HL: Schoolyard Revenge

by Tom Ingram


The distorted voice rings out over the PA: “Attention: Black Mesa announcement system now under military command.” They’re here. Only a little farther, and I’ll be topside. Stranded in the middle of the mountains, of course, but that’s what helicopters are for.

A security guard is snatched into a vent by an unseen creature, and I’m forced to watch helplessly on the other side of the safety glass. A shotgun, some shells, and a health station are all inside, but unreachable. Nearby, a scientist laments that we’re doomed. The silo doors were our only way out, and the controls are locked in the security office. As I proceed forward, a fire door closes. In this next hallway, a laser-activated bomb has been planted on the wall. Pretty sure that’s not normal for research facilities. Makes it hard to get places.

Suspicion rises when I see a dead scientist in a pool of blood on the ground, but a Vortigaunt materializes ahead of me. Perhaps aliens got him. Yeah. That’s the ticket. There are the automatic turrets, activated by laser tripwires. They turn on me when I set off the lasers, but they must have been set up against the aliens. I proceed into a room with catwalks up in the ceiling and see the G-Man out for a leisurely stroll. I climb up to where he was, but by the time I get there, he’s gone without a trace.

Instead, I see a scientist and a marine. The scientist rushes down to meet him, and the soldier casually blows his head off. Without even stopping to think, I fire down at the soldier until he’s dead. I callously loot his corpse and come up with an M16.

Now, in the original version of the game it was not an M16 rifle but an MP5 submachine gun. That makes a lot more sense, because it draws ammo from the same pool as your pistol. Submachine guns fire pistol ammunition. Rifles don’t. There’s a big difference. I’m playing with the Half-Life High Definition Pack, which was released along with the Blue Shift expansion in 2001. Its models are much better-looking overall (compare the original withered and grey Barney model to the Hi-Def one), but one of the changes replaced the submachine gun with a rifle. The change is purely cosmetic, but it’s mildly irritating because that’s not how guns work in other games.

Moving right along, a group of soldiers try to ambush me and another scientist. As they come down the stairs, they’re caught on a barnacle’s tongue. Our only advantage is the hard-won familiarity with the Xenian monsters, which take the soldiers by surprise until late in the game. As I fight more soldiers, the PA system dispatches a “Uranium containment team” to a certain part of the facility. Given who’s in charge of the announcement system at the moment, I can’t help but wonder if “Uranium Containment” is some kind of hideous euphemism.

This section more than any other highlights one of the major themes of Half-Life. It might be a little hard to make out when you hear it due to the radio-fuzz on the soldiers’ voices, but it’s helpfully transcribed by wel in the game script at GameFAQs.

I killed twelve dumb ass scientists and not one of ’em fought back. This sucks.

By making the soldiers into ethically-challenged jocks, the game introduces classic schoolyard tensions and takes an explicit side. Not surprising, considering the kind of people who write video games and the kind of people who played them back in 1998. This, I suppose, is one of the reasons why the Half-Life series has been so thoroughly embraced by Internet geek culture–the lanky, bearded, and spectacled Gordon Freeman is a hero they can get behind, the scientists-versus-soldiers plot a conflict they identify with.

I take an elevator up and find myself in a garage at the surface level. There’s scarcely time to take in the fresh air before a team of marines attacks. On the first try, I take too many hits with low armour and die. The soldiers creep forward cautiously and prod at my corpse. It makes it all the more satisfying when I vaporize one of them with my shotgun on the second try.

Actually, I must admit, if we accept the lunchroom subtext of the game, we get some unfortunate implications given that the game’s object is often to kill the marines. Even if it wasn’t, at the moment when the first scientist is murdered, there’s a brief surge of genuine righteous fury that makes the first soldier you kill especially cathartic. Drawing a causal link between Half-Life and school shootings, as many have tried to do, is ridiculous, but I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that there’s a heavy dose of schoolyard revenge lurking just below the surface.

Outside the garage is what looks like a loading dock. In the open air above me, an Osprey flies around and occasionally drops more soldiers. Another hazard is the mortar shells–I don’t stay topside for long. At one end of the compound is a concrete bunker. I duck into it and climb down a ladder.

Soldiers rappel from the Osprey and blow open a shaft that the bunker opens onto. They descend like spiders on their ropes, and I shoot them before they even hit solid ground. The shaft leads me back where I started. The scientist has managed to get to the control room and open the silo doors. He tells me to go looking for the Lambda team, the only ones who can stop the resonance cascade.

I leave through the heavy fire door, and head into the blast pit.

Next: The Right Button at the Right Time.