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Somehow, it has been 20 years since the release of Half-Life. Which means, I guess, that it has been almost 20 years since a friend came back one night to the student house we were all renting and told me about this amazing game he had played. A first-person shooter - did we call them that back then? - in which, for the opening section at least, you did no shooting.
Instead, you...what? You rode a tram to work in a secret test facility deep inside some kind of mountain in the desert. For whole minutes you just sat and watched as the world went past. No goblins running at you, no demons invading and popping out of one monster closet after the other. It was like one of those films, my friend explained. It was like Total Recall, where you get to see Arnie going about his day in the near future. Except it wasn't like a film, because it didn't cut at all: it was like a video game, all first-person, all inside someone's head, behind the eye sockets, but a video game that was doing some of the same purely world-building stuff you often got in the really lavish sci-fi films.
20 years later, I have played Half-Life. I have played Half-Life 2, and the episodes and stuff like Portal with its teasing glimpses of the Half-Life universe. More than playing the games, it feels like I have spent the time waited for them. Has any series been as well named as Half-Life, as perfectly primed to measure the slow decay of hope? Anyway, I waited like we all did, through the anticipation stoked by that early Edge reveal of Half-Life 2, then the first glimpses of this impossible game in which everything was not just graphics but physics, a world you could pick up and throw about. Waited as the gaps between episodes grew longer. Returned to oddities like The Lost Coast, still my favourite Half-Life, if I'm being honest, due to its compactness, its sense not even of being a short story in the Half-Life universe but a few perfect paragraphs cut off from the main narrative. I even read through that transcript of what Episode 3 would have been and realised: of course they couldn't release this, because good as the twist is, after all that waiting it is not enough and could now never be enough.
To celebrate Half-Life‘s twentieth birthday today [more on that later today -continuity ed.], the Black Mesa gang have made a new trailer showing progress on their commercial Half-Life fan remake’s final chapters, the alien world of Xen. They also say that they’re now planning to add the Xen chapter in 2019, some time from March to the end of June, so that’s three-ish years after the early access debut of its terrestrial chapters. I am pleased with how alive parts look.
On this day, 20 years ago, Half-Life was released. Makes you feel old, doesn't it? It's because you are old, you wrinkler. November 19th, 1998 - what were you doing then?
Anyway forget that, there's a new Half-Life game in development. No not Half-Life 3, although if Half-Life were 30 years old I could have written "Half-Life 30 today", which for a moment reads as "Half-Life 3", which is really exciting, isn't it?
The new game - or part of a game, really - is Xen, the final piece and pi ce de r sistance of Half-Life remake Black Mesa. But Black Mesa's Xen is much more than a simple remake of Half-Life's Xen.
While we’re reminiscing about Half-Life for its 20th anniversary, let’s take a moment to celebrate its iconic protagonist. You all know him, of course. His unkempt beard, those wild eyes, that flattop haircut that just screamed, “I was in the military but they kicked me out because I was too awesome”. Yes, Ivan the Space Biker had a timeless look that served him well for the five minutes he was Half-Life’s hero. Then wee Gordon Freeman nicked his job.
The first time I saw Half-Life in 1998, Gordie had already made himself comfortable in the role, but only a year before, it was Ivan the Space Biker’s job to show off Valve’s fancy FPS (thanks for the reminder, Combine Overwiki). He sported a bulky space suit, some glorious facial topiary and generally looked like he had seen some shit. And then smoked it.
Ivan was used in early tests and promotional material before Valve had really settled on a protagonist. The original concept for Ivan was a beardy computer programmer in a bulky environmental suit, but when it came to actually designing him, the concept was tossed aside and he became this burly lumberjack-looking dude.
Big macho Ivan turned out to be a bit too conventional of a video game protagonist for Valve, which wanted a more cerebral hero. Sadly, after all the work he did promoting the game, Ivan was thrown in the bin and the gig was given to Gordo instead. He had glasses and a little beard, so you knew he was pretty smart.
Bring Ivan back for Half-Life 3.
This article was originally published in PC Gamer UK 262, back in January 2014. It's reproduced here, for Half-Life's 20th anniversary, with author Robert Yang's permission.
20 years ago, Half-Life was released to a rapturous commercial and critical reception. It is a game about... well, it depends on who you ask. For some people it’s about Gordon Freeman, an everyman physicist who struggles to survive the inter-dimensional alien invasion of a secret government research facility. For others it’s about a mute sociopath who murders anything that moves, as he bunnyhops (always hopping) with bloodlust. More cynically, Half-Life is just another game about jumping on things and shooting things in the face to get to the next level.
