Why is Half-Life so iconic?

5 min read

Gordon Freeman

I was but a young lad, just 10 years old, when Half-Life was released. I honestly don’t remember how I found out about the game, or how it ended up on my PC. I do remember one thing distinctly at least, it was the most impressive game I had ever played. As a kid, meeting those headcrabs for the first time with nothing more than a crowbar was beyond terrifying. Black Mesa was just begging to be explored though, and I pushed on. What is it about the game that makes it so special? This documentary attempts to explain the Gordon Freeman phenomenon.

It’s 17 minutes long, but well worth the watch if you have the time. It does talk about the series as a whole, but focuses on the original game mostly (via Polygon)

The video briefly explains the FPS scene of the 90s. Doom came out in 1993, and it got some things very right. Countless other games attempted to replicate what it had. Only some succeeded. A few years later, PC visuals got some improvements, and Quake was released in 1996.

Fun fact (which I never knew), Gabe Newell was a former Microsoft employee. He founded Valve along with co-worker Mike Harringon in 1996. There first project was to take inspiration from Doom and Quake, as well as some influence from games like Resident Evil and films like Alien. Half-Life was first shown off in 1997 at E3, and was planned to be released later that year. Thanks to what the documentary refers to as ‘Valve Time’, it was delayed and only released late in 1998.

The obvious difference to the games that inspired it is that 27 year old Gordon Freeman is presented as an ordinary man who is just late for a normal day at work. He is a silent protagonist, and in my opinion, one of the few who got it very right, even by modern day standards. You never really get to see Gordon’s face, and the only proper visual you have is thanks to the box art, main menu, and the loading screens.

For me, it felt like I myself was in that awesome HEV suit, yet I knew I was some hero with the name Freeman. The character design is something I feel that most gamers could connect with. Just check out those nerdy glasses!


If you don’t know the story behind Black Mesa, it’s essentially an experiment gone horribly wrong, inviting all sorts of alien faces to the compound. Gordon not only has to face the various extra-terrestrial threats, but also the armed crew sent to silence any surviving civilians. As mentioned already, the headcrabs terrified me. There was much, much worse though.

There are no cut scenes whatsoever. Instead, the game kicks off with the iconic (and lengthy) tram ride, hinting at the dangers that lay ahead. This is part of the reason why the narrative is so compelling when compared to other titles in that era. There are in-game events and subtle actions or reactions that truly immersed the player. Remember that poor scientist standing on the damaged bridge? The documentary shows it. I remember how horrified I was when I ran out to help him, only to watch him fall to his death.

The weaponry itself was special too. There were the usual suspects you’d expect; a handgun, submachine gun, rocket launcher, and so on, but also a whole lot of other toys to play with. The documentary explains that one of the possible reasons the crowbar is so memorable is because Half-Life really waited quite a while before it gave it to you. When it did, it became necessary for destroying obstacles, as well as killing enemies. Heck, I have a friend who was so in love with the curved red weapon that he finished the entire game with it and nothing more.


If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a shameless Half-Life (and by extension, Valve) fanboy. The documentary goes into more detail, explaining how Half-Life 2 still met expectations (for most anyways) and why we may not see Half-Life 3 ever (hint: Valve make enough money from hats and cosmetics, as well as own one of the most awesome digital distribution platforms on the planet).

Unfortunately, I can’t detail every aspect of the documentary, so I’d suggest bookmarking and watching at some stage whether you’ve played any of the games or not. I’d like to think that the original will still stand strong today, but I know gamers tastes have changed/evolved, so they might find it disappointing. That being said, I would highly recommend checking out Black Mesa on Steam. It is a complete remake of the original using the source engine, and it does a pretty damn good job of capturing the soul of Black Mesa.

As much as I want Half-Life 3, deep down I know it will never live up to the hype I, or the world for that matter, have built up. That shouldn’t stop me from believing that it will be something special should it be released, right?

Are you a Half-Life fan? What is your favourite memory from the original game? I just love that it completely immersed me and told a story unlike anything I had seen before in that era of gaming. That and G-Man… what the heck was he up to?


Last Updated: October 21, 2014

Check Also

Valve changes Steam’s revenue share model to benefit big publishers

In the nearly 15 years since Steam has existed the platform has taken a 30% cut of sales o…