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    A Treatise on Half-Life Play Order (WARNING: REALLY LONG) 
In November 2014, I found this question asking what order the Half-Life series should be played in. This was a topic that I'd barely even thought of, let alone considered in any depth, since the franchise has a refreshingly linear storyline and release order. The games are chronological (i.e. no prequels or labyrinthine side titles), yet flexible (i.e. playing the Half-Life 2 series first doesn't cost you much story-wise, any or all of the Half-Life Expansion Packs can be skipped, it doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things where you play the Portal games, etc.). However, having recently thought about how the Half-Life expansions' release order may have affected their reception, and being someone who goes into Serious Business Mode at the drop of a hat (especially if that hat is Half-Life), I began to type out a reply, and before I knew it I had typed a whole damn essay.

It was at this point that I noticed that the question had been posted in May 2012, and the most recent response had been posted in November 2013. Not wanting to necropost, since that would make me look like even more of a self-important douchebag than if I had merely posted an essay-length response to a simple question that probably wanted an equally simple answer, I chose to keep my silence. However, since I had apparently gone to all the effort of writing an essay about the subject — and since it was therefore a subject I clearly cared about, if only in the deepest, darkest, geekiest part of my soul — I decided to keep the essay until I could figure out somewhere else to post it. Might as well start here; and so below I have posted an edited and heavily expanded version of the original comment.

Though the technical purpose of this essay is to advise people who have no knowledge of the franchise, I didn't consider this while writing, and thus wrote it in a way that assumes the reader does have knowledge about the series, or doesn't care if they learn certain things about it before they play. Some reference is inevitable, just as any meaningful explanation of the benefits of Star Wars' "Machete Order" will necessarily allude to certain things that happen in the movies. I used really awkward spoiler tags to resolve the rest; I hope you'll forgive me.


A Treatise on Half-Life Play Order

Playing the games of the Half-Life franchise in the order they were released is a perfectly reasonable and fairly sensible option, seeing as aside from the Portal series, they were released in chronological order. This gives us:

Release Order

  • Half-Life 1
  • Half-Life: Opposing Force
  • Half-Life: Blue Shift
  • Half-Life: Decay
  • Half-Life 2
  • Half-Life 2: Episode One
  • Half-Life 2: Episode Two
  • Portal
  • Portal 2

Now that we've laid the groundwork, let's take a closer look:

Half-Life Expansion Packs

The expansions will not really add anything to your understanding of the story going into Half-Life 2, aside from telling you who Barney is. Though the expansions were made by Gearbox at Valve's request and have Valve's blessing, their canonicity is disputed by some fans for reasons ranging from Plot Holes and Continuity Errors to creatorship and perceived quality. Whether or not they are canon, the fact is that from a purely story-telling perspective, they aren't necessary and can safely be skipped. However, Opposing Force and Blue Shift are quite fun (Decay is less well-received but still a good time-waster, and as a co-op game it can be played with a friend), and all three expansions really do expand the narrative by showing you other perspectives, other areas of the facility, greater insight into just how deep this rabbit hole goes, and a sense of interconnectedness between disparate characters, who all experience the same event but have their own stories to tell. They make the story feel far grander and richer.

The expansions also lend to characterization: Knowing what Barney went through in Blue Shift adds depth to his character in Half-Life 2. Discovering that Rosenberg tried and failed to stop the experiment and was the one who called the military for help in Decay makes you think about just how badly the Black Mesa Incident must have been weighing on his conscience by the time Barney found him in Blue Shift. Seeing G-Man's actions in Opposing Force gives you a sense that there might be more to him than meets the eye. I personally feel that the expansions are richer than they might seem at first glance, and are an asset that deserves to be tapped. However, if you do play the expansions, I think most would agree that Decay can still be skipped, as it contributes little to the narrative and doesn't offer much in the gameplay department.

