Think of all the games you loved. Hand on heart, do you know if they’re actually any good in this day and age? We’re all victims of nostalgia-tinted glasses and revisiting a game is always tainted with those memories of your first engagement. These signals from the past disrupt attempts to be level-headed in the present. Especially when we’re talking about Half-Life (Valve Software, 1998) which has got “historical significance” stamped all over it.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve been playing Black Mesa (Crowbar Collective, 2012), the remake of Half-Life in the Source engine that had been in development for eight years. It’s done a bang-up job of messing with my head. Black Mesa has altered my memories of the original.
I’ve only played Half-Life once. Or maybe twice? I’m not sure any more. I know I’ve witnessed the first couple of chapters countless times and watched Mrs. HM play the game as well. I played the expansions Opposing Force (Gearbox Software, 1999) and Blue Shift (Gearbox Software, 2001). Black Mesa is a place I feel like I know well. But do I really?
There’s a friction between the crumbling memory of Half-Life and the freshness of Black Mesa which only further erodes the memory of the original. This is a peculiar result because Black Mesa is not a recreation of Half-Life in Source. The developers have tinkered with the original design meaning Black Mesa is always familiar yet alien.
The developers are not shy to point this out. Anyone who has played and loved Half-Life will be familiar with the “Black Mesa Inbound” tram ride whose impact still reverberates through AAA design today – take a gander at the early sections of Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013) for example. In Black Mesa, the tram ride remains but the team take every opportunity to make it their own – from the detailed transit station you start at, through to the scientists in trouble near the end of the journey.
Now, these scientists in trouble gave me pause. It pumps up the joke of the original – the tram announcement calmly chiding you to “work safe work smart” as the tram passed beside a vat leaking toxic waste – and throws out subtlety. While protagonist Gordon Freeman may have turned a blind eye to the leak because it’s been there every day, we now have two scientists in real danger, one banging at a sealed door, desperate to escape. I can’t accept that Freeman would just file this under “business as usual”.
This concern was confirmed with the dialogue, which has been completely redone. Although the original Half-Life didn’t have many identifiable characters, I did not find the dialogue clunky. Black Mesa’s version, on the other hand, frequently feels off. I have no problem with the excellent voice acting but the soldiers are now even closer to stereotypes than they were and beloved Barney just doesn’t feel like Barney. He doesn’t want to catch me later and buy me a beer. “Put some pep in that step, Freeman, you’re late enough as it is.” This bothers me far more than it should.
A change after the accident restored my hope. It’s important to remember Valve’s games are not that hard for the experienced FPS player. Half-Life was only challenging on the hard difficulty setting and Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004) barely offered any challenge. Valve design is about moving through a game effortlessly and it is this zealous attention to smooth progression that sometimes gives Valve a bad name.
The Black Mesa team took a leaf out of the Amnesia handbook and denied the player early access to the crowbar during the “Unforeseen Consequences” chapter. The effect is magical. Instead of relying on theme park trickery to evoke dread, the player is helpless when facing off with headcrabs. The only way Valve made headcrabs frightening was by adding the black and speedy varieties; at the start of Black Mesa, headcrabs terrified me.
I was also struggling with inconsistency of memory, which amplified the terror. I was sure I had a crowbar in Half-Life and thought I must have just missed it somewhere in Black Mesa. I kept backtracking and searching around every shelf and cabinet, wondering where the crowbar might be. When I found a security guard still alive, I relied on him to keep me safe. This lovely partnership ended when we explored the locker room, which turned out to be a great place for an ambush. It was RIP for my bodyguard. Such a strange feeling for a game in which its NPCs all became miniature escort missions, including the security guards. You had to put yourself between them and harm if you wanted them to last longer than one corridor.
