Blurring the Design: Black Mesa Versus Half-Life

Half-Life - The Anti-Mass Spectrometer

The Anti-Mass Spectrometer in “Anomalous Materials”. The most famous piece of lab equipment in video game history.

I adore Half-Life. Ever since I stepped into the shoes of Gordon Freeman for the first time during my undergraduate days in the mid-2000s, I’ve long considered Valve Software’s inaugural 1998 title to fully deserve its reputation as a classic of gaming. I have walked through the Black Mesa Research Facility so many times that I know every lab, utility corridor, and meat pile like the back of my hand. I know every chapter name, and what to do in any given moment. I’ve also plumbed the depths of Black Mesa outside of the original game in the official expansions of Opposing Force (Gearbox, 1999) and Blue Shift (also Gearbox, 2001), as well as countless mods of various descriptions.

However, all this love and familiarity has left me in something of a bind regarding Black Mesa, the long-delayed fan remake of the original Half-Life­ that finally found a commercial release in March of 2020. It’s a big, beautiful game that just oozes love for its source material…but I don’t actually like playing it all that much.

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Half-Life - Box Art

It’s a bit hard nowadays to understand just what it was that made the original Half-Life so special. It’s the eternal problem all revolutionary works of art face: when their techniques are assimilated into the mainstream, it becomes more difficult for younger generations to see what they meant when they were new. At an initial glance, the premise of Half-Life doesn’t seem all that unique. You play as Gordon Freeman, a young physicist employed at the Black Mesa Research Facility, a sprawling complex built out of an old missile base in the New Mexico desert dedicated to all manner of high-tech R&D endeavors. As the game opens, you (as Freeman) are on your way to the Anomalous Materials Lab to participate in the analysis of a strange sort of orange crystal with the lab’s “anti-mass spectrometer”. Naturally, this routine bit of lab work gets wildly out of hand, triggering a “resonance cascade” that damages a large part of Black Mesa along with a full-on transdimensional invasion of alien creatures. In the initial chapters of the game, your goal is simply to get to the surface and call for help. However, upon reaching the surface, you discover that the Marine Corps’ Hazardous Environment Combat Unit has been deployed with orders to silence the facility and kill everything they find, alien and human civilian alike. What follows is a long, winding journey across the length and breadth of Black Mesa in search of the Lambda Complex, whose surviving scientists have a hail-Mary plan of their own to send someone to the alien world of Xen and shut down whatever is commanding the invasion once and for all. Taken in broad strokes, the story of Half-Life is a fairly standard sci-fi disaster plot – I sometimes think of it as a more naturalistic version of DOOM – lightly seasoned with elements of the alien conspiracy mythos of the late 1990s and the 1996 Charlie Sheen vehicle The Arrival.

But Half-Life‘s greatness lies not in its story, but in how it tells it. This is something I never really noticed for the longest time, but learning about the history of the earliest first-person shooters from people like Civvie11 on Youtube finally helped me understand just what made Half-Life so groundbreaking. Most of those early shooters focused on testing the player’s combat prowess, generally relegating story to the manual or end-level text boxes. By contrast, Valve’s intention with Half-Life was to have the player experience the story through the environment and the gameplay. From the moment you start the game you never leave Gordon Freeman’s perspective. There are no end-mission text boxes, audio logs, diary entries, or even an objectives menu. Every so often you are given a general objective by a scientist, but otherwise you are left to figure out your own path through the game. Aside from the tutorial level in the Hazard Course, the game explains its concepts and story through its environment. The dangers of the Xenian fauna are often demonstrated on hapless scientists or other creatures before they are turned on you. The first third of the chapter “We’ve Got Hostiles!” is dedicated to establishing the threat of the Marines gradually; you start the chapter seeing a scientist panic about “them” before running into a trip mine, spend your time weaving your way around a storage complex booby-trapped with mines and automated gun turrets before you see another scientist die at the hands of a jarhead. As the game progresses, new revelations begin to recontextualize what you thought you knew about the current disaster. In “Apprehension” a scientist opines that a terrible swimming creature you just encountered “never swam in terrestrial waters until a week ago”, setting the stage for “Questionable Ethics”, where you fight your way through a lab dedicated to the extensive study of the various life-forms of Xen, raising questions about what was happening behind the scenes that led to the current crisis. Finally, there is the great mystery of the G-Man, an MIB-esque figure you catch watching you at various points, only to vanish from inescapable areas when you try to approach him. At the end of the game he saves you from certain death and offers you a “choice” between employment as his agent or death, leaving you wondering just how much of any of what you experienced was chaos and how much was someone’s design.

