Tuesday, 5 July 2011

PC: 5 Ways Half-life Changed Gaming

Some games' influence is felt many years after their release. Their scope, ideas and innovations driving forward the development of other games, growing and evolving the medium. It is as true in games as in other media - following the impact of the TV-series Lost on the public consciousness how many other serial, character-driven, mystery-based dramas were put into development?

The original Half-Life, the first release by the now ubiquitous Valve, is one such game. Released in 1998, Half-Life was a commercial and critical phenomenon winning over 50 PC Game of the Year awards and selling over 9 million copies. The first-person shooter, still a rather young genre at the time, very much reached maturity with Half-Life's release. In this feature we are going to look at five of the ways Half-Life revolutionised the genre.

Scripted Sequences

There are no cut scenes in Half-Life, in their place are scripted sequences, set pieces that advance the story without removing the player from the action. A prime example of this is the unexpected results of the test you participate in at the start of the game - it is you the player that places the test matter into the chamber and it is you who, through Gordon's eyes, experiences the terrifying visions that the experiment causes. By removing cut scenes a key disconnect between  player and avatar is removed which bolsters one of Half-Life's key selling points - immersion.

Continuity of Action

In Half-Life, although the game is divided into 'chapters' there are no levels in the traditional sense and there is certainly no level select screen. Your progress through the world is organic and dominated by what Aristotle identified in theatre as unity of time and action - there are no time or place jumps that aren't explained narratively (for example, Gordon being knocked out means you 'lose' some time but it is part of the games world and timescale). There are no "debrief" screens where you are given your next mission, from the moment you start the game your exploration of the locale and your experience of time is consistent - you are never given an experience or a choice that the character you play as wouldn't actually have.

A Real World

Although it is perhaps laughable in this day and age to suggest that the world presented in the original Half-Life is interactive, especially considering the huge strides Half-Life 2 took in the integration of realistic physics, at the time it presented a range of original ideas and executed them fantastically. Boxes could be (and would be) broken, puzzles often included manipulating valves to turn off gas pipes and the such, Black Mesa itself was hugely complex, and the staff rooms were filled with vending machines, microwaves and the personal items of other Black Mesa staff. From those first moments observing the working complex from the tram ride to the later stages exiting into the glaring sunlight of that undisclosed location in New Mexico, this was a world we could both believe in and interact with.

Artificial Intelligence

Not an appropriate way to treat an ally...
Admittedly more of a development of Quake's underlying AI than a revolution, the artificial inelligence in Half-Life was certainly a step-forward for the genre. When you find yourself having to resist soldiers sent to "clean up" the situation, you'll notice they essentially work as a squad and display responsive behaviour above and beyond simply "shoot", "hide" and "walk along a set path". As well as the opposing force's AI, your allies in the game are also able to accompany you and, in the case of "Barney", assist you in the combat situations.

The Mod Community

PC games had been modded long before Half-Life came along, even one of Half-Life's most successful mods, Team Fortress Classic, was actually a port of a previous Quake mod. The difference resided in the fact that Valve not only made the tools required for modding freely available, but also actively encouraged the community. The sheer range of and continued support for mods of Half-Life was incredible. From extensions of the Half-Life story to John Woo-esque shooters (Opera) to the most successful mod of all, Counter-strike.

In fact Team Fortress and Counter-Strike demonstrate what worked so fantastically in Valve's approach, both teams were, following the success of their mods on the Quake and Half-Life platforms respectively, bought by Valve and subsequently nurtured. The original Team Fortress team were actually responsible for the design and development of the fantastic (and now free-to-play) Team Fortress 2. This process continues to this day, Portal itself being the result of one such acquisition.


Valve are currently one of the biggest players in the PC sector, not to mention hugely successful in the console market with boxed titles such as Portal 2 and The Orange Box. Their Steam service dominates the PC download scene and their titles are frequently subject to some of the highest aggregated review scores. With this in mind, sometimes it's hard to cast your mind back to when Valve had yet to release a game and were struggling to secure a publisher for the original Half-Life. Luckily they did as the game was multi-faceted, innovative and, most importantly, hugely enjoyable. Perhaps key to the length and breadth of Half-Life's success was the focus on after-sale support in patches, modifications and multiplayer - an approach that only a cursory glance over Team Fortress 2 and Portal 2's update list would inform you still remains. Half-Life holds up as a fantastic game, and the franchise went on to rejuvenate the first-person shooter once more with the equally admirable Half-Life 2, both games provide sterling examples of what is possible when time, care and thought is put into not just creating a good game, but creating an excellent game.

Now let's hope we hear some Episode 3 news soon!

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