Chapter 5


Half Life



            Probably no single aesthetic genre, outside of the animated cartoon or hip hop sound-track, has been quite so expressive of the cultural dynamics of the post-Cold War era as the videogame. Spawned as an obscure programmer hobby in the 1960s, videogames blossomed into a prominent home entertainment toy in the 1980s, before maturing into one of the most innovative aesthetic forms of the 1990s. The 3D action games, in particular, carried out the aesthetic revolution which the prophets of virtual reality promised, but could never quite deliver: players literally immerse themselves in a game-world, exploring environments full of realistic objects, complex spatial and auditory cues, and sophisticated storylines.1

            The rise of the 3D game played a key role in the emergence of the information commons. While film and TV productions require comparatively expensive set designs, production crews and distribution channels, videogames could be produced by small groups of programmers, and played on inexpensive console systems and handheld devices. The advent of the Web in the early 1990s spawned multinational gaming communities, wherein fans, designers and programmers from across the planet could meet, play online, and exchange game-related media and news. Videogames very quickly became a privileged site where multinational cultural forms could touch base with new types of multinational politics – everything from the anti-Maastricht mobilizations which swept the European Union to the pro-democracy struggles of the East Asian region.

            The premier example of this is Valve Software’s Half Life (1998), the single greatest 3D action game of the late 1990s. Valve was the brainchild of two former Microsoft executives, Gabe Newell and Michael Harrington, who cashed in their stock options and founded their own independent game company in 1996. Instead of applying Microsoft methods to the gaming industry, however, Valve followed an open source model of game development, by licensing a graphics engine from another company, releasing editing and level-building tools for the gaming community, and building support for multiplayer scenarios into their single-player game. Most of all, Valve stressed creative teamwork rather than individual egos, assembling a talented team of programmers, modelers and artists to create an unforgettable game-world. The single most influential contributor to Half Life was science fiction writer Marc Laidlaw, who transformed a conventional script of a secret Government research experiment gone awry into a true epic of the Information Age.2

            The story begins with a visually impressive tram ride through a fictional Black Mesa Research Facility, a top-secret Government installation somewhere in Arizona. Players assume the role of Gordon Freeman, an entry-level research assistant arriving for his first day of work in the Anomalous Materials laboratory. Once underground, the player must pick up a hazard suit and head to the test chamber for a key experiment. Predictably, the experiment goes terribly wrong: a portal to another world opens up and nightmarish aliens begin teleporting in, wreaking havoc and destruction. Players must pick their way through the bowels of the wrecked Black Mesa facility, dodging falling debris and hazardous equipment while combating alien life-forms. What is completely unexpected, however, is the far-from-warm welcome given to players when they finally make contact with the rescue team. Instead of retrieving survivors, the US military has been ordered to eliminate everyone associated with the project – including Freeman himself. For the rest of the game, players must battle against members of their own species as well as the aliens, in order to piece together what really happened at Black Mesa, and hopefully put an end to the carnage.

            Laidlaw’s cosmological reversal of the hackneyed alien invasion theme is echoed by a whole series of post-Cold War puns, ranging from the title of the game (“half life” refers to the time required for half of a radioactive isotope to decay into another element, but could just as easily apply to the life-span of the player-character), to the name “Gordon Freeman” (the Freemen were a notorious anti-Government militia group in the late 1990s). In fact, Laidlaw’s strategy has its closest model in Hideaki Anno’s epochal TV series, Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). Just as Evangelion sublated the Japanese mecha or giant robot anime into one of the transcendental texts of the multinational media culture, so too will Half Life sublate a high-energy plasma of Cold War science fiction, the 1970s horror film, and 1980s cyberpunk into the first classic of the multinational gaming culture. Above all, Half Life signified a revolution in game design. While other firms invented many of the key components of the 3D action game during the early 1990s, Valve was the first to put all the pieces together, thereby creating the first 3D action game with the narrative heft and intensity of a major Hollywood blockbuster. Kelly Bailey’s sound-track, Ted Backman’s monster designs, and Ken Birdwell’s skeletal animation system all set new benchmarks for 3D design excellence.

            What this means, paradoxical as it sounds, is that Half Life’s achievement cannot be fully grasped without analyzing the role of the graphics engine Valve licensed from legendary game company id Software (the lower-case title is the official name of the company). The graphics engine is the basic software responsible for rendering the 3D game-world, and id’s Quake engine furnished Valve’s design team with three key strengths. First, id’s commitment to an open source gaming model meant that the gaming community had access to a ready-made library of editing and programming tools, which could be easily transferred to Half Life. Second, id had a lengthy track record of integrating sound-design into its games, thereby facilitating Half Life’s extraordinary dialogue and theme music. Third, id infused its games with a sophisticated array of video forms and media references, particularly from the horror and Hong Kong films of the 1970s – references which form the narrative bedrock of Half Life’s game-world.3

              Id’s links to the open source movement are legion. The firm’s breakthrough game, Doom (1993), became a smash success via the shareware market. Id also pioneered a viable independent publishing strategy, by permitting retailers to distribute a demonstration version of the game to the public for free, and waiving the customary licensing fees in order to maximize word-of-mouth publicity. Finally, id pursued a policy of respect and cooperation with the gaming community, encouraging the creation and distribution of open source editing and level-building tools. Though other game companies occasionally equaled or even surpassed id in terms of specific visual effects, none came close to matching id’s smooth integration of all the elements of the 3D action game, ranging from custom-built controls to clear interfaces, and from well-thought out animation sequences to publicly-available editing and scripting tools.4 Valve would take these design lessons to heart, which is one of the reasons that Half Life’s multiplayer spin-off, CounterStrike, would spawn such a vibrant multiplayer gaming scene.

