Thursday 9 April 2020

From the Tortoise Quarterly

The crowbar of wonder

Half-Life and its sequels might just be the greatest computer games ever made. Peter Hoskin gives a personal history of a cultural phenomenon with a twisted history of its own

I still regret lying to my parents – but only a bit. It was the end of 1998, not long after my 14th birthday, and the reason for my duplicity lay open in my hands: a copy of the video-game magazine PC Zone that had been read and reread to the point of disintegration. Its covers were permanently curled, its pages torn, and all because of one review about halfway through.

The magazine had given its second-highest score ever, 95 per cent, to a new computer game called Half-Life. But more than the score, or even the words, it was the pictures that tugged at my frontal lobe. A great alien beast lumbering towards you. A clawed tentacle rising from an industrial tower. A soldier shot away in a spray of blood. I just had to play it.

Except there was a problem. The review said that to get the most from Half-Life, you had to play it on a computer fitted with a 3D graphics card. My beige PC at home didn’t have one, and my teenage finances couldn’t afford to rectify that, so I had to rely on my wits. I told my parents – and this is the lie – that a 3D graphics card would help to improve my schoolwork beyond my teachers’ wildest dreams, rather than – the truth – merely improving my gaming set-up beyond my wildest dreams. Being the kindest folk in the world, they indulged me. We carried the body of my computer to a nearby shop, where it would be cut open and upgraded.

Alien landscape from Half-Life

As soon as we arrived, my nerves started jangling like the bell behind the shop door. Would I be busted? Almost. Just as the shopkeeper pulled a Voodoo2 graphics card – the newest and the best – from the shelf, my father remarked that it ought to do a lot for my schoolwork at that price. “Oh, this isn’t for school, mate,” the shopkeeper smiled while looking directly at me. “It’s more of a gaming thing.” I responded with my best Clint Eastwood-style glare, which I practised frequently in my bedroom mirror at the time, but there was no further violence. My parents went ahead with the purchase. My computer was upgraded and brought home. Bye-bye, world, I’m playing Half-Life now – sorry, revising for exams.

In a way, I’ve never stopped. Playthrough after playthrough, Half-Life took me from enjoying games to appreciating them, much how you might appreciate a movie or a symphony. Six years later, its sequel became one of my favourite works of fiction in any medium, whilst also changing the art and business of gaming in ways that have made it the biggest form of entertainment in history.

And it’s not just me. In the decade after the first game’s release, Half-Life, Half-Life 2 and their various expansions sold at least 28 million copies – putting them among the best-selling games of all time and making around a billion dollars. On the website Metacritic, which aggregates critics’ scores, Half-Life titles still account for three of the top five PC games – each with an average rating of 96 per cent.

And now, in the early months of 2020, after a terrible expanse of time, the superlative machines are whirring back to life. A new Half-Life game is set for release – promising to transport me and millions more to the new-found virtual reality.

The Half-Life effect took hold soon after I loaded the first game on my newly enhanced computer. It begins not with a button-smashing commotion but with a commute. You are Gordon Freeman, an MIT-educated physicist, making his way by tram to the mysterious Black Mesa Research Facility somewhere in the New Mexico desert, where he works. As the tram continues along its track, you see through Gordon’s eyes and you can make him look around. Different parts of the facility pass by – a preview of what you’ll encounter later – and so, too, do the minutes. Eventually, you reach Gordon’s stop, to be greeted (by name!) by security guards and fellow scientists. Then it’s on to his locker, through the lobby and past a rec room, ahead of just another day at work.

This beginning may seem unremarkable, but that’s precisely what made it so remarkable. PC gaming, which was mostly done on Windows computers, was regarded then as a more grown-up, more muscular alternative to the sugary console gaming done on Nintendo Entertainment Systems and Sony PlayStations plugged into TVs. A PC could have its parts upgraded, as mine had been, and the more powerful technology allowed for innovations in gameplay. In this way, entirely new genres were born and popularised on desktop computers, including complicated tactical war games, expansive fantasy role-playing games – and, crucially, the first-person shooter (FPS). Starting (more or less) with Doom in 1993, FPS games involved putting you in the body of the hero and then blasting away at enemies on the screen. These were bloody technologically demanding and, for weirdos like me, bloody good fun.

Quake followed Doom in 1996, and Half-Life followed Quake two years later. It was not the first FPS game, but it did do something the others did not: rather than putting you just into the body of the hero, it also had you occupy his story. This was the tale of Gordon Freeman, and so Half-Life told the tale completely from Gordon’s perspective. There was no crawling text on the screen, nor cutaways to movie-like sequences in third-person, as in other games. Just one person’s view of events, even when he’s stuck on a tram.

Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of the Half-Life games

Many people described – and still describe – this as cinematic. I remember wondering what they meant. It’s true that the opening of Half-Life is a brilliant demonstration of how to draw a viewer in, before battering them into a state of psychic shock, just as Alfred Hitchcock did with the extended introductory sequence of Psycho in 1960. It’s also true that what follows is an unbroken and ambitious narrative, punctuated by explosive set-pieces that would make Steven Spielberg shudder with delight. (In fact, according to Jamie Russell’s book Generation Xbox, Spielberg once attended a meeting to discuss a Half-Life movie adaptation.)

But, really, what Half-Life did was deliver on the promise of gaming. Its story is, strictly speaking, immutable: what happens to Gordon happens to Gordon. But, paradoxically, it also bends to the player’s will: if your Gordon doesn’t want to look at the next awesome scene ahead of him, then you can simply make him look elsewhere. This makes you a co-author of the experience in a way that movies do not allow. You’re on the tram, but you’re also free to walk around it.

Oh, and free to shoot, to bludgeon, and to cross dimensions. This is what really mattered to 14-year-old me. And Half-Life delivered it by subjecting Gordon to a particularly bad day at the office. Naturally, a science experiment goes wrong – at your hands, no less – causing a rift in space-time that brings various alien monsters to Earth. Hence the name. The game itself has very little to do with radiation, and even less to do with the rate at which a radioactive isotope degrades. But it does concern itself with the fallout from scientific progress. It evokes Chernobyl, Hiroshima, apocalypse.

Terror is the natural response – and, back in 1998, before the years made its graphics seem less realistic, Half-Life really was terrifying. The dreadful squawk made by its headcrab monsters as they pounced for your face still haunts my inner ear. So does the crunching sound when you swat them away with the crowbar that became the game’s most famous weapon. You sure don’t want to end up like the headcrabs’ victims, the zombified scientists with elongated fingers that scratch around the edges of doors.

But Half-Life made me feel wonder as much as terror. Much like the cosmic horror literature of HP Lovecraft, it consistently hints at something more, something huger in the background. The presence of one character, in particular, did much of that work. You’d see him every so often, always in the distance, stood as straight as a razor, surveying Gordon’s progress. He wore a dark suit and tie, carried a briefcase, and his skin looked as though it had been borrowed from someone else and shrink-wrapped on to his bones. He became known as the G-Man.

It’s only at the end of Half-Life that you get to meet the G-Man properly – in a shared lift, on an alien dimensional plane. “That’s why I’m here, Mr Freeman,” he explains in a voice that strains to sound human. “I have recommended your services to my employers, and they have authorised me to offer you a job.” Then: you’re back in the tram from the beginning of the game, only travelling through some realm of space. Then: nothingness.

The mysterious G-Man himself

Whoa! Graphics card blown! Who was this G-Man? Was he from the government or some extraterrestrial agency? Or maybe a metaphor for how you, the player, had been led along by uncaring lines of computer code? Most games left you with a sense of completion; Half-Life left you with so many questions to explore. Its creators, an American games studio called Valve, had made a cosmos.

I was in my second year of university, and struggling with the after-effects of a tropical illness that I’d stupidly picked up during my summer travels, when Half-Life 2 came out. This time, thank Gordon, my laptop was up to the job of running the game; otherwise, I’d have had to stretch my already taut student finances to breaking point. Nor did I need PC Zone’s recommendation – and a record 97 per cent score – to persuade me of anything. I was playing Half-Life 2 even if I had to do it while dripping with sweat and through a malarial fug.

It’s tempting to describe the experience as a fever dream, except the opposite was true. Half-Life 2 was like a cattle prod to the head. Instantly clarifying. As soon as I loaded the game, there was the G-Man again, looking considerably more photorealistic than he had six years before, and talking directly to me from the screen: “Rise and shine, Mr Freeman. Rise and shine… Let’s just say that your hour has come again.” He fades and, much like the beginning of the first game, you’re on a train. Unlike the first game, however, you aren’t commuting to a research facility but to a location where everything has already gone wrong.

City 17. The place wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to me, even though I had never been there before. In October 2003, a year ahead of Half-Life 2’s official release, its source code was leaked online. It turned out that a 21-year-old German hacker, Axel Gembe, who went by the screenname of “Ago”, had wormed his way into Valve’s servers and set about searching for information about the sequel to his favourite game. What he found was the sequel itself, or at least an early version of it, and he couldn’t resist downloading it to his own computer. Then he couldn’t resist sharing it with a friend. And they couldn’t resist disseminating it to the rest of the world. The path of least resistance had just cut right through some of the biggest secrets in gaming.