We also need to figure out where to put the "other stuff":

Half-Life: Source

A "remake" (read: "half-assed Source port") of Half-Life. By release order, it would go between Decay and Half-Life 2, but I wouldn't really recommend placing it there. If you are going to play it at all, I would recommend playing it either immediately after Half-Life, or instead of Half-Life. I am inclined to say "instead". The graphics improvements aren't good enough to really justify buying and playing both games (except for the sake of thoroughness, I suppose), and they offer what is basically the same experience. However, Source does still feature more realistic water effects, slightly improved graphics, improved AI, Havok-based physics (making Block Puzzles far easier), and ragdoll physics (which is always fun). So I wouldn't say not to play it; only that if you do, there wouldn't be much point in also playing Half-Life. But if you decide to play both, I'd hope it would be obvious that Source should be played second, so that you see the improvements.

Half-Life 2: Lost Coast

Lost Coast is a tech demo based on a level that was cut from Half-Life 2, and its main purpose is to illustrate HDR rendering. It is not canon and is very short, so there is no reason story-wise to play it. However, it's interesting to learn about HDR rendering and other aspects of the development process, and it's a fun way to spend 10 to 30 minutes. If you do play it, I believe release order makes sense here: Play it after Half-Life 2, and before Episode One — and play it with commentary before moving on. This will ensure that you notice and fully appreciate the graphical improvements between Half-Life 2 and the episodes. Otherwise there isn't all that much point.

Black Mesa

The excellent fan remake of Half-Life that you simply must play — no ifs, ands, or asses about it.

Christopher Odd played Half-Life, Opposing Force, and Blue Shift, and then played Black Mesa, to give an immediate, maximized sense of contrast between it and Half-Life. I would recommend his way, as it will reward you with an enormous sense of awe (as you can see by watching his Let's Play), whereas playing it after the Half-Life 2 series would dampen (though not destroy) the effect. Playing it after Half-Life but before Half-Life 2 also means that you'll go into Half-Life 2 not wondering who the hell Eli and Kleiner are supposed to be, since you actually saw them in Black Mesa, rather than having to be told (if you're lucky) which characters they were retconned to correspond to in Half-Life. This alone makes Half-Life 2 feel far more connected with Half-Life, which basically takes care of the only noteworthy story-related criticism I have against Half-Life 2.

So, you can wedge Black Mesa either immediately after Half-Life, or immediately after the expansions (if you play them). I would probably recommend the latter, partly because it provides some padding (so you're not just playing through Gordon's story twice in a row), but more so because it would be quite jarring to play such a gorgeous game and then get jolted back into the (comparatively) trashy graphics of the Half-Life expansions. Once you go Black (Mesa), you never go back. :D Then again, it might not be jarring at all to someone who has played many old games before; perhaps it would only be jarring to people like me, who are used to newer games. So at the end of the day, it's up to you; the only concrete thing I will say is that you certainly should not play it before Half-Life.

Portal 2 co-operative campaign

Portal 2 has a singleplayer campaign and a co-operative campaign. While it may seem trivially obvious that the singleplayer campaign should be played first and the co-op campaign second, I'm going to pick this apart anyway.

First of all, there's the question of whether you need to play the co-op campaign. From a story-telling perspective, the answer is "no". This may change if they ever release a Portal 3, as the co-op campaign and its DLC ("Peer Review") both have sequel hooks that might become a lot more relevant; but for the time being, singleplayer is the the primary narrative, the binding thread. However, singleplayer and co-op are separate campaigns — co-op is not just "singleplayer with two people". It's a separate narrative with different characters. Co-op is its own experience — and, in my opinion, a great one. It is eminently worth playing — but if it's not your thing, or you just never get around to it, don't lose sleep over it.

As to play order: I'm not going to say that playing co-op before singleplayer will ruin the experience. In fact, I can think of one argument for playing co-op first: Singleplayer, unlike co-op, does not end on a cliffhanger or glaring sequel hook, so if you simply couldn't bear to finish the Portal series on an ambiguous note, by all means play singleplayer last. But that's all I will say in support of that order.