              By contrast, id’s strategy of sound-design was modeled on a very different sector of the gaming culture, namely the Nintendo console classics of the 1980s. Unlike their arcade cousins, which offered an impressive array of sound-effects, the home console systems of the 1980s had to make do with a limited tone-palette. Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s brilliant game designer, turned necessity into a virtue, by creating simple but catchy sound-palettes, often consisting or three or four notes with a slight rhythmic variation, which the complemented auditory cues generated by player actions (jumping, running, etc.). In the mid-1990s, id’s games created their own variant of Miyamoto’s sound-trigger strategy, by creating sonic palettes uniquely suited to the 3D action genre. Rather than bombarding players with theme songs, Quake 2 features a sonic palette of screaming jets, a tingling low bass line halfway between a peal of thunder and the banging of a hammer on a metal drum (the sound consists of three separate tones, with a slight but noticeable reverb-effect, pitched a minor third apart), and the high-pitched chip-voice of the intelligence computer directing your mission, which recites the words “Computer update” (this last is rendered as two subtones roughly an octave apart, and garnished with a reverb-effect). This is a direct reference of the palette of early 1990s hip hop (e.g. Cypress Hill’s 1991 album), which set the whines, scratches and loops of a telecom and information technology in motion towards the pulsating thunder of transport, air freight and satellite launch systems.

Half Life’s lead sound designer Kelly Bailey took this strategy a step further, by creating a set of low-key, ambient sounds with the density of a thematic motif. Early in the game, this consists of the hiss of electric wires, the crash of breaking glass, and the general hum of machinery, punctuated by the spine-tingling announcements which blare from Black Mesa’s loudspeakers (the ominous “Black Mesa PA system is now under military control”, and the still more ominous “All scientists report topside for questioning”). Later levels feature the high-pitched tweaks and low growls of the elite alien soldiers, the pop of sniper rounds, the thunder of jets and the radio transmissions of human soldiers. By contrast, actual theme music is deployed sparingly, thereby maximizing its impact. These are often conjoined to scripted events, e.g. the running bass line triggered when players don their power-vest for the first time, the exhilarating thrash metal music during the player’s first battle with the military death squads, or the guitar feedback pulse played when obtaining the plasma rifle. Most impressive of all is the prelude to the cliff battle of Surface Tension, when the roar of a passing military jet accedes to a low bass pulse, then a metallic drum-and-brush rhythm, with very light feedback. This reprises Valve’s opening theme music, which consists of a minor 3rd and another minor 3rd, a half-step below the first – an unmistakable music reference to the sonic palette of late 1990s hip hop (e.g. Kool Keith’s 1996 Dr. Octagon album).

            Id’s quotation of video forms is perhaps the most interesting story of all. Id’s action games fused the visceral kinetic energies of the 1970s horror and Hong Kong films with the registers of the 1980s sci-fi blockbuster (e.g. the audacious action sequences of James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens, without question the cinematic highwater mark of Anglo-American neo-conservativism). But where Aliens exorcised the grisly reality of corporate neocolonialism by means of a reactionary biologism – the monstrous hunger of the aliens for human bodies – id biologized the technologies of neocolonialism.5

            The subversive logic of this strategy is best grasped in the biography of John Romero, the designer responsible for id’s memorably frightening game-scenarios. Romero’s father worked in the US Air Force on various classified spy plane projects, and Romero himself grew up in northern California and central England as a devotee of computers and comic strips; even as a child, his computing skills made quite a splash at the Air Force base in the British town of Aclonbury.6 In a move which curiously echoes the trajectory of fantasy writer R.E. Howard, who created Conan the Barbarian back in the 1930s, Romero would go on to sublate the constellation of a disciplinarian father-figure, a wildly inventive comic strip culture and a utopian military-industrial technology into Doom’s riveting fusion of science-fiction and horror registers – only where Conan single-handedly defeated hordes of evil magicians, scheming kings and unearthly demons in hand-to-hand combat, the nameless hero of Doom combats hordes of demons on an isolated space station.

            What Half Life brought to id’s basic video scenario was the innovation of compositional balance. In point of fact, composition has always been the single thorniest challenge facing game designers. Ironically, one of the reasons for this is the unparalleled ability of videogames to pastiche such a wide range of media forms, ranging from text-based adventure narratives and training simulations to professional sports and role-playing scenarios. Basketball videogames, for example, must follow NBA rules while exhibiting realistic in-game physics, and similar narrative constraints apply to other genres. Pure action games, by contrast, faced the rather problem of narrative monotony, i.e. the repetitive nature of movement or action sequences. All too often, genre-based games ended in maddening frustration, while action games ended in deadening boredom.

