Inevitably, in the course of writing anything remotely nostalgic, I get a knot in my stomach. A little over a year ago, I published a 10th anniversary piece looking back at "The Orange Box," a bundle of games released by Valve Software in 2007 that included "Half-Life 2" and its sequel episodes, along with the original "Portal" and "Team Fortress 2." I had a lot of feelings on the occasion, but dragging them to the surface and putting them on the page was not easy. Since I write and curate writing online for a living, I always feel a pressure to add to the conversation — after all, every piece generated for an anniversary is a chance for fresh analysis and meaningful introspection, even if they don't all get there.
… hence the knot in my stomach. How do you know what's worth adding? Staring down today's 20th anniversary of "Half-Life" a few months ago, I knew I wanted to put something together, but since writing that piece a year ago, the state of my own feelings on the series and video games as a whole haven't changed all that much, and I think individuals should only get to do one soul-searching-on-an-anniversary piece per pop culture touchstone anyway (so if you care at all about what I think about Valve's status as a commerce behemoth or the prospect of a new "Half-Life" sequel, go read what I wrote a year ago).
Instead, I decided to carve out a space for a variety of perspectives on "Half-Life," from people who've both gotten a lot out of the series and who've put a lot of themselves back into culture surrounding it. Presented here, lightly edited and arranged by subject, are excerpts from interviews with eight individuals with unique relationships to "Half-Life" and/or games (like "Counter-Strike") and fan communities that spun off from it. Those interviewees are:
- Rikki D'Angelo a.k.a. Marphitimus Blackimus, creator of Half-Life Fact Files, a series that delves into obscure details from the "Half-Life" series and related games
- Ross Joseph Gardner and Michael Pelletier, co-authors of "A Place in the West," a fan-made "Half-Life" comic that Valve grants the intellectual property to
- Dave Johnston, software engineer and the level designer behind several maps for "Counter-Strike," including de_dust and de_dust2
- Laura Michet, writer and game developer behind 2017's Epistle 3 Game Jam, dedicated to games based on the abandoned plot outline for "Hal-life 2: Episode 3"
- Ross Scott, creator of the "Half-Life"-based machinima series "Civil Protection" and "Freeman's Mind"
- Joe Wintergreen, developer of games and game development tools at Impromptu Games and experienced Source Engine modder ("Shotgun Sunrise")
- Robert Yang, developer and professor at NYU Games Center whose "Radiator" series began as a "Half-Life 2" mod
BLACK MESA INBOUND
"Half-Life" was released for the PC on November 19, 1998 (don't believe the game's Steam page, it gets the anniversary wrong now). Plenty has been said about the first impression left by the game's intro tram ride through the sprawling Black Mesa Research Facility and how it impacted the direction subsequent first-person shooters took — but naturally, everybody's first experience of the game is different. Some came to "Half-Life" later on, and some were, well, surprised with it early:
So "Half-Life" was interesting for me, because it was originally meant to be a birthday present for me. It's a silly story: My birthday's in January. I have two younger brothers, and my mum took my two brothers out to go shopping with her. She said "let's get Dave a birthday present." My little brother chose "Half-Life." I think had seen it magazines but I hadn't really paid any attention to it.
This was maybe late November. So they bought it, but my brother being my brother, he couldn't hold onto it for two months until my birthday. He had to open it up that day, and as soon as my mum and my brother found out [they went] "okay, you have to give it to Dave now." I remember we basically played for the rest of the weekend, just me on the computer and my brothers on either side.
When "Half-Life" was first released, November 19, 1998, I was ten years old at the time. That was actually only five days after my birthday. But, that had actually not been the first time I'd played the game. I'd played it about a month earlier because Valve released a thing called "Half-Life Day One", a demo for the game which included roughly the first thirty percent of the single player, up to "We've Got Hostiles."
I remember at the time that, the way [the demo] was officially released was along with hardware — video cards and things like that. The way I got it was, my older brother received a burned disc from a friend at school, that basically was a pirate release[…] it was unlike anything I'd seen before, from a technology standpoint, graphically… it was just really far beyond any other games or first-person shooters I'd known at that point.
