Home > Clement's Game, Half-Life, Valve > Science Fiction Round 24: Half-Life

Science Fiction Round 24: Half-Life

We made the silly decision to get a whole bunch of Valve games.  (There was a sale!)

Consequence:  We’ve spent rather a while over the last several weeks playing through the Half-Life and Half-Life 2 games.  Clearly, it’s time for a review, starting with Half-Life.

Also, these games are awesome.  Play them before reading if you don’t want spoilers.



Its mouth is its bottom side.  And it wants to hug your face.

Its mouth is its bottom side. And it wants to hug your face.

I hated these.  They hide in all sorts of annoying places, behind crates, in ducts in the ceiling… and then they jump out and try to eat your face.

While they’re very effective for weak enemies, they do lead to a general problem.  Why are they successful at eating people’s faces?  These are alien critters — why are they so good at eating the brains of aliens, taking them over, and turning them into zombies?  Why don’t our brains make them sick?  There’s no good reason to assume that alien biology is sufficiently similar to our own to make us good eating.

I could theorize that they were engineered by the biotech-savvy natives of Xen.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t work either, since we later learn that Earth-side scientists were abducting alien samples (including headcrabs) long before the Vortigaunts (one kind of sentient locals) start doing things to Earth.  (Edit — based on reading the Half-Life Wiki, it’s theorized Vortigaunts and company were actually planning to invade Earth for reasons presented in Half-Life 2… and then Earth started poking them, so the bioweapon idea may work after all.)

On the plus side, the actual mechanism of I-eat-your-face-and-control-your-body-now isn’t entirely unprecedented.  There are some examples of parasites in the insect world that do something like this, hijacking the host to help the parasite propagate itself.  (Which has some lovely implications about headcrabs.  We also get to meet what we can describe as the “mother of all headcrabs.”  I assume that’s what happen if you don’t shoot them while they’re small.)  It’s still weird that it works, but hey… it’s suitably creepy.

Gordon Freeman, MIT PhD in Theoretical Physics (with a minor in Butt-Kicking)

Okay, so I’m getting a PhD in mostly-theoretical physics at Stanford.  And I don’t know anything about killing aliens or firing RPGs.  Or gauss guns.

Well, except for using them in a video game, that is.  Which doesn’t give you experience that translates into actual alien-extermination skills.

Freeman, on the other hand, has apparently picked up these skills somewhere.  Which is rather unusual.  (Perhaps he’s ex-military of some kind, prior to that PhD?)  Either that, or Black Mesa has a very thorough employee training program.

It’s also a bit odd that a theoretical physicist is the person doing the experimental research… although it’s implied that this is punishment for Freeman always being late to work.

Meet Gordon Freeman, PhD physicist.  He's also really good with a crowbar.

Meet Gordon Freeman, PhD physicist. He’s also really good with a crowbar.


Kill All The Scientists

You are in charge of the military.  Contrary to the usual rules about the army not operating domestically, you’re sent in to deal with an extra-dimensional alien incursion.  (This is okay if you count it as an invasion straight-up.)  So… what’s the strategy?  You could find the people who were there, figure out what’s going on before you start bombing things, find the engineers who constructed the various equipment… or you could just kill all the scientists because they know too much, or something.

This is a bad plan.  You’re going out of your way to kill valuable, highly-educated people who are well-motivated to work with you (before you start shooting them) and are likely to know exactly what’s going on and how to fix it.

I really hope that the actual military is not this self-defeating (Freeman stops the alien invasion for the military in the game, but also personally kills several hundred marines and black-ops types who did not need to die).

Radiation Hazard

Although not so bad as Aperture Science, Black Mesa has some problems with OSHA compliance.

One of the worst offenses is probably all the various radioactive spills.  It’s so bad that it glows green in the dark.  Which is rather odd, actually.  Most radioactive waste isn’t going to glow, because the fraction of waste that is radioactive material (as opposed to acidic, caustic, or otherwise toxic) is often pretty small.  And if it does glow, because it’s a slowly decaying slug, it’ll glow red from blackbody radiation due to the fact that the radioactivity is heating the material.  In the former case, it’s not the radiation that kills you.  In the latter case, the radiation really is quite nasty.

But glowing green?  There has to be some other chemical in there that’s doing the glowing.  Maybe they mixed some glowing chemicals with their radioactive sludge to make sure they could keep track of it.  There’s a lot of it running through the sewers… and that’s not really something that you just want to dump into the nearest body of water.  I certainly hope that’s not what they were doing with it.

And speaking of compliance with rules…

“Equal Opportunity Employer”

The comment about Black Mesa following employment rules is made during the voice-over at the beginning of the game.

The catch?  I think the only women we see in the whole game are a couple of the black ops agents.  Oops.

And that’s it.  For bonus points, about a third of all the scientists we see look way too much like Einstein.  What the heck?  At least they do a better job of this in the second game, but seriously… the fraction of modern real-life scientists who look like Einstein is very, very small.


This place is strange.  It’s certainly cool that there islands floating in the air and variable gravity and cute living lamps and critters everywhere that you have to shoot…

… but that variable gravity thing is bizarre.  As is the convenience that you can breathe the air without noticeable difficulty.  (Much as the Xen locals can tolerate Earth just fine.)

But… well, gravity just doesn’t do that.  And it doesn’t look like we’re even on a planet… I’m not sure what to say about this place, aside from “somebody broke physics.”

Okay, there’s teleportation, so, yeah, somebody broke physics.  Oops.

A Comment On Mechanics

At least on the Mac port for the game, the controls are very, very touchy.  An errant twitch is enough to send Gordon Freeman careening to his doom down whichever elevator shaft or deep crevice is nearby.  Or falling off of a ladder.  This was… really annoying.  And also a bit unrealistic.  The same is true for a couple of tasks in Half-Life 2, where something that would be really easy in-person was quite difficult to manage with the given interface.

Also, doors.  I hated doors.  In order to go through an automatic door, you basically have to smash your face into it.  There were a couple of times when I thought a door was locked because I didn’t walk close enough to it for it to open.  (That’s also fixed in Half-Life 2, thankfully.)

Then again, given that Freeman survives a disgustingly large number of gunshot wounds and dips into radioactive acid, I probably shouldn’t complain too much.

Who is the G-Man?

Heck if I know.  At the end of Half-Life, based on his appearance, mysteriousness, and accent, I was torn between the competing hypotheses of “alien robot” and “vampire.”  After Half-Life 2, well… I think both options are still open.  More in the next post…

  1. 2013/08/21 at 8:13 pm

    When I see the “radiation is green” trope, I usually just assume it’s an accidental reference to Cherenkov radiation with a green-for-blue color swap, perhaps because a green glow looks more otherworldly and unnatural than a blue glow. The “Sickly Green Glow” TVTropes page has more.

  2. michaelbusch
    2013/08/23 at 6:42 pm

    It’s also a bit odd that a theoretical physicist is the person doing the experimental research… although it’s implied that this is punishment for Freeman always being late to work.

    I would not call “pushing carts of samples around” experimental research by itself – it’s just one of the many mundane physical tasks that are necessary for the experiment to take place. I went with “punishment detail” for that one.

    And, yes, somebody broke physics. They broke it badly.

  3. 2013/08/24 at 3:25 am

    Chronos — you make a good point. After all, they made the “radioactive” kryptonite green… among other things. I’d also be unsurprised if it were related to the old radium watchdials (e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radium_dials) and some other radioluminescent paints, which also glow green.

  1. 2013/10/30 at 4:32 am

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