If you’re like me, you played Half-Life at a young age. Chances are you missed a lot of what this series has to offer (if you haven’t played or heard of Half-Life, you may not belong at Mines). Or maybe you understood the scientific anomalies, taxonomy of all the alien species, the multi-faceted government cover-ups, and interdimensional politics on your first go around. Well it’s safe to say I did not; partly due to the fact my primary exposure to the series was through watching my older brother and uncle play.
Here’s what I gathered from watching them: scientist, scary aliens, military, creepy dude in a blue suit.
Even this served to tickle my fancy, and the game remains a nostalgic refuge in my memory. However, for some odd reason, I recently decided it was time to replay the games and try to piece together the incredibly intricate story of the Half-Life universe. Just a warning: spoiler upon spoiler alerts are on the way. I am assuming a mild familiarity with the series to understand the aspects of the game below.
I began, obviously, with a replay of the original Half-Life, 1998 graphics and all. Not horrible honestly, the superb gameplay and instant recognition of the familiar game sounds allowed me to stomach the lifeless AI models. This lead to some minor confusion, however. In Half-Life 2, you meet up with Drs. Kleiner and Vance. In Half-Life 1, all of the scientists look the same and have the same audio files for their voices. Barney Calhoun, loveable security guard? Hard to tell which one is Barney, because all of the security guards have the exact same player models. This problem is solved by the updated Half-Life called Black Mesa. An independent studio revamped the Half-Life storyline to the Source engine, and performed an aesthetic remodel of the entire Black Mesa facility. I have not played this yet, but videos show the resemblances to Half-Life in incredible detail and enhancement. I assume the key roles like Eli Vance are updated and recognizable, but only a play-through would confirm that. All of that aside, it is important to pay close attention to the beginning sequence of Half-Life where you learn about a timely “accidental” systems failure and can listen to scientists discussing the odd sample being tested that day. More importantly you can re-ruin Dr. Magnusson’s casserole (referenced later in Half-Life Episode Two). I first began to delve into the world of Half-Life Wikia upon the mention of a resonance cascade, because upon hearing that I thought profoundly to myself, “Huh?” So began the scouring of the internet for more information.
I had thought, at about the age of seven, that the player, Gordon Freeman, had intentionally placed something called the Xen crystal into an anti-matter spectrometer (I’ll pretend to know that this is because I go to Mines) with malicious intent. This was very wrong, as listening to the dialogue proves the crystal is being tested and the science team wishes that Gordon place the crystal into the machine. This quantum event spurs a dimensional rift between Xen and Earth. Initially, I thought that the aliens that came through the portals during the portal storm were just inhabitants of Xen, and all of them barbaric with no purpose. Further research proved that Xen is an interdimensional sort of subway station that connects different dimensions, meaning most teleportation events are drawn to that specific place in space and time. This explains the multitude of species in the Xen, such as the infamous bullsquid, headcrab, barnacle, and houndeye that take advantage of the interdimensional portal rift. Their hostile behavior lacks a motive, and is more related to survival. However, more alien species come through the rift, yet their purpose is well established.
To understand why the other sentient aliens urgently come through the portals, you have to understand the politics and struggles of the Half-Life universe. One group, the Combine forces (from Half-Life 2) are a biomechanical aggregate of races that scour the universe in hopes to enslave and better equip their army and quest for universal domination. Their current (during time period of Half-Life 1 and before) pursuit of the Nihilanth (final boss of Half-Life 1) and his minions, Alien Grunts (big gorilla things with hivehand), Vortigaunts, and Alien Controllers (floaty, mini Nihilanths), has left this “race” hiding in Xen. I call them a race because they are under similar control and share similar features, including a third vestigial arm and backward jointed legs, alluding to a comparable evolutionary chain. Essentially, the Nihilanth has enslaved the Vortigaunts with the help of the Alien Controllers, most likely the same species as the Nihilanth. Meanwhile, as discovered later on Xen, the Alien Grunts appear to be artificially developed or cloned, rendering their loyalty to the Nihilanth’s cause understandable. Conversely, the Vortigaunts are enslaved, as can be seen by the collars and cuffs on their arms. Either way, when the resonance cascade opened the portals to Earth, the Nihilanth saw our planet as an easy escape and a conquerable territory that would be safe from the Combine. Little did they know, the strong resistance of Freeman and the scientists of Black Mesa would severely weaken and impede their attempt.
