Few games have been as responsible for breaking down conventions of game narratives as Half Life was which not just introduced the concept of narratives coexisting with player agency but also experimented with its attempts to meld player identity with the character. One of the chief tools in Half Life’s arsenal was that is almost exclusively utilized environmental storytelling for all its narrative purpose and as a result never took away the control from the player.
This consistent agency is surprising and refreshing for any first-time player, but even as someone who is revisiting Black Mesa, it makes you appreciate the efforts the designers put in fleshing out Gordon Freeman beyond the brief description that flashes out on-screen during the introductory tram ride. Any other game would have been satisfied with that, but Half Life had ambitions beyond that, which 16 years since, feel no less small. The moment the security guard greets you while letting you off the tram, the game creates a deep sense of belonging while fleshing out how Gordon is seen by others – as a respectable employee beginning what seems like just another day at the office.
The concept of player identity merging with a character had never been explored to this extent before Half Life and Gordon’s muteness, the environmental storytelling and the consistent agency are the three key reasons why the game achieves a high degree of immersion through identity melding.
Whenever you stumble over stranded NPCs in Black Mesa, their reaction is always that of relief. Being around Gordon makes them feel safe, painting as a protector figure of sorts, one who can handle immense responsibility even in times of peril. This comfort also results in NPCs dropping key hints which in turn help the player. In this way, Gordon and the player can be seen as partners, sharing the same body in two different spaces, while working together towards a common goal.
The design of Half Life also ensures that Gordon’s interactions with NPCs are contextual and also limited. This results in less of an interpretative fallacy because rarely, if ever in Half Life do the NPCs ask a question directly at Gordon and thus the player, neither of them capable of responding. By avoiding situations like these, the game avoids breaking immersion which is so essential to the cogs of its narrative engine.
Another aspect which communicates that Gordon is an expert scientist is that any weapons, tools and equipment you come across in Black Mesa, he handles it expertly with minimal effort. The First Aid Kiosk is as easy as pressing a button, wearing a HEV suit involves simply walking through it and operating machinery often involved simple controls, high-tech experimental weapons are still as simple as pulling a trigger. The immediacy of these actions can also be seen as these things being mundane and easy for Gordon, who is the vessel carrying the player through the game.
Even today, Half Life remains an exceptionally rare example of level design working hand-in-hand with writing, every element further intensifying the tense atmosphere. The NPCs interactions with Gordon as well as his abstracted actions created a deep sense of space and belonging in the mind of player, as if they really were in Black Mesa swinging a crowbar at a headcrab.