But as a longtime Half-Life modder and game developer, I also know Half-Life in a very different way: in its map logic scripting, SDK source code, 3D models and animation events, 2D skins and texture flats—I’ve even studied the way Valve named the individual game files and folders. Game developers must make millions of small decisions all the time, and each decision is in conversation with a million other decisions. How big can a Half-Life level be, how many colours and shapes can it have, what can it look like? Well, it depends on how much texture memory and 3D map geometry memory you’re allocating in the engine. Half-Life’s guts influence what Half-Life can show you and what Half-Life can do.
And what Half-Life’s guts say is that everyone else is wrong. Half-Life is not a game about Black Mesa, Gordon Freeman, headshots or puzzles. Half-Life is fundamentally a game about... trains.
Half-Life begins with a seven-minute work commute. The Black Mesa facility swirls to life around your monorail: co-workers run late to work, forklifts rush through maintenance tunnels, an idling helicopter waits for passengers. It is an iconic and oft-imitated stretch of scene-setting.
The chapter was pitched initially as more of a tech demo than a bit of subtle atmosphere. According to former Valve writer Marc Laidlaw, it began when a programmer implemented a new type of game object called a ‘func_tracktrain’. Unlike its simpler ancestor func_train, inherited with the Quake-derived codebase, func_ tracktrain could run on a long stretch of path_track, branch onto different tracks, and bank and pivot into turns. To show off the new functionality, the programmer asked Laidlaw to write some use of func_tracktrain somewhere in the game. Laidlaw interpreted the request more literally and asked himself, what were the possibilities afforded by using a train?
1. Level crossingHalf-Life’s ﬁrst chapter is made of six different map ﬁles that load as you cross certain thresholds along the track route. At the time, Half-Life pioneered an innovative ‘seamless’ loading technology between map ﬁles without separate loading screens. The player could backtrack between maps and NPCs could even follow the player across level transitions. Today, many games implement some form of ‘level streaming’ where the engine begins slowly preloading new map data in the background as soon as the player is close enough to a transition point, thus drastically shrinking level load times. Half-Life didn’t have that, but it still used the technique to its advantage.
2. Parenting issuesThe monorail tram ‘door’ is a fake door that is part of the tram wall and cannot open. The Half-Life engine did not support ‘entity parenting’, so designers could not glue or ‘parent’ a functioning door to the func_tracktrain of the tram. They couldn’t glue glass windows, other passengers, or even pieces of rubbish to it either. One workaround: start the player inside the tram already, so a functional door is not necessary.
3. TrackingTo tell the func_tracktrain where it can go, the level designers placed a series of ‘path_track’ points. Each point had a unique name and the name of the next path_track in the sequence. When the func_tracktrain runs, it travels along these points in order and connects all the dots. If the train suddenly ﬂew off the track, that meant there was probably a typo in conﬁguring one of a hundred path_track points. It was tedious work.
4. TwinsTo give the illusion of a ‘seamless’ level transition, two map ﬁles must share the same room. If a map ends with a dark section of concrete tunnel, then the next map must start with an identical copy of the concrete tunnel. However, it means that if the designers ever change that tunnel later, then they must also update the twin copy in the other map ﬁle, which can get messy and time consuming. Thus, transition areas in Half-Life are often featureless narrow hallways with few details.
5. MemoriesHow many megabytes of memory does your graphics card have? A few gigabytes? Back in 1998, game developers counted every megabyte: each map ﬁle in Half-Life was limited to two megabytes of texture memory. These days, a single shrubbery in the new Call of Duty probably uses two megabytes of texture memory, an entire Half-Life level’s worth by itself. Perhaps we’re too wasteful these days.
6. Vis-a-VisS-shaped bends and hallway-room-hallway structures were great line-of-sight blockers for ‘visibility culling’, where a game engine avoids wastefully drawing hidden scenery. Why spend precious cycles rendering something behind a wall? Valve designers had to pre-calculate a ‘potentially visible set’ (PVS) of which rooms can see into which rooms. If any walls got destroyed, it would become obsolete, which is one of the reasons few games have deformable worlds.
7. End of the LineSo the tram door was a fake door that couldn’t open, but at the end of the chapter, the security guard miraculously opens it. How? Valve’s hack was ingenious: when the train first arrives, the game seamlessly loads a new map file of the same exact room (see ‘Twins’) except it swaps out the old tram for a new func_tracktrain with a door-shaped hole in the side, and the moving door is actually another func_tracktrain. Who said trains always have to be train-shaped? This trick is legendary among Half-Life modders: how the Valve developers used one unrelated system to ﬁx a different system.
