Music Features

“Probably Not a Problem:” Revisiting the Soundscape of Half-Life 2 Fifteen Years Later

It was December 2004. I was a fourth-grader running around Best Buy with my dad and my sister, the three of us scouring the store for an appliance-based Christmas gift for my mom. I think we wanted to get her a microwave, though I can’t remember exactly what it was there we were looking for. But what I do remember quite vividly had nothing to do with mom’s flagship X-Mas gift that year. As we explored the store, my attention was arrested by a monolithic display of 8”x6”x2” boxes, strategically arranged in a way so that shoppers would have no choice but to stop and look to see what they represented. They were copies of a newly released PC video game, and the front of each box had a photorealistic image of a man in his late twenties wearing black-rim glasses, along with small graphics along its edges that read: “98% -- PC Gamer, Editor’s Choice” and “10/10 -- Game of the Year.” My curiosity burned. But the moment dad saw that this title was M-rated, he wouldn’t let me go anywhere near it. Years later, when my parents finally caved and let me buy a copy of it for myself, I would finally learn that this man was the character you play as, and that his name was Gordon Freeman.

Only in retrospect did I find out just how earth-shattering and influential Half-Life 2 was for the video game industry when it descended onto the world on November 16th, 2004, seeing as I was barely in a double-digit age range when it dropped. Developed by the now-canonized Valve Corporation, the Half-Life series, launched in 1998, follows Gordon, a theoretical physicist (alma mater MIT), as he accidentally opens a dimensional door to an alien world, Xen, via a “resonance cascade.” The residents of this world subsequently invade and take over earth. The second installment, which was my personal introduction to the franchise, focuses on what happened after the invasion, as Freeman and Company attempt to retake our planet from the Orwellian clutches of the Combine, the alien force holding control over the human race. But I’m not here to synopsize these games for you: it would be a sin to do so, as they’re some of the greatest ever made and I can’t tell you enough times to play them for yourself if you haven’t already. HL2 in particular had a huge hand in launching my love for video games, though it wasn’t just the high-octane gameplay, breathtaking graphics, unforgettable characters, and timeless story that’ve stuck with me all throughout my life… to this day, what sticks out the most to me in Half-Life 2 is its sound design.

Everything players hear in Half-Life 2-- from sounds as significant as music played over major battles to the smallest chatter of enemies, down to the clinks of shell casings falling on the ground after the preceding gunshots-- is the work of Kelly Bailey, once the senior sound designer at Valve. Though he’s since left the company and founded his own organization, IndiMo Labs, Bailey played an invaluable part in crafting the power of Half-Life 2’s experience. Audio is often taken for granted in games and, more often than not, winds up becoming a passively experienced part of the medium, something that’s just assumed. But every second of every sound in Half-Life feels so intentionally crafted to help heighten and augment the experience of the player, to suck you deeper into this eerie, dystopic, and violent sci-fi romp.

The first sound I remember sticking out to me when I first played through the game was the speech of the Combine army officers. They’re some of the earliest NPCs (non-playable characters) that Gordon interacts within the game, most notably during a moment where one patrolling soldier knocks a soda can on the ground and demands the player pick it up and throw it away: “You, pick up that can.” Their dialogue is filtered through some weird, distorted low-pass effect that makes them sound as if they’re talking from a shortwave radio, the type of thing you’d hear blaring from wartorn military receivers. This informs their role as a creepy, malevolent, inhuman police force, like their seemingly human speech can’t ever sound normal through their outfits’ masks. Other bits of audio that I think everyone who has gotten far enough in the game will always have seared in their minds are the sounds of the headcrab zombies during the game’s infamous “We Don’t Go to Ravenholm…” chapter. Specifically, the screams of the fast zombies, some of the hardest foes in that level, remain indescribably haunting fifteen years later. The physical design of the standard zombies is already grotesque enough, but their yelps and cries for escape from their torment (best experienced after lighting them up with a Gravity-Gun-propelled gas canister) are some of gaming’s most intense, distinct noises.

The environmental sounds of Half-Life are inseparable from its world, but you can’t talk about its sound design without also talking about its soundtrack, which is just as iconic. I, of course, replayed certain levels of Half-Life 2 for the umpteenth time in preparation for this article, but I also actually downloaded an MP3 copy of the game’s official soundtrack to listen to it separately, without any context of gameplay, and it holds up surprisingly well on its own merits. Most notably, Hazardous Environments, sort of the “main attraction” of the OST, became Valve’s de facto theme song, appearing in a heavily abridged version at the startup of most of their recent games. And though it is difficult to analyze these songs the same way one would a normal album (as is the case for most soundtracks), since most tracks barely break the two-minute mark with some not even hitting a minute, I believe they still very effectively convey their intended mood as brief vignettes. Think of it like J Dilla’s Donuts with dark, grimy breakbeats and ghostly atmospheres instead of soulful R&B samples and sirens.

If I had to genre-tag the Half-Life 2 soundtrack, I’d probably end up calling it industrial music, something that’s best evidenced on songs like Brane Scan and, my personal favorite of the entire OST, CP Violation, the latter of which plays over an early skirmish in the game. Many of these tracks have that metal-on-metal, clanking, drone-y sonic palette of classic industrial acts like Throbbing Gristle and Nine Inch Nails, which flawlessly evokes the barren, machine-like landscape of the Half-Life universe. But then we have much more beautiful and textured moments like Particle Ghost, Lab Practicum, Shadows Fore and Aft, and fan-favorite Triage at Dawn, all of which lean closer to ambient or modern classical than anything else. Indeed, it’s a dizzying smorgasbord of aural video game virtuosity, something that’s worth experiencing both in-game and off-.

I’m not sure if Half-Life 3 will ever see the light of day, which I suppose is obligatory to address here. It’s one of the Internet’s Great Mysteries, something that case studies and college courses could be drawn around. With each passing year, it seems less and less likely that fans will receive closure to this timeless series. I was in diapers when the first game came out and was crossing from elementary school to middle school when the second came out, but it’s still come to mean so much to me and millions of other gamers over these past couple decades. However, what I am sure of is that the work of Mr. Bailey has had an enormous impact on my love of games and my love of music, in equal measure. There are lots of games with great sound design and great music, but none of them have affected me quite like Half-Life. Because, after all, the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.