Half-Life is one of the most succesful games of recent history. It is always a pleasure to say why somethings good and at the same time, aim to claim that for the exact reason it is also a baaad example of its category. Even more when it’s something as influential as Half-Life.
HL is part of a well-established genre of computer games called first-person shooter. HL didn’t actually bring anything new to the genre, it just did a few things well, very, very well. The game has a standard plot revolving around a secret research center and something going wrong with some of that secret research. It also has a silent main character, the player’s alter ego, Gordon Freeman.
The execution of the plot is beautifully balanced as far as gameplay goes. Some half way through the game the player gets hold of some experimental and alien weapons. Shortly after this the player is casted on an alien world. Gordon Freeman is also an existing entity, he has co-workers who get shot infront of his eyes by a soldiers coming to their “rescue”. Now that’s how you engage a player! These soldier eventually learn who’s the lone scientist causing all kinds of mayhem around the center and begin to leave messages on the walls “Die Freeman!” and a host of booby-traps.
HL engages the player using it’s character setup (unarmed, peaceful, scientists, players colleagues, are killed), keeps it interesting when the action is getting boring (new weapons, completely different surroundings). It also executes the essentials of first-person shooters well enough (different weapons, three parties to a conflict [the player, the soldiers and the aliens], interesting level-design).
It is exactly the reasons that makes HL stand out, makes it a bad example of a computer game. The scripted and dramatic actions don’t last a second a playing. While at first making the player feel like he’s part of the gameworld, the second time around they expose their scripted nature. The story runs on rails, with the players actions allowing only one way of advancement. Computer games are not essentially a narrative medium.