The co-op campaign chronologically begins after the singleplayer campaign ends, and I would bet any money that Valve created the campaigns with the expectation — conscious or not — that they would be played in that order. This ties into my second argument: Player training. Co-op is not easy, both because of the difficulties inherent to coordinating with another player, and because the puzzles are far more intricate. Co-op is not easy, and it will be that much harder if you try to play it first. In the same way that Portal carefully layered player training so that you aren't too overwhelmed to understand and enjoy the challenge, playing singleplayer first will layer your training so that you already have a good understanding of Portal 2's puzzle mechanics before trying to tackle co-op.

My final argument is a matter of my own personal opinion: I think the puzzles in the co-op campaign are way more awesome than the ones in the singleplayer campaign. When I finished singleplayer, I felt some measure of disappointment in the puzzles. I can't put my finger on it, but they just lacked a certain something. The co-op campaign 100% rectified this — not only was I not disappointed, I was blown away. I don't know if this is merely because co-operative gameplay by its very nature allows for more interesting and complex puzzle design, or if the puzzle design was also just plain better, but either way the result is the same: I think co-op is a cut above singleplayer puzzle-wise. If you end up feeling the same way, you'll be glad you played co-op last. If you don't end up feeling the same way... I apologize for misleading you.

The list is thus extended as follows:

Extended Order

  • Half-Life and/or Half-Life: Source
  • and optionally:
    • Half-Life: Opposing Force
    • Half-Life: Blue Shift
    • and even more optionally:
      • Half-Life: Decay
  • Black Mesa
  • Half-Life 2
  • and optionally:
    • Half-Life 2: Lost Coast (commentary optional but recommended)
  • Half-Life 2: Episode One
  • Half-Life 2: Episode Two
  • Portal
  • Portal 2 singleplayer campaign
  • Portal 2 co-operative campaign ("Peer Review" DLC optional)

However, while the above list is a fine order to play the games in, I will be so bold as to suggest a slightly different one:

Revised Order

  • Half-Life and/or Half-Life: Source
  • and optionally:
    • Half-Life: Decay (can be skipped)
    • Half-Life: Blue Shift (alternatively, switch with Opposing Force)
    • Half-Life: Opposing Force
  • Black Mesa
  • Portal
  • Half-Life 2
  • and optionally:
    • Half-Life 2: Lost Coast (commentary optional but recommended)
  • Half-Life 2: Episode One
  • Half-Life 2: Episode Two
  • Portal 2 (alternatively, play one or both campaigns between Portal and Half-Life 2):
    • Singleplayer campaign
    • Co-operative campaign ("Peer Review" DLC optional)

Rationale for Reversing the Expansion Trilogy

My reasoning for playing the expansion packs in reverse order:

From watching LPs and reading about people's opinions on the expansions, I get the impression that Opposing Force is the favourite. Blue Shift was not as well-received as Opposing Force, and Decay was not as well-received as Blue Shift, either by critics or — from what I can tell — by fans. I think that one reason for this is that they were released in the "wrong" order. What I mean by this, is that each expansion de-escalated, which is bad. You don't release games of the same series and setting in decreasing order of length, excitement, fun, and introduction of (good) new elements. You can reduce one or two or even three of these aspects, but only if you adequately compensate for it in the remaining area(s); and you don't reduce all at once, or allow a net reduction. But that is what they did, and it's backwards.

Opposing Force is the longest and most action-packed of the expansions, introduced new alien enemies and weapons, and showed us the perspective of someone not affiliated with Black Mesa — and by the same token a new class of ally (the HECU Marines).

Blue Shift, on the other hand, not only gave us nothing new, it didn't even give us the old — it was shorter than Opposing Force, it didn't give us any of the enemies or weapons that had been newly introduced in Opposing Force, and it didn't even show any black ops assassins, which we'd been having fun killing since Half-Life. Nor were there any boss fights. It de-escalated.

