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Half-Life (PC) artwork

Half-Life (PC) review

"The RPG genre has generally been understood to be exclusive to games that are, in some form, driven up front by visible statistics. If there is a screen that displays HP, STR, MAG, or any other common abbreviations, the game in question is likely an RPG in the sense in which the term is most commonly applied. Half-life is obviously not an RPG in the numerical sense. It is instead, a great example (perhaps the best example) of the original sense of an RPG, a game in which narrative is v..."

The RPG genre has generally been understood to be exclusive to games that are, in some form, driven up front by visible statistics. If there is a screen that displays HP, STR, MAG, or any other common abbreviations, the game in question is likely an RPG in the sense in which the term is most commonly applied. Half-life is obviously not an RPG in the numerical sense. It is instead, a great example (perhaps the best example) of the original sense of an RPG, a game in which narrative is valorized to such an extent that it becomes the most persuasive force that keeps the player engaged until the end credits.

Half-life has always struck me as an unusual shooter in so much as it really lacks the cathartic, I-just-killed-everything-on-the-planet type of action that is expected from FPS titles. When people think of Half-life, they think of the opening monorail sequence, watching scientists get pulled into air ducts, the strange gravity of Xen, or the game's many other episodic scenarios. I must confess that Half-life was one of the first shooters I played, and lacking (at the time) the basic hand-eye coordination to do simple things like strafe and shoot at the broad side of a barn, I was forced to walk step by step through the game on the easiest difficulty setting. It may have been one of the least adrenaline-inducing play sessions of a shooter in history.

This wasn't necessarily a result of the way I was playing either. Just as your English teacher instructed you when you had the fun of writing short stories back in 9th grade, Half-life shows rather than tells. Take for instance the famous train ride through the Black Mesa facility and the opening moments in which the player puts on a hazard suit and walks around a research building as scientists go about their daily routines. Or the player's later efforts to sneak past a blind, scythed, green monster so that he or she could reactivation the fuel lines to blaze a new trail through the ailing facility. Even in that moments that I was running around shooting things, it never quite felt like I was shooting stuff just for the sake of shooting stuff – it's more of a question of survival, and shooting just happens to be part of that equation because it's the best way to fend off hostile marines.

So the question that should be asked here is how, if action wasn't a significant motivation, was Half-life enjoyable for me in any way. The obvious answer for anyone that has played the game and possesses half a brain is its ingenious narrative, it's seamless level design, and it's long stretches of lonely corridors, which can only be topped by the loneliness and isolation of my own life.

Or in other words, it tells a good story and it tells it well.

Half-life isn't alone in putting its emphasis on story rather than shooting either. S.T.A.L.K.E.R., System Shock, Bio Shock, and a host of modern shooters have been hallmarks of inaction and well-woven narratives. You can't tell me that you didn't feel something when you were playing Call of Duty 4, and what you felt certainly wasn't just the violent high one would expect from hyper-realistic gunplay.

First-person shooters can be surprisingly deft with stories, thanks to their ability to keep the player in control of their movements as the story unfolds around them, compared to many third-person adventures that are almost forced to become more film than game. Half-life adheres to this narrative paradigm – which is one of the core tenets of any self-respecting RPG – better than most games that actually populate the formal genre. It is for this reason that not only does the term RPG need to be rethought to be inclusive to games like Half-life, it is the reason that Half-life manages to remain so compelling and interesting after nearly a decade.

In short, Half-life is a game that makes narrative one of its primarily goals, rather the cathartic release that had prior been the sole justification of a shooter's existence. It has more in common with minimalistic story-telling experiments like Ico than it does with, for instance, Halo or Goldeneye. This isn't far from the original meaning of “RPG” either. Despite any inkling of HP, MP, STR, DEF, etc being branded as RPG elements these days, the original RPG element was always placing the story as deeply into the gameplay as possible. Permanently losing a character that you spent 25 hours training thanks to Wizardry's devilish ability to automatically save didn't just make the game difficult, it was the thing that put the “mad” into The Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. Or what about Black Isle's Infinity Engine titles, which phased from text to to combat so seamlessly that the two where often one and the same. Then there is the way that Final Fantasy VI presented itself so much like a play, in and outside of battle, that its characters at one point literally perform an opera. These ideas culminate into something like Atlus's Persona 4, in which the player is actually rewarded for skillfully engaging the story by becoming better in combat, and these are the ideas that keep many of us going back again and again to what is the oldest genre in the industry.