            Half Life’s ingenious response to the problem of reconciling real world complexity with real-time simplicity was the invention of 3D game scripting. These are combinations of cut-scenes, plot events and character interactions, triggered by a single player action. This eliminates the need for bulky user interfaces, while preserving the randomizing element of player interaction. Game scripts are particularly effective at smoothing out game-play, since players can choose to ignore certain sequences and move on to the next objective. Scripting does, however, put enormous demands on story designers. Voices, intonations, lighting effects, dialogue and delivery be perfectly balanced, generating just the right amount of narrative tension, while carefully developing the storyline. A single false note or missing cue can ruin an entire sequence; conversely, the correct quote, texture or sound-effect can raise the most mundane event – say, opening a door – to a whole new level.

One of the keys to Valve’s success was the emphasis it placed on creating an entire game-world driven by scripts, as opposed to individually impressive effects or sequences. As animator Ken Birdwell later wrote, game scripting was less a conscious decision than the pragmatic response to a pressing reality. In 1997, Half Life’s coding had bogged down on a number of fronts. Rather than shipping a half-finished product out the door, the design team delayed publication, sat down and practically rebuilt the game from scratch:


We set up a small group of people to take every silly idea, every cool trick, everything interesting that existed in any kind of working state somewhere in the game and put them into a single prototype level. When the level started to get fun, they added more variations of the fun things. If an idea wasn’t fun, they cut it. When they needed a software feature, they simplified it until it was something that could be written in a few days. They all worked together on this one small level for a month while the rest of us basically did nothing. When they were done, we all played it. It was great. It was Die Hard meets Evil Dead. It was the vision. It was going to be our game.7


Henceforth the message would drive the medium, instead of vice versa. This had a powerful influence on one of the most underappreciated aspects of 3D game design, namely texture-effects. While id’s games were notorious for their drab textures and gloomy grey-brown decor, Valve’s programmers went to great lengths to upgrade the Quake engine’s texture-rendering capacities. The visual results were impressive enough in their own right: characters walk and run with striking realism, uniforms look like clothing instead of molded plastic shells, boxes and walls fall apart into realistic bric-a-brac, radioactive waste bubbles ominously, and so forth.

            But the true payoff came when these texture designs were integrated into Ken Birdwell’s animation system, scored to Kelly Bailey’s sound-track, and serenaded by Hal Robbins’ inspired voice-acting. The result was an ensemble of aesthetic effects, capable of generating an unprecedented degree of corporeal realism. This emphasis on the total ensemble of effects, as opposed to a single design innovation, pervades Half Life everywhere from the gear-shifts of the Black Mesa tram to the gory claws of the alien zombies, and from the realistic clang of Freeman’s signature melee weapon, the crowbar, to the shouts of the soldiers.

            One of the most striking examples of the power of this ensemble effect is Half Life’s ubiquitous icon, a stylized lambda (the iridescent version of the Greek letter) logo which denotes Black Mesa’s ultra-secret Lambda laboratory. This is a brilliant design choice, for three reasons. First, the lambda does not have the extensive science-fiction or mass-cultural connotations of alpha or omega, i.e. it is precisely what a top-secret laboratory in a top-secret base ought to be named. Second, the particular shape of the lambda allowed Valve’s game artists to employ the symbol as an impromptu vowel, creating the wondrous combination of an alphanumeric pun and a metallic texture-effect below (note that the original is rendered in a shocking fluorescent orange):











Third, the logo bears more than a passing resemblance to the Chinese ideograph for “man” ( ), something overcoded in the inset foot of the lambda symbol, which suggests a walking figure of some sort. This is an intriguing reference to an otherwise absent East Asian information economy, which sublates Black Mesa’s own distinctive logo – a stylized graphic of a desert mesa, surrounded by a circle – into a kind of global glyph.

            In fact, Laidlaw’s script systematically disrupts and disassembles the xenophobia of Cold War science fiction, by blurring the line between Black Mesa’s military-industrial technologies – rockets and mainframe computers – and the biological technologies of the Xen aliens. An enormous alien must be neutralized in Power Up by turning on a power-station, while the giant tentacle-creature in Blast Pit must be neutralized by turning on an experimental rocket engine. Other areas require a similar reappropriation of Xen technologies, e.g. the hornet-gun is indispensable in shooting down the airborne aliens.

            Valve also took care to balance each alien species with a comparable human profession. For example, the weakest aliens are the headcrabs, a tarantula-sized creature with the disposition of a chihuahua suffering from demonic possession. The headcrabs spring on unarmed humans, turning them into claw-wielding zombies – an ambidextrous reference to the horror and science-fiction films of the 1970s and 1980s. Their rough human equivalents are the lightly-armed security guards, who have comparable powers of combat and mobility.

