Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Horrible Architecture/Engineering in Half-Life

A typical day in the life of a Black Mesa employee.

There's something about the original Half-Life that's always bothered me. For a game that was declared "Game of the Year" by nearly every reviewing publication in existence, and for a game that set genre trends and standards for years to come, I could never quite appreciate its effect. It's a great game, certainly; it's both playable and enjoyable even in today's market of technologically advanced, super-sophisticated shooters. So what could possibly have bothered me so much about Half-Life to have blemished my opinion of it? Pretend that you didn't already read the title, and click to find out what it could be.

PS: There are lots of pretty pictures waiting for you if you do.

The Black Mesa research facility of Half-Life has some of the most absurdly illogical engineering and architecture that I've ever seen in a video game. You run into all kinds of control panels, switches, and buttons found in the most inconvenient, dangerous, or out-of-the-way locations ever conceived. At other times you see architectural or functional designs that just look inefficient and impractical. Now, all of these instances have some kind of reasonable justification from a development standpoint; putting the control panel in a dangerous, inconvenient place is all about challenging the player and giving them something to do. But from a contextual point of view, it doesn't make any sense at all and breaks my suspension of disbelief.

We're supposed to be role-playing Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist with a PhD from MIT, on an ordinary day at work in the Black Mesa research facility. Great care is taken during the introduction to set this up as an immersing, plausible scenario. Gordon rides the rail car into work, has to check in with security to get into his lab, gets his daily assignments, and gets to work. The camera never leaves Gordon's perspective; there are no "levels," "stages," or loading screens to remind you that this is a video game; the health and armor restoring items are first aid stations logically placed throughout the facility; and so forth. This is a game that wants to be taken seriously as something that, despite being science fiction, could in fact be real.

Which is why, given the mythology the of the Half-Life franchise, combined with the amount of attention given to detail and plausibility, the level design gets under my skin. I remember playing Half-Life many, many years ago and having no idea where I was at any given time, not understanding the progression through the environment of how I got to where I was. I blame this on air ducts. They're all over the place and you have to crawl through them to get virtually everywhere. They're actually a pretty clever way for the development team to radically change the environment while seamlessly moving the player into new areas, with the added bonus of not having to come up with concepts for realistic transitions or connections between areas.

But anyway, let's take a look at some of the more absurd examples of illogical engineering and architectural design found in the Black Mesa research facility. You should be able to click the images for *slightly* bigger versions. 

Exhibit A1
Here we have a giant fan that blows air into a blast pit, or something. I'm not entirely sure what its scientific function is, but it blows air. The button to activate the fan is on that small, narrow platform right at the base of the fan. A maintenance person would have to climb down the ladder on the right and walk across this platform [that has no safety rails], press the button, and then quickly run up the ladder before getting sliced in half by the fan. I got killed like seven times trying to get the timing down for this "puzzle." Imagine how pissed off I'd be if I'd died seven times in real life just trying to turn this thing on. Why they couldn't have put the button somewhere else is beyond me. Also....

Exhibit A2
The only way to even get to that death-fan is to go down a hole somewhere and crawl along this pipe that's suspended over dirty water in a narrow, creepy tunnel. Literally, there's no other way into that fan area. I don't even see locked doors or anything suggesting that there's any other way for actual employees to get to the fan besides this absurd process.

Exhibit B1
This is a random platform system that seems to have zero practical function whatsoever. We've got a ledge up top with nothing to see or do, and a ladder that leads down to a lower platform that also has nothing to see or do. Not even a door or a control panel down there. It's just a random series of platforms overlooking dangerous toxic waste. In the game, you're supposed to crawl across those giant pipes to get to the next area, but I don't think actual employees are supposed to go out on them. And just like the fan above....

Exhibit B2
The only way to get to these random platforms is to drop down a hole somewhere, into a tank submerged in water, swim through a couple of holes, and climb up onto this ledge. What is that tank and what is it used for? Why would someone go through all of that work to get to these pointless ledges?

Exhibit C1
Let's talk about that long rail car introduction, where Gordon's on the way to work. This rail car is apparently a common transit system that gets employees where they need to go: in this case, getting Gordon from [wherever the main entrance is] to the Anomalous Materials lab. But this transit cuts through a bunch of other labs and stations in ways that seem to interfere with both the transit process as well as the lab functions. In this case, boxes are actually being moved across the path of the rail car. Why would the transit system need to go through the labs like this? If the idea was to showcase labs to Black Mesa visitors (or to new players), why wouldn't it just go past the labs and let you see them through a window?

Exhibit C2
Here's what I guess is some kind of power generator room that the rail car also passes through. This doesn't present as much of an overt problem or logical confusion as some of the others, but I still have to wonder why the rail car insists on going past these things. Especially when power generators are so apt to malfunction and explode in video games.

