Best Games - Half-Life
Half-Life isn’t a game. It’s a place. It’s somewhere you go for a while. You spend time there. Like going on vacation or travelling to an amusement park.
You will have fun. You will have new and uncommon experiences. A lot of those experiences will be designed for you. You wouldn’t call an amusement park a game. You wouldn’t call a holiday a game. They’re different.
Half-Life is like that.
There were, of course, many first person games, adventure games, and even first person adventure games, before Half-Life. Half-Life was built on a modified Quake engine, so there was already a legacy of first person games when Valve started working on it.
It’s not surprising that Half-Life shares a lot with those earlier games. Fast action, lots of shooting, encounter spaces custom built to deliver certain moments. The difference is, most previous games are sort of a set of toys, or a series of challenges. Half-Life is a place that you inhabit for a while.
The story for the original Half-Life is not earth shaking. You won’t feel emotionally invested in the characters or plot, but it’s serviceable. There is enough there to give purpose to your actions.
What you will feel, is a sense of place. You will recognize the shape of the world of the game. It will be encoded in you as if it were real. That makes everything you do there much more meaningful.
In the very opening moments of Half-Life, you are introduced peacefully to the environments you will later be fighting through. The opening of the game is slow and methodical and mundane. You have time to wander. You become accustomed to the lighting, the sounds. How common and normal everything is. You are given just enough time before everything changes.
I think that the first person perspective does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to really burning the locations and events of Half-Life into your brain. Doom was probably the first game that gave me that feeling of truly playing in a new environment. I remember those places, but there was no logic or reason to Doom or Quake levels. They are built for your enjoyment, not for practical reasons. The areas from Half-Life are pulling double duty. They act as interesting gameplay spaces, but they also have a sense of practical realism to them. This is a place where people worked and lived. They did paperwork here. They chatted with friends here. They picked fantasy football teams and brought their kids to work. This is a recognizable and real place. Until it isn’t. And that makes the events of the entire Half-Life series so much more memorable and terrifying.
Maybe Half-Life isn’t the absolute first game to create this sense of place, but nothing before (and even for a while after) took advantage of that feeling in quite the same way.
Half-Life is one of the most enjoyable adventure travel destinations, and maybe even best games.