Half-Life’s Opening Is The Perfect Introduction To Dystopia
We start Metro 2033 with the world already underground, hiding from the radioactive ghouls above the surface; Fallout 3 begins with us in a vault, ‘safe’ from the nuclear apocalypse; BioShock plunges us beneath the water into an already-decaying dieselpunk city ravaged by marauders—so many dystopias rush headfirst into the action, but Half-Life took its time and made that downfall feel even more tragic.
May 16 is the day that the Black Mesa Facility went from a drab, stereotypical compound run by stuffy lab coats and administrators to a nightmarish haunted house of abominable aliens and meathead military grunts. The intro is a slow-moving tram ride, a glorified tech demo that, in retrospect, is a bit dull. At the time though, it was revolutionary – the FPS’ of that era had you booting up a level and getting into gunfights immediately, fending off demons after the first door.
Half-Life was grounding itself, making story as integral as gameplay, and the tech demo tram ride was in service of that. We got to see Black Mesa in action, watching the mundane normality of scientists knocking on broken vending machines, robots moving boxes through an automated assembly plant, and helicopters taking off in the muddy dunes of New Mexico’s desert. It all parallels the levels we’d later visit, seeing those same things in an entirely different light. The sandy dunes are now home to tentacle monsters, helicopter chase sequences, and headcrab nests.
After the ride, we walk through the facility itself – scientists are tired, miserable, and groaning, the Barney guards are busy, offering you a beer after work, and staying put, yawning at their post, while everyone bustles away to get the test chamber ready. You’re late. There’s an air of dark comedy here in that everyone is pushing you to start the experiment, prompting you to unleash the unsuspecting invasion that will define this entire universe, while being entirely nonchalant as it’s something so monotonous.
Replaying that opening is morbidly funny: “Not now Gordon,” they say as they push you closer and closer toward disaster. And that very first level right before Unforeseen Consequences is vital to building up the dystopia —the boring corridors that lead to seemingly dead ends, the scientists sitting by computers, clicking and clacking away, and the pristine white walls shining in the overly lit laboratories. We get to come back and see all of that now in the dark, pipes exposed, water sprayed everywhere, those same scientists coupled by headcrabs, the guards laying dead or fighting to their last bullet.
It’s terrifying retreading that old ground in a new light, seeing the impact we’ve had and watching as everything collapses around us. It sets the stage as this is only a small glimpse at how widespread the havoc is, taking notes from classic horror films like The Thing and Alien. Witnessing the world before its demise only makes it all the more upsetting because that familiarity and mundane contentment is pulled away in a snap moment.
Few dystopias capture that sudden pull of the rug like Half-Life, and it’s something that ripples through the entire game. At first, it’s an alien invasion, but we get used to that. The decrepit facility under siege by ravenous headcrabs, houndeyes, and bullsquid becomes expected. But then there are murmurs of a rescue mission mounting—the military. Again, the norm is ripped out from under you as these grunts launch their own invasion, murdering everything and everyone in sight. And then the assassins come. They’re here to kill every witness including military personnel.
But at a certain point, it flips. We go from invadee to invader, visiting the alien borderworld of Xen, and here we see our attackers—the Vortigaunts. They’re enslaved, forced to work in factories by alien controllers. We’re now given context for our enemies, made to understand that not all of them are willing. Seeing them in their home, untouched by our invasion, harkens back to the beginning when we’re in that perfectly pristine underground facility.
Right to the bitter end, Half-Life lets us glimpse at the before and after, experiencing the collapse to make that downfall even more tragic.
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