In a way, Half-Life is very much about “learning the design” and figuring out how to discern order from the apparent chaos that surrounds you. While the simultaneous effects of the resonance cascade, alien invasion, and a military crackdown have left the facility in ruins, it often takes little work to determine a side path or alternate route that will get you where you need to be. As you fight both the aliens and the Marines you will become familiar with their behaviors and learn when you can press the attack and when you should retreat. As your arsenal of weapons expands, you’ll grow more capable of handling a different variety of enemy encounters. Indeed, a large part of the game consists of figuring out how to use different combinations of weapons to turn any given combat encounters to your advantage. This emphasis on “learning the design” even extends to the non-combat sections of the game, where you’ll need to look around to figure out where and how to jump for a platforming section, or search a room and drag boxes around to figure out how to progress. To quote the original tag-line, Half-Life is a game where you need to “think, run, shoot, live”.

Half-Life is not without its flaws, of course: the average playthrough will be marred by any number of hiccups due to the Quake Engine-derived GoldSrc Engine, and the chapter “On A Rail”, where you spend most of your time riding a tram car and running into HECU Marine ambushes can be a drag. Overall though, the game still holds its own even today. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Valve themselves have never quite reached the heights they hit in their breakout hit, even in the later installments of what became the Half-Life franchise.

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Black_Mesa - Box Art

Much like Valve’s own projects, Black Mesa had a protracted, somewhat torturous development. The genesis for the game came from the disappointment that surrounded the release of Half-Life: Source in 2004, a straight-up port of the original game to Half-Life 2‘s Source Engine that was more a technical curiosity than anything. In response two modding teams sprang up with the goal of remaking Half-Life to fully make use of the new engine, eventually pooling their talents and merging as Crowbar Collective in 2005. While a trailer surfaced in 2008 promising a release the following year, the scope and depth of the project soon pushed the release date back to the dreaded “when it’s done”. In late 2013 Crowbar Collective took an offer from Valve themselves to make Black Mesa a fully-fledged commercial release in exchange for access to more advanced development tools to the Source Engine. Black Mesa finally appeared on Early Access on May of 2015, with only the levels set on Earth available. Xen itself had to wait another four years for Christmas of 2019 to appear, with the game’s full release coming on March 6th, 2020.

Now, I have a lot to praise about Black Mesa. The game’s presentation is superb. Everything from the opening tram ride at the beginning of the game to the portal room at the end of “Lambda Complex” has been polished to a mirror shine. Parts of levels have been expanded and reworked from the original, of course, but aside from the drastically-cut “On A Rail” the changes feel natural, even beneficial. Areas that were empty rooms with a table and a tile floor have been reworked into cafeterias, and many of the abstract industrial spaces of the original game (like the infamous “box smashing room” jumping puzzle in “Unforseen Consequences”) have been given more of a function. Environmental storytelling has also been greatly improved with advanced technology, with the lab spaces in “Questionable Ethics” being greatly expanded to properly show the extent of research on Xen, while “Surface Tension” manages to wring some pathos from the Marines as their medevac and triage stations come under alien attack. Of course, Crowbar Collective pays fulsome homage to their inspiration, with the voice actors doing their best to emulate the somewhat goofy performances of the scientists and security guards from the original game. Joel Nielsen’s soundtrack goes for a more rock and orchestral-tinged version than ambient electronica of Kelly Bailey’s original, but it’s just as enjoyable in its own way. On the surface, Black Mesa would seem to be a complete success.

