Very special thanks for Frank Lantz for inviting me to speak, and to Charles Pratt / Kevin Cancienne for counsel and emotional support, and Brendan Keogh / Dan Golding for convincing me that people even want to hear about stuff like this. Many of the ideas in this presentation will be expanded upon for the book I'm doing with Press Select.
First I want to set the record straight: I love Half-Life, but that doesn't mean it's immune to criticism. It is flawed in many ways. (Hard mode is too hard. The game is too long. On a Rail induces hemorrhaging. etc.)
I also think games mean things so far as you can argue for certain interpretations -- and I think Half-Life's popular legacy does not endure much scrutiny. Specifically, Half-Life's narrative is not subtle nor sophisticated nor conceptually innovative: from what we know about its development history and acknowledged inspirations, it is designed to be a schlocky silly action B-movie about a sci-fi disaster conspiracy, and I argue that reading is more convincing than thinking it's "the Myst of video games" or something.
That does not mean a schlocky game is bad; schlocky games are often fantastic. What I'm arguing, instead, is that many players prefer the weaker reading of Half-Life because they are seduced by the promise of technology without actually understanding what the technology is doing. Half-Life is magical and interesting and subtle, but not in the way that gamer culture mythologizes it. (At the same time, let's still be critical of what Half-Life does, and the values it represents to both players and developers.)