I would never kill the NPCs, the scientists or the security guards. What a terrible thing to do! It never crossed my mind. Then I saw my friends playing it, and they were just blasting them away. Leading them into barnacles, shooting them in the face. I was like "what are you doing?!" I was horrified!
—Ross Joseph Gardner
After I went to college, I played a lot of "Half-Life 2" over the course of about a year because the first time I picked it up, I think I got to Ravenholm… and I got so scared that I put the game down and was like "nobody told me this turns into a horror game halfway through, no thank you." I didn't play it for many months, and then at the end of the year I thought "I gotta play it because it's famous."[…] I was very glad I did get back to it.
I played the original "Half-Life" in college as well. Honestly, after playing "Half-Life 2" I started thinking a lot harder about what I was experiencing in games, and about what they were doing to achieve certain effects in me. I was starting to think that I could work in games as a career, so when I played "Half-Life" I played it with a lot more focus and intention than when I played "Half-Life 2." For me, playing "Half-Life" was exploring the toolbox a video game storyteller has.
The storyline of the "Half-Life" series, largely devised by writer Marc Laidlaw, is a bit of a genre grab-bag and riddled with lacunae. The first game's inciting incident and climactic excursion to a dimension between universes set the stage for the sequel's conflict between scientist-led human rebels and the Combine, a force bent on colonizing parallel universes. "Half-Life" is particularly good at implying there's more going on in the world than we see in the games, which could be a potent prompt for fan creations (even if pursuing wholly-different settings than the games' assets were suited for was considerably more difficult):
Valve was aiming to do a lot more than a first-person shooter. They were using "Half-Life" as this experimental test bed — they weren't just trying to have the player fight bad guys. They were trying to create this ecosystem, where the player would interact with monsters, but [the monsters] would interact with each other in specific and unique ways. It's basically humans versus aliens, but there are humans that'll fight other humans and aliens that'll fight other aliens, as well as alien interactions that aren't hostile. It gave more of a liveliness to these things; they weren't just mindless creatures, they were autonomous. You could say they had their own agendas in the world.
With "Half-Life 2," the mods that you saw… it's incredibly difficult to create new content. That's why people go back to City 17, the coast, whatever. Then you have some examples like "Minerva," or "Research & Development," that did carve out their own niche with existing materials to tell something new and interesting. I suppose that — this is a little controversial — I always thought it was a shame that projects like "Black Mesa," the "Opposing Force" remake or whatever… that so much talent went into [revisiting old material]. I think about what it would've looked like if they'd gone in new directions rather than go back to Black Mesa[…] "Half-Life 2" is just a good science fiction story. It doesn't have incredibly deep or rich themes, it's just exceptionally well-told with realistic and compelling characters, and an incredibly powerful world that had an impact on a lot of people. So for us, making "A Place in the West," it was like: what is it about the world of "Half-Life" — Black Mesa, the Combine, the role of science — can we explore in a new way, can we bring a new texture to them?
—Ross Joseph Gardner
"Half-Life 2" is a slice of sci-fi that isn't really reflected much in books or movies, y'know? It's this run-down, ecological disaster Eastern Europe. There's science fiction stuff but there's not a lot of humans interacting with the science fiction stuff — it's these big, heartless edifices and faceless alien dudes running around, the bad guys are giant grubs… it's a very unique look and a unique way of combining that with horror. The difference between Ravenholm and some other parts of the game is very incongruous; Ravenholm is a game about throwing buzzsaws at people. There's no other part of the game that has the exact vibe that that level does.
