HL: Claustrophobia

by Tom Ingram


The rail platform races down the track, around twists and turns, running over hapless soldiers and crashing through closed gates. I stand helpless on it, with no control over its movement. The track ends up ahead, but the platform’s momentum is too great. It launches off the rail into a chamber filled with water, and I jump out at the last second.

The only obvious way out is through a tunnel underwater. The water here is infested with screeching little worms that suck at my health, and after being submerged too long, my health starts to drain. This is always the most visceral part of any game. Whether it’s Sonic’s about-to-drown music or just the increasingly urgent messages of Freeman’s HEV suit, there’s something about being told you’re going to drown that’s different from any other kind of death. Maybe it’s the time factor–you’re able to anticipate dying long before it actually happens. But at least for me, it’s almost like feeling the water closing on my own throat.

I emerge from the water to find myself on the deck of a pool. Above it, surrounded by the hanging tongues of the barnacles, is a crane hoisting a shark cage. Something is swimming in the water. In a control room upstairs, I find a scientist. “They said it was hauled from the Challenger deep,” he says of the creature in the pool, “but I’m positive that beast never swam in terrestrial waters until a week ago.” He points to a tranquilizer gun in the shark cage.

I walk out along the arm of the crane and drop into the cage, picking up the gun (which is actually more like a crossbow). This is Half-Life’s equivalent of a sniper rifle. It’s a long-range weapon that is slow to reload, fires slow-moving projectiles, and uses rare ammunition. On the other hand, it’s a one-hit-kill against most enemies. Except, of course, the ichthyosaur.

The crane breaks and drops the shark cage into the water. The ichthyosaur circles me before charging in, mouth first. Its teeth are massive. The ichthyosaur’s model looks a little silly under most circumstances, since it was made with 1998 technology, but it’s legitimately scary here. Compounding the ordinary fear of drowning, I’m stuck in a cage with an angry sea monster attacking me. I panic and riddle it with tranquilizer darts. Probably wasting a pile of ammunition. But it finally dies and floats up, and I get out of the cage and swim to the surface just in time to avoid dying.

As I let my health creep back to normal, I have some time to think. The scientist must be right about the ichthyosaur’s pedigree, or else it wouldn’t have come to Black Mesa. Why bring a creature like that to a top-secret facility unless it’s an alien? But if he is, that makes all this business a lot more complicated. It came from Xen, which means it must have come through a portal. But it can’t be any later than three or four in the morning the day after the resonance cascade. That means that there were portals coming here from Xen long before the accident. What this signifies for the plot, I can’t really be sure. Episode Three may never come out and judging by the ideas Valve seems to be kicking around, it may not be very good if it does. But this little sequence could be one of the most important events in the whole series.

Moving along through another underwater tunnel, I come to a room with three big industrial pistons. At the other end, my old nemesis the G-Man is walking along a catwalk. He leaves the room, and I know if I followed him, he’d already be gone. I climb up to a balcony and start the pistons moving. I have to jump across them to get to the other side of the room–not the smartest move, I know, but given the game’s mechanics it’s the only way to get ahead. At the other end is a server room, where a scientist is waiting for me. He tells me that the HEV suit is loaded with tracking devices, and the science team has been watching me–but so has the military. He instructs me to move quickly through the refrigerated room up ahead, because it will sap my suit’s power. He also says to keep to the older industrial parts of the facility, which have looser security. This will turn out not to be such good advice.

Beyond the freezer, I go through a tunnel filled with boxes and up an elevator to what looks like an ammunition dump or something. A guard is waiting for me, and he tries to give me a message, but with a pneumatic fewp of a silenced bullet and a spray of blood, he falls dead. I rush into cover and wait, shotgun at the ready, listening for the telltale light and quick footsteps of the special forces soldiers. One of them runs up and fires at me. They’re fast on their feet, but a single shotgun shell takes one down. I examine the body–a black catsuit, a silenced pistol, a belt of grenades, and night-vision goggles. These guys are essentially Splinter Cells agents. But on closer examination, they’re not. Guys, I mean. I had never looked at them long enough to notice before, especially since the black breaks up their silhouette, but the special forces operatives are quite, ahem, definitely female. The only female characters in the game.

I wait for the other two to come into shotgun range before I go out into the open. This room has no ceiling, and it’s just before dawn. Moths circle the lights above the ammunition crates. The sky is a light purple above the mountains. It’s beautiful. Staying a minute to enjoy the scene, I move along. I open a door and…

The lights go out and a marine yells, “Get him!”

I wake up at an odd angle, looking at two soldiers dragging me along, talking about their plans for me. They’re supposed to bring me up for questioning, but they decide instead to kill me and make sure there’s no body. When I finally come to my senses, I’m inside a compactor. I’ve operated a compactor before as a job, and they’re nasty, horrible machines. There’s something revolting about the way they take something that, no matter how useless it may be, is still whole, in some sense alive, and crush it into a grotesque Frankensteinian cube of other assorted junk. Not to mention the smell; a thousand innocuous scents mixed with one or two really vile ones makes for an unappealing cocktail. Then there’s the noise it makes as it’s working–it always sounds like it’s just about to explode. I imagine if it actually was about to explode, you’d have no way to tell until it’s too late. But the worst thing about them is the horrid fantasies, spurred on by countless movies and TV shows, of falling in and being crushed.

All this is in mind as I jump madly up the piled boxes toward the top of the room. When I’m almost at the top, I miss my step and fall back down. There’s still time to do it again, if I’m careful. I climb more slowly and accurately this time, and the pallets at the bottom are just starting to crack as I pull myself out. Taking a moment to take stock, I notice that all my weapons are gone. But something is lying on a ledge on the opposite side of the room. When the walls of the compactor have stopped moving, I walk along the top of them toward it. As I get closer, I see what it is: a crowbar.

They can beat me up, shoot me, throw me in a pit and leave me to die. But one thing, however small, remains constant. I still have my crowbar. And as long as that’s true, I can fight back.

Next: Industrial Disease.