Decay was even worse. Aside from having a limited release, it was dull and tedious. The only new elements it introduced were a new character (Dr. Keller), a very short mission that you play as two vortigaunts (which you need an A grade on all missions to access and is hardly a huge selling point in the first place), and co-operative gameplay (which was poorly executed). The overly puzzle-oriented gameplay and ill-conceived co-op make Decay unexciting compared to its predecessors, and thus serves to bog down rather than enhance it. This in combination with the repetitive elements of "something about a satellite" and "resetting the thing" makes it clear that Gearbox has gone one game too far. Decay was a game that covered no new ground because there was no new ground to cover — or if there was, Gearbox didn't even come close to finding it. Decay was the very definition of superfluous.

In addition, the sparse encounters with generic NPCs (be they ally or enemy, alive or dead), the dearth of interesting or climactic fights, the mission-based system which spirits you away from one location to the next, and the lack of effect the game's final mission — the resonance reversal — actually has on the incident, gives the impression that the protagonists exist in some kind of bubble, where nothing in this incident is really affecting them and they aren't affecting anything in it; in contrast with all previous games, which give you a clear sense of having an impact on others and being affected by others.

Something that Blue Shift and Decay both suffered from was the lack of G-Man encounters or intervention, which contributes to the sense that in the grand scheme of things, their stories don't truly matter. But in Decay it's even worse, as unlike Barney, who at least escaped and reaped some benefit from his adventure (and even went on to become a main character in Half-Life 2, giving Blue Shift relevance!), Decay abandons its protagonists in medias res once they've served their (non-)purpose, leaving the rest of their journey and their ultimate fate up to speculation. Unlike Gordon, Adrian, and Barney, after all Colette and Gina went through they had no discernible effect on their own fate or on the course of the incident. Nor do they have any mention or appearance in any following games. So the player is given nothing for their effort and has nothing to show for slogging through increasingly disappointing games. They are left with a bad taste in their mouth.