            Next in difficulty come the alien drones, the main shock-troops of Xen. These creatures wield a line-of-sight electrical attack, and are distinguished primarily by a huge, glowering red central eye and an iridescent metal control-band around their necks – a broad hint at an alien television recording and broadcasting technology. Their human equivalents are the ordinary soldiers or grunts, who wield MP5 weapons or shotguns, wear helmets to mask their identity, and communicate in short, clipped sentences via radio. Last but not least, the heavily armored elite alien soldiers have the exaggerated biceps of a bodybuilder, and employ a weapon, the hornet gun, which throws biological homing darts at its target (the sound of the weapon resembles a swarm of bees). These aliens, in turn, are matched by elite human soldiers in red berets, equipped with rocket-propelled grenades.

            This careful balance between alien species and human character-classes is crucial to maintaining the tension in Valve’s scripted events. Sometimes the soldiers win, and at other times the aliens gain the upper hand, resulting in unpredictable and complex game-play. More importantly, the spectacle of two equally malevolent and ruthless interstellar bureaucracies slugging it out for control of Black Mesa permits Laidlaw to recuperate two of the key resistance movements against the US Empire. The first is the geopolitical perspective of the NLF revolutionaries in Vietnam’s 25-year American War. By stepping into the sandals of the Vietcong, players garner the satisfaction of paying the US Empire back in its own military-industrial coin. Like the NLF, players must learn to explore and use their environment in creative ways, seek allies from among the local population, and turn scavenged equipment and alien technologies against its original owners (e.g. deploying surface-to-air missiles against military helicopters and hornet guns against Xen aliens).8

The second is the post-1968 wave of Native American micropolitics. The crucial clue here is the name “Black Mesa” – a significant reference to the real-world struggle of the Dineh for their tribal homelands against Peabody Coal Mining Co. and assorted Federal agencies in the Black Mesa region of northern Arizona.9 In fact, Laidlaw’s storyline shares powerful affinities with Leslie Marmon Silko’s classic novel of the 1970s, Ceremony. Near the conclusion of this latter, Tayo, a Laguna Indian recovering from shell-shock after WW II, experiences this flash of intuition into the thermonuclear nightmare of neocolonialism:


He had been so close to it, caught up in it for so long that its simplicity struck him deep inside his chest: Trinity Site, where they exploded the first atomic bomb, was only three hundred miles to the southeast, at White Sands. And the top-secret laboratories where the bomb had been created were deep in the Jemez Mountains, on land the Government took from Cochiti Pueblo: Los Alamos, only a hundred miles northeast of him now, still surrounded by high electric fences and the ponderosa pine and tawny sandrock of the Jemez mountain canyon where the shrine of the mountain lions had always been. There was no end to it; it knew no boundaries; and he had arrived at the point of convergence where the fate of all living things, and even the earth, had been laid. From the jungles of his dreaming he recognized why the Japanese voices had merged with Laguna voices, with Josiah’s voice and Rocky’s voice; the lines of cultures and worlds were drawn in flat dark lines on fine light sand, converging in the middle of witchery’s final ceremonial sand painting. From that time on, human beings were one clan again, united by the fate the destroyers planned for all of them, for all living things; united by a circle of death that devoured people in cities twelve thousand miles away, victims who had never known these mesas, who had never seen the delicate colors of the rocks which boiled up their slaughter.10



“Witchery” is very much Silko’s version of Adorno’s notion of the bane of the world-system, namely the objective pressure exerted by the global marketplace on individual subjects, and of course it is of the deepest significance that Silko does not end the story there, but pushes beyond this moment towards the counter-magic of those ecological and postnational resistances unleashed by the era of decolonization.11

            There is a similar moment of qualitative transformation in Half Life, and that is the counter-mobilization of the videogame culture against post-Cold War neoliberalism. The most characteristic form this takes in the 3D action genre is, of course, the spectacular production and consumption of informatic bodies – something which includes, but is by no means limited to, onscreen violence. The informatic body is a work-process. It anchors the game-play in the same way that the complex editing techniques of the martial arts thriller anchors the canonic Hong Kong action films, ranging from Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon (1973) to John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1989). What separates the informatic body from its social antipode, the information capitalist or silicon billionaire, is the fact that game-players must actively construct that body, by exploring and mapping the game-world, acquiring tools and strategies, and mastering the ability to operate in 3D space. At its outer limit, the informatic body turns into a cipher of the informatic laborer: that is to say, the patient, laborious acquisition of high-technology or service sector skills.

            Valve’s designers expended a great deal of effort to integrate player skills into the storyline. New players practice basic movement and jumping skills during the harmless Anomalous Materials sequences, while the falling elevator early in Unforeseen Consequences tells more experienced players to be wary of structural collapses. The formidable Apache helicopter is first introduced in “We’ve Got Hostiles” but only becomes a serious threat only much later, during Surface Tension. Meanwhile, the gruesome encounters of hapless scientists with unfriendly aliens and soldiers yield crucial lessons about key attack, defense and movement skills. By gradually increasing the difficulty level throughout the game, Valve kept experienced players entertained while giving newer players a chance to refine their skills.

