in the least dreary fashion possible. To overcome this hurdle, they decided to put considerable emphasis on environment design and divided the levels into different segments, making each one stand out from the rest, both in terms of gameplay and looks.

Thus, Half-Life takes the player around the Black Mesa Facility through freezing chambers that drain battery and health, to hazardous waste chambers, to the outside of the facility guarded by tanks and armored vehicles and patrolled by helicopters, to water tanks filled with horrifying fish monsters and finally, to the very depths of Xen itself. None of these levels feel or play like the ones preceding them in any way.

Sound Design

The Black Mesa Surround Sound

The presence of Sound and Music in video games is of paramount importance. These are two of the most fundamental components of a game that play a significant psychological role. Even when a game does not have a compelling gameplay required to keep the audience occupied, music can help ameliorate the mood of the players to a certain degree. On the other hand, a game that offers good gameplay but has little involvement in providing good music feels incomplete.

Assigning Distinct Sounds to Increasing the Field of Immersiveness:
Half-Life has a different approach to keep the audience enticed. Instead of bombarding the game with ostentatious rock music, it instead sticks them in particular parts to accompany the adrenaline-pumping action sequences. This ensures that the players can concentrate on the various sounds assigned to the environment of the game. And with the aid of headphones, directional sound takes new root, which alerts the player of enemy footsteps or when one has teleported behind them.

Every weapon has a different sound, every AI entity has its own individual sound and recorded dialogue, every time the player smacks his crowbar on a surface or an object a different sound is produced. The HECU can be heard conversing through walls or doors, so the players can be trigger ready at all times. The clever sound system enhances the players’ experience and attempts to immerse him into the 3D world.

NPC Variance

The Engineering Behind Half-Life’s AI

The Importance of AI in Video Games:
The human propensity to seek for challenges is insatiable. AI or Artificial Intelligence is what makes a game arduous. It is the single most important building block without which a video game cannot exist. AI is mostly present in video games in the form of NPCs. These NPCs are mostly hostile and are put in certain locations to force upon the players a minimal degree of strain. This significantly raises the bar of difficulty and provides for a less monotonous gameplay.

Half-Life’s move in this area is very different from that of other FPS games before it. As opposed to the games of the same genre that came out before it, Half-Life bases its gameplay primarily around friendly, neutral and hostile AI alike. It clusters the maps with friendly and hostile NPCs programmed to fight against each other. While some make it harder for you to proceed, others aid you on your quest to save the world. Half-Life’s innovation in the field of AI expands the depth of the gameplay, allows the formation of a more life-like picture of the game and has inspired many games to follow on its footsteps in the long run.

NPC Types:
Half-Life has a plethora of NPCs that appear different from each other and are in possession of unique abilities, none of which correspond with one another. There is no need to elaborate upon the points of what each of their abilities are and what they do since that would only lengthen this article and would impede the conveyance of the actual motive behind it. What I will do however, is accord a comprehensive list of the NPCs present in the game to let you know how diverse it is:

  1. Black Mesa Scientist
  2. Black Mesa Security
  3. Automatic Turrets
  4. Head Crab
  5. Head Crab Zombies
  6. Hound Eye
  7. Barnacle
  8. Slave Vourtigaunts
  9. Bullsquids
  10. Leeches
  11. Ichthyosaur
  12. Hypersuctor Sensitiva(aka. Tentacles)
  13. HECU(aka. Hazardous Environment Combat Unit){There are three types of HECU: Standard, Beret, Squad Leader}[They often use tanks, choppers and mounted machine guns)
  14. Black Operations(aka. Female Black Ops)
  15. Alien Grunt
  16. Snark
  17. Alien Controller{The upper class of the Xen order that control the slaves}
  18. Gonarch(aka. Testicle Spider *no joke intended*)
  19. Gargantua
  20. Xen Sentry Cannon
  21. Xen Ceiling Turret
  22. Nihilanth

These are some of the more important AI that have a role to play in the game.

Discrete AI Behavior Helps Subdue Boredom:
It is not rare to find individual behaviors assigned to NPCs in games from this era. But back in the day, this was quite an unusual occurrence. To sum up, the AI in Half-Life is always active and have specific behavioral patterns even when the player is away from it. Although it doesn’t affect the gameplay to a large extent, it does add to a distinctive projection of the game in a light different from that of Doom or Wolf 3D.

For example, the Bullsquid will automatically interact with chunks of meat on the floor and will consume it unless disturbed, the Houndeyes are stronger when they are in a pack and have a squad leader. Sometimes they doze off into slumber and if the pack has a leader, it will keep a watch out for perpetrators. The HECU are programmed to chucks grenades at the player at certain intervals and would flank them efficiently to kill, which is the most impressive thing about Half-Life as a game that came out in 1998. Even something as insignificant as the roaches that were so fun to crush in the game have distinct behavioral patterns.


The Birth of a Masterpiece

We’ve gone through all the territories that makes Half-Life impressive. We’ve been able to extract the gist of the story, of how the first day at job for a humble scientist took an unfortunate turn. We have seen the brilliance of the forefathers of a multi million dollar corporation in employing sounds which resonates in the ears of gamers even today and in turning something as simple as a crowbar into a symbol that would represent the series for many years. And the fact that this emblem hasn’t lost its gravity even after two decades of release stands as a living testament of their acumen.

These were people who believed in the catchphrase “First impression is the last impression, and I have to make it to that.”, they were people devoted to bring a change, to take a path that is avoided by many, and the end product of their sweat and blood was what begot Half-Life. Success was concomitant and undeniable.

Today, Half-Life is almost 20 years old. And despite its age, it still embraces the charm that it had before. Although, many people are led to believe that the game has entered senility and may not be as great as it once was, we simply cannot overlook the achievements it has acquired during its tenancy when it was dominating the global video game market. Neither can we gainsay the change that it brought about.

If I were asked to define the potency of Half-Life in a few word, my answer would be this: It is a game not many can blatantly mimic to create something of their own, nor can anyone create something similar to it that is just as glamorous. In short, Half-Life is truly one and only and its impact upon video game industry is undeniable and cannot be contradicted or neglected.

It might be 20 years old, but it still remains way ahead of its time.

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