Half-Life is a Cosmic Horror Classic – Here’s Why

When one thinks or hears about cosmic horror, they think alien monsters, the body make-up of which evokes all kinds of nightmares. It’s not so much grotesque as it is logically unfathomable, whether it’s the multitude of tentacles, the presence of numerous eyes, a stretched out and asymmetrical form or other incomprehensible physical features. While this isn’t too far off the mark, cosmic horror has roots in cosmicism, an invention of H.P. Lovecraft . Lovecraft is known for his horror stories, particularly the Cthulhu Mythos. In these, Cthulhu is described an ancient entity part of a pantheon called the Great Old Ones, having spawned from Yog-Sothoth on Vhoorl in the 23rd Nebula. He eventually arrived on Earth and set up the city of R’yleh with several humans worshipping him.

The Old Ones would eventually slumber and the city would be lost in the Pacific Ocean. However, even as he slept, Cthulhu communicated telepathically with humans, who worshiped him as a deity of sorts. Its appearance was described as part octopus, part dragon and somewhat human. Since then, cosmic horror and Cthulhu have been intertwined.


But it’s not just about Cthulhu’s appearance or cosmic entities that look grotesque. Cosmicism’s core philosophy is that humans are nothing when measured against the totality of the universe. Cosmic horror, as such, is as much a fear of what lurks in the void of space as it is about the lack of agency that humans have over their lives. It’s not fate but the overwhelming brunt of the universe, the terrifying horrors that reside within it, and the utter insignificance of one’s actions. Of course, there’s also the common theme that to know and understand the greater schemes of these horrors is ultimately dangerous. To open one’s mind to the truths of the universe is to go insane.

To say that Half-Life is a horror title would be an understatement. The general mood of the first game is established early on with the body horror of Headcrabs taking over corpses by attaching and feeding on their brains. However, even before that, there is a general theme of venturing into the unknown and attempting to unravel greater mysteries – to understand what lies beyond the veil, so to speak. The experiment conducted by the Black Mesa staff, which sees protagonist Gordon Freeman inexplicably teleporting between Xen and the research facility, is the jumping off point. In Gordon’s shoes and without the benefit of scientific understanding, one could almost think of these trips as hallucinatory, in a sense.

Of course, it only gets worse from there as Gordon is forced to contend with all kinds of real horrors. Xen’s indigenous wildlife is bleeding into the Earth’s dimension, whether it’s the massive and unstoppable Gargantua, the vicious Ichthyosaurs in the water or the Gonarch that can ensnare and consume people whole. There are also the inexplicable tentacles encountered in the Rocket Propulsion Silo and Xen which wreak havoc and are seemingly connected to a larger creature. Said creature never materializes though. Of course, this all pales in comparison to traveling through Xen with its floating structures, cities without windows, immense manufacturing facilities, and eventually, the imposing Nihilanth.

Half-Life - Nihilanth

In a way, it all seems so simple – the Nihilanth is the big bad alien that’s trying to invade the world, right? It enslaved the Vortigaunts, forcing them to do its bidding and used them to try and take over Earth. There is more to the story though. Much like humanity, the Nihilanth was but an insignificant part of a greater scheme by the Combine. The Combine is a massive intergalactic empire that has laid waste to several civilizations including the Nihilanth’s. The only surviving member had retreated to Xen. Soon, the Vortigaunts arrived in the dimension due to their own homeworld being destroyed by the Combine. The Nihilanth enslaved them and invaded Earth in order to escape from the Combine, which subsequently led to Earth being discovered and assaulted by the latter.

There is another wrinkle in all of this – the G-Man. The mysterious old man, always wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, speaks in a commanding but altogether unnatural manner. The two would have next to no interaction until the end of Half-Life 1 when the G-Man approaches Gordon on behalf of his “benefactors.” Freeman is then employed for some unknown purpose and sealed away in stasis until the events of Half-Life 2.

The theory here is that the G-Man serves not the Combine but the ones above all, the equivalent of the Great Old Ones in the aliens’ pantheon. Gordon’s actions from the very beginning led to conflict with the Nihilanth and Xen’s inhabitants, which subsequently led to the Earth being discovered by the Combine. As such, the empire was grateful and would “hire” Gordon for whatever they would have planned. Not much is known about those above all but that’s the point.

Half-Life Alyx

As the Freeman, you think you’re someone who brings about great change and revolution – heck, Gordon is considered an essential part of the Resistance and praised as the one that liberated the Vortigaunts. His actions would also result in the destruction of the Citadel and closing the portal linking the Combine to Earth.

But to what end? Was Gordon really being guided by the G-Man? What is his purpose? What is the purpose of those above all? In Half-Life, these questions currently can’t be answered. And that’s perhaps the most frightening possibility of all: That there are horrors that lay behind the player’s understanding.

Whether intentionally or not, Valve has handled this aspect of the series incredibly well. There are just enough details to spur the player on as they seek more answers and are confronted by more questions. Very little information about the Combine, save for their desire to invade Earth, enslave humanity and deplete its resources, is known. The G-Man remains as mysterious as ever throughout. In fact, his abilities – whether his own or bestowed by something else – allow for altering the space-time continuum, as evidenced in Half-Life: Alyx.

Black Mesa_03

In a way, Valve could be considered the ones above all, creating these situations to push players to pursue the ultimate truth of the Combine, the G-Man and Half-Life itself, regardless of how long it takes. Perhaps the various delays and rumors of cancellation without any information or context are just another layer on top of the things we’re not meant to understand.

Maybe it’s a bit too meta-physical – after all, the G-Man hasn’t broken the fourth wall yet. The point isn’t that there’s no point but that said point is beyond the human mind’s ability to understand. Maybe one day we’ll finally learn everything and go insane at the vastness of it all. Perhaps the true insanity isn’t just in unraveling the entire mystery but in the sheer scope of it all. Half-Life could be considered peak cosmic horror in that sense.

It could all be connected but humanity will never understand. Alternatively, we could never learn the truth – never know where the series is going, the truth of its development behind the scenes and ultimately what is really going on. But that doesn’t stop us from watching, worshiping and ultimately waiting for more.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.

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