Half-Life – A tribute

No. It’s not that I am having self-realization of lived through whole of my life with ever-approaching old age and now getting into that “past tense” mode where you always want to compare current events against old beautiful and majestic moments; Keep cussing the present and wallowing in “those beautiful days”. This is not my trait though. Daily 2 to 3 hours commuting via ever increasing dominant traffic provides that time leverage in which my subconscious could breed ideas for blogging. I was always looking forward to pay tributes to active agents which had drastically changed the “chemical equation and interactions” of my life; converting, transforming and in some way attributing something utterly different to final result what could have been straight forward “simple life”. Like lead to gold conversion, these agents had power to imbue my life substance with forever gloving, unique and never to be forgotten memories which needs a bit of spit and polish and there they shine again like a gem in the gold.

Half-life is one of the many gems. If there was no Half-life, I would have never became gamer (I can hear people passing the sneer as that would have been quite better :). Half-life has injected me with the gaming-drug whose effects were never going to be receded over time. What was so good about it? I can rant memoir justified via book and not via single article as answer, but I would like to restrict this blog particularly to my own views and perceptions which made Half-life special to me. You can find a lot about Half-life on the web as lot has been written and bragged about it, proving how great leap it was in terms of computer gaming.

Introductory text crawling in and out of the screen along with moving metro-coach like contraption; slowly sliding along the rails, giving glimpses of claustrophobic dim-lit underground lab facility to vast open and altogether bizarre experiments. My cut-scene conditioned mind was never ready to grasp the in-game carefully crafted game-engine driven story telling. I still remember the surprise when by mistake I pressed movement keys to check if something was going on and my all-time favorite FPS protagonist: Gordon Freeman was moved in coach’s confined space without any resistance from game-design. And that was the most prolific point of Half-life in that era. You were never out of the game. All those story driven cut-scenes were played out in front of you without making you a mock spectator; everything in first person perspective. Even after so many years million CoD games had not able to create such easy control. It was never forced.

90s was era of FPS gaming where such take on story was absent. You start the game and start killing whatever moves. Another surprise (And Half-life was packed with such surprises) was that you start the game with nothing. In those days, few of my friends along with me were utterly confused with what to do once we finished off with that “long driving sequence”. My mind was also conditioned not to listen to babble of NPCs in FPS as it didn’t mean anything in terms of playing and also I was not much into English at that time due to study in regional language and having English as minor language (Remember, it was era without commercial internet and almost 10 years more to start the economical smartphone uprising). All those tumbles acted as fuel to curiosity towards playing Half-life and also raised awareness to great Gaming world.

“Freeman, we don’t know how much time this will take…..”  How could I forget these lines!!!!?? It could have been eternity, If Freeman would have not chosen to drag that trolley and perform the experiment. And that’s where Half-Life shines like sun, I spent almost 20-30 minutes jumping, observing, falling (from ladder) and listening to continuous babble of scientific talk till my curiosity ran out. At last I dragged the trolley to desired destination causing the rift (Resonance Cascade in Half-Life terms) which was going to result in more than half of my life’s commitment towards Gaming. Pure chaos, ducking through bone-cutting lasers, first headcrab appearance without any weapon and of course the crowbar. These were the defining moments which had haunted the nights of many at that time (And still doing it).

Talking about haunted memories, Half-life must be the only game which has succeeded to shit my pants in broad daylight (even current lot of survival horror titles are not up to this mark). Ok, I accept that I was not grown enough at that time as compared to now but still fear instilled by half-life was potent enough to anyone who is just foraging their way through digital entertainment to make them paralyze and cower away from computer terminal in sheer horror. Among couple of moments I can think of, first was definitely The Tentacle Beast. I was so afraid of it that at first I tried to finish it off within off-limits to the beast, expending all my ammunition even though I knew it was never going to work out and there had to be different way. I was so stressed out not to twitch my mouse while silently skulking around that beast so that it would accidently not turn Freeman to see the beast. And ladders, I was never ever afraid these much while climbing up and down the ladders during presence of the beast. With the beast breathing at your neck (yes, you can feel dampness and hotness caressing your neck), missing single rung on the ladder would be instant death. Even with multiple deaths and handy quick save, fear was relentless. I will always be afraid of Tentacle Beast.

Other most paralyzing and brutal on my nerves encounter was Gonarch’s Lair. As if surrounding was not gross enough to scare me, mere glimpse of that mother of all headcrab had literally covered me all over with Goosebumps size of a chickenpox. I still remember putting down keyboard and mouse with dread and fear not to face that abysmal and most grotesque creation I have ever encountered. I really would have chosen Gonarch over Nihilanth as last boss battle. (There is one Half-life mode where developers/modders just gone extreme level sick by putting Gonarch to confined, darkness shrouded space in some crazy spaceship. It literally took few days for me to gather courage and check out the source of guttural sound coming from deep, pitch darkness.). Moments like the frightening fish-thing in the pond and the cage dangling above it with most powerful weapon. Half-life has this peculiar vision of making you afraid with unknown and then to empower you to face it. Make you learn that only way to overcome something frightful is to face it and fight it head on.

Brilliant fusion of level design along with meaningful puzzles, all out firefights, layered storytelling, loyal mod support, countless popular spin-offs such as Counter-strike and opposing force and that mysterious G-man; all these things make me so devote fan of Half-life that I took up challenge to playing anything which has Half-life in the title or based on half-life universe (I tried to finish as many modes based on half-life as possible along with current brilliant tribute Black mesa which is Half-life revised on Half-life 2 engine).  Even considering the fact that Half-life follow up by Valve i.e. Half-life 2 and episodes 1 & 2 are improved and brilliant experience on themselves, playing Half-life is by far unique experience which is impossible to replicate.

PS : Today Half-life developer Valve is known for its extensive QA testing for immerse user experience conducted with various player and non-player game-play events held in close observation of QA executives to know the first-hand player experience. Even Half-life was their first brain child, they didn’t cut any loose in terms of QA department. Very well-known finite state machine based dumbed-down AI has played its part in terms of immersion like none other. Very simple idea consists of command matrix or states with number or weight attached to them. Commands consists of something like Attack-Reload-take cover-asking for backup and so on. At any moment, simple AI logic will control that not more than attached threshold value to particular state should be crossed in terms of number of opponents. So let’s say threshold value of Attack is 2 than, if more than 2 commandos start attacking player, one will transition to next state of reload. Also each state has time limit so that all opponents keep themselves transitioned regularly to different states. Best part of it was that AI was easy to implement without any brutal difficulty curve for player along with believable state transition which will never result in breaking the immersion. (Anyhow Half-life was going to impress me in terms of AI with release of HL2 where they came up with one of the best companion AI ever to grace gaming community in the name of Alyx Vance. Elizabeth of Bioshock Infinite was also notable mention but Alyx was my first love :).

PS 2: One more reason why I love half-life so much and hence Gordon Freeman is that Freeman never projected as some bad-ass killer machine. He is material physics scientist. Never meant to be hero saving the world. Even after two excursions of saving the world, I always feel like he is not fighting but surviving, saving only his skin and as a result winning the whole world and also millions of hearts of gaming community.

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