Like id Software ("Doom," "Quake," "Wolfenstein") and 3D Realms ("Duke Nukem 3D") before it, Valve allowed players to make new content for "Half-Life" by releasing the same tools used to develop the game alongside it. Game modding, then, was nothing new, but the fidelity granted by "Half-Life's" engine — a heavily modified version of id's "Quake 2" engine, later called GoldSrc — along with the comparatively realistic setting of "Half-Life" compelled many players to pick up the tools and start creating, a trend that would continue with "Half-Life 2" and Valve's improved Source Engine:
I played "Counter-Strike" with my friends, but then I found out it was built on top of this other game called "Half-Life", and then I was hooked.
Like a lot of "Counter-Strike" players, me and my friends got bored of playing the same maps over and over, or wanted to make our own variants of existing maps… so I started looking up online tutorials on how to make "Counter-Strike" maps. But then I realized I liked imagining the stories of the maps more, like thinking about how the counter-terrorists got there or why the terrorist team was there, etc. Then after I played "Half-Life," I started to make more single player maps, and got more involved with modding communities like The Snarkpit and Mapcore. The Snarkpit was really great actually, it was a custom-built message board where you could upload your maps and run contests, it helped facilitate a lot of community and connections. Sometimes I still end up running into ex-Snarkpit members in real-life too!
"Half-Life" is the first game I ever really made a level for — but they weren't, like, good levels. I'd mess around with all the stuff entities would do and try to get my brother to play them with me. I had one level where I had a really ugly, brushed-outplane or two. You'd sit in the plane and it'd fly around, but it was just on rails like the "Half-Life" intro train. You'd control it a little bit and try to shoot the other guy out of his plane, but if anybody succeeded, the train [entity] would still be going, so you'd have to wait until the plane landed for a sec, or chase after it and try to jump on the wing. That's pretty much the coolest thing I did on "Half-Life," but I didn't get heavily into [modding] until "Half-Life 2."
"Half-Life" has become more of a tool for ordinary people's personal expression, in a way, than almost any other game I can think of. There are plenty of people out there who want to know what happens to Gordon and who revere Valve as the creators of the game, but I think there's probably as many people out there for whom the greatest impact of the franchise might be mods, or "Garry's Mod", or a game that they made… or a cool YouTube video. Remember when all those special-effects [heavy] YouTube videos came out where people dressed up as survivors in the world of "Half-Life?" "Half-Life" has become a thing that people use to tell their own story — or I hope that more people have seen it this way, I have no proof that it's the case — but I like that it's a game where many people seem to be able to break out of that cycle of revering and treasuring a commercial product, and have been able to take ownership of it, and disassemble it, rip it to pieces and use those pieces to make themselves happy and teach them things.
Even when I was making "Doom" maps, I was always very rooted in the real world. The first maps that I made were my school, not just because that's what everyone does as their first map, but because that's the sort of architecture that interests me. I like basing things on what I see, whereas I never really had the imagination that some people had to make "Quake" maps, these fantastic fortresses and things[…] Because "Half-Life" was based in reality, to a degree, I found that was something I could actually contribute to. There were clear rules in the environment and world they had created that I could expand upon.
Of course, the other advantage was that, at the time, I could make an entire map by myself and it could look as good as a map made by the professionals. It was all [based in] materials and brushes — there wasn't a huge amount of detail that was required. These days, every new map has to be unique looking. It involves teams of artists, teams of designers, sound artists even, pouring over a map for weeks and weeks while trying to deliver everything that the engine can deliver, that detail computers are capable of now. In that era, it was just kids like me making stuff in an evening or a weekend. If we knew what we were doing, you couldn't tell the difference between what we had made and something by the company[…]
I love making things out of brushes — that sort of coarse, brute control over things. I don't like going into Maya or 3ds Max to make something. I like seeing what I can make [with brushes]. Even creating the arches in Dust; that was a challenge! These days it seems like that's child's play. Of all the things I enjoyed about map design, I liked tackling these 3D geometric puzzles, trying to figure out how to build them.