            One of the most entertaining scripted events in Half Life occurs when the player-character dies and must start over from a saved game. During the death-sequence, players literally watch their character’s skull roll across their field of vision: one eye is still in the socket, which could either be the ironic reprise of HAL’s disembodied gaze in Kubrick’s 2001, or the Information Age update of the medieval memento mori, depending on one’s morbidity level. This is the comic parody of death, a computerized gallows humor in the grand tradition of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) or Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981). (The implicit message to the disappointed player is, of course, “Try again”.)

            The positive potential lurking amidst this corporeal violence is, of course, the battlefield solidarity between the player and fellow Black Mesa workers, namely scientists and security guards. The guards (nicknamed “Barneys” by gamers, a reference to Don Knotts’ bumbling security guard on The Andy Griffith Show) are uniformed in blue and assist the player during firefights and skirmishes. The scientists, garbed in white lab coats, can heal the player-character’s wounds, and often drop hilarious deadpan comments in the midst of ongoing carnage.12 At the apex of this rigidly stratified blue-collar and white-collar workforce stands the nameless Administrator, the only character who wears a business suit during the entire game, whose precise role remains mysterious until the very end of the game (the player catches brief, tantalizing glimpses of this character at several points in the story).

            The presence of the Administrator points to one of the most innovative features of Half Life, and that is its subversive reappropriation of the business culture of the 1990s, a.k.a. neoliberalism. Half Life begins – and ends, as we shall see in a moment– with the theme of the first day on the job. During the opening tram ride, the PA announcer talks glibly about equal opportunity job opportunities at Black Mesa, while the scientists have corporate-style cubicles, desks, and cafeterias. In fact, Laidlaw’s script subtly links the politics of neoliberalism to the R & D laboratories of the Cold War at the very beginning of Half Life. Immediately prior to the catastrophe, this scripted conversation occurs:


Scientist 2: nervous: “I’m afraid we’re going to be deviating a bit from standard analysis procedures today, Gordon.”

Scientist 1: “Yes, but with good reason. This is a rare opportunity for us. This is the purest sample we’ve seen yet.”

Scientist 2: “And potentially the most unstable.”

Scientist 1: “Now, now, if you follow standard insertion procedures, everything will be fine.”

Scientist 2: sniffish: “I don’t know how you can say that. Although I will admit that the possibility of a resonance cascade scenario is extremely unlikely. I remain uncomfortable with the...”

Scientist 1: tight-lipped: “Gordon doesn’t need to hear all this, he’s a highly trained professional. We’ve assured the Administrator that nothing will go wrong.”

Scientist 2: embarrassed pause: “Ah, yes, you’re right.” Brightly: “Gordon, we have complete confidence in you.”13


Complete confidence, indeed. The sample in question is a glowing crystal extracted from Xen, but what is striking about the ensuing catastrophe is the displacement of the generic science-fiction trope of the mysterious alien element or technology by a threatening hypermobility – specifically, the translucent green teleportation nodes of the Xen aliens. Matter is displaced by mobility, in a manner which irresistible recalls the hegemonic fiction of the neoliberal era – the utopia of a weightless, frictionless, and bodiless information economy. The reality was that the information economy was economically profitless, socially polarizing, and deeply destructive to the bodies of consumers and workers, as Doug Henwood’s magisterial After the New Economy documents in devastating detail.14

            Although Half Life’s profusion of corporeal forms would be enough to repudiate neoliberalism’s dream-world of pure financial speculation, perhaps the game’s most enduring critical insight is its infrastructural realism. Black Mesa is a vast amalgamation of every inertia-laden, friction-inducing, global body ever invented, ranging from tram-systems to blast doors, missile silos, rocket engines, power stations, research laboratories, nuclear reactors, satellite launch systems and even teleport modules. These infrastructures are a key component of Valve’s scripted events, ranging from the food refrigeration unit in Office Complex, which the bullsquids have turned into a grisly storage-locker for human body-parts, all the way to the industrial facility of Residue Processing, where the player must navigate a maze of conveyor belts, rotating gears, crunching hammers, chemical vats, and leaking pipes.

            This suggests that the fate of Black Mesa is more than just a neo-national symptom, i.e. the symbolic expression of the post-1975 ravaging of the US industrial base by withering foreign competition. It is also an allegory of the soci-economic disasters of neoliberalism, most notably the bankruptcy of Russia, Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey, and Eastern Europe by fickle currency markets during the 1990s, and the ghastly impoverishment of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia via IMF-imposed structural adjustment policies. This is supported by the conclusion of “We’ve Got Hostiles”, where players receive this crucial bit of information from a passing scientist:


Well, so much for the Government. Their idea of containment is to kill everyone associated with the project. Judging by your hazard suit I’d say you were part of what went wrong, isn’t that right? Now look, if anyone can end this catastrophe, it’s the science team at the Lambda Complex at the opposite end of the base. With the transit system out, I couldn’t tell you how to get there, but there’s an old decommissioned rail system somewhere through here beyond the silo complex. If you can make it through the rocket test labs, you might be able to worm your way through the old tunnels to track down whatever’s left of the Lambda team. You can trust them, you can trust all of us. Good luck.15


If the catastrophe is indeed a metaphor for neoliberalism or market-dominated globalization, then the Government is playing much the same role as the IMF, i.e. a non-market authority which is making the violence of the marketplace that much worse. Conversely, ending the catastrophe requires a new kind of knowledge of those global infrastructures, as well as a new kind of solidarity between the scientists, security guards and Freeman. What is not yet clear, to be sure, is the precise grounds of that solidarity.

