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Great moments in PC gaming: The opening train ride of Half-Life

Great moments in PC gaming are bite-sized celebrations of some of our favorite gaming memories.


(Image credit: Valve)

Developer: Valve
Publisher: Sierra Studios
Year: 1998

In the 1990s we were used to being dropped into level one with a melee weapon in our hands. But in Half-Life you don't wake up in a prison cell, or crash land on an alien planet. You finish a commute.

Not that it wasn't impressive, as far as commutes go. I've heard several people say they thought that 10-minute train ride was pure cutscene, not realizing they could walk around to get better views. At the time it was a genuine surprise to see all this being done in-engine.

The commute to the Black Mesa testing facility is more eventful than most train trips, too. You emerge from tunnels into huge open spaces where robots carry crates or assemble machinery, you get your first glimpse of the G-Man in the next train car over, and a military helicopter lands to deliver a payload of foreshadowing. It's more exciting than trying to guess which of the business bros in your carriage just farted, I'll give it that.

(Image credit: Valve)

It's still a remarkably ordinary way to begin a first-person shooter, but the ordinariness is one of the best things about Half-Life. So many of the rooms in Black Mesa feel like real spaces, whether bathrooms, the locker room, or the break room complete with microwave and a soda machine that doesn't work. ("Must remember to report that fluctuation," mutters one of the staff.) To see these normal places desecrated by zombies and covered in gore is more shocking because of the contrast.

That feeling goes away later on, by the time you're fighting military hardnuts and black-ops ninja (and is a long-gone memory by the time you're up against alien jumping puzzles and a giant gonad), but in Half-Life's early stages when it feels more like a horror game, that sense of mundanity is essential.

When you're staring through a window unable to help as a scientist gets gored or plunging down an elevator shaft with headcrabs pouring in above you like salt from a shaker, it feels like this shouldn't be happening here—not somewhere you arrived via a train ride with a nice lady's voice telling you about the upcoming employee decathlon.

Jody Macgregor
Jody is that guy who will try to convince you to play some indie game you've never heard of with a name like Extreme Meatpunks Forever. He is also on a doomed quest to play every Warhammer game.