And yet, every time I’ve played the game, something about it has felt off. I’ve never been able to find a comfortable rhythm to gameplay. In combat I always feel like I’m panicking, having to react on instinct rather than being able to come up with a plan and execute it. After combat, I always feel like I did something wrong, or that I did not perform as optimally in some way. While part of this is undoubtedly due to the muscle memory I’ve developed from playing the original game steering me wrong, I think something more fundamental is at play.

As I see it, while the original Half-Life was about “figuring out the design” and proceeding from there, Black Mesa is more interested in the feeling of being in Black Mesa as the disaster unfolds around you. The philosophy isn’t “think, run, shoot, live”, it’s “react, sprint, shoot, live”. Unlike on the old GoldSrc Engine, enemies have the ability to both run and attack at the same time, giving the player less time to react. While this inability to do two things at once was a limitation of older technology, enemies in Black Mesa have not been given any pain or stagger animations that could replicate this behavior on a more modern engine. Attacks by the various Xenian creatures have also been sped up or made more damaging, making it even harder to know when you can get a shot off. Taking a page from Half-Life 2, your ammunition carrying capacity has been reduced for all your firearms by anywhere between two-fifths to two-thirds, making it more likely that you’ll run low on something during a prolonged firefight and have to improvise. When you get into fights you will often have no choice but to take a lot of damage and lose a lot of your ammo. While this certainly increases how dangerous each combat encounter feels, it just makes me feel like I’m constantly playing the game badly no matter what I do.

This drive to focus on the unpredictability of the environment also extends to the expansion of the levels and general increase in detail. The original Half-Life, being a game made in the late 1990s that had to fit on a physical disc and run on less powerful home computers, couldn’t afford to go overboard on detail and had to keep environments fairly straightforward. In every level, it was always fairly clear where you needed to go, and the need to reuse design elements helped the player develop a “vocabulary” to help them understand what doors to use, what buttons were important, and so on. Black Mesa, by hewing closer to naturalism, muddies this understanding. Plenty of levels have little closets and areas designed to make the level feel more lived-in, but which don’t really have anything to offer from a gameplay perspective. More doors and ladders are added which further confuse where players should go, particularly in areas that have been radically altered from their originals. The game never develops a consistent language of interactable objects, giving rise to many frustrating moments where I hover over a console and hammer the “use” key on everything, hoping for something to work.

However, in spite of all these issues, I found the Earthbound parts of Black Mesa to be an enjoyable experience. While I had a lot of issues with the game’s design, Black Mesa still preserves a lot of the original game’s layout and encounters, and a lot of the time it was enough to keep me playing and enthralled.

Xen, however, proved to be a different story.

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The final levels set in the alien border world of Xen – “Xen”, “Gonarch’s Lair”, “Interloper”, and “Nihilanth” – have always been the most controversial parts of the original Half-Life. Indeed, many people, myself included, consider them the worst part of the game. After spending the game getting to know the ins and outs of Black Mesa and how it works, you are suddenly thrust into a wholly alien world where you have to contend with jumping puzzles in a low-gravity environment, ammo pickups that don’t show what they contain, and a Giger/Beksiński style of organic alien architecture that offers no clue as to what direction you should go. Even Gabe Newell, the founder of Valve, has described Xen as a “regret”, a compromise that had to be made due to technological limitations and the scheduling constraints of Half-Life‘s development. As a result, Crowbar Collective had far more latitude to reinterpret the final levels of the original game for Black Mesa.