            We are given two significant clues during the initial moments of the catastrophe, when Freeman blacks out, and has two brief visions of Xen before returning to consciousness in the blasted ruins of Black Mesa. The first depicts a bullsquid grazing peacefully in a shimmering pool, the Xen equivalent of a pastorale. The second shows a group of alien drones, patiently waiting in a semi-circle. This reference to a potentially non-threatening alien ecology and collectivity will return at the very end of Half Life. After defeating Nihilanth, Gordon Freeman comes face to face with the Administrator in some sort of interstellar tramcar. While dazzling vistas of alien worlds cycle in the background, the Administrator delivers the following monologue, in an eerie intonation halfway between a recognizable foreign accent and standard business English:


             Gordon Freeman, in the flesh – or rather, in the hazard suit. I took the liberty of relieving you of your weapons; most of them were Government property. As for the suit: I think you’ve earned it.

             The border world, Xen, is in our control, for the time being, thanks to you. Quite a nasty piece of work you managed there, I am impressed.

             That’s why I’m here, Mr. Freeman. I have recommended your services to my… employers. They agree with me that you have limitless potential.

             You’ve proven yourself a decisive man so I don’t expect you’ll have any trouble deciding what to do. If you’re interested, just step into the portal and I will take that as a yes. Otherwise… well, I can offer you a battle you have no chance of winning. Rather an anticlimax, after what you’ve just survived. Time to choose…16



Acceptance elicits the response, “Wisely done, Mr. Freeman! I will see you up ahead” followed by the closing credits, while rejection triggers Freeman’s arrival at the semi-circle of drones we glimpsed during the first moments of the catastrophe (and presumably, Freeman’s immediate demise). Clearly, the Administrator’s job offer is a transparent allegory of the rise of a border-crossing, highly skilled workforce no longer restricted by national boundaries, international phone systems or Cold War geopolitical divisions.

            This remarkable invocation of an interplanetary marketplace in which even the Administrator works for someone else does more than just sublate Cold War xenophobia into Information Age xenophilia. If Xen is truly only a border world, a pawn in some vast interplanetary struggle, then there are clearly good aliens, somewhere, who allied themselves with the Earth to cut the Nihilanth down to size. This would explain the research labs Freeman encounters, as well as the suggestive clue that Lambda Labs sent scientists into Xen to collect specimens, thus drawing the Nihilanth’s fire in the first place.17 Put another way, the worst aliens of all are the human elites bent on monopolizing their contact with alien worlds, to the obvious detriment of everyone else on the planet.

            This is confirmed by the single most riveting scripted event in Half Life, the launch of the Lambda satellite into orbit.18 After the backblast of the launch dissipates, a giant rotating hologram of the Earth appears in the control room, accompanied by a sound-track comprised of half fuzz-guitar and half electronic feedback. The hologram refers back to one of the very first symbols of globalization in the story, namely the sign in the Anomalous Materials lab, which depicts a rectangular area map of the world embossed with the transparent Black Mesa logo. That is, a two-dimensional global mapping technology, associated with the military-industrial labs of the Cold War, has been transformed into a reflexive symbol of the 3D videogame culture. (Conversely, the post-launch sound-track is the global update of the ethereal, hollow electronic background music of the opening tram ride.)

            This reappropriation of the Cold War satellite by a multinational gaming culture chimes with one of the key developments of the late 1990s, and that is the emergence of post-American media infrastructures, everywhere from the GSM standard for mobile phones to the European Union’s independent satellite communications system, the Galileo project. It is deeply symbolic that Half Life begins precisely as it ends, namely, with Gordon Freeman inside a tramcar. The key difference is that the scenic vistas of Black Mesa in the opening scene have been replaced by the stylized light-trails of stars, hurtling past at warp speed. Connoisseurs of potboiler Cold War spy fiction will note this scene parodies one of the fundamental clichés of the genre, i.e. the concluding debriefing in a London or Washington, DC office. Fittingly, it is Half Life’s tramcar – that archetypal symbol of urban public space, available elsewhere in the polarized central business districts of films ranging from the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999) to David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) – which incarnates Freeman’s symbolic leap from the Cold War underground to the open source resistances of the Information Age.

            It is, however, the narrative route which Half Life does not take – the second ending, and the unthinkable solidarity between Freeman and the Xen drones against the Administrator and the Administrator’s alien equivalents – which turns out to be the portal through which the 3D videogame culture enters the 21st century. To understand why, we must turn to the freeware maps and 3D games spawned in the immediate wake of Half Life.






1. Due to hardware limitations, most arcade and console videogames of the 1970s and 1980s were“scrollers”, i.e. two-dimensional games where players moved through a static maze of some sort (e.g. Donkey Kong or Pac-Man) or else scrolled through partially mobile background screens (e.g. Defender and Stargate). The earliest 3D games, namely flight simulators and racing simulations, relied on crude polygon grids, the forerunners of the intricate polygon meshes and photographic textures of contemporary games. It was only in the early 1990s that programmers had enough processing power at their disposal to render halfway realistic enclosed rooms or corridors. Id’s Doom, for example, could not render true 3D entities within its game-world; id’s first true 3D engine, with full lighting effects and 3D entities, was the 1996 Quake.