What steered me to "Half-Life 2" [for machinima] was, directly, the tools. I knew I wanted to have faceless characters so I wouldn't have to animate faces, so somebody in a helmet or something. It could've just as easily been in something like "Doom 3" at the time, but I looked at the options available and the Source SDK, say if I wanted somebody to walk over and sit down in a chair, [Source] gave me the most tools to work with out of anything. So that came from a desire to make videos but with no available actors, or budget, really. It sort of propelled me down learning the Source engine to animate things. Even in my first episode of "Civil Protection," I think a few weeks in I was ready to quit. But I had spent so much time on it, it would've been more unsatisfying to quit than to just keep going and finish it.
For every completed "Half-Life" mod or even "Counter-Strike" map, there have got to be dozens more that were abandoned in an unfinished state. Often, teams would get too focused on a hypothetical list of features, a ballooning story outline or on putting out "professional" grade assets — frequently, they'd get bogged down by chasing all three! Robert Yang wrote a great history of the first-person shooter through the lens of modding culture that touches on how this "inferiority complex" spelled doom for many mods in the 2000s. Not every mod collapsed, and even some of those that did led to positive outcomes down the line:
I joined the Half-Life Improvement Team Forum. They were dedicated to taking all the assets in "Half-Life" and enhancing them in ways similar to what the High Definition Pack had done earlier[… they were aiming] to release what was going to be a mod called "Half-Life Enhanced." That was going to include ragdoll physics, improved particle effects. Improving the models was a big part of what they wanted to do. In retrospect, that mod never did come together, but it brought together a community of a whole lot of people who were improving models in their own way[…] eventually I'd try my own hand at touching up the textures in Photoshop, or compiling improved models for "Half-Life," making it compatible with other mods.
I ended up getting into "Half-Life 2" modding because of Ross [Joseph Gardner]. We actually met working on a mod for "Doom 3," and he dragged me over to "Half-Life 2." The first thing that we started together ended up also being something that was just far too ambitious. The idea was that it was set in Russia, in the Leningrad area, with the idea of this last surviving human city trying to fight off the Combine. We were drawing a lot of parallels with World War II — this "resistance in winter," odds that seemed overwhelming — but yeah, it just ended up being a huge, sprawling story. Plenty of the elements from that are things we've been able to adapt in the comic, which is a big part of why going into comics made sense for us. When it came to curbing ambition, or working really closely with gameplay, there were just areas we weren't really great with. We're more able to work in [comics], where it's more focused on the story that we want to tell. Gameplay always felt like it got in the way; we weren't really coming up with interesting set-pieces. It was always "here are the characters, here's what we want to tell around them."
When we did "Shotgun Sunrise," I guess I had a rule where… because of how these mod teams would fizzle out and die, I figured it was partly a motivational thing because people's work would get thrown out [so often]. I said if "you make something for this mod, then it's definitely going in the mod, that's the rule. No one's going to shout down your shit. If you make it, it's going in." That's why there's, like, three shotguns.
Show me a video game with no strange bugs or "unorthodox" developer solutions and I'll eat a crowbar. The "Half-Life" series has great examples of intentional and unintentional code oddity:
There could be an entire book about doors; read Liz England's excellent post "The Door Problem" for a glimpse of the complexity behind putting a door in a video game. "Half-Life" actually has one of the most lovely door hacks in level design history too… in 1998, their level scripting system didn't let you attach objects to other objects, like you couldn't attach a door to a train. That's a big problem for the intro train sequence of "Half-Life," where it ends with the tram stopping, and the tram door opening. To get around that, the Valve designers force a level change when you arrive at the station. It swaps out your moving train for a fake static train, and a fake static door for a real door. It's kind of brilliant. (The alternative hack would've been to make the door into a second train, that moves perfectly aligned with the main train, but that would've been a mess.)
I watched a lot of "Half-Life 2" speedrunning, around when YouTube got more popular. I was always fascinated by these videos of people climbing up walls by hopping on things. So when I was younger, the things about "Half-Life 2" that interested me most were people breaking the game, or who'd render ridiculous and absurd through mistreatment. I enjoyed the story and all that, but I've always been drawn to the weird stuff that people do to it.