Much as with the rest of the game, on the surface Black Mesa‘s take on Xen seems to be a success. The jumping puzzles have been scaled back, and Crowbar Collective has taken a page from the old Blue Shift expansion in crafting large continuous environments occasioned by short jumping sequences. Most of the movement and combat language the player developed on Earth is preserved in Xen, with the addition of an enhanced “long-jump module” that lets the player make short dashes in the cardinal directions while also negating fall damage. An admirable effort is also made to tie Xen into Black Mesa and the rest of the Half-Life universe through a greater focus on environmental storytelling. The second quarter of “Xen” has the player travelling through an abandoned research outpost established by earlier explorers from Black Mesa, while the end of the level shows off a different sort of alien technology used for generating portals, foreshadowing the oppressive Combine of Half-Life 2. “Interloper” also does its part to flesh out the enslaved alien “vortigaunts” whom you had spent the earlier parts of the game fighting, again showing how they became allies of the human resistance in the later games.

However, even in this new Xen there are problems. The focus on naturalism often results in the critical path being less than clear, simply replicating the issue the original Xen had. Elements like the boss fight against the Gonarch in the titular creature’s “Lair” and a chase scene involving multiple Gargantuas in “Interloper” are scripted far more heavily than anything in either the original game or in the earlier parts of Black Mesa, leaving the player feeling like they having to submit to a developer’s whims rather than being immersed in the story. The increased mobility does not always play well with the environment either; oftentimes a stray blow or a quick evasion will send you falling into the void and force a reload.

Ultimately, my biggest problem with Black Mesa‘s Xen is not with the combat or the level design, but the pacing. There is simply too much game here. Now, in preparation for this post I replayed all of the old Half-Life games along with Black Mesa and timed myself to see how long it took me to get through each chapter. The original Half-Life took me about 7 and 1/2 hours to get through while playing normally, with only about an hour spent in Xen. Meanwhile it took me 11 and 1/2 hours to fight my way to Xen in Black Mesa, and another 5 and 1/2 hours to get to the end of the game, for an overall grand total of about 17 and 1/4 hours. Now, these aren’t perfect figures; I am far more familiar with the original game than Black Mesa, and I was running Black Mesa with a trio of mods (Hazard Course, the Vent Maze mod for “We’ve Got Hostiles”, and the Loop mod for “On A Rail”) that extended the run time by over an hour. However, even taking all that into consideration, it is still undeniably clear that Black Mesa is a much bigger game than the Half-Life, and I would argue that it stretched the material of the original game past the breaking point. It was less noticeable in the Earthbound sections of the game, since the developers had replicated the pacing of the original game. Left to their own devices in Xen, the bloat became far more obvious. Ironically, the level “Interloper” has become my most disliked chapter in both versions of the game for different reasons. In the original Half-Life “Interloper” was a mash-up of everything bad about Xen: obtuse jumping puzzles, unclear navigation, and an endless gauntlet of Xenian enemies with no hope of resupply that had you taking potshots behind cover. In Black Mesa I loathe “Interloper” because it will not end. It’s three hours of an endless trek upwards, conveyor belt after conveyor belt, jumping puzzle after jumping puzzle, set piece after set piece, on and on without end.

In the end, I suppose I’ve come to see Black Mesa as still being the mod it started life as some seventeen years ago. Like a lot of mods, there is a great deal of creativity and passion put into it, and there are some wonderful moments. At the same time, it was not built under the same pressures a normal game faces during development, leaving the project with a lot of idiosyncracies. There are parts that seem long-winded, parts that are overindulgent, and parts that should have been cut in the name of brevity. Crowbar Collective itself isn’t really a game studio as a massive mod team that had members join and drop out over the years, and I do wonder how much focus there was on the big picture of Black Mesa rather than the individual components. I respect Crowbar Collective for their accomplishment in reimagining Half-Life, but their version of Half-Life is just that to me, an interpretation. I have no idea if I will ever play Black Mesa again after this, but I know I will return to Half-Life again and again until I’m old and grey.

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