Half-Life (1998)

Half-Life (like all FPS games) is rooted in the holy trinity of FPS innovaters; Wolfenstein 3D, Doom & Quake. Released in 1998, Half-Life was built using a modded version of the Quake 2 engine. It followed many of the established gameplay conventions as well, such as infinitely deep pockets that hold dozens of weapons and the idea of weapon progression whereby you start with a peashooter and end the game with a mobile apocalypse cannon.

What is the Innovation?

Half-Life was not just some Quake2 clone though; it innovated on a grand scale. From it's approach to narrative to it's highly praised enemy AI, Half-Life became the benchmark by which all subsequent shooters would be measured, and for many it still is.

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The story of Half-Life (at least in premise) may not seem that different from those of earlier shooters. It really can be likened to Doom in that man is messing with forces best left un-messed with and a maelstrom of shit ensues, which the player must handle. However, it crucially deviated from previous games in it's delivery of the narrative. Almost nothing is ever explicitly told; you are assumed to know much more than you do and there is almost no backstory given, and as such you have to piece together the story as you go along most often through conversations with or overheard from NPCs or from visual cues like whiteboards scrawled in writing.

The player-character is also something quite different from the dominant sterotype of previous FPS games. You are no space marine or secret agent. You are Gordon Freeman, PhD. A be-spectacled silent scientist lucky enough to have his hazard suit. Of all the iconic characters of PC gaming, Gordon Freeman is perhaps one of the most resonant. He is a geek gone badass, and for a character never seen or heard in the actual game, he somehow has a great charisma.


Half-Life is by no means the first game to introduce puzzles to the FPS mix, but what it did was make the puzzles seem totally plausible, and natural in their environment. The puzzles always strived to avoid seeming arbitrary. Rather than searching for a key to unlock a door, you might instead look for piece of metal to bridge the gap in a wire leading from a detonator to the explosives. In Half-Life we see the roots of physics based puzzles, which would become much more widespread in the following years, driven on by Half-Life2 at the forefront.

Half-Life also made great use of friendly NPCs as sources of direction, plot and for advancing the gameplay. There are a number of points where cooperation with science team members or security guards are needed to advance, and the long introduction sequence where Gordon goes to work on the transit system really built tension and reinforced the idea of this being a living world full of other people trying to get on and survive.


At it's release, Half-Life was highly praised for the AI used by it's soldier enemies. Compared to other games at the time, the Half-Life soldiers seemed veritable geniuses, advancing in teams, covering each other, using grenades to flush you out, apparently cooperating and communicating. Of course, much of this was thanks to very clever event scripting rather than true AI, but the overall effect was the same to the observer and player. Half-Life's very linear progression meant that such scripting could be used very effectively. The power of carefully scripted events to compel a sense of immersion in the game world was really quite evident, and this is a tool that is still heavily relied on in games today. When combined with the superior AI of modern games, it really can make for some epic moments.

How could it be Improved?

Half-Life was a huge milestone and would serve as the inspiration for many subsequent games. Naturally though, it wasn't perfect. At the time, it was generally agreed that the game somewhat lost it's impetus and became less compelling in the final sections which take place on the alien planet. The Black Mesa facility was almost a character in it's own right, and the alien world just served to divorce the sense of immersion that was built up over the preceding hours of play.

Half-Life was mostly constrained by technical limitations of the platform at that time. Advanced AI, physics based puzzles, immersive graphics and compelling NPCs; all of these things we're little more than nascent in Half-Life, but the ideas we're definitely there. In time, many of them would be born again in the game's own sequel, Half-Life 2, as well as in dozens of FPS games that all have drawn influence from Half-Life in the following years.

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Posted in Home Post Date 09/13/2020






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