In his journey through the intestines and rail systems of the Black Mesa complex, Freeman launches a satellite to close the portals as per the relayed instructions of the Lambda Team. The Lambda Team of the Lambda Complex is the team responsible for the pre-resonance cascade interdimensional portals created at Black Mesa. Furthermore, the military has been sent in to manage the situation. By manage, I mean silence everyone who has any involvement or knowledge of the event. By silence, I mean kill. The satellite launch did not serve as a permanent fix because the scientists soon learned another being on Xen, the Nihilanth, was keeping the portals open. Regarding the Lambda Complex: I had once thought that the resonance cascade was the first contact the human race had with any species from Xen, sentient or not. This is not the case. Replaying Half-Life made it clear that there had been testing on alien species (in the chapter Questionable Ethics) for quite some time, which raises some questions. How did humans reach Xen in the first place without first obtaining a Xen crystal? To understand this, I believe we must accept the fact that the scientists were able to “simply” develop this technology independent of Xen, but upon arrival to this dimensional teleportation sink, they found the crystals as a more efficient means of developing teleportation technology. In their explorations of Xen, casualties were experienced, as shown by the corpses of those in hazardous environment (HEV) suits on Xen. Yet, Black Mesa’s competitor, Aperture Science, was able to develop teleportation technology as well. Portal and Portal 2 do indeed tie into this mess as well. It is curious why the Aperture Science facility never experienced relocation to Xen, but this is unfortunately one of the plot holes of the Half-Life universe. The way the writers have it set up is the more they leave unsaid, the more they can leave up to debate and future revision. Honestly, their obscure set up of the entire universe, including both Half-Life and Portal, prevents them from being pigeonholed in their explanations and interconnections.
Anyway, people died on Xen, for science. In these efforts, samples of both crystals and creatures were obtained, including headcrabs, houndeyes, and Alien Grunts. Scientists of Black Mesa tested these creatures, treating them quite poorly, as in certain labs the headcrabs were euthanized using electrical means. This operation was kept quite hush-hush—not very many people knew about it. So, as the creatures found their way to Earth during the cascade and began terrorizing the scientists, it served as somewhat of an instant karma. Not instant per se, but cross-dimensional teleportation is pretty quick.
Freeman survives the initial catastrophic resonance cascade, thwarts the military suppression operations and government cover-ups of government cover-ups, and evades the deadly alien forces. Now he travels to Xen to permanently close the portal between Xen and Earth. Here he experiences former deceased Lambda team members, and even more bizarre alien species. Gordon eventually defeats the Nihilanth, which closes the connection between Earth and Xen. Problem solved right? Well, not exactly.
This marks the first time Freeman interacts verbally with G-man. In this interaction, the player learns that G-man is more than a government official. It seems that G-man and “his employers” have motives separate from the alien forces and the government. He observed your hard work at the Black Mesa, and leaves you with a job offer that will leave you in stasis, a hibernation, until your next assignment. The other choice is a battle you cannot win. Half-Life 2 opens assuming you chose the job.
Half-Life 2 begins with another eerie G-man dialogue (I have yet to beat Half-Life 2 or any of the Episodes recently, as I am currently midway through Half-Life Opposing Force. The expansions, Opposing Force and Blue Shift serve to interconnect and develop the intricacy of the Half-Life universe, which also aid in a better understanding of Half-Life 2). The first time I played Half-Life 2, I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. This is because some events were omitted during the 20 years Freeman was in stasis, but these events are incredibly important to the storyline. The Black Mesa incident opened portals to Xen, and the Combine Empire detected the concentrated and high-intensity teleportation/portal rift. In the time after Gordon was placed in stasis, the Combine traveled to the newly discovered Earth in search of another potential enslavable species. The Combine is composed of a bunch of different aliens that have been mechanically engineered (think Striders, Gunships, and Dropships). The Combine Empire, upon reaching earth, was able to defeat Earth’s scattered military forces in 7 hours. At this point, the Combine declared Earth its own, and to ease the tension of integration of a new species, they appointed Dr. Wallace Breen, former head of Black Mesa, as Administrator of Earth. Breen is a pawn of the Combine, simply acting as a common species relation to the humans on Earth.
