March 15, 2014

A love letter to Hλlf-Life

Hλlf-Life, the best game ever made (average rating; 96%), showed the world how to do it right. The hero in this game, Gordon Freeman, is a recent MIT graduated theoretical physicist who is tricked into unleashing a "resonance cascade" when something goes horribly wrong during the routine mass spectrometry of a fixed sample. The entire game, from its title to the setting, is a love letter to science and to physics in particular.

The name itself not only refers to an early death, but also to the period of time it takes for the amount of a substance undergoing radioactive decay to decrease by half. The lambda sign in the tile, λ, confirms this because although it points towards the Lambda core, an experimental reactor that plays a large part in the later half of the game, it's also the scientific symbol used to denote the radioactivity decay constant in nuclear physics. This constant is very simply related to the half-life of any radioactive material.

Valve director Gabe Newell himself has confirmed that the name of the character; Freeman, is a homage to the physicist and philosopher Freeman Dyson.

"If anyone can handle this catastrophe, it's the science team in the Lambda Complex"

It portrayed scientists as heroes, out to save the world. Sure, at first sight Gordon might have looked like an unlikely action hero; he has a PhD, wears glasses, wasn't trained in combat, nor did he have the physique to take a beating or the muscles to deal it out... What he does have is brains! Any dumb-ass can swing a crowbar and wear a hazardous environment suit (armor), but it takes a physicist to activate reactor cores, launch intercontinental missiles, clean up radioactive waste, ... It took brains to save the planet.

It's worth noting that all its expansions folow a naming scheme similar to Half-Life; Opposing Force deals with a military strike team that is sent in to silence the science crew, while Blue Shift deals with the late night shift of a security guard. Looks straightforward but both refer to scientific concepts in physics as well. Half-Life's follow up took this love for physics to the next level by introducing a revolutionary physics engine that allowed you to interact with the game world through the use of physics based simulation! Valve really loves physics.

The following is a tribute to the game's opening, and even after 14 years, it still touches upon my heartstrings! I am pretty sure that it helped fire up my interest in physics and for that I will be eternally grateful. It looks a bit dated, but you will forget all about that after 5 minutes of game-time. It's a real classic! If you haven't played it yet, you should give it a shot.

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