The impact and legacy of Half-Life simply cannot be overstated.
Half-Life is responsible for many things.
It’s responsible for PC gaming becoming mainstream – although Doom was popular among PC gamers, it wasn’t ‘mainstream popular’ – unlike, say, the Call of Duty series is today.
It’s also responsible for the existence of the Steam storefront/library, which literally changed the way that people played videogames – in much the same way that streaming services changed the way we interact with films and TV series.
This is because Half-Life is responsible for the formation of the gaming company, Valve, which own and run Steam.
Talk about unforeseen consequences!
History of Half-Life: The Development of Half-Life
Valve Is Formed
In 1996, two Microsoft employees quit their jobs in order to start their own gaming company, which they’d named Valve.
The two programmers, Mike Harrington and Gabe Newell, wanted to produce a horror-based First-Person-Shooter (FPS) with a focus on narrative.
While that doesn’t sound too innovative to a modern gamer, it’s important to state that no other FPSs of the time had concentrated on any real narrative beyond ‘kill enemies’.
Games such as System Shock had toyed with the idea of using a 3D playspace to tell a story, but that kind of thing was normally reserved for the pensive and slow Role-Playing-Game genre – not the adrenaline-pumping action-oriented FPS genre.
Sources of Inspiration
Hiring a batch of designers and developers, Harrington and Newell oversaw the creation of their game.
The first version of the game was inspired by Doom and Quake – in fact, Half-Life was originally slated to release at the same time as Quake II, just so Valve could earn their spot in the big leagues. This seems almost ironic, given that Half-Life literally used a licensed version of the Quake engine.
However, the Valve version of the Quake engine had been tweaked and changed so much that there was barely a third of the original code left. This new version of the engine was called ‘GOLDSRC’ (pronounced like ‘Gold Source’), which is most likely why Valve’s own 3D engine is called Source.
Storyline-wise, the game drew heavy inspiration from the sci-fi anthology TV series, The Outer Limits – specifically an episode named ‘The Borderland’. It was also at least partially inspired by the Stephen King novella, The Mist.
Valve even titled their as-yet-unnamed game Quiver, after a military base from the book.
The Game Is Named
Please note that the next section contains some gross oversimplifcations: We’re just nerds and geeks, not actual scientists.
The game wouldn’t keep the name Quiver, obviously.
They soon renamed it Half-Life, after a scientific term relating to the time required for the radioactivity of a material to reduce to half of its initial value. In other words, when a substance has 50% (or half) of the radioactivity it once did, it’s at its first ‘half-life’. The next half-life occurs at 25%, and the next at 12.5% – and so on.
But Valve didn’t just like how the name sounded, it also conveniently came with a pre-existing symbol/icon, the Greek letter Lambda, which is used in mathematical formulas to represent the constant rate of radioactive decay.
Work on the game went well, and it was finished on time, ready to go head-to-head with Quake II.
But there was a problem: For all the innovation shown in the game, it simply wasn’t memorable – or fun.
Back To The Drawing Board
Valve gritted their teeth and decided to give the game another year to develop.
A core team of designers got together and created one large map which contained all the current mechanics, including certain puzzles and boss fights.
This map was put through different iterations, as the designers took notes directly from the players an implemented solutions to the issues raised by the playtesting. Then the cycle would begin again, over and over, until the developers had all the information they needed.
This lead to the creation of another core group, which directed the overall progress of the game.
2 months before launch, the group lost all their work due to server issues. Thankfully, folks had been saving all their work independently as well, and the managed to overcome the hurdle in order to have the game ready for launch.
And so, on November 19th, 1998, Half-Life was unleashed upon the (mostly) unsuspecting gaming public.
History of Half-Life: Initial Launch and Beyond
The Game Launch Is A Success
The game was amazingly well received, and was even enjoyed by gamers who didn’t normally enjoy FPSs.
The mixture of in-world storytelling (as opposed to cutscenes, which were standard at the time) and combat was a hit. It was something of a critical darling, and sold much better than Valve had anticipated.
But they remembered the amount of hassle they’d had selling the game to publishers for distribution. They’d managed to eventually land a contract with Sierra On-Line (who’d missed out on publishing Doom and so they jumped at the chance to publish Half-Life) but that was strictly a one-time deal.
Gabe Newell had an idea for a games storefront and library, purely so they could publish the now-happening Half-Life 2 themselves.
The Legacy of Half-Life
Newell directed a group of developers to develop Steam, while the rest of the Half-Life crew got to work on Half-Life 2.
In the meantime, a fledgling company named Gearbox Studios began developing a Half-Life spinoff named Opposing Forces, where the player played from the of the marines point of view. This would be well-received, which would lead the way to Gearbox’s next Half-Life game, Blue Shift, where the player played from the point of view of a guard named Barney Calhoun.
Then Half-Life 2 was released, the first game to be released on Valve’s new Source engine.
Half-Life 2 would receive two further episodes, aptly named Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and Half-Life: Episode 2.
The most recent Half-Life game is the VR-only Half-Life: Alyx, which has also received critical acclaim – just like the rest of the Half-Life series.