The bleak landscapes of City 17 from Half-Life 2

There was quite a stir in the danker corners of the internet. Days after the leak, Valve’s co-founder and president, Gabe Newell, took to a Half-Life message board to confirm that, yes, in fact, “the source code that has been posted is the HL-2 source code” – and to plead for help to catch the culprit. By which time, people had already gone through the code to make playable versions of the game. These versions were very rudimentary, the gaming equivalents of an architect’s wooden models, but they did reveal some of the things that were going into Half-Life 2, including that opening journey into a train station staffed by aggressive armed guards.

As for the hacker Gembe, he ran into some aggressive armed guards in the real world. Valve almost managed to trick him into the US, on the promise of a job, where he would have been picked up by the FBI. But German police stormed his house instead – and arrested him at gunpoint. A few years later, he was sentenced to two years’ probation. More years later still, Gembe would express his remorse to the writer Simon Parkin: “If I had the chance to speak to Gabe Newell today I would say this: I am so very sorry for what I did to you. You are my favourite developer, and I will always buy your games.”

Let’s just say that I’d been paying close attention to these developments. For me, although not for most of those who hung around online gaming forums, Half-Life 2 was the first game that unfolded itself on the internet. There was the code leak, of course, but also screenshots, trailers, rumours and rank speculation. It turned the often-solitary pastime of gaming into a form of mass experience: collective disappointment at the official delays; collective excitement as the final release date approached.

When Half-Life 2 was eventually published, on 16 November 2004, it clung to cyberspace in a way we hadn’t expected. If you wanted to play it, then you had to install a copy of a Valve program called Steam, and then Steam had to connect to the internet in order to authenticate your copy of the game. Nowadays, online connectivity for gaming is taken as a given. Back then, the idea of requiring an online connection to play a single-player title was an affront – particularly when the Steam servers collapsed and left thousands of people waiting hours, sometimes days, before they could inhabit Gordon’s story again.

The bleak landscapes of City 17 from Half-Life 2

But no amount of technical difficulties, nor code leaks, nor arrests, could diminish the feeling of arriving into the finished City 17 for the first time. Soon after the G-Man fades and the train stops, Half-Life 2 starts showing off what it can really do. A guard at the station, his face hidden behind a blue-eyed gas mask, forces you to pick up a can and drop it into a bin. Once again, it sounds unremarkable, but this was the game’s exciting new physics engine in action. Gordon could move objects, push them, roll them, and they would behave much as they do in real life. It starts with a can, but pretty soon you’re firing saw blades into zombies to slice them in half. No other games could compete.

The can-in-bin moment was also a demonstration of the game’s setting and concerns. It turns out that a lot had happened in the 20 or so years, in Half-Life time, since Gordon had triumphed at Black Mesa and accepted the G-Man’s peculiar job offer. In fact, he hadn’t really triumphed. The dimensional portals had allowed an expansionary alien force, the Combine, to occupy Earth after an engagement known as – so evocative! – the Seven Hour War. City 17 was one of their outposts, overseen by cruel human collaborators and populated by poor human chattel. If the first game was Chernobyl, the second is the Soviet Union.

Gordon soon has the regime’s boot stamping on his face. After a breathless flight from the train station – and when I first played it, from my sickbed, I really was breathless – the authorities catch up and beat you until the screen whites out.

Which is when Half-Life 2 introduces its next innovation. You hear a scuffle, the sound of Combine officers being taken out, and then emerge from unconsciousness to see the smiling face of Alyx Vance looking down at you. It is a beautifully animated face, a landmark in creating human expressions from lines of computer code. But, more importantly, it is also a female face and a black one – and she had just rescued you, the hero. This did not happen very often in video games at the time.

Alyx provides a friendly face

Alyx is the most important member of a cast of characters that guides Gordon, and you, through the rest of the game; through to a resistance base on the edges of the city, through the spooky town of Ravenholm, on to a coastline pockmarked by alien burrows, and back again to City 17 and the kilometres-high tower, the Citadel, at its centre. She is by your side at the very end of Half-Life 2, when you blow up the xenotechnological reactor (and, it seems, the game’s main bad guy) at the Citadel’s summit. The explosion pushes Alyx backwards and threatens to consume her, but then… pause. The scene freezes.

It’s the G-Man again with his weird voice: “You’ve done a great deal in a short time span.” A Half-Life game had pulled the same wondrous trick again, leaving me with so many questions. This time, however, I went straight to the online forums.

The story of Half-Life 2 didn’t really end in suspended animation. Valve published two shorter episodes as addendums to the game. The first one, released in 2006, followed immediately on from the end of the main game, rescuing Alyx from that explosion and reuniting her with Gordon. The second, from 2007, brought them closer to overthrowing the Combine – at a cost. It closes with Alyx watching on as her father’s head is drained by a monster’s proboscis.