I’ve been playing Black Mesa on normal difficulty and I die… a lot. I’ve fallen back onto the old habit of quicksaving after every turned corner, every dead alien, every weapon grab. At times I think it is too difficult as I only seem to emerge victorious through repetition and anticipation, rather than reflex and response. But have I become too comfortable with the greasing of the modern shooter? The trouble with quicksave is that you can retry scenarios again and again until luck sees you through rather than sharpening your skills, so I can’t really tell you if Black Mesa was too hard or whether I just wasn’t trying hard enough. We can’t live without quicksave yet we can’t live with quicksave.
I also got stuck several times. For example, I couldn’t accept I was supposed to fall with a lift into toxic waste during one of the “Blast Pit” sequences and struggled many times trying to find an alternative route. Do I climb on top of the lift? Perhaps jump out of the lift? Try to use a barnacle to get hoisted up to a higher platform? Jump across to the ladder on the side of the lift shaft?
This wasn’t the only time. I couldn’t remember how I exited through the pool at the base of the blast pit in Half-Life and Black Mesa’s equivalent is extremely dark. I couldn’t see where to go without swimming in and out of the pool multiple times.
I’m not completely sure but it’s possible I was similarly stuck in Half-Life. Again and again, memories become confused. In the chapter “Apprehension” Black Mesa had me swimming around for barrels and it took a while to realise this is what I had do. New mechanics with no precedent. I was sure that there was no messing around with floating barrels to lift a broken catwalk in the original as it sounded very Half-Life 2 to me. When I took a look at a YouTube of the original, I discovered Half-Life did have a puzzle involving floating barrels. Wow. Really?
I concluded that Black Mesa did not do a great job in improving on the inconsistencies in the mechanics of Half-Life or signposting; perhaps it even made things worse. The real enhancements of the game are in environmental design. Realising this, I spent more time studying environmental narrative – something I did not give much thought to when I devoured Half-Life.
In the following screenshot, I pity the poor saps who had to sit in this soulless concrete room at these workstations. It’s possible these desks were for hotdesking and no one was posted here on a long-term basis, but Half-Life was full of dark nooks and crannies. Before aliens turned up, I imagined it being a horrible place to work in. How many people actually worked in such remote parts of the complex? Alone in this dark dungeon far from sunlight?
Also, there’s a line on the display which reads “MORE NUMBERS” which irks me in a game like Black Mesa. If I was playing No One Lives Forever (Monolith, 2000), then no problemo. But I liked how Half-Life took itself seriously. I am even less amused by the flashing lights nonsense which turns up occasionally, seeming straight out of 60s sci-fi shows. Add enough flashing lights to a box and, voilà, it’s a machine of science!
During the “On A Rail” chapter, you’ll pass by this abandoned step ladder.
Someone was obviously working on the vent above at the time the resonance cascade hit the complex; their toolbox has been left out with the screwdriver atop the ladder. These little examples of environmental narrative never excite me because there’s not much story here, but you can go a bit further if you want. In a place like the Black Mesa Research Facility, do you think they have an army of engineers ready to resolve every issue as soon as it is raised? I mean, how important is this vent?
I imagine that just like every other institution, the small jobs get added to a list of problems to fix and then forgotten. Someone working in the tunnels probably had to complain many times about the broken vent explaining how ridiculously hot it was in the area. Finally, a handyman is on the case – the day of the Black Mesa incident. I can imagine a scientist losing their temper with the support team: “Interdimensional alien invasion! Of course, how convenient! I suppose next the base will be destroyed by a nuclear explosion and that’ll be your excuse!”
I couldn’t tell you whether these examples are in Half-Life or not. I thought the Black Mesa team had added a robot walker to the toxic waste leak at the end of the tram ride – but it turns out I was wrong there, too. Considering how unsure I am which game I am actually playing, can Black Mesa tell me anything about Half-Life?
I played Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Origin Systems, 1985) thirty years ago and I find it difficult to separate what that game was, revolutionary and epic, from what it is now: harsh and unwelcoming. This disconnect also prevents me from being clear-headed about Half-Life but Black Mesa provides me with an alternative perspective. I can see that some of Half-Life’s quirks are no longer welcome and some of its surprises have been done to death.
But this is okay, because I still love Half-Life. Or is it Black Mesa?