HL: Barney’s Version

by Tom Ingram


The train passes a staff lounge, and through a window I can see a scientist and a security guard playing an arcade game. Further down the line is a small food court where the scientists are eating–one of the restaurants is Tesla’s Tacos. My train is eventually stopped at a checkpoint, and looked over by a bored security guard who looks a bit like Bob Hoskins.

This is Half-Life: Blue Shift. Instead of Gordon Freeman, the main character is the security guard Barney Calhoun. In the beginning it differentiates itself by focusing more on the banal everyday interactions of the Black Mesa staff–a security guard on the practice range isn’t sure how to pick up his gun without putting down his doughnut. Workers complain about computer glitches. Another guard is helping two scientists fix a computer console. They talk down to him the whole time, but can’t seem to make the repairs without blowing anything up.

A running gag in this game is the scientists’ unbearable rudeness to their subordinates. It showed a bit in Half-Life too, because Gordon was considered a lackey whose Ph.D. from MIT put him only barely above the level of a guard. There is at least one walkthrough of Half-Life that advises you to shoot any security guards you see and take their ammunition. From a purely mathematical perspective this is wise, because their AI isn’t very good and they can’t be trusted to do much more than draw fire away from you (or accidentally shoot you in the back). But of course you can’t, because video games are not purely mathematical exercises. Half-Life, and others like it, are narratives. Unless you wish to build a narrative of Gordon Freeman as the kind of guy who shoots his allies in the back, then you can’t kill the guards. It’s a small choice, but it changes the story–changes the game.

I arrive at the security station, pausing to watch Gordon Freeman pass by on another car–a scene from the beginning of Half-Life. I go down to the locker room and find the one labelled Calhoun. The familiar guard vest and helmet are hanging in an alcove. Next to it is the actual locker, which contains the books “The Truth About Aliens” and “Government Conspiracies”. This is a bit of characterization for Barney that’s never followed up on. Though I suppose for someone who works at Black Mesa, these books are occupational research, not an oddball hobby. There are also two photos, one too blurry to make out, and the other of a woman who is never mentioned. Gordon had a picture in his locker that was meant to be Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 as a baby. Could this also connect to the later game?

I’m sent out to help a couple scientists who are stuck in an elevator. I’m told that no trains are running between me and them, so it’s a long walk out. On the way, I try to extend a bridge across the tunnel, but the system locks me out. A train comes through against all logic, carrying the G-Man. This is his only appearance in the game–apparently he’s not very interested in Barney Calhoun.

The scientists treat me with the requisite ill manners, but I get the elevator going. As it moves we hear noises, and finally the whole thing stops and the lights go out. Out a window, we can see the aliens teleporting in, killing the surrounding scientists and guards. Finally, the elevator falls.

I wake up some time later. The scientists are dead, and the door has come open. A crowbar is lying on the ground in front. This is the point where I think the game starts to go wrong. In one sense, the crowbar is just a hunk of metal. But on a completely different level, it represents something like Freeman’s volition and ability–a fact acknowledged in the title of this series of posts. Give me a lever and a place to stand, they say, and I can move the world. Well, a crowbar is a kind of lever. The trappings of a video game character, including the weapons they do or do not use, tell you something about them. Blue Shift makes a false turn by using the same symbolism for Calhoun as for Freeman.

More generally, the game is too much like Half-Life. Where Opposing Force was a fully-realized game in its own right, Blue Shift is a stub of an expansion pack that puts in little effort to make a name for itself. Though you wouldn’t know it from playing Blue Shift, Barney Calhoun is a different character from Freeman in many ways–aside from the obvious lack of technical knowledge, he’s probably less cunning, more physically courageous, in possession of lower-tech equipment, and (crucially) charged with protecting the safety of others. If the game had taken this to heart, we could have a new experience built around Barney’s character rather than half-assed puzzles that weren’t good enough to put into Half-Life.

Since Barney doesn’t have a hazard suit, there should be environments that we’re used to passing with ease that would kill him instantly–radiation, extreme heat, etc. This would require challenging workarounds to get us through the hazardous environment without the proper equipment. Barney’s job is to protect the scientists (whereas Gordon was just trying to contain the accident while doing what he could for them on the way). This should entail more than simply running around in Xen to get them out safely. He should have to fight for them. Hell, Half-Life 2 shows us that Barney has considerable leadership skills and the ability to inspire people to rebellion. He should be arming the scientists and fighting it out alongside them. There are so many possibilities that are not explored. More than the stale Half-Life flavour of the game, it’s the wasted potential that’s disappointing.

A scientist hiding in the ceiling tells me to escape through the canals, and warns me that he thinks the military is trying to kill us. If my estimation is right, this is just before Freeman’s “We’ve Got Hostiles” level, which makes it chronologically the first warning about the marines. I go down into the canals, but there’s a piece of heavy machinery that I can’t get past. I’m forced to take a detour. Here I meet my first headcrab zombies, as two of them fight over a still-living security guard. I don’t have any weapons that can hit them at that distance, and by the time I get close the guard has been dropped over the railing. Notice the powerful image, though. While the graphics are no longer technologically impressive, Valve does a lot more with what they’ve got than more technically with-it developers. These little vignettes that pop up now and again are always amazingly well-staged, and it’s that, not polygons and textures, that create verisimilitude.

The detour ends up above the spinning turbines that block the canal. I push a box of explosives down into the water, and it takes out the machine and leaves the way clear. I climb up out of the water to find myself at the bottom of a big drainage tank. Up on top, oblivious to my presence, two marines are tossing dead bodies down the hole.

Next: Bland Shift.