I actually had someone email me because he was blown away [by a scene]. He worked a lot with the Source Engine and could not figure out what I did: at one point I have the character drop a radio that he picked up. There's no real way to do that, normally, in the Source Engine — or at least there wasn't. So what I did was attach [the radio] as a prop, bring it over and when I had him do the release animation, what I did was kill that prop instantly and then I manually went and had it spawn a physics prop in almost the exact same position, so you couldn't notice. By the time he drops it, it's killing the prop that he had and instantly spawning the physical one that just drops.
But the thing is, in "Half-Life 2," there's a scene where Barney drops a crowbar, and Kleiner sets down a clipboard, so I went "how did they do that?" I looked at the level in Hammer, and they referred to an undocumented function, that I think they coded specifically just for that cutscene, and it wasn't meant to work on anything else. Really, everything was like that. It's like, I'm both bitter about it but at the same time I feel like I had a bit of a trial-by-fire for working in other engines.
I often show students some of the C++ source code from "Half-Life," which is available on GitHub now. It's fairly readable, with lots of comments everywhere. Most importantly, it's messy. If you do a search in the "Half-Life" game code, you'll find over 100 instances of the word "hack". That helps my students feel better about their own code. Making games is never perfect or ideal, it's always just about making something work well enough for most of the time.
I'm taking these excerpts and shoving them together in the anti-mass spectrometer that is this section. Shoot your beam of personal insight at them and see how they resonate with you… or just keep scrolling for a de_dust cake recipe (no, really):
One thing I really do like about the Source Engine is, it was one of the earlier ones to implement ragdoll physics. When I have an excuse, I certainly use those. The way [the physics] are calculated, when you play back a demo it's never exactly the same, so that can actually lead to some abnormalities — and probably the most fun of any individual element of making episodes is, if I know a character's going to get flung around, I'll play back the demo and have a recording of it and then I might do it five more times and see how the body bounces differently, then pick the one I like the most.
I heard on a forum that somebody found out [Valve] would sign stuff if you sent it to them. I thought "well, I don't have anything for them to sign," but because they'd been working with ATI advertise these new graphics cards, I asked "hey, can I get one of those graphics cards, but signed by Gabe Newell and Dario Casali?" They were like "what's your address?" Okaaay… so I sent them my address, and a month later I get this cardboard ATI X800 XT. They'd gotten some cardboard and printed a picture of the graphics card on both sides, and signed it.
When I got "Half-Life 2," it was my first time living away from home. I'd just turned 18 and moved across the country. I was living with a friend of mine who's in the games industry as a professional now — we were working through "Half-Life 2" together, and I remember we were going through Ravenholm. It's this small mining town: dark, full of zombies and pretty rubbish… and even though it didn't really look like where I'd grown up, it gave me a weird sense of nostalgia to play through it. I was from a small textile mill town — that was also dark, and full of zombies and looked like rubbish — but it was this weird degree of atmospheric where, even though it's [set in] Eastern Europe, which is objectively nothing like my home, it still felt like I was there. It was such a strange feeling.
Definitely check out Heather Flowers' "EPISTLE 3." It is extremely funny, and the most interesting thing about it is that Heather has never played "Half-Life." It's an exploration of what you learn about "Half-Life" [by] just existing in video games land; all this absorbed, received information about "Half-Life", warped and twisted through someone's weird sense of humor. My favorite thing about it is that every object and person and thing in the game is just a giant white cube. You have to shoot the cubes to figure out what they are — it turns you into this monster that's going around shooting things, which is the perennial critique of "Half-Life": that it's a story-heavy game where your only mode of interaction is shooting.
A few weeks ago was my eleventh year at Splash Damage — we call them "Splashiversaries." Just because everyone's been teasing me for years about making Dust, I actually made a Dust cake. So it took me… how many years? 16 years to make a Dust cake, with Dust crates and the bomb spot? I hope that'll stop the teasing.
"FORGET ABOUT FREEMAN!"
