“Mornin’, Mr. Freeman. Looks like you’re runnin’ late.”
One of the greatest tricks Valve – erstwhile video game developer, now mostly minding its enormous digital storefront – ever pulled was making the Black Mesa Research Facility, in 1998’s Half-Life, feel like a real place, in spite of all the technical limitations of the day.
It probably had something to do with that train ride, to be honest, Gordon Freeman’s tedious trudge into the office, late as usual, through the bowels of a research facility under the dust of the New Mexico desert. From the window of that train, amongst all of the strange machinery and other scientific, industrial or military detritus, were personnel, scurrying about, doing their jobs. A mix of scientists and security guards, they were on rails, just like the train. But at arms length, from Freeman’s viewpoint, it was harder to tell.
Then when you arrive at the end of the line, you’re met with a cheery security guard.
“Mornin’, Mr. Freeman,” he chirps. “Looks like you’re runnin’ late.”
After he opens a bulkhead door, and you’re airlocked through another corridor into a reception area, you’re met with another security guard. He looks and sounds identical to the first. The scientists milling around are afforded a few different character models and voices, at least – four, to be precise, and none of them women – but that overall impression of life takes a dent when you’re met with a cast of Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V characters spouting incidental quips and barks as you move through their designated area. They’re funny, interesting quips and barks, as video game extras go, but they don’t feel like they’re a living, breathing workforce.
It’s also worth pointing out at this stage that while we now know some of the Black Mesa staff by name – Eli Vance, the researcher; Isaac Kleiner, the scientist; Barney Calhoun, the security guard – this wasn’t always the case. These now-familiar faces were a retcon (an act of retroactive continuity) for subsequent games (Blue Shift, Half-Life 2) to flesh out Gordon Freeman’s roster of allies. Vance is based on the black “scientist03” model, nicknamed “Luther”; Kleiner is based on the bald “scientist01” model, nicknamed “Walter” or sometimes “Glasses”; Calhoun is simply “Barney”, both in character model and nickname.
As you progress through the Black Mesa facility and Freeman triggers the resonance cascade incident that kicks off the game and the series, scientists and Barneys, predictably, become fodder for the unfolding B-movie disaster. To your left, they’re electrocuted by failing equipment, crushed under rubble, and dropped down elevator shafts. To your right, they’re mangled, murdered, and zombified by an alien incursion. You still get quips and barks – of fear, now, and of dire circumstances – but they still feel like window dressing.
Then something happens: a Barney fights back. As you climb out the top of an elevator shaft you find a Barney, pistol drawn, unloading into a scientist, zombified with a headcrab parasite. If you stand and watch, the Barney will likely overcome the first, but a second headcrab approaching from behind will grab him. But if you throw yourself in harm’s way to help – and at this point Freeman, the player, is only armed with a crowbar – the Barney will accompany you, for a short while at least. He’ll use his pistol to help the player take down zombies, before he reaches a point of no return, where the player crawls through a small gap into a new section, and the Barney is left behind. Soon after, having seen the deaths of a number of scientific colleagues he can’t prevent, Freeman is joined by a living Luther who, while useless in a fight, can heal the player with a syringe. Often, the player will have to prevent the death of a potential companion to recruit them, and might be rewarded with an unlocked door or hidden secret, in addition to their support.
This doesn’t sound so remarkable today, but in 1998? This was groundbreaking stuff. Legend says that, originally, everyone in the Black Mesa facility was going to be hostile to the player. But in order to test some enemy squad behaviour, they had a Barney follow the player around. Everyone who playtested this segment loved the idea so much that Valve ripped up the game’s early rulebook and, in 1997, redeveloped it around this companion concept.
And it was this cohort of AI companions, wonky and wobbly as they were, that made Black Mesa feel like a real place. Colleagues and co-workers weren’t resigned to window dressing, as background gore, scripted deaths, or tedious audio log collection, but felt – in spite of their understandable copypasta implementation and simplistic AI – like real friends in the face of extraordinary odds.
What’s sad is that, no matter how careful we were keeping them alive, we had to leave so many of these colleagues and companions behind, at the transition between levels.