It's pretty rare for a game to be legitimately revolutionary. Often times when a game gets called revolutionary, it's probably over-hyped marketing and not really based on any changes the game is making to the idea of what games can be. Every so often though, there is a game that is generally considered revolutionary for expanding the space of game design. Valve's 1998 debut game Half-Life is considered revolutionary for the way it introduced narrative into the often fast-paced and story-light design space of the First Person Shooter. But in fact, maybe Valve had just hit the peak of a wave of games that were all collectively moving towards a more open, less level based design. Motherboard's own Emanuel Maiberg joins the Waypoint Radio crew to chat about Half-Life: Alyx, the franchise's legacy, and whether or not Quake 2 did Half-Life before Half-Life. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below.
Rob: There's a discontinuity in FPS narrative design around Half-Life that exists because people basically saw a game that never broke, never changed levels like it was seamless, and it had all these [big] moments. I do think that was revolutionary, it's just that its revolution became commonplace and I think that's the thing that gets unkind to it.
Emanuel: Well, I think that, didn't Quake 2 come out earlier? Didn't it come out before Half-Life 2?
Rob: Well yeah, because it was a Quake 2 engine derived game.
Emanuel: Right, so Quake 2 did a lot of what Half-Life did it just a Half-Life did it better.
[Rob looks aghast]
Austin: Rob is–
Patrick: OK you know what, there are takes, there are hot takes, and then there is what is happening right now. I'm gonna have to call my daughter down here, she is going to scold you. The story of the Strogg!?!
Emanuel: No, no, it's not the story. It's the issue of continuity. To Rob's point, up until Half-Life people felt like games were broken into levels, it's DOOM and I jump into a level and I get the red key, and I get the yellow key, and then I push a button, and then we go to the next level. And what Half-Life did is it felt like one continuous world in one continuous space that felt real. I agree that they did it very well, but Quake 2 was actually starting to do some of that. It didn't break it into levels. It's like," I'm going to this facility and to get there I have to go through this part of the base" and it was all one connected space.
Rob: Yeah, but I think that I think the ambitions are so different. Quake 2 never has any interest in you buying that you are in a place, that you are a person in a place where things happen. You're in a fucking Strogg meat factory or whatever the fuck, whatever they are, but it's very classic Id design of industry torture devices. Beyond that first level where you get guys screaming over the radio about "Agh the Strogg kicking our asses," there isn't much storytelling.
Whereas I think Half-Life throughout it, storytelling is part of the experience, right? Quake 2 after that first level basically sends you on your merry way and it's like "go fuck up these monsters." And there we are, there's Quake. Whereas Half-Life is constantly breaking in and saying, "Ah, here's the next part of the story unfolding," right? Everyone's saying "ah the government's going to come and help us out." Spoiler they don't and you see that play out very clearly.
Austin: Can I–
Emanuel: I don't want to turn this into two old men arguing about Quake 2.
Austin: No, no, no, wait. It's gonna be three, wait a second –
Patrick: That's our new podcast! "Two Old Men Arguing About Quake 2."
Austin: If I can do the most Waypoint thing possible here–
Rob: Oh no, I'm gonna hate this too.
Austin: Are you?
Rob: 'Cause I feel like there's an oblique hot take coming.
Austin: It's not a hot take! Well, it is. It is.
Patrick: "It's not a hot take, but!"
Rob: Austin's gonna get gravity assistance by traveling around Jupiter, and is gonna come back from a different angle.
Austin: I do. I have, I have like six different wiki tabs open to check dates on things.
Emanuel: Ok go for it!
Austin: So, is it that Half-Life gets the credit for what the emerging immersive sim was already doing?
[Emanuel does an "oh snap" motion with his hand]
Austin: Yes, thank you Emanuel, thank you! System Shock is out in 19–
Patrick: Don't ever, don't ever do that hand motion again.
Austin: System Shock is out in 1994, Ultima Underworld is out in 1992, but you don't have rocket launchers, dog. You don't get you just like shoot stuff. A month, a month after Half-Life guess what comes out, Rob? Thief! Thief comes out a month after Half-Life. I'm not saying Half-Life isn't a good game, but Half-Life was lifting from an emerging space and making it an action game. But I don't know that that stuff was revolutionary so much as revolutionary to the sorts of players who were not going to go play Ultima Underworld or System Shock 1, and who would go play System Shock 2 which came out the next year and was likely mid-development by [ Half-Life's launch in] November 1998.
Which is interesting because I think it might just actually be that what we're doing is challenging what we think of as revolutions in video games. Because in fact what happens is a big game comes out and everyone goes "that's the one that did it." It's what Patrick said about Half-Life: Alyx 20 minutes ago which was that it's a polishing-
Patrick: Yeah a lot of it's mechanics are not [new]. I was talking to Matthew Gault who was also playing this at the same time I was playing it, and I was talking about "oh these mechanics are super cool. Like I haven't seen anything like this," and he's like "yeah, this was in Y, this was in X, this was in Z." And it's just a very polished, really great take on all those [different mechanics], dropped into massive production values and exquisite level design and pacing. And not that Valve didn't do its own work and not to take away from anything. Putting all that stuff together in that package is difficult in and of itself. But I think there is something to be said, often there is something in the air and maybe one of the magics of Valve is their ability to culminate it.
Cado: So Valve is the Apple of game developers.
Patrick: I don't know if I go that far.
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