In the summer of 1997, Half-Life was essentially just a pile of random moments and encounters. Marc Laidlaw was hired as writer to sort through that pile of game content and bring some semblance of coherence to it, but by then much of the action had already been prototyped. Half-Life’s development history suggests that Valve were concerned less with story as a goal in itself and more with ferrying the player linearly from setpiece to setpiece, to sustain the thrill of constant movement and progression. Half-Life, itself, is a train.
The chapter ‘Apprehension’ is halfway through the Half-Life rollercoaster. In the middle of this dimly-lit ‘water level’ is a shark cage sequence ripped out of a monster movie. When the player enters the cage to pick up the crossbow, it plunges into a pool with an ‘ichthyosaur’ creature that circles menacingly before biting its prey in the face. Trains are surprisingly relevant here because, remember, trains do not necessarily look like trains.
1. RunwayWhen the player ﬁrst enters the room, they set off a trigger_once that makes the monster_ichthyosaur perform a scripted_sequence to jump out of the water and devour a screaming monster_scientist. The jumping movement of the animation draws the player’s eyes upward, toward the suspended shark cage and balcony. To continue, the player must walk along a platform all the way around the cage, thus viewing it from all sides and likely noticing the crossbow weapon inside.
2. Node graphNPCs in Half-Life are a lot like trains, they mostly go where the track leads them. But instead of a path_track, a designer must place info_node points that automatically link with nearby nodes into a web-like ‘node graph’. To pathﬁnd somewhere, the AI will look at all the different links between nodes to assemble its route. Here, Valve put many of the ichy’s waypoints underneath the cover of the catwalk, to discourage the player from freely sniping at the monster from above water. Good node graphs are often the difference between AI looking dumb or clever in any game.
3. Pickup baitThe crossbow comes with only ﬁve bolts. Killing the ichthyosaur on easy or medium mode requires four, and on hard mode it is eight. That means the player can only miss one shot with a weapon they’ve never used, against a monster they’ve never fought. To make it easier, the player solves a slightly earlier simple puzzle for some valuable MP5 alt-ﬁre grenades—which are useless against the ichy, but act as bait to trick the player into picking up 20 extra bolts for a weapon they don’t even possess yet.
4. The cageThe centrepiece of this room is a shark cage containing a crossbow, suspended from the balcony. When the player walks along the beam and drops down into the cage, it breaks and falls into the water. The cage is actually a func_tracktrain, running on a series of path_track points that guide the ‘cage train’ downward at roughly 6.5 metres a second.
5. The GateOnce in the water, the player’s ultimate goal is to open this rusty gate to get to the next room. However, the rusty wheel turns very slowly and the player must hold down the ‘use’ key the entire time or else the gate will close by itself. It takes 12 seconds to completely open the gate—the exact same length of time that Gordon Freeman can hold his breath. All this is probably too difﬁcult to do while fending off the ichthyosaur; thus, indirectly, the game forces you to kill it ﬁrst.
...or at least that was the intent. Playtesters probably managed to open the door for only 6-8 seconds and then quickly slip through the gap, despite the roving shark monsters trying to kill them. To prevent that from happening, Valve added an invisible trigger in front of the gate wheel, which instantly alerts the ichthyosaur to the player’s presence and slams it into combat mode. This is technically cheating on the developers’ part, but it’s only cheating if you get caught.
6. Flying sharkThe code for the monster_ichthyosaur is actually based on the same code used for ﬂying monsters. After all, what is swimming but ﬂying underwater? So if NPCs are actually trains (see ‘Node Graph’), then we can think of the ichy as simply a mindless homicidal ﬂying shark-train.
7. Bubble funGiven the superb drownability of water in Half-Life, every second spent beneath its surface counts. To help the player navigate, even in foggy and murky waters, Valve used columns of bright bubble particles ﬂowing up, because the human eye is typically drawn to movement. They used these bubbles frequently in underwater sections to highlight tunnels, passages, or pockets where the player could surface for air.
A new Half-Life mod replaces Gordon Freeman with Spyro the Dragon.
Developed by Magic Nipples (which might be the best band name I've never heard, incidentally), Year of the Dragon is now out in early access, complete with a playable demo to give you a taster.
"This current version of the mod is essentially a complete redo using a clean base with far better code going into it since I sort of know what I'm doing now," Magic said in the description of a teaser trailer that shows off the mod in action.
Year of the Dragon, a Half-Life mod that replaces Gordan Freeman with Spyro the Dragon, has finally entered early access. You can download and play the Office Complex demo over on ModDB and glide, charge, and breath fire all over the early-game Half-Life level as a talking cartoon dragon instead of a boring MIT graduate.
