HL: Decay Constants

by Tom Ingram


The corridor opens onto a central chamber with a yellow electrified track in the middle. The sound of gunfire makes me reluctant to go out in the open; I shift slowly to look out at a better angle. One soldier is dead already, the other shooting–HOLY BEJEEZUS WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?

It notices me, but I retreat back into my little hallway, which is too small to let it through. Eventually it loses interest and goes back to the soldier. Creeping up again, I get a longer view of the round chamber. A control room overlooks it, and the G-man stands inside it, looking down, mocking me. While the…blue…thing is distracted by the soldier, I leave the hallway and run across the room. It comes thundering after me, but another little hallway opens up on the other side and I lose it.

Smashing through a pile of debris, I open the door to the control room and find it empty except for a guard collapsed on the ground.

“Mister,” he says, “you can get the power on, that train’ll take us straight to the surface. I would try it myself, but it’s a long way down to the generator room, and there are…things in the way.”

The man is obviously on his last legs, and he knows it. Not knowing what to say, I keep respectfully silent. Out the window, I can see the blue monster standing triumphantly over the corpses of the soldiers. Say what you will about them, but it gives me no pleasure to see them die that way. In a one-on-one fight, the righteous indignation runs strong and I feel no qualms about killing them. If Half-Life had a way for them to surrender, I’d probably still shoot them, and maybe teabag their bodies for good measure. But seeing them crushed by the aliens that they could not possibly have prepared for leaves me with an empty feeling inside.

I backpedal and take a different route, heading for the generator. In a tall room with radioactive waste at the bottom, I see the body of a soldier lying near a crack in the wall. Before my eyes, I see it dragged back into the wall by something invisible, and then with a fleshy burble and squish and a spatter of blood, it disappears. Chunks come flying out, but nothing more.

At the top of the room, I find a little area that the soldiers have garrisonned and set up as a little base camp. Only a few of them are there, but they’re guarding a hell of a lot of ammunition. I find, among other things, what looks like a couple of darts. Just around the corner is the generator area, a wide-open multilevel space with plenty of places for defenders to ambush from. In front of the door I need to go through there is a stack of explosive crates. In front of that is a short concrete wall, and between them a soldier sits waiting for intruders. To show him why that’s not such a good idea, I pop off a rifle grenade.

Then the firefight starts. There’s a whole lot of soldiers hiding out here, and I have to kill them all before I feel safe going ahead. I hide out in a little alcove and pick them off with the shotgun as they run by, mostly oblivious. Unfortunately, while they might not have great tactics, one thing they do have is grenades.

While I’ve tried to keep this series strictly to a single narrative for the sake of simplicity, the truth is that while playing the Half-Life games, I die. A lot. Often for stupid reasons, like falling off a catwalk because I’m moving too quickly. I’m not very good at most video games, which is thankfully not required for games like Half-Life (though it helps). This means that I end up going through bits of the level several a number of times, with slight differences on each go.

It strikes me that this is perhaps gaming’s biggest structural advantage over other forms of fiction. There is no way, Mogworld notwithstanding, that a book could tell a story like this and still make much sense. Thief of Time did it, sort of, but that only worked because we understood it as a reference to video games. As far as I know, there hasn’t been much playing with this in video games, though Prince of Persia‘s framing device (where deaths are explained as the narrator of a story forgetting what happened and making a mistake) comes close. Yahtzee has an interesting Extra Punctuation article on the subject. I think we’re at the point now where, if this is going to be a storytelling medium, we need to look for the few things it has that sets it apart from the rest. What French directors who like to say “voyeur” a lot did for film, someone needs to do for video games.

Anyway, although I’m ashamed to admit I died several times during this part, I eventually cleared out the room. At one end there is a desk with radio equipment set up–I blow it up. I find more laser-mines and plant them on the walls. If anyone does try to sneak in while I take the elevator down to the generator, they’ll have some fun.

Part of the generator is at the back of a flooded room. A pump is supposed to be keeping the water out, but there is a wooden crate stuck in it. There are worms in the water, little things that are hard to kill and can’t do much damage individually, but as a group they’re deadly. Swinging the crowbar back and forth, I run over to the pump and smash the obstruction. As the water drains, the worms writhe on the ground, drowning in the dry air. A short trip upstairs, and I flip on the generator.

As I return to the elevator, I hear the telltale crackle of a radio. It’s coming down, and somebody’s on it. I see them coming before they can react, and a well-placed rifle grenade takes them out. As I get on the lift, I hear someone moving around upstairs. They don’t even notice the boobie trap, and as soon as I reach the top the soldiers waiting in ambush are killed.

Returning to the control room, I flip the switch to move the tracks into position. Only one thing remains to be done: turning on the power plant to start up the rail system. The switch is in another room that opens onto the circular chamber, one large enough for the blue creature to fit inside. There’s nothing elegant or puzzle-solvey about this part. I have to run from the big scary monster and hope it doesn’t get close enough to make a Gordon Freeman flambé.

Without sparing a moment, I dash across the room behind the creature. Its footsteps are close behind, thundering like the wrath of Odin after a long night with a mead horn. At the end of the wide corridor there is a raised platform with stairs on one end. The switch is at the other, which means I have to run to one side of the room, go up the stairs, and run back to the other side, leaving myself open to attack the whole time. It’s not a pleasant prospect, but I’m at a dead end anyway and there’s no other choice.

I flip the switch and there’s something that can only be described as an explosion of electricity; I leave the physics of this to the experts. The giant alien is vaporized in the heat.

I take the rail platform that is now powered, and reach a checkpoint watched over by a security guard. “Take the rail system,” he says, “Launch the rocket. The Lambda team needs the satellite in orbit if they’re ever going to clean up this mess.” Everyone is sure that the Lambda team can fix this, but it seems to be a false hope. The world has been invaded by aliens. My confidence that we can ever clear it up is halved with every second.

Next: The Hand of God.