Exhibit C3
Still in the rail car, this time there's like a "railroad crossing" system in place with gates stopping tram cars from driving boxes across. You can see the raised red-and-white gate to the right of the metal door. In this instance, the train stops for a good 15 seconds while we wait for these boxes to go by. Was there no other way to design this so that we didn't have this kind of traffic problem? Furthermore, those gates are there to stop the boxes and give us the right of way, just like an actual railroad would stop cars to let the train go by. Why are we stopping for the boxes? What's the point of putting that gate there if it's not going to stop traffic? Also, I think there's a robot somewhere off camera. I didn't get a shot of it but at one point the rail car has to slow down to avoid running into one of these robots. 

Exhibit D
This is a similar rail car system, except this one runs on grounded rails instead of suspended rails. And you can control its speed, forward and backward. But, once again, we've got the rail car cutting directly through an assembly line with low-hanging boxes that could cause serious injury to the rail operator. Couldn't they have diverted the rails to avoid this somehow? Maybe go around them, or cut a small groove out that would let the car pass underneath with sufficient headroom? Maybe elevate the box rails for that five-foot section?

Exhibit E
Yet another rail car, just like the one in exhibit D. This time the car rides in from the right, then pivots on the rotating platform in order to continue on its way. But there's almost literally nothing to the right of the screen. There's like a very small alcove that just ends in a wall, and there's no other way for the car to go besides around and to the right. If there are no other rail paths to choose from, why is there an extra step required to rotate it? Couldn't they have designed a bend in the rails to have it go in one fluid motion? And why is that alcove to the right even there? Why not switch the positions of the control room and that alcove so that the rail car just goes in a straight line?

Exhibit F1
This is a random set of pipes that I guess would be transporting toxic materials/waste into large vats, like what you see in the first pic at the start of the article. But there's like a random ladder here when there's no other indication that an ordinary person would ever be in here. There aren't any lights or walkways or anything, why is there a ladder here? It's like it only exists to let the player get back up if he falls down or something. But wait, there's more!

Exhibit F2
If there ever were a reason for an employee to get into these small ducts, the only way for them to get in requires them to leap across these large vats of toxic waste with human-pancake mashers that would crush them while their body mutates or dissolves in the toxins. There's a ladder in this random alcove but there's not a ladder to get into it? Why?

Exhibit G1
And then we keep running into these hallways that are broken up by random right-angle detours. You're walking down a hall and then BAM you've gotta walk around this obstruction. In this case, the left side of the wall leads to a security gate, and the right side leads to a hangar or something. The hall would only need to be 10 feet long if not for this random obstruction. 

Exhibit G2
Here it is again. Poor Black Mesa employees, always having to walk an extra 15 feet out of their way to get anywhere. These things are usually implemented so that the engine can load the next area while the player turns the corner, in order for the next area to not spawn from nowhere. So again, it makes sense from a development standpoint, but these things show up all the time and it still manages to break my suspension of disbelief.

Exhibit H
This is some kind of dis-assembly line or something. Organic material falls through a bunch of chutes into streams of water where they then get ground up by rotors, and wash up into this room where a conveyor belt picks them out of the water to be mashed by these things. Now, there's a control room through the door on the right that activates the flow of the conveyor belts. But once again, the only way to get to this area requires somebody to go through the entire line up until this point, swimming through disgusting water and avoiding death traps. There are no doors or other passageways leading to this control room. 

Exhibit Eye
Finally, we have the infamous "Tentacle Pit." This is like a blast pit testing chamber, but it seems like the only way to go up to the next floor is to go inside the blast pit and climb up ladders. Why isn't there a staircase somewhere outside the blast pit that would allow scientists to move around more safely and conveniently? And who in their right mind would include deadly homicidal tentacles into the design for this blast pit? That seems like something better left on the drawing board.

So there you have it. A whole bunch of examples of the absurdly illogical engineering and architecture implemented in the original Half-Life. These things don't make any sense to me and disrupt my suspension of disbelief. Considering how plausible and "realistic" this game is supposed to be, I find these obscure areas with limited functionality actually hampering the pacing of the game. You're cruising along doing your thing and then you're in a random area with random pipes and air ducts and you have no idea how all of this stuff connects to one another. It's just a confusing mess of design decisions. Methinks Black Mesa needs to hire new contractors for their next facility. 


  1. You have to take into account the hardware limitations for the G1 and G2 situations ( if you played Gothic 3, for example, you would see that they use a pretty nice trick to hide the loading process and still be able to see from distance the new area). The game is still a 98' game.
    Also, consider the fact that you are in an infested underground base, with possible damaged areas. Maybe the direct way of operating some machines, etc. isn't possible so you have to take the hard way, like the fan situation.
    I don't remember the details but I'm pretty sure there were situations were you had to take dangerous detours.
    I totally agree with you for the 'C' exhibits. That's total nonsense, especially for a dangerous facility like Black Mesa.

  2. I don't know if this is the right impression for me to take away but I found this article hilarious.