2. Half Life’s storyline is divided into seventeen separate chapters. We will refer to specific events in Half Life according to chapter title. For reference purposes, the titles are listed in chronological order below:


Anomalous Materials

Unforeseen Consequences

Office Complex

“We’ve Got Hostiles”

Blast Pit

Power Up

On a Rail


Residue Processing

Questionable Ethics

Surface Tension

“Forget About Freeman!”

Lambda Core


Gonarch’s Lair





3. In a fine example of how one sector of the information culture can spur innovations in others, the first person to point out id’s debt to the 1970s was none other than Half Life’s lead story writer, Marc Laidlaw. In 1996, Laidlaw was working as a freelance journalist and visited id’s headquarters in Dallas, Texas. He subsequently wrote one of the most insightful articles ever written on the firm for Wired. In interviews, Laidlaw has acknowledged that his visit to id sparked his interest in the narrative possibilities of the 3D action genre, and convinced him to join Valve’s design team in 1997. Marc Laidlaw, “The Egos at Id.” Wired. Web:


4. Id pursued a policy of cooperation with and respect towards the gaming community, by fostering an egalitarian division of aesthetic labor between designers, players and consumers linked by the Internet. Not only did this allow for the continuous correction of errors and bug fixes, it also exposed the software to “porting”, i.e. the translation of programs from one variety of computer to another (e.g. from Windows-based systems to Macintosh machines, and later to Linux and console systems). Porting had two beneficial effects on game software. First, given the rapid changes in computer hardware, the only real way to guarantee the long-term durability and stability of a given software project was to make the code as independent as possible from the quirks of any given hardware or software configuration. Secondly, the more users and communities which had access to the software, the greater the potential for feedback, testing and design innovation (Quake’s code, for example, was molded by countless hours of feedback, criticism, bug-testing and trial runs by loyal fans). At a certain point, both factors became mutually reinforcing: Quake fans initiated the highly successful effort to port or translate the Quake code across a variety of platforms, reported software bugs, and innovated new features. The result was a virtuous spiral of improved stability, further applications, more platform variety, etc. Id also encouraged game designers to write specialized scenarios and levels for their games, and to publish creative adaptations of their original work on the web without fear of copyright laws. In essence, id democratized the design and testing process for videogames, in much the same way that Linux democratized the production of PC-based operating systems.


5. The original Doom series, though supposedly set in outer space, drew heavily on horror and slasher narratives, i.e. the enemies were various undead monsters, demons and the like. By the era of Quake, science-fiction had begun to triumph over theology. Quake 2’s opening cut-scene or video clip: we see the logo of the game, a three-dimensional basalt carving of the letter “Q” with two lower serifs jutting out like medieval spikes, slowly rotating in space. The logo glistens briefly, while a recorded mish-mash of voices informs us of the landing of hostile space aliens from Stroggos, the destruction of Earth’s major cities and the plundering of Earth’s natural resources, and finally a counter-offensive against the Strogg home planet by an elite US Marine Corps mission; the logo then glistens briefly, and then explodes into a shower of fragments. The next sequence illustrates the landing on Planet Stroggos: two military spacecraft float gently through space to a stirring martial sound-track, and launch tiny, one-man landing pods into the atmosphere. An accompanying radio broadcast narrates the hellish descent, with an alien EMP gun (a significant reference not to the Cold War but to the Russian pulse guns which shot Corto out of the air in William Gibson’s Neuromancer) wiping out most of the force, until the player’s pod, clipped by another craft and spinning dizzily out of control, careers over a sprawling alien base and crash-lands in a Strogg warehouse, where the action proper begins. Yet Quake 2 is neither the live-action clone of those 1980s action movies exemplified by James Cameron’s Aliens, with its ferocious military-industrial colonialisms, gender-bending androids and scheming (though carefully underplayed) corporations, nor the video expansion unit of that dismal monument to mid-1990s neo-nationalism, Independence Day, but rather that interesting new thing, a multinational action-narrative of the new global professional-class. In a nutshell, the Strogg are nothing less than interstellar rentiers, who parasitically drain other planets of their biological and ecological capital.


6. “His sophomore and junior years of high school were spent in England. His stepfather worked with U.S. spy planes in a highly classified job during the mid ‘80s. The job meant traveling all over the world. A relocation to the Royal Air Force base in Aclonbury (in central England) put the family closer to his destinations. All John cared about was that the base high school had just gotten its first personal computers.

            ‘It was cool because I was showing them how to do things with the computers, and they let me do it,’ he [Romero] recalls. The faculty more than just let him do it, his stepfather remembers. Word about John’s skill raced around the base.

            ‘Most of what happened at that base was, and still is, top secret,’ Mr. Schuneman says. ‘One day the guys working on one of the most classified projects asked if they could borrow John. I remember being stunned.’