The Combine implement drastic monitoring and control methods, using large monitors and constant enforcement of law using the ever-present Metropolice. A common misconception is that the Metropolice, the combine units on the ground, are aliens. In actuality, the Metropolice are humans in Combine issued equipment that aids in the control of their actions. It is unknown why humans would support the enslavement of their own species, but perhaps joining the Metropolice is an appealing alternative to the awful and repressive city-states of future Earth. The Black Mesa event opened portals not only at Black Mesa but also all over Earth, and aliens were roaming the land unchecked, killing humans and native animal species, causing quite the ruckus. For security, humans sought the shelter of togetherness in cities. The centralized locations of humans allowed the ease of enslavement into cities, which were stripped of their name and replaced with numbers, like City 17, the City in which Gordon Awakens 20 years after Black Mesa. The world has been completely transformed (think 1984) where humans are enslaved and stripped of privacy, and even the ability to reproduce. Alien species run rampant outside of cities, enforcing the suppression of the human race. A rebellion has been quietly brewing, and Freeman is just the man to spark a large-scale uprising.
In Half-Life 2, Freeman meets back up with the few scientists that survived Black Mesa, Kleiner, Vance, and Mossman. All are part of the resistance, and they speak of events that tie directly to Gordon’s experiences back at Black Mesa. Gordon also works with Barney Calhoun to fight against the Combine. Even more, Vortigaunts have joined the resistance (Combine is common enemy), and praise Freeman for his efforts in freeing their species from the Nihilanth. The orchestration of a plan to defeat the Combine is set in motion when Freeman arrives, but is soon spoiled when it is revealed Mossman is a double agent working for the Combine. She reveals the location of the rebel hideout, and the Combine attack. The ensuing confusion sends Freeman through Ravelholm, and we don’t go through Ravenholm. From there, things happen with a prison and some giant bugs. The resistance is in turn strengthened. An assault of the Citadel (Combine center command) is launched.
The research I conducted served one large purpose, to connect the plots of Half-Life 1 and Half-Life 2, because honestly before I just accepted they were sequels and I did not know why. “Hey look a head crab! Must be the same game! People still calling me Gordon, nice.” I just took the similarities for granted and thought nothing of the disconnect between the settings and time periods of the game. Either way, the Half-Life universe is incredibly in-depth and immersive, and is one of the greatest and most revolutionary games ever created. The games combine complex puzzles, intense action, and melds the sci-fi and horror genres into one. On top of that, Valve has also embedded Portal into the Half-Life universe, which further expands the possibilities and events that can be revealed in upcoming games. There is one problem, however. The number three. Accurate reports surrounding Valve’s CEO, Gabe Newell, show that he may be unable to count to three (Think: Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Episode One, Episode Two, Portal, Portal 2, Left for Dead, Left for Dead 2). There has been no Valve game that has reached the supreme designation of three.
The conclusion or addition to the Half-Life game series in the form of Half-Life 3 would be more than well accepted, and would stimulate the minds of the dedicated fans. With today’s technology, and the time that has been theoretically pumped into Half-Life 3, the game would be groundbreaking, and could once more revolutionize the industry beyond our wildest dreams. Just thinking about it gets me giddy. There is so much to be explained, such as the origin and purpose of G-man other than stalking Freeman. In the meantime, I will attempt to beat all of the games in the series. I won’t hold my breath until the hypothetical release of a new game in the Half-Life series, but I will keep my crowbar nearby.