Checking the Score: Remembering Half-Life’s Musical Contributions to Sci-Fi

Color me completely blindsided when Half-Life: Alyx was announced back in November 2019. Valve doubled-down and recently announced a March release date much sooner than I ever anticipated. The Half-Life franchise has been tightly wound in a story of heartbreak as a series of cancelled projects, writers leaving and leaks have kept Valve from continuing a beloved story. The first installment originally released in 1998 and was ahead of its time thanks to its graphics, realistic gameplay and seamless storytelling. Silent protagonist Gordon Freeman quickly became a video game icon.  It’s a title that changed the FPS and Science Fiction genres for games to come.

The Half-Life story last left us with a major cliff hanger in Half Life 2: Episode 2 where we would be unsure of Gordon and fellow protagonist, Alyx’s, fates. Taking place between Half Life and its sequel, Alyx may not answer our longtime questions, but it is looking to breath new life into a monumental series. Half Life is about storytelling, it’s about suspense and it’s about creating atmosphere. None of those important elements would be complete without the title’s use of synth and industrial techno to tie alien invasion themes together. Half-Life’s heavy use of science themes in its story, gameplay and design come to life with a cinematic soundtrack. This Checking the Score takes a look at some of the major tracks that made the Half-Life franchise great.

Without a doubt the original Half-Life‘s intro sequence was simple, yet effective. We follow Gordon Freeman into the office like it’s just another day at the Black Mesa laboratories. One of the earliest themes we can hear accompanies Gordon’s use of his HEV hazmat suit. The track “Klaxon Beat” readies us for the business of high tech science. The early use of synths and techno beats sets up the rest of the soundtrack as well as the rest of the series. We continue to hear these themes in “Adrenaline Horror” after the explosion at Black Mesa sends everything into chaos. The French horns blaring at the beginning are the sound of impending doom. Gordon is now thrust into an action hero role that set a tone for the early 2000s. The “Adrenaline Horror” track feels like an influence we can hear in science fiction titles like The Matrix or Perfect Dark, which followed Half-Life a couple years later.

Half-Life is known for its fast paced, science fiction gameplay, but it’s also a title about setting up atmosphere for creepy showdowns against aliens. On more than one occasion, the title sets players up for spooky surprises that would be nothing without the carefully constructed atmosphere. Towards the end of the first installment, Gordon is able to cross a dimensional rift and find himself on the planet from which aliens are appearing: Xen. To give an otherworldly feel to this stage, the track “Dimensionless Deepness” makes us feel as if we’re floating. It’s an atmospheric track that reminds us of the deep sea (an alien world beneath our feet). Its hollow sounds paired with echoed synths gives a mysterious feel to the unknown world. It’s not the last time we feel unique atmosphere from the the franchise either.

Where the first Half-Life created a unique world for us to explore, Half Life 2 perfected the title’s commitment to atmosphere. There are many things we do in this life: wash our clothes, order pizzas, check our messages, walk the dog. But there is one thing we don’t do. We absolutely do not go to Ravenholm. For the uninitiated, Ravenholm is the “Silent Hill” of Half Life. In the title’s sequel, we unfortunately must retreat from our underground resistance lab through the only unblocked path: Ravenholm. If you thought headcrab zombies weren’t a big deal in the first installment, Half Life 2 amps the creepy atmosphere up all the way. This cursed town was overrun by headcrabs and all kinds of parasitic aliens that have created a desolate landscape after the Black Mesa incident.  “Requiem for Ravenholm” sets the tone just right as we hear the chilling clock tower bells and moaning synths. Between the atmosphere, level design and story, Ravenholm still remains one of my favorite game areas of all time.

A final track that needs mentioning is actually a track that carries from the first installment to the second. Known”Diabolical Adrenaline Guitar” in Half-Life and “Lambda Core” in Half-Life 2, this track is used multiple times to give a frenzied element to gameplay. In the first installment, we’re facing off against numerous Marines attempting to wipe out survivors as part of an elaborate cover-up. In the sequel, we must out-maneuver a helicopter chasing Gordon in an air boat. Both situations feel hurried and the soundtrack elevates those feelings. It’s a track that served its purpose too well and was brought into the sequel to help give an industrial motif to gameplay. Tempo, hardcore electric guitars and percussive synths ask us to make snap decisions in the heat of the moment.

Half-Life continues to be an influential title in the science fiction genre of media. While it’s been years since its story has been revisited, Half-Life: Alyx could be the much needed spark that ignites the continuation of the franchise. Story and gameplay are both important factors for the franchise’s success, but its music is what sets it apart. From atmospheric themes to hardcore synth scores, Half-Life‘s music was an important step in science fiction development. As long as future Half-Life games honor the title’s commitment to immersive sound and thematic elements, they should be worthy of the franchise’s name.

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