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Entry updated 24 July 2020. Tagged: Game.

Videogame (1998). Valve. Platforms: Win (1998); rev PS2 (2001).

Half-Life is a First Person Shooter, notable for its depth of narrative immersion (see Game Design). It was the first FPS in which a storyline was presented without the use of non-interactive scenes interposed between levels set in different locations. Instead, the story is integrated with the gameplay, using such techniques as overheard conversations and prescripted events triggered by player actions. While the storyline itself is not particularly notable, this approach, combined with Marc Laidlaw's well-crafted dialogue and convincingly created world, gives the player a strong sense of being involved with the narrative. Similar techniques have been used in many later games.

The player is guided through an entirely linear plot (see Interactive Narrative) until the end, when they can choose one of two paths. Gameplay focuses on combat and physically based puzzles; the environmental design is ingenious and challenging. The player character is Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist at the Black Mesa underground research complex. As in Doom (1993), a disastrous experiment leads to a portal being opened to a Parallel World inhabited by hostile nonhumans. Initially, the player will be attempting to reach the surface and summon medical assistance for the injured. However, it soon becomes apparent that a military team have been sent in with orders to kill both the invading aliens and the human scientists, in order to guarantee secrecy. Ultimately, the player has to enter the portal and journey to Xen, a strange "border world" where dimensions intersect. There, the portal can be sealed, stopping the invasion. A strong vein of conspiracy runs through the game; the player can discover that members of the Black Mesa facility have been secretly investigating the border world for some time. Throughout, they are often observed by the mysterious "G-Man", an ambiguous figure who shares much with the "Men in Black" of UFO folklore. The game ends with the G-Man offering Freeman a chance to escape from Xen and be preserved in stasis for unknown purposes; if the player refuses, Freeman will inevitably die.

The sequel, Half-Life 2 (2004 Valve, Win; 2005 XBox; 2007 PS3, XB360), is set many years later, after Earth's conquest by a Parallel World Empire known as the Combine. The "portal storms" that covered the planet after the incident described in the first game attracted the aliens' attention; after a swift war the administrator of the Black Mesa project negotiated a surrender in which he rules humanity on their behalf. The script was again written by Marc Laidlaw, who creates a nightmare vision of a totalitarian future in which the Combine takes the place of George Orwell's Big Brother. Most of the game is set in "City 17", the Eastern European capital of the new Earth, where the remnants of Communist rule mingle with the aliens' bioengineered Posthuman soldiers and unceasing propaganda. Much of Laidlaw's carefully constructed world is revealed only in passing, as an overheard broadcast denies that this will truly be the last generation of humanity or the fallen ocean levels suggest Earth's state of environmental degradation. The game begins with the player, in the person of Freeman, brought out of Suspended Animation by the G-Man and deposited in City 17 to make contact with the human resistance, to whom he has become a legend. Gameplay and plot structure are similar to that of the first game, though the environment is much more open. Many old friends and enemies from Half-Life reappear, often with unexpectedly reversed allegiances. Ultimately, the player can lead a successful revolt against the Citadel, the Combine's headquarters in City 17, after which they are apparently returned to stasis by the G-Man.

Half-Life 2 was partially distributed using Steam, an online delivery system created by Valve, designed to eliminate the need for retail distribution via major publishers. Its follow-up was sold entirely through Steam as shorter, episodic experiences, making it an Independent Game. The first part, Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006 Valve, Win; 2007 PS3, XB360) is a direct sequel to Half-Life 2. Gordon Freeman's odyssey into the future continues as he is rescued from the G-Man at the last moment by a group of aliens opposed to the Combine; the player must help refugees escape from City 17 before the Citadel, damaged at the end of the second game, explodes with devastating force. Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007 Valve, PS3, Win, XB360) then begins with Freeman trapped in the wreckage of a destroyed train outside the city, after which the game moves into an extended chase sequence, ending with the player rejoining the resistance. The final Episode Three was expected in 2008, but it neither arrived, nor was officially cancelled, and for over a decade its unacknowledged absence became a running joke in gaming circles.

Some aspects of the Half-Life series' approach to Interactive Narrative seemed less successful as gaming technology moved on. Notably, the use of a "silent protagonist" to increase immersion (see FEAR: First Encounter Assault Recon [2005]) is unconvincing when Freeman is involved in personal conversations with other characters. Nevertheless, the games were a benchmark for the quality of their world-building and the subtlety with which it was presented to the player.

In 2019, Valve made the surprise announcement that a new game in the series would be released, utilizing then fledgling virtual-reality headsets. Half-Life: Alyx (2020 Valve, Win; Lin) was not a belated release of the long-lost Episode 3, but a stand-alone game set between the events of Half-Life and Half-Life 2, starring Gordon Freeman's sometime partner-in-adventure, Alyx Vance.

