A quiet eulogy for a game franchise that shaped me
I have begun writing about this game series several times in the past but have never been satisfied by what came out. It is simply too big and important for me to effectively describe how much it has meant to me. The slow acceptance of its untimely end years ago and the increasing unlikeliness that it will ever return is both an ironic and poetic opportunity for me to weigh in on the “Half-Life” series. I am only one of many who have been expressing such feelings for these games lately.
Recently, there was a blog post by a former writer for Valve, the company that developed “Half-Life,” that was basically a short outline of what the never-released third episode of “Half-Life” would look like. There are probably many scripts that were written and proposed for the third installment, but something about this reveal brought to the surface some realities we’ve been ignoring for a long time. It is highly unlikely we’ll ever see another “Half-Life” game, and there are plenty of reasons.
Valve also happen to be the creators and managers of the game distribution software, Steam. Since its inception in 2003, Steam has grown to be a major financial success, accounting for around 70 percent of online game purchases.
I could go on about how much more important it might be for an organization to focus on revolutionizing the actual video game market rather than continuing to tell a small sci-fi story for a much smaller group of players. I could cite statistics and market numbers to illustrate a very nice view of the economic importance of such an organization. I could use terms like “digital distribution shares” or “competitive profit margins” or “digital rights management.” I could tell you about the comparative decline in single-player game development to the rise of online multiplayer interactions. Or how sequential releases of 20-year-old franchises just aren’t making the kind of splash that they used to.
But I would really rather talk about the summer of 2003 when I spent hours hogging the microscopic bandwidth that was a 28.8k dial-up internet connection to download a massive, 20-minute video showcasing the breathtaking physics and visuals of the upcoming release of “Half-Life 2.” How I showed it to all my friends and spent an entire year imagining the possibilities of this world before I would even install it on my PC.
The simultaneous growth through my adolescence is tightly linked with the growth of the “Half-Life” series, impressing on me a deep passion for video games and the experiences they bring us. I found community, friends, love, heartbreak, compassion, rage, growth, and acceptance with the “Half-Life” series serving as a backdrop to my frequently confused and introverted mind. I learned the importance of resistance and social justice with “Half-Life 2” as my analog for what we should fight for and how we should act, or what our intentions should be. Broadly speaking, of course. I realize we don’t get invaded by alternate-dimension slave-farming slugs very much ...
I gained a love for physics and discovered a deeply emotional joy within the mysteries of quantum mechanics through “Half-Life.” I wanted to be the protagonist, Gordon Freeman, and pursue a degree at MIT and get a job somewhere exploring the unending questions of the universe. Though this is not something I ended up doing (sorry, Craig), I still frequently think about the beautiful mundanity of working in a lab, tirelessly working at equations and theoretical concepts like quantum mechanics and the illusion of free will.
I would roll on the floor, laughing so hard I began to sweat while playing with “Half-Life” mods like “Garry’s Mod” (modifications that allowed the player to push the game engine to its limits, often with hilarious results). Building comical scenes and scenarios with my friends would illustrate many long nights during my teens, only ending when the sun came up or we simply could not continue to hold our eyes open. More so than any specific scenario, I remember laughing a lot, sides aching, cheeks hurting. That is no small gift.
I know I am not alone here. “Half-Life” has been installed on many computers with many other gamers going through many other things: Playing it during the parents’ divorce to comfortably distract from the decaying home life; playing at night, clandestine, to connect with distant friends or family; playing at a LAN party, screaming at the top of your lungs as someone launches a dumpster at you in multiplayer; playing after that funeral so you could revisit locations in-game and remember the time you spent there with that friend; watching your friend play the Ravenholm chapter on Halloween night; laughing with your squad as you accidentally break the game and have to restart from the previous save; finding creative ways to waste time between loading screens.
“Half-Life” has been perpetually installed on my computer since 2004 because, in no small way, it helped shape who I was, and who I am, perhaps even who I aspire to be. And while I lament the reality that I may never play through the exciting conclusion to this amazing story ... we’ll always have City 17.
Brett Massé is currently playing “I Have No Mouth and I Must Freeman,” by Nick Kornek.