half-life

'Black Mesa' Is Not the 'Half-Life' You Remember

After more than a decade in the making, the 'Half-Life' remake is one of the most ambitious mods ever made.
19 February 2020, 2:30pm
half life
Image: Crowbar Collective

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

After hours of crawling through air vents and jumping over radioactive pools, I finally emerge from the Black Mesa complex. It's dusk, and being able to see the sky and the New Mexico canyon rock feels like a much needed relief from that cursed science lab.

But my journey is far from over. I know because I've played Half-Life about a dozen times. My immediate goal is to reach a control room to help scientists at Lambda lab launch a satellite they believe can fix the mess I started earlier that day by opening a portal to an alien world.

I turn the corner, as I have many times before, but I don't find what I expect. What was once a simple rectangular space with a missile silo lid at its center is now a sprawling arena filled with boxes, military equipment, and soldiers running around shooting me. In the original Half-Life, I could end this fight with one well placed grenade, but here, in the lovingly crafted fan-made remake called Black Mesa, it is a long and drawn-out fight, where I scramble from cover to cover, reload, and pick off not-so-clever enemies until the path is clear.

Black Mesa is full of these embellishments on the original Half-Life. Some of them are so subtle, they're hard to notice. New or overhauled spaces are woven seamlessly into the original, and capture its spirit of sci-fi, corporate dread so perfectly, I had to check videos of Half-Life on YouTube to check if they were actually new. But too often, like the battle at the missile silo, Black Mesa's additions bite off more than they can chew, adding too many enemies, new art assets, and dramatic music in an attempt to turn what was once a simple, memorable room or beat into an action set piece. When it fails like this, Black Mesa brings the whole audacious experiment crashing down. The new suddenly stands out like a sore thumb, forcing me to recognize the difference between Black Mesa's hobbyist origins and Half-Life's now canonical, genre-defining level design.

Black Mesa's frequent overextensions don't detract from it as one of the most ambitious mods in the history of video games. It's been in development in one form or another since shortly after the release of Half Life 2 in 2004. That's 16 years of development for a remake of a game that took only two years to develop. This is comparing apples and oranges a bit since there's a big difference between working in a well-funded, dedicated development team and a team of initially unpaid fans who are chipping away at a dream project while working day jobs. But the scope of Black Mesa would have been an undertaking for any team.

It recreates the entirety of Half-Life in Half-Life 2's Source engine. It's more like Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho than the cleaned-up and "digitally remastered" release of Star Wars. It's not just a bunch of high resolution textures, but a meticulous recreation of a long, complex, and beloved game in a more recent engine, with a few embellishments.

Black Mesa's ambitions were so exciting when I first saw a trailer for it in the 2000s that I decided I wouldn't play it until the entire thing was finished. Different parts of it have been playable for years, but last week Black Mesa's developer Crowbar Collective started beta testing the 1.0 release of the game, meaning the entire thing is playable, beginning to end, including the game's last chapter, Xen, which takes place on an alien world.

Image: Crowbar Collective

The Xen section took a particularly long time to finish, and now that I've played it it's easy to see why: Crowbar Collective took that part of Half-Life, largely considered its weakest act, more or less put the entire thing in the garbage, and started over from scratch. It has entirely new environments, enemy types, and even story beats that gently flesh out the world's fiction with the foreknowledge of what's revealed in Half-Life 2. It is mostly here, when Crowbar Collective throws away the script and writes its own destiny, that the spirit and creativity of the modding community shines the most. Some additions here were so satisfying, I don't want to spoil them even though they're not technically canon.

Before I got to Xen, though, Black Mesa often felt like an herculean effort to make an old game look modern. But so much time has passed since Black Mesa development started, it no longer looks modern. It just looks like Half Life 2, which is itself 16 years old.

What this means in practice is that Black Mesa tells the same story with a lot more fidelity. This is clear from the game's opening and iconic tram ride, where the player spends a long time looking around and absorbing the Black Mesa facility before being given any agency. What was once a giant, bare wall the player passed by is now a diorama of meetings rooms and labs filled with props—coffee cups, piles of papers, computers—and populated with more detailed character models going about their business.

These models are one of the biggest improvements Black Mesa brings to Half-Life. The lab is no longer populated with dozens, bald, bespectacled Dr. Kleiners, or equally as many clones of Barney the security guard, but a wide variety of faces and voices. Some of these characters also have a surprising amount of new dialogue, which successfully matches the absurd humor and terror of the original.

