Getting Chills 16 Years Later: ‘Half-Life’ Is The Patriarch of Storytelling

Video games have certainly come a long way since their inception. In the beginning, the goal was simple: achieve the highest score you could before facing the dreaded “game over” screen. This was inevitable in the gaming world; you would do your best, but ultimately you will fail. Bragging rights were about as good as it got back then. However, somewhere along the lines in gaming history, things changed. Getting your initials on the leaderboard wasn’t as important as it once was. Gamers wanted storylines and characters with a history, personality and attitude. So, when exactly did the MO of gaming shift?

Although I’m sure the concept of a storyline in a video game was introduced well before it, only one game really stands out to this gamer.


Now maybe I am a bit biased. It was one of the first games I was exposed to that consisted of more than just trying to reach the highest level or point total. It was the first game I encountered that made you FEEL like you were a part of something greater than the end result. Every move, sound and word that was spoken evoked feelings of suspense, fear and anxiety. It was the FIRST game to make me jump out of my seat due to how involved I felt while playing it. To those Valve heads out there, you get it and I need not write another sentence.

From the very beginning, you truly feel as if you are the game’s nerdy MIT graduate protagonist Gordon Freeman. Enjoying a ten-minute train ride through the Black Mesa facility, you are forced to survey the world that is not only new to you as a first-time player, but also as Gordon’s first day on the job. Gordon speaks no words, and makes no sound other than footsteps as you walk about the train for the entire time.

someone with a crowbar ready to use it against an alien (in a first person perspective)

Immersion level: 1

You arrive at your destination and step off the train, greeted by a friendly security guard. He suggests going out for a beer after your shift. Again, you say nothing as he checks you through a security gate. As you enter the lobby, you are greeted by fellow scientists. They all seem excited for an experiment you are scheduled to conduct that day, aside from a few “minor concerns.” “Everything will be fine” they say; “Nothing to worry about,” the others gloat. They tell you to prepare and get into your hazard suit, and head to the lab when you’re ready.

Immersion Level: 2

After some running around and getting used to things, you find your locker. Now let me tell you something. When I step into that suit, to this day 16 years later, I still get butterflies every time I play this game. “Welcome, to the HEV Mark IV protective system, for use in hazardous environment conditions. Have a very safe day,” the robotic lady voice announces to you. It is this voice that will either haunt or reassure you throughout the rest of the entire game.

Immersion level: 3

After donning your suit, you make your way to the test chamber. You listen carefully to your colleagues as they talk you through the procedure. You flip some switches, initiate some protocols, and then a sample is delivered to you. You are told to place the sample into a receptacle by your fellow professors, and you do as you are told. But upon doing so, something goes noticeably wrong. Things go south, the screen goes black. You hear explosions, then screams, and then you catch but a small glimpse of what is in store for your future.

Immersion level: WTF!

This is the first half hour or so of what I consider to be one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. I’ve yet to swing a crowbar, fire a bullet, or even encounter an enemy. That being said, it already has a choke hold on my imagination. The best part about all of it: NO cut scenes the entire time. You as Gordon Freeman are a part of every single moment that happens in this game. The game developers even kept level design small so loading times wouldn’t impede the flow of the game. Maybe that’s why I consider Half-Life to be the patriarch to video game storytelling.

If you’ve never played it before, do yourself a solid. Buy the Orange Box (which includes HL2Portal, etc…) for next to nothing, and prepare to be glued to your monitor for a while. You’re in for a ride! You can buy the original Half-Life here.

(Words by Ryan Rebello)