Half-Life isn’t that great.

Just something quick. I can’t get my head around why people find Half-Life 2 so great. I’m talking about stuff like the recent Gamer’s Quarter Podcast. Here you have a bunch of people talking about how unique and revoultionary the game is. I don’t get it? Did they play the same game? It just another 3D Shooter like thousands before! Sure, it just has a few nifty special effects like the NPC’s are staring at you and there a nice physics engine. But that’s nothing we haven’t seen before somewhere. The convergence of all that technology doesn’t result in any kind of revolution.
And then they will start blabbering how Half-Life 1 was already revolutionary back then. I can’t take that bullshit anymore! Half-Life is a generic shooter as well. I remember playing Jedi Knight before Half-Life was released. Half-Life had nothing which I haven’t already seen in Jedi Knight.

The problem is that people are unable to tell what so special there is about Half-Life. It all comes down to fuzzy things like “atmosphere” or “story”. I didn’t notice any kind of special “atmosphere” or any kind of unusual “story”. Sorry, you need to be more precise.

And then, because they can’t really put their finger on the fuzzy stuff, they will start talking about some marginal, obscure technology details like scripted in-game cutscenes. THAT always made me laugh because they were so predictable and didn’t really make sense if you didn’t “behave” properly. When NPCs were talking to me, I just went out. Whenever I was supposed tu run, because stuff was supposed to blew up, I waited and nothing happened. Oh, and I hate Gordon Freeman, especially because he isn’t talking in the game which makes every NPC who tries to have a conversation with him look like an idiot.

My theory is that Half-Life was just the first shooter most of the people played because It is generic enough not to scare anybody away. No demons from hell, no Star Wars, just a plain title with a bland story.

But maybe it’s me. Can you explain to me why Half-Life is so great?

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

10 responses to “Half-Life isn’t that great.”

  1. Yu-Chung Chen

    … so it does boil to this: I need to play it to properly talk about it.

    The not-talking part might be the proof that Nintendo is right about not giving Twilight Princess voice acting.

    I might be biased here (as a Nintendo fanboy) but I did speak in first person when I explained tasks in TP to my girlfriend. With God of War I used “he” and “Kratos”.

    Did I mention that “Kratos” sounds a bit like “head of the penis” in Chinese (龜頭, gui tou, pronounced Gu’ey tou)? It was actually my girlfriend who wondered a bit overhearing a cutscene.

  2. Yu-Chung Chen

    PS1. typo: it does boil DOWN to this.

    PS2. too bad you can’t edit a comment.

    PS3. Nice to see that Blogger is unicode-compatible and got my Hanzi right.

  3. Krystian Majewski

    He also looks a bit like the head of a penis.. ;-)

  4. Yu-Chung Chen

    Don’t mean to hijack your topic, but regarding the whole “mute hero” thing, here’s an interesting (though not entirely new) blog post I stumpled upon today.

    It’s about how Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is probably specifically made “racially ambiguous” to provide as much self-projection from the player as possible. Our favorite comic theorist Scott McCloud is being cited too – the same part I cited him for my paper on virtual characters, too!

  5. Krystian Majewski

    Interesting post about “Beyond Good & Evil”. I did’t notice the ambiguity. However, I have some objections:

    I don’t think the ambiguity improves the way people identify with a character in a game. Mario is a fat italian plumber, Sonic is a Hedgehog, Samus is a robot renegade cop, Kay is a cat – they all work great despite being very well defined.

    I would go even further: a well defined, “alien” character might be even something especially interesting. Playing a game is always also some kind of Role-Play (in the psychological sense). It is always intriguing to be someone else for a while. It works better if the person is REALLY different from you.

  6. Taco

    I find it surprising that someone who calls himself a “Game designer”, if not praise then at least acknowledges the pinnacle of exactly that, game design, half-life was.

    Putting aside that the controls, guns, and graphics were top-notch, also forgetting that its AI was cutting edge for games at its time,
    It comes down to the combination of

    Scripted events (Sound, Animation)
    Level Design
    First Person Perspective

    Being actively used as storytelling techniques, which REALLY set it apart from its peers.

    You can argue back and forth weather or not the plot was predictable/lame or how little you enjoyed the guns, monsters etc, thats just your personal preferances, which you are allowed to have, even on the Internet.

    But as a game designer you should be able to spot the intelligent Choices the makers of the game have made presenting it to the players. Meta-game that shit.

    Initially what you come off as in your post is that you just want to be special and decided to not like half-life before you played it.

    Well, you are not.(see:Halo fanboys)
    And if this anonymous poster does convince you, then maybe 51 Game of the year awards will.(Hint: There is a REASON(see:game design) a lot of people like this game.

    Oh and though Half-Life 2 was not as pioneering as Half-Life, it is still a extremely enjoyable game for the EXACT reasons Half-life was, and then some.

  7. Krystian Majewski

    You obviously seem to be attached to that particular game. I’m sorry for hurting your feelings. No reason to get personal, though.

    As I wrote in my Post, I haven’t seen in Half Life anything which I haven’t seen in other games of that time like Jedi Knight for example. This applies especially to your list:

    Scripted events (Sound, Animation)
    Level Design
    First Person Perspective

    It doesn’t seem to me like you’ve mention any unique aspect of the game. Maybe you could get more precise for me – what exactly was so unique and groundbreaking about the “Level Design” or “First Person Perspective” of Half-Life?

    The last thing you mention is the classical example of an Argumentum ad populum. Please come up with with actual arguments.

  8. Reece

    I take it you never played up to the part where you got the gravity gun.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      You are confusing Half-Life with Half-Life 2.

  9. Samj21

    I find half life amazing exactly BECAUSE I cant find a specific aspect of it that’s ground breaking. If I had to choose a single part of the gameplay it would be the “fun factor”. Making a great game is hard but making a fun game is much harder, sure we can all imagine ground breaking features, awesome graphics, life like ai, but can we really imagine what “fun” is? nothing all that great but “fun” ? To me, half life is exactly that, a “game”. something I can just sit down and enjoy without having to admire the next tech behind it, the overly complex story or the endless and mindless cutscenes ( Another something that’s not there in half life). Just my 2 cents :D


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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