Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Half-Life is 20: why everything you liked about Valve's classic was a secret train

Half-Life is 20: why everything you liked about Valve's classic was a secret train

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.

Thanks PC Gamers