Now that I've played it, I'm confident that the extra fidelity doesn't make Half-Life a better game. Black Mesa's high resolution interpretation of Half-Life reminded me of the documentary Waiting for Hockney. In it, an unknown artist named Billy Pappas spends eight years making a hyper detailed, graphite drawing of Marilyn Monroe’s face, based on Richard Avedon's famous photo of the actress. The drawing is so detailed, Pappas works on it with 20-times magnification goggles attached to his face, and insists that people wear surgical masks when viewing it so as not to disturb its fine lines.

It's not clear what Pappas is trying to say with his work or what he hopes to accomplish other than his belief that if he could get his drawing in front of the famous British painter David Hockney, he will catapult himself to the top of the art world. This isn't what happens, of course. Pappas gets to meet his idol and show him his work, but Hockney essentially dismisses him by saying: "It’s still that fucking photograph."

Like Pappas' drawing, Black Mesa is trapped by the blueprint it's following, and is built with the unproven belief that adding more detail to a work will make it better. This is something I as a Half-Life fan believed at the time too, and a trap that many people who love video games fall into, as is made clear by the endless onslaught of video game remakes and HD-remasters. There's a proven audience for people who believe that if a game developed with 1998 technology was good, it could be even better if it was created with 2004 technology, or 2020 technology.

All art is partly defined by technology, but video games' relationship with it is particularly close because the technology that defines it evolves so quickly. Art history majors can go to the museum and recognize paintings they were taught belong to different eras that span decades or even hundreds of years. Video game players can pick up Fable for Xbox and immediately recognize it as being developed during that one year period where game developers really hammed it up with light bloom. Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, for example, another of my favorite games, will in my mind always be intrinsically tied to Shader Model 3.0, a then new and more detailed way of rendering shadows in real-time, which was critical to a game that was all about lurking in the shadows.

The original Half-Life was developed on a heavily modified version of the Quake engine, and is brilliantly defined by that engine's limitations. It is a blocky dimension capable of low-res textures, simple lighting, and scripting. It's not an engine you'd want to use to render a bustling city street, but it's perfect for an underground lab: Long, flat corridors with little or no furniture, big pipes, and the simple geometry of missile silos and warehouses.

The action, in turn, seems to be built around this simple geometry. Gordon Freeman is a theoretical physicist, not a trained killer, and though like most video games by the end of it there's a genocidal body count in his wake, it always feels like Freeman is surviving by the skin of his teeth, employing some ingenuity and a lot of luck. You often stumble upon soldiers with their backs turned to you, or when you have the high ground. The time it takes a vortigaunt to charge his energy blast always seems to give you enough time to turn a corner and hide.

This careful balance often falls apart in Black Mesa. The simple geometry and lighting of a corridor I've been down a dozen times is suddenly busy with details and props that make it feel more like a real space, but now breaks what Valve carefully built in 1998. Combat encounters in Half-Life are a finely tuned mix of spaces, weapons, and enemy behavior. Adding more enemies, or obscuring lines of sight with additional art, throws them out of balance. Solutions to puzzles also don't "read" as easily because there are so many other props to sort through.

Black Mesa's additions are best where Half-Life originally had large, open spaces. The "Surface Tension" chapter in particular, in which Freeman travels above ground to the Lambda lab, often stumbling on big battles between marines and aliens, is a place where applying the Source engine is a good fit. By being able to put more enemies on screen, have jets chase giant aliens overhead, and see other parts of the environment dynamically react to the action, Black Mesa better sells the alien invasion war aspect of Half-Life's story, which we weren't really able to see in the original. In retrospect, it also seems that Half-Life's engine wasn't up to the task of rendering the alien world of Xen, but in Black Mesa it is rendered beautifully. It's no longer a series of abstract platforms, but a lush, thriving world that recontextualizes and endears the aliens I spent the last 10 hours shooting as innocent pawns in a much larger game.

Image: Crowbar Collective

I am thrilled and shocked that Black Mesa exists, its quixotic ambitions finally realized. It's here, it's real, and it's everything I wanted it to be. However, it took me playing it to realize that Half-Life was always a game stuck between eras. It was built on top of the corridor shooters—crudely chopped up into separate levels—that came before it, and pointed to a future of environmental storytelling, elaborate scripting, and continuous level design, which were revolutionary at the time, and common today.

In the sections where technology catches up with the concepts Half-Life introduced all the way back in 1998, Black Mesa shines. Where it has to wrestle outdated but beloved traditions first person shooters abandoned more than 20 years ago, it fails, and perhaps shows that the Half-Life we love in part lives in the imagination we used to compensate for its technological limitations.