A Lever and a Place to Stand: A Half-Life Replay, part 1

by Tom Ingram

We start off, of course, with a famous scene of Gordon Freeman on the Black Mesa Facility’s electric rail system. As the train weaves in and out of mountainsides, we see a bizarre juxtaposition of mundanity and futuristic technology. There is a giant four-legged robot, but it’s used to move ordinary wooden crates, the kind we’re so used to in our games. There are also forklifts, helicopters, scientists with clipboards, and everyday signs on the wall. I think the reason Half-Life‘s imagery is so compelling, even today with its thirteen-year-old graphics, is that it was among the first games to be set in something recognizably like the real world. We all know what it’s like to wait in boredom while an annoyingly calm voice drones over a PA. We all recognize the sickening “Be a part of a Team!” signs at work, the cranky older coworkers, the microwaves, drink machines, and locker rooms.

Other games may have done it earlier, but Half-Life used more detail than anyone could have imagined. This opening is a stark contrast against the fires, gunfights, and aliens that will claim the facility in just a little while. In Half-Life, you’re not just killing aliens. You’re killing aliens that are attacking the real world, your home, safety.

Along the way, I catch sight of the mysterious G-Man gazing ominously into the distance. People assumed when this game came out that the G-Man was the “administrator” the scientists keep mentioning. It’s possible that he was supposed to be at first. But Half-Life 2 reveals that, whatever the G-Man is, he’s a lot more than a mere government bureaucrat. This is one of the most compelling mysteries of the series, which is why everybody wishes they’d get off their asses and start Episode Three already.

I leave the train and arrive in a lobby, where a security guard is puzzling over his computer. One of the disorienting things about the Half-Life series is that the sequels weren’t planned when the first game came out. In Half-Life 2 and even Blue Shift, there are characters with names and everything. In the first game, however, there are four scientist models and one security guard model, and all the friendly characters take one of those forms. Even though the scientists and security guards die, you keep running into them again and again.

The G-Man appears again on the other side of a window to a locked office, engaged in heated argument with a scientist. I assume this is a much younger Wallace Breen, the administrator and Combine collaborator from Half-Life 2.

I get the HEV suit and proceed to the test chamber, passing on the way through various hallways and elevators with structural oddities that foreshadow what’s about to happen here. One elevator has a surprisingly open construction–I fall off of it by accident my first time down. On the side of the shaft is a long ladder. Soon I will have to climb it after the elevator crashes and kills two scientists.

Before the test begins, I meet a trio of scientists in the control room, one with each character model. I believe these three are in fact Dr. Vance, Dr. Kleiner, and Dr. Magnusson from Half-Life 2 and Episode Two. The barrel door opens and I enter, beginning the test. Halfway through, I hear science’s most dangerous words over the intercom: “probably not a problem, but…”

"Within acceptable parameters"

And then everything is blackness. Strange images flash onscreen, and when the test chamber returns, bad things have happened. Many of the scientists I passed on the way in are dead. One tries in vain to revive a security guard. Fires burn in the halls, electrical equipment sparks, and debris blocks doors. It’s not long before I run into headcrabs, little alien monstrosities that try to attack me. Unarmed, I’m powerless to do anything but run.

I rush past a broken laser that is now shooting wildly through a corridor. It makes contact with the limp body of a security guard and spills his guts on the floor. I push past debris and run into an impassable glass door. If only I had something heavy, something substantial to break it with…

Then, on the floor, I spot salvation in a three-foot chunk of metal: my precious crowbar. Alone, I’m nothing. Helpless. Forced to wait at the roots of a mountain and see who kills me first, the aliens or the black-ops soldiers. But with the crowbar, I get agency, the ability to be proactive. The soldiers, the aliens, Race X, the G-Man, all of them can temporarily inconvenience me, but in the end none will be a match for me and my trusty instrument of justice.

Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the world.

Next: What We Were Doing Down Here.