            John recalls a group of pilots from the Aggressor Squadron showing him some cool simulation software. And, he says, he showed them a few things to tweak the graphics.

            What he didn’t see were the walls of top secret computers, documents, maps and other materials plotting Cold War strategy, Mr. Schuneman says. All those were screened off behind curtains, security guards and nervous officers.

            ‘To this day I don’t think John realizes that he was advancing a very important simulation program,’ he says. ‘As far as he was concerned, he got to do something neato and earned $500. But what he really did was worth tons more than that. I wish I could tell you, but it’s still classified.” Todd Copiletz. ‘Doomed’ to Transform the Computer Game Industry. May 11, 1997. Dallas Morning News.


7. Ken Birdwell, “The Cabal: Valve’s Design Process for Creating Half Life.” Gamasutra. December 10, 1999. Web:


8. The price Half Life pays for this narrative advance is, to be sure, the extinction of the categories of Cold War allegory. This is most evident in the final Xen levels, which lack the soldier-versus-alien firefights of the Black Mesa sequences, and temporarily regresses back to the mainstream videogame culture of the mid-1990s. Valve’s designers tried heroically to compensate for this deficiency with extravagant alien worlds and memorable boss-level opponents, with mixed results. The first, Gonarch, is a giant spider-like creature whose rotund body quivers beneath an armored carapace – the postmodern update of J.R.R. Tolkien’s lurid Shelob. The last is Nihilanth, whose resemblance to a giant, mummified infant earned it the unofficial sobriquet of “the big baby.” “For even Baal/feared children,” wrote Brecht in his Expressionist classic, and the contrast between the Nihilanth’s mechanical intestines, a combination of steel girders and rusty machinery, and the fleshy, womb-like enclosure of the Nihilanth’s lair, does recall the Expressionist science fiction thriller. When the creature is finally defeated, however, its head peels open to reveal a giant, malevolent brain, a conventional reference to the mad computers and ruthless cyborgs of 1970s science fiction.


9. See <> for a fuller account of the Dineh struggle.


10. Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony. NY: Penguin Press, 1977 (245-256).


11. Adorno makes a point of stressing that the bane draws its energies from the canalized or diverted resistance of subjects to the dictates of the total system of capitalism, thereby holding out the utopian hope that the ruthless dictate of that capitalism to accumulate, accumulate, accumulate, with no regard for people, their culture or the ecology at large, might someday be abolished: “In human experience, the bane is the equivalent of the fetish-character of the commodity. What is self-made becomes the In-itself, out of which the self can no longer escape; in the dominating faith in facts as such, in their positive acceptance, the subject worships its mirror-image. The reified consciousness has become total as the bane. That it is a false one, holds the promise of the possibility of its sublation: that it would not remain such, that false consciousness would inescapably move beyond itself, that it could not have the last word. The more the society is steered by the totality, which reproduces itself in the bane of subjects, the deeper too its tendency towards dissociation. This latter threatens the life of the species, as much as it denies the bane of the whole, the false identity of subject and object. The general, which compresses the particular as if by an instrument of torture, until it splinters, labors against itself, because it has its substance in the life of the particular; without it, it sinks down into the abstract, separate and voidable form. Franz Neumann diagnosed this in the institutional sphere in Behemoth: the disassembly into disconnected and warring power-apparatuses is the secret of the total fascist state. Anthropology corresponds to this, the chemism of human beings. Unresistingly delivered over to the collective bad state of affairs, they lose identity. It is not entirely improbable that the bane is thereby tearing itself apart. What would like to provisionally gloss over the total structure of society under the name of pluralism, receives its truth from such self-announcing disintegration; simultaneously from horror and from a reality, in which the bane explodes. Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents has a content, which was scarcely available to him; it is not solely in the psyche of the socialized that the aggressive drives accumulate to the point of openly destructive pressure, but the total socialization objectively breeds its counter-player [Widerspiel], without to this day being able to say, whether it is the catastrophe or the emancipation.” Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics. (My own translation). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1997 (338-339)


12. Comments include: “With my brains and your brawn, we’ll make an excellent team!” “Well, the interdimensional breach is definitely transmitting organic matter.” (Meanwhile, monstrous aliens are teleporting into view all around). While viewing the gory aftermath of a battle, another scientist ventures: “Wouldn’t you like to get one of those blood-samples under a microscope?” Several comments contain crucial clues: “I suspected this would happen, but the Administrator just would not listen.” And later: “I hope those people in the Lambda Lab can get this under control.”


13. Half Life, Anomalous Materials.


14. Doug Henwood. After the New Economy. The New Press: New York, 2003.


15. Half Life, “We’ve Got Hostiles”


16. Half Life, Nihilanth


17. Near the end of the game, a scientist in the Lambda complex reveals the truth to Freeman: “This is the supply depot for our first survey team. Quite a few handsome specimens were collected from the border world and brought back this way. Um... before the survey members started being collected themselves, that is. We suspect there is an immense portal over there, created by the intense concentration of a single powerful being. You will know it when you see it. I hate to say this Gordon, but you must kill it if you can.” Half Life, Lambda Core


18. Half Life, On a Rail