Thanks to the work of the Crowbar Collective, an indie video game company with roots in the “Half-Life” fan community, players have a new chance to experience theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman’s famed bad day on the job. “Black Mesa” is a painstaking recreation of “Half-Life” with modern-day graphics and extensive level design tweaks. It’s a perfect complement to my rose-tinted memories, which is to say that it passed my personal test of being close enough to its source material that the visual overhaul did not strike me as jarring.
The plot of the game is easily surmisable. One morning, the twenty-seven-year old Freeman reports to work at the Black Mesa Research Facility. After putting on his hazard suit -- equipped with a speaker through which a robotic voice provides updates on his relative protection and health status -- he goes to a lab room where he is asked by his supervisor to place a sample of an anomalous material into a spectrometer. Doing so causes a “resonance cascade,” opening a portal to an alien dimension. From there Gordon must try to survive the alien invasion that overruns the lab, which is exacerbated by a military assault on the complex whose purpose is to wipe the facility of aliens and witnesses.
Freeman, who is unusually adept at firearms for a theoretical physicist, travels through the labyrinthian corridors of the Black Mesa -- from the depths of its many sewage and ventilation systems to its numerous departments and top-secret areas. In spatial terms, the game works to instill a powerful sensation of cabin fever in the player, who is intermittently teased with glimpses of the outside world before being funneled back into the dense network of the science facility.
“Half-Life” was one of the first games that made me think that the vanguard of technical innovations in the game industry had shifted from the arcade to the home. So, about two-thirds into my playthrough, I decided to pull up a walk-through of the original to see how it fared against the modern version. I was shocked at how drab the original looks two decades later.
In keeping with the best video game remakes (like those in the Zelda series), “Black Mesa” is easy on the eyes without removing the signs that mark its vintage. There are, for instance, no swimming or climbing animations. Gordon ranges over everything with a weapon clutched in his right hand but otherwise there is no hint of the rest of his body. Moreover, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that Gordon spends too much time as a tunnel rat crawling through air vents and sewers.
Although I thoroughly appreciated my nostalgic rendezvous with Gordon Freeman, “Black Mesa” is not wholly free of technical issues. Running it on an Alienware computer with a Nvidia RTX 2080 Super graphics card, I still had to wade through plenty of load screens as well as occasional frame drops. And that’s while running most of the game in a sub 4K resolution that rendered the screen image closer to a 4:3 as opposed to a 16:9 aspect ratio. I opted to use the narrower framing option because the artwork, to my eye, looks better as it would have appeared on an old monitor. The environments feel more claustrophobic, which suits a game about trying to escape from a sprawling institution.
To play “Black Mesa” is to be reminded of a time when video games were blithely silly. Sight gags are its narrative currency rather than moments of melodramatic exposition. (Gordon’s colleagues meet numerous undignified ends.) Those with a taste for retro-gaming or lighthearted sci-fi shooters, take note: few games with a foot in the nineties hold up this well.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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