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Perhaps Half-Life is the Shakespeare of Video Games

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

Something affected the way I thought about video games during my youthful years of university. My wonderful writing for games professor on the first day made a point of how video games were such a young medium of storytelling. Still considered as a wild-west. Especially as there lacks a definition as to what exactly can be considered a video game. Does Candy Crush count? Or shall we only consider Skyrim or Superhot as true videogames and not include visual novels like Doki Doki Literature Club? This speech ended with mentioning that there was no “Shakespeare of video games”. Of course it would be hard to label any game now as such but after watching a Noclip documentary, I began thinking. What if the ‘Shakespeare’ of video games already exists and what if it resides in a franchise known as Half-Life?

First thing’s first, I should give a small background as to what Half-Life is. Half-Life is a science fiction FPS (first person shooter) video game franchise created by a company called Valve. The original game that kicked off the franchise was released in 1998. Right from the start, this game had made its impact by being released on a now-popular gaming platform called Steam. Conveniently, Steam was also created by those at Valve. This meant that Valve was able to publish their game in a manner that was direct to the consumer rather than taking up unguaranteed shelf space in the big retail stores. The reception was astounding. Jeff Green from Computer Gaming World was quoted saying that Half-Life “is not just one of the best games of the year. It's one of the best games of any year, an instant classic that is miles better than any of its immediate competition, and – in its single-player form – is the best shooter since the original Doom.” The game itself redefined how games were made by minimizing cutscenes and introducing mechanics that were player driven. Half-life is key in understanding how video games are designed today.

Taking that into account, Half-Life is easily one of the most influential games around. Unless your favorite video game is Tetris, Half-Life has inspired some aspect or another from your most prized video game. One thing in particular that Half-Life established was that players could actually spend more time playing rather than watching cutscenes. Minimizing the use of cutscenes to push a narrative seemed to really set the medium of video games apart from movies or tv where stories are told solely in cutscenes. This is now common practice in any FPSs released today. If you’re the kind of gamer who loathes a cutscene, be sure to write a kind thank-you letter to Valve up in Washington state. By getting creative with narrative techniques the quality of storytelling in video games increased. Much like how Shakespeare’s narratives have inspired the same for theatre.

Shakespeare defined a lot during his lifetime. Specifically many words we often use today like upstairs or unreal. Well, Valve made similar achievements too when they created Half-Life. Something that players saw for the first time when moving about the Black Mesa Research Facility is that they themselves were able to set the pace at which the level operated. Previously it was standard practice that events in a location sequence were triggered by a timer and the player was supposed to keep up with these happenings. But in the shoes of Gordon Freeman (the character players play as), it was the players’ actions that moved things along. Even in the smaller details like environments showing bullet-impact on places and things in which the player had shot. Another common practice today that back-then was ahead of its time was the A.I. featured in the game so much so that Valve’s creators showcased it along with the animation at E3 in 1997.

We still perform Shakespeare today and we even put our own twists on his original works. Same as we do for Half-Life. In game jams and in the modding community. Modding is a common practice among hobbyists in the game community where individuals can modify different aspects of a game aesthetically or otherwise. Game jams hosted even today give hobbyist developers the chance at creating their own interpretations and renditions of the Half-Life universe. Valve’s game engine is also used to make other popular game franchises like Counter Strike. Half-Life still breathes life into the gaming industry same as how Shakespeare gives life to the theatre world still. Valve’s monumental move in publishing Half-Life on Steam paved the way for other up and coming independent game developers to publish their art without being backed by a major chain store. And what is today’s gaming industry without its hardworking and cherished indie devs? Imagining a games industry without Half-Life is like imagining theatre sans the bard.

In the end I could be wrong about all of this. Video games are still a medium in their infancy compared to other forms of storytelling. There were hundreds of years of theatre before Shakespeare took center stage. So perhaps years down the road, a franchise will come along and completely define how games should be made or their stories be told. And in that instance Half-Life would then mirror that of The Theban Plays from the Greek Era in this metaphor. In any case, the strides that Valve made in creating the franchise ‘Half-Life’ continue to be influential to this day. Half-Life’s legacy is far from forgotten.

Links to some of my sources in case you want to learn more for yourself:


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