I think the true test of an RPG isn't how it manages to re-invent age-old fight/defend/item/run battle mechanics, but how it can use its technology to make it's story more important than gameplay – or even better, to make the gameplay and the narrative the same thing. In this respect, Half-life is one of the most successful RPGs ever made.

dagoss's avatar
Community review by dagoss (December 25, 2008)

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Lewis posted December 26, 2008:

A thoroughly interesting take on the game. I like this sort of retrospective: an examination of exactly why something worked, and a challenging of popular belief, instead of a mere description of how good something is.

Half-Life as an RPG: not the sort of idea that would be flying around the gaming community a lot, but a damn good argument, carefully presented. I really enjoyed reading this.
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zippdementia posted December 26, 2008:

Double wow. I was thinking of writing a Half Life review one of these days, but you've nixed that. I couldn't write one better than this. You've captured why HL is great. I don't know what else there is to say.
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dagoss posted December 26, 2008:

Ha! I was expecting this "review" to be greeted with comments like "are you on crack?," "where do you get your crack?," and "can I buy some crack off you?" Now if only this same reversed self-actualizing could happen in the real world...
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Lewis posted December 27, 2008:

You can sort us out with some crack as well, if you like.

EDIT: Disclaimer - I do not use crack.
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EmP posted December 27, 2008:

I once played Half Life up until the monorail stage when I forever stopped.

People seem to like that story. I do not know why.

You've made a pretty strong case for picking the game up again. Even if that level is constructed of pure arse.
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wolfqueen001 posted December 28, 2008:

Me and Boo have nagged you forever to finish that game off. If this review really changes your mind about that, then that's great. It had more power than either our nagging or my review put together. Awesome. =D

Anyway, this was a really interesting review. Haha. I never expected an FPS to be compared to an RPG, though I think Half Life is one of the best games to do that with. I think what I really liked about it, though, was the intelligent enemy and interesting/challenging level design. But I agree that it's really immersive, too, with the story and everything. It truly is a great game, though I never had the heart to give it a ten for some reason (if that matters that much).

Anyway, I did catch one typo:

it's characters at one point

should be its.
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Lewis posted December 29, 2008:

Um, Gary? The 'monorail stage'? As in, the introduction?

Half-Life is utterly wonderful. I can't wait to see what it's like modernised.
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EmP posted December 29, 2008:

Foolish Lewis! Some way into the game, there is a section where you need to ride a train around behind the scences of Black Mesa. The level is call "On A Rail". It's as far as I got before quiting, because it's bloody awful.
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Halon posted December 29, 2008:

Here's the official Black Mesa trailer. Hopefully it comes out in the next year or so because I'm sick of waiting for it.
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Lewis posted December 29, 2008:

Gary: yeah, so not a monorail then.

On A Rail is a bit naff, yeah. It's one of the few weak points in the game. But then it gets incredibly good again for a while.

The game's opening half is the strongest, though, I must say.
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Halon posted December 29, 2008:

I actually liked On a Rail quite a bit. Once you get the hang of the level it's actually pretty good.

I would have to disagree about the opening being the best part. The game really got good once the humans jumped in and took off maybe 2/3 of the way through. My favorite part was from Questionable Ethics up to the Xen world (but not including it!). Surface Tension just might be the greatest level in any FPS ever.

I might replay Half Life pretty soon and then do a level by level analysis how I did with Half-Life 2 in my blog.
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overdrive posted December 30, 2008:

That was a very good and interesting review. I don't know that I necessarily agree with your argument, but you've legit given me something to think about and it's not many reviews that actually do that to anything like the degree this one has.

I'd follow the "Are you on crack? Can you get me some crack?" subplot of this thread, but when I talk about stuff like that, I tend to be oppressed by da I'll just conclude with a hearty "GOOD JOB!"
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Lewis posted December 30, 2008:

Surface Tension is brilliant.

Xen would be brilliant in its own game, but still seems hideously out of context in what was essentially a survival-horror game, for me.

I've just finished writing up an interview I did with Black Mesa's project lead for Resolution. Makes for an interesting read. Eyes peeled next week.

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