Half-Life: Alyx is most notable as a technical achievement, providing a level of virtual immersion that seemed astonishing by the standards of 2020, and the game served as perhaps the first ever "system seller" for virtual reality consoles. The narrative (written by Jay Pinkerton, Sean Vanaman and Erik Wolpaw with uncredited assistance from Laidlaw), is less ambitious than its predecessors. Alyx travels the familiar streets of City 17 as she seeks to rescue various gentleman-in-distress, in a plot that functions largely as a retread of Half-Life 2 leavened with the humour of the Portal spin-off series. However, the dialogue sparkles and as a woman of colour with an actual personality, Alyx makes for a refreshingly chatty protagonist. Its ending, which catches up with Half-Life: Episode 2, seems to promise future instalments.

Of the various works associated with Half-Life which are not part of the main series, Portal (2007 Valve, Win; 2008 rev vt Portal: Still Alive XB360; 2010 Mac) designed by Kim Swift is undoubtedly the most interesting. The game is set in the subterranean Aperture Science Enrichment Center (a rival to Black Mesa) where the protagonist is run through a series of increasingly dangerous experimental environments by a deranged AI known as GLaDOS (the "Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System"). GLaDOS' tests revolve around the use of a Matter Transmission device which creates the titular portals, gateways which connect flat walls to other surfaces at any orientation. Portal's gameplay thus concentrates on solving three-dimensional puzzles by using the portals in increasingly baroque ways; much pleasure can also be gained from the dark humour implicit in the protagonist's situation, which shares much with the scenario presented in the film Cube (1997). Portal seems to have a particular appeal for fans of written science fiction, no doubt partially because its deadly testing rooms provide a primarily intellectual challenge, but perhaps also due to the wit displayed in its sinister dialogue and ironic graffiti.

The sequel is Portal 2 (2011 Valve, Mac, PS3, Win, XB360), a work promoted by a kind of Alternate Reality Game in which enthusiasts could play specially modified Independent Games in order to reactivate GLaDOS (supposedly destroyed at the end of the first game), thus slightly accelerating the launch of its successor. Portal 2's complex but entirely linear narrative begins by revealing that the protagonist's apparent victory at the end of the first game was an illusion; after a period in Suspended Animation, the woman who was the "test subject" of the original work wakes to find herself back in the underground facility, though its advanced state of decay suggests that many years have passed. While escaping from her confinement she accidentally reactivates GLaDOS; many unlikely twists and bizarre incidents follow, and much embedded backstory is revealed (see Interactive Narrative). The gameplay is generally similar to that of Portal, but various novel tricks are made available to the player, including chances to deploy Pressor Beams and use artificial gels with highly unusual properties. In the end the game's protagonist can finally free herself from the testing facility; it is notable, however, that the Portal games are set in the same milieu as and after the events of Half-Life, meaning that the world she escapes to is (we must assume) one which has been conquered by the Combine. The single-player game then segues into a cooperatively played story in which two online participants adopt the roles of Robots being tested by GLaDOS in a new, more complicated, series of chambers. Remarkably, Portal 2 succeeds in being as cruelly amusing, and as ruthlessly ingenious, as the original which supplied the template for its design.

Related works: Half-Life: Uplink (1999 Valve, Win) is a trial version of the first game, consisting of revised versions of some sequences cut from the final release. A number of expansions were produced for Half-Life, all with subtitles referencing the physical sciences. Half-Life: Opposing Force (1999 Gearbox, Win) occurs during the same "Black Mesa Incident" described in the original game, but the player adopts the role of a member of the military team sent in to "sanitize" the facility. Half-Life: Blue Shift (2001 Gearbox, Win) is similar, but features a Black Mesa security guard as the player character. Half-Life: Decay (2001 Gearbox, PS2) again provides a different version of the original story, this time from the perspective of two of Freeman's female colleagues; this expansion was only made available as part of the PS2 version of the original game. Half-Life 2: Lost Coast (2005 Valve, Win) contains story material cut from Half-Life 2, though it was primarily intended as a technology demonstration. Codename: Gordon (2004 Nuclearvision, Win) designed by Sönke Seidel, Paul Kamma is a two-dimensional platform game (see Videogames) based on the events of Half-Life 2.

Portal 2: Peer Review (2011 Valve, Mac, PS3, Win, XB360) is an expansion for Portal 2 which provides additional tests for the robots who are the primary characters in the game's cooperative mode. Valve Presents: The Sacrifice and Other Steam-Powered Stories (graph anth 2011) is a Graphic Novel which anthologizes Comic strips related to various games developed by Valve, including Lab Rat, a prequel to Portal 2.

The Half-Life series has been highly popular as an online game (see Online Worlds) of player versus player combat. Many amateur modifications have been released for the game, notably Counter-Strike (1999 Win) designed by Minh Le, Jess Cliffe, a team-based game pitting present-day terrorists against counterterrorism squads, which eventually had a commercial release through Valve. Another popular online multiplayer modification, Team Fortress Classic (1999 Valve, Win) was produced by the Half-Life developers themselves, based on an earlier game created using Quake (1996). [NT/JN]


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