While modder Magic_Nipples (nice) isn't necessarily going to recreate the entirety of Half-Life to work with Spyro's original moveset, they're at least making it possible for others, bringing the former PlayStation icon to the GoldSrc and Xash3D engines for modders to play around with.
You'll need Half-Life to give it a go, of course, and not all controllers are compatible quite yet, but what's there looks like a near perfect recreation of the original Spyro. Give it a go and let us know how it feels to finally play Half-Life as it was always meant to be.
The latest Half-Life mod to resurface, repacked and polished on Steam is Halfquake Trilogy – defining ‘masocore’ well before I Wanna Be The Guy made it a genre. Halfquake is a trilogy of surreal and cruel puzzle-centric mods by Philipp “Muddasheep” Lehner and they’re some of the most interesting maps produced for the original Half-Life. Featuring striking, abstract environments, genuinely clever puzzles, some very stupid ones and enough deathtraps to wear the ink off your quicksave key. They’re worth playing, if just to test the water and your tolerance for pain.
I was convinced They Hunger would hold together about as well as a skeleton in a hurricane. Not only is it a 20-year-old Half-Life mod. It’s a 20-year-old zombie Half-Life mod. Given how gaming scraped the bottom of that brain cavity seven or eight years ago, I struggled to see how They Hunger could shine through two decades’ worth of derivative undead-fests.
Less than two hours in, They Hunger had proved me wrong. I realised this after it tried to crush me between two zombie-driven trains, then let me drive one of those trains through a sequence of tunnels filled with walking corpses. I’m not sure what the best way to rekindle an old friendship is, but I think shouting “Choo-choo motherfuckers!” as you splatter a shambling horde with your cowcatcher is pretty hard to beat.
Released in three parts between 1999 and 2001, They Hunger is a singleplayer, story-focussed total conversion for Half-Life. Created by a team of modders led by Neil Menke, it charts a zombie outbreak in the fictional town of Rockwell, which you’re thrown right into the middle of after your car falls into a lake after being struck by lightning.
Unlike mods such as Counter- Strike, which used Half-Life’s tech to create a very different experience, They Hunger follows the design ideas of Valve’s seminal shooter closely. It tells a linear story using environmental storytelling and scripted setpieces, with levels built to convey a coherent, believable world. Even most of its weapons and enemies are reskins of those used in Half-Life. The crowbar, for example, becomes a lethal umbrella. John Steed would be proud.
What made They Hunger stand out, and what makes it stand out today, is how the quality of its level and setpiece design rivals that of the game it’s based upon. The mod starts out with an indulgent cutscene that includes a radio report discussing “atmospheric disturbances”, followed by long shots of your car’s fateful journey into a ravine. Once you escape the water, you must cut through a churchyard where zombies burst out of coffins, before navigating a pumping station and an unstable volcanic crater as you attempt to reach the site of that broadcast.
Chapters two and three are more ambitious still. The second episode has you escape from an infested police station, before making your way to a sprawling mental asylum where the source of the outbreak is located. Inside, you descend into a secret underground laboratory, before escaping in a lengthy scripted sequence wherein the asylum slowly and brilliantly burns to the ground.
As you’d expect given its heritage, They Hunger is a whip-smart shooter. But it also stands up as a horror game. Like Looking Glass’ Thief, the dark and cloying atmosphere is aided by its lumpen lo-fi graphics, while the sound design is suitably eerie. The way its scuttling skeletons (which are reskinned vortigaunts) whisper “flesh creature” before they attack is profoundly unsettling.
While creepy, they Hunger knows how to balance its horror with more lighthearted moments. The third chapter commences with a tense sequence in a hospital, followed by a more tongue-in-cheek section in which you battle through a farmyard populated by zombie animals.
As I said, They Hunger works fine visually, but if you struggle with its default presentation, help is at hand. The mod is so old now that it has its own suite of mods, most of which are dedicated to improving the visuals. The two main mods of interest are They Hunger-Remod by Zikshadow, which makes updates to most of the game’s character models, and My Weapons Pack, which improves the models on weapons and your character’s hands. Together they help fend off some of the ravages of time.
Getting They Hunger up and running today isn’t too challenging. There are several versions on ModDB which are compatible with Steam. Completing it is a little trickier. I encountered several points where the mod would crash to menu or crash to desktop. Some of these appeared to be caused by certain enemy sound effects and could be bypassed with a little luck. Others were linked to broken script triggers, and could only be avoided by noclipping through the map to the end of that area.
Having to resort to workarounds is not ideal, but it’s worth it to experience a brilliant zombie adventure. They Hunger crams more inventiveness into its campaign than most bona fide zombie games, while balancing silliness with tension well. It may look a little desiccated and moan when it gets up, but there’s life in They Hunger yet.