What happened next was even more disturbing: Half-Life really did stop. There was meant to be a third episode to round out the story. It was even given a release date of December 2007. But Christmas came and went that year without any joy, and so did the Christmas after, and the Christmas after that, all the way to now. So far as we could tell, Half-Life 2: Episode Three was never going to be released, although it was certainly in development. A few years ago, one of the main writers of the Half-Life series, Marc Laidlaw, left Valve and published a so-thinly-veiled-that-it-was-practically-a-joke synopsis of “Epistle 3” on his website. According to that, “Gertie Fremont” and “Alex Vaunt” would have travelled to Antarctica to finish their war.

In the hostile world of Half-Life 2

Why didn’t Valve publish Episode Three when there were so many people, like me, thirsting for it? The internet is awash with theories. Perhaps it’s like Newell said in an interview in 2011: the company had followed trends away from the “episodic content model” and towards the new model of “entertainment as a service”, by which games are constantly updated to keep their players locked in. Or perhaps that was just a highfalutin excuse, and he and his team had simply contracted stage-fright at the thought of having to wrap up one of the greatest games ever made.

Or perhaps the answer had been at the beginning of Half-Life 2 all along. The program that players had had to install, Steam, soon went from being a means of authenticating and updating Valve’s own games to being one of the biggest gaming platforms there is, a place where thousands of games are bought and played every day.

This was an industry-shaping event. Previously, games had always been sold on some form of physical media; I had paid about £50 for my CD-ROM copy of the original Half-Life, which came in a big, orange, cardboard box. Steam meant that they could instead be downloaded straight to your computer. This lowered the cost both of making games and of buying them, and it even helped to bring about new types of games. Suddenly, there was an easy marketplace for the “indie” titles dreamed up in people’s bedrooms – and a smaller marketplace for high-street games stores, many of which have gone out of business.

It changed Valve, too. It was once one of the most reliably brilliant game-development studios, creating not just the Half-Life series but also Portal (2007) and Portal 2 (2011), Left 4 Dead (2008) and Dota 2 (2013). Then, in 2017, to take just one year, Valve made $4.3 billion from Steam. It didn’t really have to develop games any more, so it didn’t.

Most Half-Life fans sunk themselves into what they already had. Replaying the old games, or even remaking them, as in the case of the updated and upgraded version of the original game, called Black Mesa, that was completed last year. Others kept on asking not just for Half-Life 2: Episode Three but for a full Half-Life 3 so insistently that it became a sort of online joke. Pranksters even put up an official-looking Half-Life 3 banner outside a major gaming convention. These were the blips of life on an electrocardiogram that was mostly just flatlining.

Then, on 18 November 2019, resurrection. Valve put out a tweet: “We’re excited to unveil Half-Life: Alyx, our flagship VR game, this Thursday at 10am Pacific Time.” Three days later, the promised Thursday, there was a two-minute-long trailer. I was at work in the Tortoise offices when it landed – then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. I was 14 years old again, slobbering over the pictures in PC Zone. I was back sweating in my student digs. The day job could wait.

We don’t yet know much more than what’s revealed in those two minutes. It’s not Half-Life 3. It’s a game set between the first Half-Life and the second, in which you play not as Gordon but as Alyx, resisting the Combine in City 17 with her father. And it’s in virtual reality. The footage shows an ever-present pair of floating hands within the game – Alyx’s hands but also an extension of your own – with which you can manipulate various objects. As Valve’s official description puts it: “Toss a bottle through a window to distract an enemy. Rip a Headcrab off your face and throw it at a Combine soldier.” Yes, please.

Those hands are yours.

There is a subplot: Valve has its own VR headset to sell. The Valve Index was released last year into a world where VR gaming promises so much but has not yet gone mainstream. The tech is generally quite costly, and many of the games have a clunkiness to them as though they are still unused to this new terrain. There have been some wonderful experiences – Superhot VR (2016), Beat Saber (2018) – but nothing that marketing departments would describe as a “killer app”.

Valve obviously hopes that Half Life: Alyx will be the killer app for Index. Even ahead of the game’s release in March 2020, the strategy appears to be working: the headset sold out in the Steam store soon after the trailer was first broadcast – and has stayed that way ever since.

Half-Life: Alyx. The new game is set in a virtual reality world.

Yet it’s impossible for me to be cynical. After a long wait, during which our collective optimism had dwindled almost to naught, this is Valve making a new Half-Life game; apparently with the biggest team they have ever devoted to a single title. It could be a happy playground for them. The original game was all about situating the player inside Gordon Freeman’s story, while the second enhanced the feeling of immersion by adding new forms of interactivity. Virtual reality is the refinement and the endpoint of these ideals. You see through Alyx’s eyes, and she moves through your limbs. Half her life, half yours.

Besides, the G-Man is calling for the first time in 12 years. “See you in the new year,” he said last December, “and do prepare for consequences.” And prepare I shall, by blowing a load of cash on an expensive VR set-up. It will, of course, do wonders for my work.

All images courtesy Valve

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