“Forget about Freeman! We are cutting our losses and pulling out! Anyone left down there now is on his own! Repeat: if you are not already, you are–“
The radio message was interrupted and never finished. I can not recall any other line of text in a video game that gave me chills like this one. And it left a lasting impression. When I looked up the video for this text, it was exactly as I remembered from playing Half-Life 20 years ago. To understand this, you have to consider the time in which Half-Life was released and my age at that time. Half-Life was the first game that told me its story in real time and through the environment. When it was released in 1998, cutscenes were highly fashionable. Real actors provided a story for Jedi Knight and Wing Commander, that the game engine supposedly could not. Rendered sequences also added value to games. In the great console war between Sony and Nintendo, the (too) many minutes of movie like sequences in Final Fantasy VII were often used to prove the supremacy of the PlayStation.
Half-Life rid itself of all the fancy glitter. Only the eyes and ears of Gordon Freeman provided the player with information about a catastrophe of gigantic proportions that took place in the research complex “Black Mesa”. I was right in the middle of the events from the very beginning, when a rift between dimensions was opened and gruesome aliens carved a trail of blood and debris through the facility. And while I was trying to survive in this horrific environment, I was picking up bits and pieces about what had actually happened. The outstanding sound design and the scripted sequences offered a glimpse of what awaited me and embedded the experience into a larger narrative context. I was young and had little experience with games of this kind and therefore no distance whatsoever to what was happening. I was Gordon Freeman and I just wanted to escape from Black Mesa. And so the game managed to mislead me: I thought it was good news when other survivors told me that the military had been sent to rescue me and everyone else. Of course, that wasn’t the case: the scientists, who had been hiding from the hideous aliens in their offices, ran in relief in the direction of the soldiers, who put an abrupt end to the joy with some well-aimed salves from their machine guns.
The incident was to be be covered up. No one who had witnessed what had happened was allowed to survive it. From then on, not only was there no hope of rescue, but in addition to the monsters, a troop of well-equipped soldiers sought out one person in particular: Gordon Freeman. Me. As time went on, i was able to intercept radio messages and listen to their conversations, their strategy constantly changing, as they were bringing increasingly heavy machinery in to hunt me down. It wasn’t just an average shooter with different levels to work through. It was a story that was so immersive that I really did my best not to get caught. The soldiers seemed real, the setting was realistic (despite the aliens) – Half-Life was a revelation of what video games could be. And when it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse and the soldiers bombed the whole complex from the air to bury Freeman and everything else under the rubble, the most frightening radio message of all came from a of a military radio, through the static noise and was barely audible: “Forget About Freeman. We are pulling out.”
The military had risked everything to bring me in. No matter how many of them I took out, they kept coming for me. If they strayed from that goal, it could only mean the worst. Suddenly I missed my worst enemy at the time – the soldiers were ruthless and dangerous, but at least they were human. A connection to the real world. The withdrawal of the troops made Black Mesa the most deserted, dangerous and gloomy place in the whole world. I was genuinely terrified. This happened at the beginning of a new chapter into which the game is divided. The name of the chapter was displayed plain and simple in front of me: Forget About Freeman.
Half-Life by Valve revolutionized shooters and computer games as a whole in 1998. Even while playing it, I knew that it was something never seen before. The type of storytelling was a massive game changer for the industry. To this day I consider it one of the best games ever and personally also clearly superior to the somewhat fragmented and bloated successor. In 2012 a fan-project released the remake “Black Mesa”, which was approved by Valve and after a lot of careful detail work was released this year as the definitive version of a brilliant classic, which even completely recreated the somewhat lackluster final part of the game.
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