HL: What We Were Doing Down Here

by Tom Ingram


Crowbar in hand, I head for the elevator and press the button. Iron groans, a noise like the shifting of the earth emanates from inside the shaft, and the elevator tumbles down from the top, past my floor, and crashes at the bottom. Two scientists are inside. I climb the ladder and reach the top, where a headcrab has attached itself to a scientist’s body, making it into a shuffling, gruesome figure with dangerous claws. A security guard fights them off, and I help with my crowbar. Proceeding down the halls, I encounter more zombies and the grotesque, sprawled bodies of my dead colleagues.

One of the interesting design choices in Half-Life is its mixture of playing styles. Sometimes it’s a sci-fi shooter with aliens. Sometimes it’s a military shooter. And sometimes it’s survival horror. The headcrab zombies allowed the Valve team to incorporate elements of that very different genre into their game, and it’s one of the most enduring aspects of the series. By far, the most memorable level in Half-Life 2 is Ravenholm, the abandoned town inhabited only by zombies and a mad Russian priest. That game ramps up the horror imagery a bit, but there’s still plenty to go round here.

Rooms that just moments ago were full of bustling, cranky life are now bloodstained and eerily empty. There are bodies, but not nearly as many as there were people. Headcrabs are all around, and the prognosis is not good for anyone who survived the initial calamity. I make it back to the locker room where the HEV suit had been stored. Here I find some much-needed supplies. The locker belonging to “Guthrie” was left unlocked. Inside I find two magazines of pistol ammo. I have no way of using it yet, but it’s comforting nonetheless.

Continuing through the halls, I see a scientist in his office trying to get away from a headcrab. I try to smash the window to help, but it won’t break. He drops a filing cabinet on the creature, braining it and squirting its green bily juices all over the wall. Just as he begins to relax, another headcrab jumps from behind. He struggles at first, but soon the life drops out of his limbs and he dies. Across the hall, I see the silhouette of a headcrab zombie in the throes of a seizure. This window is broken, so I creep into the dark office with its flickering computer screen and put the poor bastard out of his misery.

The door in front of Barney’s vacant desk is stuck, and I’m forced to crawl through a hole in the wall to take an alternate route. As I go along, I run into houndeyes, little aliens with a single giant eye. They’re a bastard and a half to kill with just the crowbar. On a balcony, I catch sight of the G-Man, observing silently. He doesn’t acknowledge my presence even as I stop and shine my flashlight on him.

A Vortigaunt, one of the aliens slaves forced to attack me, jumps out from behind a door, and I waste no time bashing his head in. Willing or not, he’s a deadly threat. Their bursts of electricity do a ton of damage, and killing them with the crowbar is no easy task. Nearby, a scientist hides from the headcrabs in a dumpster. I talk to him, but he refuses to come out. I have to wonder whether he has the right idea after all. In order to continue ahead, I have to go into a water-filled pipe and swim.

When I get out the other end, I take a giant elevator platform down into the basement. Headcrabs slide down the shaft as the platform descends. Most of them jump over my head to an uncertain fate at the bottom. A couple land near me and are crushed by the crowbar. Down at the bottom, I spot some crates. They yield easily to the crowbar, spilling their contents: old boots, hand tools, miscellaneous crap in military olive drab, and a pistol.

My enemies are more easily and safely vanquished now. I continue through the sewery depths and arrive in a room where a crane hoists heavy metal boxes. The machine has stopped and the boxes are stationary over a pit. Half-Life has only two major flaws, but they can be crippling at times. The ladder controls are horrible. It’s all too easy to plunge to your death entirely by accident, when pressing a button doesn’t do what you expect it to. This is rectified somewhat in the second game, but not entirely.

The second flaw is the platforming. Platforming is hard enough from a first-person perspective, but in the Half-Life games, Gordon Freeman is essentially a pair of disembodied hands. Since you can’t see exactly where you’re standing, it’s hard to judge how much room you have on the platform, or where the best place is to hit the jump button. Misjudging almost always results in death. The Valve team doesn’t seem to realize this, since no steps were taken to fix it in the Source engine used for Half-Life 2, and there’s plenty of platforming throughout the series. The entire last level of this game is platforming (in environments with weird gravity, no less), which makes for a lacklustre ending section that’s quite a lot for a critic to look past.

I come out in the office complex. A couple of scientists are barricaded behind a locked door. I get to them by a roundabout route through the vents. There are creatures called “barnacles” clinging to the ceiling here, their sticky tongues hanging down awaiting prey. I could shoot them, but the drop is small enough that it’s safe to stick myself to their tongue and crowbar them to death.

The wide shadows and sparse light make for some ominous images. One of the scientists tells me to “get topside”, and soldiers are coming to save us. As long as I can make it to the surface, everything will be all right. Another one isn’t so sure he wants the world to find out what they were doing. At this point, the question becomes, “What exactly were they doing, anyway?” We only know what Gordon’s job was in the vaguest sense. We don’t know what the experiment was supposed to do or how it went wrong. The question of what exactly happened at Black Mesa is a compelling one that still hasn’t been answered to anyone’s satisfaction.

Taking the first scientist’s advice, I proceed through the halls. On the way, there’s a locked armory. Lying on an open ammunition box is a shotgun and a box of shells. Now we’re cooking with gas. At this particular moment in time, I don’t believe I have a healthier or more deeply-felt respect for any object in the universe.

Pushing along, I find myself in another dark hallway with offices branching off. A couple of Vortigaunts attack me, and they refuse to fall to anything so vulgar as a mere triad of shotgun shells to the face. It takes quite a bit of work to finish them all off. In one office, two scientists try to crawl into a vent. Something pulls them in and abruptly cuts off their screams. I’m reminded of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the same thing happens to a teacher.

The window of a locked door shows three grenades tantalizingly out of reach. There’s nothing I can do to get into that room, as far as I know, so heartbreaking as it is I have to leave them. In the hallways I encounter more headcrab zombies and dead bodies spread out in hideous tableaux of horror. Blood and worse stains the walls.

Dropping through a vent, I meet a security guard who tries to revive his dead colleague. A one-way door in this room connects to a room I’ve been in before, and it occurs to me that, both in- and out-of-character, I’m lost. I know which way I have to go, because there really only is one way (Half-Life does a good job of disguising it, but it’s strictly linear), but I can’t orient myself within the Black Mesa facility. I don’t know where I am.

Still, the path ahead is clear enough. “Get topside,” the security guard says, “I hear troops are coming in to save us”. I head up the stairs, into an elevator shaft, and climb the ladders. Always upward. That way lies “topside”, the promised land of fresh air and wide skies. It means escape from the horrifying consequences of the catastrophe. Safety. The soldiers are coming to save us.

Next: Schoolyard Revenge.