God help me if, the day this piece goes live, Valve announces some kind of follow-up to "Half-Life" — on the off-chance, I'm reserving this space to acknowledge how owned I am. Valve's not been all that keen on celebrating big anniversaries in the past, though, so it's not like anyone should have their hopes up. If you're still pining for a sequel, I can't blame you… but I hope this piece helps you appreciate what the games were, rather than get stuck on what might've been. Here's to seeing you up ahead.
Level design isn't this nexus anymore for getting into game development, or even for just creating stuff and sharing it with your friends. You can't knock up a level for "Fortnite" or anything, any current game. You can't just cobble together a "Call of Duty" level anymore and play it with your mates. I think that's a real shame, and it comes from this top-down thing of: right, everyone uses the tools used by this big company, and that company makes tools that work for them, that work because they're rich and huge. They just let the other tools rot and decay. Those are the tools we were using to get into and find the interest they had in working on games. It's the same reason modding isn't as much of a thing anymore… though that's also because you can also make money [with your own game].
I do love seeing people's versions of Dust, like versions in "Minecraft" or the "Crysis" games. Having people play your maps is a great feeling — to feel that you've made a thing people really like to play — but to have someone spend their own time recreating it is a whole other level. I'm sure one day, someone will make a proper Dust 3 that will overtake Dust and Dust 2 and I'll be like, "yeah, well done mate, I couldn't do that." It'll happen at some point, surely. I wonder if the map that takes Dust's crown will be a Dust-style map or if it'll be something completely different. The reason they succeeded was because they did that design before anyone else did[…] it might be that ["Counter-Strike: Global Offensive"]lends itself better to a different style of map that nobody's quite landed on, or maybe they have but the map hasn't reached that mindshare yet.
A comment I tend to get all the time is surprise that "Half-Life" has all these details, but I don't believe these details have been unnoticed by everyone. There are people out there who've played and noticed one or two of these things — not all of them, of course — but these details, I believe, while they don't make the games what they are on their own, I believe the elevate what's already a strong game to a deeper, more memorable experience[…] I hope these videos give people the opportunity to appreciate the games they're playing more, to really think about all the time and effort that went into them. When someone says "why did they bother putting this in, no one's going to notice" or "what a waste of time," that derides the developers. There are people who notice.
Today, we think of "Half-Life" as an inevitable or obvious success, but it also took some risks that went against the FPS trends at the time. The big FPS games in 1996-1997 were maybe "Quake," "Quake 2," "Duke Nukem 3D" and "Dark Forces 2″… they're all about these big combat arenas, where you start shooting aliens or monsters within the first 30 seconds of the game. Compare that to "Half-Life's" intro sequence in 1998, which is like an 8 minute train ride to work where nothing happens, and then 30-40 minutes later, maybe you get a pistol? That's a pretty big departure from where the rest of the FPS genre was going. If there's going to be another "Half-Life" in the FPS genre ever again, it will have to take similar risks that rethink popular practice in a fresh way, without fear or apology.
In the years since "Half-Life 2" came out, the shape of video games has changed so much that, if I want top-quality, experimental, story-focused stuff, I can find that. There are plenty of indie games out there that do that kind of stuff, and plenty that don't even cost any money. There's art mods for all sorts of stuff now that you can play that are probably ten million times more interesting than anything Valve can do if it tries to make a traditional first-person shooter[…] in the years since they came out with this game, game development has been democratized in a way they probably never could've predicted, and plenty of people who grew up playing the "Half-Life" games are poised to do exciting, world-changing stuff with the medium.
If you've played a mainstream first-person shooter in the last 10-15 years, it's extremely likely you've played something made by a former Snarkpit or Mapcore user.
Think of brushes as the basic building blocks of a level.
In the lingo of Worldcraft and Hammer, the GoldSrc and Source
Engine mapping tools, any vehicle built in-editor from moving brushes was a "train" entity.
To make your own de_dust cake follow this recipe for a Victoria Sponge and adorn it with the dust texture set, printed on edible sugar paper.
The most recent version of the game.