The 1990s were an astonishing period for video games: an entire decade where it seemed like every six months a revolutionary vision of the future arrived. Super Mario 64 made the third dimension an essential addition to platform games, Baldur’s Gate brought astonishing scope to role-playing games, and Resident Evil turned a simple house into a terrifying interactive nightmare. These examples remain immortal classics, but they also paved the way to a better future for their respective series and genres.
But there’s a ’90s classic that has an unusual relationship with the future. Half-Life, the revolutionary first-person shooter created by just 30 people at the then-newly formed Valve Software, still feels like it’s a generation ahead. Its surface may have aged with blocky textures, primitive lighting, and stilted animation, but Half-Life is a masterclass in level design, atmosphere, and immersive storytelling. And despite being so influential throughout the video game industry, on its 25th anniversary it remains a singular triumph.
Half-Life’s biggest moments
It’s fitting that Half-Life’s thrilling campaign, which veers between energetic gunfights and tense discoveries, begins on a rollercoaster ride. Something like. The train that takes your protagonist, Dr. Gordon Freeman, to his day job as a scientist at the underground Black Mesa Research Center is an automated tour of the places that await you; the numerous stages in which a continuous supply of innovative encounters and clever level design will guide you to a literally otherworldly conclusion.
21st century FPS classics like the original Modern Warfare and Titanfall 2 follow in these footsteps. Half-Life’s variety is the root of missions like ‘Into The Abyss’ and ‘All Ghillied Up’. But even those brilliantly varied campaigns struggle to keep up with the rapidly evolving corridors of Black Mesa. Each chapter has a unique and defined concept, from attacking the Tentacles’ hideout in ‘Blast Pit’, to firing laser-guided rockets off the edge of a cliff in ‘Surface Tension’, to solving puzzles in portals in ‘Lambda. ‘ Center’.
This variety helps control Half-Life’s perfect tempo. After an opening that deliberately straddles the razor’s edge between the astonishing and the mundane, a scientific disaster tears at the fabric of space and aggressive aliens arrive on Black Mesa. With only one objective (to reach the surface and find help), you will ascend through the floors of the facility in a desperate fight to the end. But just when it appears that internal security has been achieved thanks to the arrival of the US Marines, you and all your colleagues suddenly find yourself in the line of fire as the military works to fatally silence any witnesses. This brilliant and shocking twist triggers the sense of increasing danger in Half-Life. It forces you back underground and into a series of chapters that take you agonizingly close to the surface, only to push you deeper and deeper to face deadly snipers, agile assassins, and even more brutal forms of aliens from beyond the stars.
Adding soldiers to the enemy gallery also radically rethinks encounter design. The primary language of Half-Life is that of the weapon, but its vocabulary is constantly expanding. This starts with your aliens, who, in Doom lore, each have unique attacks and work together like an ugly collage: fending off jumping headcrabs while houndeyes charge up their shockwaves and vortigaunts shoot you with long beams. range is quite a combat challenge. The way these alien enemies are organized, each requiring specific tactics to defeat them, is a far cry from the legions of identical humans that make up many of today’s top shooters. But even when Half-Life opts for enemies from this Earth, they’re just as exciting as their more esoteric counterparts; an army of aggressive, risk-taking flankers who love to chase you away with grenades. Get into a fight with both groups at the same time and it will be an exciting survival shootout that very few games have replicated since.
The arrival of the Marines in ‘We Have Hostiles’ changes Half-Life’s initial tone from surviving a disaster to getting closer to being hunted by predators. This atmospheric pressure makes Half-Life one of the most effective horror games ever created. It’s enhanced by stunning attention to detail, lighting and timing: scares generated by headcrabs lurking in dark vents and zombies hiding in tight corners. All of this feeds on isolation; Friendly NPCs are a rarity, so you’re asked to survive long attacks by acid-spewing squids and flesh-hungry barnacles alone. It is often a desperate and terrifying battle for survival against all odds.
That oppression is balanced with a black comedy full of laughter. The hapless lab staff are devoured by unseen horrors hiding in the ventilation shafts, their thick entrails expelled mere seconds later as the punchline to the world’s bloodiest belching joke. A desperate scientist shouts “Take me with you! I’m the only man who knows everything” before quickly exploding all over the walls. Half-Life is a real hoot like very few of today’s often serious games are.
However, these laugh-worthy deaths of scientists are not just jokes. They contribute to Half-Life’s story, which is cleverly told through the environment itself. Valve had originally planned to use traditional cutscenes, but ran out of time, so Half-Life takes place entirely in first person with the player in complete control from start to finish. It creates an extraordinary feeling of immersion: you are living every moment and, apart from the one moment when the game goes black after being knocked unconscious, your journey is completely continuous and uncut. It makes Black Mesa’s sprawling, interconnected labs and offices feel truly authentic rather than a series of levels. And it is that authenticity that means that the locations are not only the setting of the story, but are the history.
“The narrative had to be integrated into the hallways,” Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw explained in an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun. “Lots of traps, detours and obstacles and occasional moments of breakthrough. Really good level design tells its own story. You don’t need NPCs to show up to tell you what to do if your visual grammar is clear enough. Then, when the characters appear, they can say lines of dialogue that make them feel like characters instead of signs.”
Almost all of Half-Life’s victories have been repeated over the last quarter century. Halo features the same striking approach to combat encounters, powered by brilliantly reactive AI. The Metro games adopted that thick atmosphere that made each hallway its own story. Call of Duty has built its legacy on conceptual missions that turn into wild adventures with each new chapter. But despite its influence, it’s hard to think of many shooters that managed to comprehensively raise FPS like Half-Life did. In fact, at least as far as I’m concerned, only one game has done it: Half-Life 2.
In many ways, Half-Life can be seen as a critique of the video game industry: how can a 25-year-old game be better than almost every shooter that followed it? Why has its ambition been surpassed only by its own sequel? It shows the panorama of a stagnant industry that still plays with toys from the 1990s.
But as long as that’s the case, Half-Life will continue to feel like it’s the future. Its copy-and-paste security guards, scruffy audio quality and slippery ’90s movement can’t get old, such is the strength of its design. So today is as good a day as any to revisit the game that completely redefined the narrative shooter.
They’re waiting for you, Gordon. In the testing chamber.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK news and features editor.