Summary

  1. Following the long, action-packed Half-Life with the shorter, easier, more puzzle-oriented Decay, will give the player a nice breather before they have to dive back into the grittier stuff. In theory, that is. It might have the opposite effect of being even more jarring than the release order's gradual progression from "exciting" to "lackluster". If someone new to the series could test this out and let me know, I would greatly appreciate it.
  2. Decay is a good follow-up to Half-Life story-wise, as it follows two employees who are participating, albeit behind-the-scenes, in the same experiment Gordon is. Thus it has far more immediate relevancy to Gordon and the Black Mesa Incident than Blue Shift (which follows someone in a different line of work who has nothing to do with the Incident aside from being a friend of Gordon's, which you don't find out until playing Half-Life 2) or Opposing Force (which follows someone who isn't even connected to Black Mesa). Playing Decay first also means that when you meet Rosenberg in Blue Shift, you'll already know his history, and have a deeper understanding of what he means when he says he's "partially responsible for all of this".
    If the player chooses to skip Decay, the first argument still holds for Blue Shift as compared with Opposing Force — it holds more immediate relevancy and is shorter and easier.
  3. By playing the expansions in order from shortest/dullest to longest/coolest, Opposing Force will seem like an awesome, slam-bang finish to the expansion trilogy, rather than Blue Shift and Decay seeming like pathetic and disappointing sequels in a trilogy that started out with so much promise. Save the best for last, am I right?
    However, after some thought, I realized that there is also a good argument for putting Blue Shift last. While it would be a less exciting finish, the player will leave the Half-Life series on an optimistic note, and with a good set-up for Barney's re-introduction in Half-Life 2. They also might be more forgiving of (or at least less agonized by) Opposing Force's cliffhanger if it isn't the series finale. However, the latter benefit would likely be conveyed equally well by following up the expansions with Black Mesa as recommended on the list, and the former benefit isn't too important; so this is presented as an alternative.
  4. There isn't much wiggle room as to the placement of Black Mesa. As mentioned, playing it before the expansions is an option, and I suppose you could play it between any two expansions, though I don't know why you'd want to. But I really can't recommend placing it any lower on the list than after Portal, and even that I say with reluctance. The more distance you put between Half-Life and Black Mesa, the less impact Black Mesa will have, both because you're dulling your memory of Half-Life, and because the later games are graphically impressive enough that Black Mesa won't look that much different or more advanced by comparison. The only reason I hesitantly make an exception for Portal is that it's short enough not to deaden your memory of Half-Life too much, and different enough from the main series stylistically that it would still be pretty obvious how much farther ahead Black Mesa is graphically. Still, there's no real reason to place it there, and I still think it will diminish the effect.
  5. I put Portal between the Half-Life series and the Half-Life 2 series for two reasons. The first is that chronologically, Portal takes place at least a few weeks after Half-Life. Because of this, playing it after the Half-Life series, rather than waiting until after the Half-Life 2 series, will give greater relevancy and context to GLaDOS's allusions to the Black Mesa Incident and Combine occupation. The second reason is that breaking up the Half-Life series and Half-Life 2 series with a completely puzzle-based game in an entirely different setting will a) give the player another breather, and b) give the player a sense of time passing and other things occurring between the Half-Life and Half-Life 2 series — which is good, since Half-Life 2 takes place about 20 years later.
  6. I would not recommend placing anything between the Half-Life 2 games, except for playing Lost Coast between Half-Life 2 and the episodes. The Half-Life 2 series is a seamless, linear narrative: Aside from Gordon briefly being unconscious between games, Episode One picks up right where Half-Life 2 left off, and Episode Two picks up right where Episode One left off. And I especially don't recommend placing anything between the two episodes, not even Lost Coast. Honestly, they're really one game, and they're both fairly short — it took me less time to play both of them combined than it took me to play Half-Life 2. The time it takes to exit Episode One and start up Episode Two is as long an intermission as the story needs. Which isn't to say you shouldn't do anything between playing them. Ideally the episodes should be played in one go, but it's not a huge deal if they aren't. Take a minute, take a day, take a week. Time doesn't matter — it won't really hurt the narrative flow. I just wouldn't condone wedging another game from the list in between, because that would hurt the narrative flow.
  7. I place Portal 2 after the Half-Life 2 series for the same reason I place Portal after Half-Life. Portal 2 takes place some time after Portal — it's not stated how much, but from the condition of the facility, it's generally taken to be at least a decade or two. The Half-Life 2 series being played between the two Portal games will give the player the sense of at least that much time passing. Lastly, I would far rather see a player end their adventure on Portal 2 than Episode Two, if only for the sake of their emotional health and sanity. Episode Two gives us a dark, upsetting ending, something of a cliffhanger, and certainly a story that is only partly done and just begging to be finished, with no telling how far we still have to go to reach anything resembling a satisfying conclusion. (One game? Two? Three?) Finishing with Portal 2 will at least give the player some closure by letting them see Chell finish her story (or at least this chapter of her life), and do so on a happier note by finally escaping. While playing co-op mode (even — or rather, especially — if you play the "Peer Review" DLC) would somewhat undermine this closure and return the player to a sense of the story being unfinished, it would at least be a less agonizing note to end on than Episode Two — it's more of a Sequel Hook than a Cliffhanger. However, as noted on the list, on this point I am flexible, and I would alternatively suggest that Portal 2's singleplayer campaign, or even both campaigns, be played immediately after Portal. In either case the player gets an even greater sense of time passing between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, and in the latter case — which puts Episode Two last of all — they end the series with an appropriate and unmitigated level of desperation for Half-Life 3.

    Because what would a Half-Life fan be if they were not as desperate for Half-Life 3 as the people who started reading so much into everything Valve does that "HALF-LIFE 3 CONFIRMED" has become a meme?

So. There it is. I guess you could say it's my Half-Life version of Machete Order. Wait, no, that's too presumptuous. Well, in any case, I'll call it... Crowbar Order. It's not as catchy, but at least that way if anyone ever wants to criticize it, they can say that it's an appropriate name because I'm "crowbarring" (i.e. shoehorning) games into places they shouldn't go. :D


If you actually read all that... I applaud you. I don't think I would have. Yeesh. Maybe I'm not the only one here with too much time on my hands. ;)

If you are inclined to give me any feedback, feel free to PM me. Please be polite and constructive. :P

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