Return to Black Mesa

I’ve been thinking recently about how video games seem to provide the best “horror” (as a genre) experiences, and one of the games that immediately came up as I was discussing this topic on Twitter was Valve Software’s 1997 breakout mega-hit Half-Life. Fortuitously enough, a group of hardcore fans has reworked most of the original Half-Life (which, let’s be honest, the years have not been especially kind to) in a more current version that uses Valve’s 2007 Source SDK.

“Get in there, Freeman. We’re not about to mess up our matching ties.”

Part of what made Half-Life so successful and revolutionary was the way it took the first-person shooter and turned it into a genuinely immersive experience. You step into the relatively frail role of Dr. Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist working as a research associate at a somewhat sinister facility called Black Mesa in New Mexico, to which you are introduced by a guided monorail tour as the game opens.

This kind of intro sequence is fairly stock now, but it’s hard to overstate how revolutionary it was in 1997, and how terrifying it was. The introduction is only marginally sinister, but playing the game in the late ’90s, it was clear that in Half-Life, all the rules we’d grown accustomed to playing games like Doom and Quake were now null and void. Walking around in the Black Mesa facility felt real — as dated as the graphics look now — and it was full of real-seeming people: fellow scientists and security personnel who would acknowledge your presence as you walked by, even looking at you as you moved around them.

Black Mesa — which is free, and which I’ll explain how to download at the bottom of this post — doesn’t exactly recreate the same sense of dread that the original game created, but for anyone who did play Half-Life, returning to Gordon Freeman’s headcrab-stomping grounds in this reboot is a great nostalgia trip. It’s not going to set any benchmarks for graphics, because this categorically does not look like a game made in 2012… but then again, it is a massive graphical update to the original. It also includes brand-new voice acting, sound effects, and thousands of high-definition textures, so it feels modern enough to prevent that weird retro feeling one sometimes gets playing older FPS games.

And it’s worthwhile just to kind of marvel at a genuine labor of love. Plus, like I said, the price is right.

To download, you’ll have to take several steps.

  • First, you’ll need to have Valve’s Steam client installed. (You really should do that anyway.)
  • Once that’s set up, go to your games “Library.” Select “Tools” from the “View” dropdown menu. Then scroll down to find “Source SDK Base 2007” and double-click to install it. It won’t take too long.
  • Then you’ll need to download three files from one of the servers the Black Mesa team is hosting the game on. Pick a folder (your “downloads” folder is okay for this, as long as they all go there), save all the files there, and then run the Black Mesa install file. That’ll take care of the rest.
  • Once the game’s installed you’ll be able to monkey with the graphics and controls options. A weird tic I found was that the game’s screen resolutions are tied to specific aspect ratios, so to set it to my screen’s optimal 1600×900, I first had to select the 16:9 aspect ratio.

Then prepare to ride into the depths of the Black Mesa Research Facility and fight some headcrabs.