How Half-Life Revolutionized Worldbuilding

By Marco McEldowney, reporter

Video games have climbed a very long way from being novel machines designed to drain the quarters out of 90s kids’ pockets. They have become one of the most diverse mediums out there to tell a story, and they have infinite options to create a compelling world for that story to exist in.

Sophomore Arnold Zhen thinks that a fictional world seems real “if the characters are flawed and very relatable”. Yet, while character is an important aspect, the setting they exist in is also very important.

“I think what makes a fiction setting feel real would be things that are engaging and relatable,” said Sophomore Kira Trujilo.

In the early 2000s, the company Valve was a brand-new titan of the video game industry. Their first game, Half-Life, was universally praised for its revolutionary method of storytelling, despite being a first-person shooter.

It almost entirely used the environment the player was free to explore; a scientific facility brought to total ruin by an alien invasion, an ordinary workplace on the surface that grows more sinister as you progress through the game. The player doesn’t have to be told that the facility conducts devious experiments underneath the surface, though. They’re within the place itself, experiencing it live.

The sequel, bluntly named Half-Life 2, built on this kind of storytelling, operating on a principle of show, not tell. After the invasion from the first game, the world was overtaken by an alien force in just seven hours. The world, however, is still operational; it was conquered, not destroyed. The planet Earth was too insignificant for the aliens to care, so they only left a small military force to keep control.

Society remains somewhat intact in this game, though cities have become completely dilapidated and life is far from happy. This new world is a lot for a player to take in all at once, but the post-apocalyptic atmosphere is delivered masterfully; a mixture of the world itself, the characters in it, and the art direction.

A movie would be able to sell this environment well, but a game has the advantage of putting you in the protagonist’s viewpoint. Both of these games defined a new method of telling stories in the medium, while keeping a constant action to the gameplay. For that, they should be commended.

Valve created many groundbreaking mechanics with what some would call their flagship series, Half-Life. Much of the thought, though, went into building a cohesive narrative as well.

Image created by Marco McEldowney, Half-Life logo from Valve

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