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This page covers a single section of the game. For the full plot overview, see the game's associated storyline page.
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Questionable Ethics is the eleventh chapter of Half-Life.
This chapter takes place in the Alien Research Labs. The player learns that this is a facility devoted entirely to the study of captured alien creatures. The area is under the military control. The main goal is to find a scientist with a retinal scanner access who can open the front door in the lobby, so the player can go outside and escape.
There are sterilization chambers, which can be used from their booths to trap and kill the enemies by vaporizing them. There is a laser lab upstairs where the player is required to turn on four power sources for a red laser, and use the laser to carve through a wall. This leads to a room (dubbed Psycho Surgery) with three scientists and an out of control surgical unit. The player can have a scientist follow him to the lobby, and have him open the front door.
After opening the door, the scientist warns the player that outside is completely under the military control. He says the player has to fight his way through to reach the Lambda Complex, where the rest of the science team has taken shelter. There is a path outside that leads to the Hydro-Electric Dam.
The Alien Research Lab is the predecessor of Questionable Ethics, and is the fourth chapter in the Alpha version of the game. It was also developed by Dario Casali. The chapter shares the same general premise. While none of the level architecture was reused, the concept of Alien Grunts being stored in containment chambers survived into the final game.
According to Marc Laidlaw, the labs served numerous purposes in the game: To deepen the sense of conspiracy and cause the player to question what was actually going on at Black Mesa; to give the player access to a high-powered weapon that's crucial for battling powerful enemies in subsequent levels; and to force a style of puzzle-solving focused on protecting and working with human characters (scientists) rather than simply throwing switches.
Goal: This section of the labs is quite non-linear in layout, although judicious use of locked doors again gives it a linear flow the first time through. Non-linear areas tend to work against the usual dramatic virtues of pacing and rhythm and timing, and give rise to plentiful opportunities for boredom and confusion. They also make it easy for the player to miss or forget his goal. When designing the labs on paper, they decided that the player should see his goal (the exit) immediately upon entering the lobby. There is a scanner next to the locked exist, and by this time the player has been taught that only scientists or other NPCs can operate a scanner. Presumably the player will carry this knowledge with him as he moves away from the exit and fights his way through the other areas of the map, and by the time he encounters a group of hiding scientists, he'll understand that he's supposed to escort one of them through the labyrinthine labs back to the scanner. To further aid the player in understanding the goal, they added a security guard to give a short briefing on the way into the area.
Gameplay: Puzzles were built around a variety of enemy encounters, traps, and scientific devices, and assembled from elements that have some logical place in the environment: sterilizers, laser equipment, caged monsters. Getting certain weapons is tricky in that it requires exposing oneself to monsters, and then quickly working with the environment to neutralize the threat. The player must open a cage full of sharks, then retreat into a sterilizer control room in order to vaporize them before he is overwhelmed. In addition, the presence of enemy soldiers adds a constant threat and gives contrast to the alien menace. In some circumstances, the canny player choose to wait out battles between aliens and other humans, and then deal with the weakened victor of those battles. In such cases, the player's best strategy is patience. This puts a twist on the unusual action game tactic, where players usually can expect to solve all problems by direct, aggressive attacks.
Atmosphere: They selected detail that seemed appropriate to the research environment, and that added to the underlying story. Certain areas were tailored specifically for the study of the alien creatures, which tends to raise questions about how long the researcher at Black Mesa have known about the aliens, and what exactly they were doing with them. As much as possible, the details also provided opportunities for gameplay; for instance, sterilizers that were used by researchers to cleanse room of biohazards turn out to be just as effective at vaporizing pursuing soldiers. Since they wanted a mood of high-tech horror to pervade Half-Life, they avoided a lot of opportunities for wacky comedy, and instead tried to set up situations for suitably dark and ironic humor. The "Tau Cannon", for instance, is given to the player at the end of a macabre sequence. And as a bonus, in addition to the weapon itself, the player is "rewarded" with a unique piece of music that punctuates the action and puts a weird spin on the otherwise relentless mood of horror.
The level code for the chapter is "Regression Brings Progress" in the Dreamcast version.
Behind the scenes
The unused sign textures reveals that the facility was originally called the "High Security Research Labs", located in the Central Complex. The original design of the laser lab layout was different. There was to be a second set of stairs in the other side. It can be seen in the level plan. It was to lead to the hall with explosive crates, near the lab where they keep the Alien Grunts. Unused Black Mesa Announcement System lines for the chapter can be found in the sentences file used for the speech system. The area is referred to as "Advanced Biological Research Lab" in the document.
There is a logo on the lobby floor featuring the Latin words "Superbus Via Inscientiae", and a DNA double helix in the middle. It was created by Karen Laur. According to Karen, she was annoyed with the hubris of some co-workers, and asked a linguist friend of hers for some help with a translation. He was specialized in Germanic languages and said the original phrase was probably incorrect. She was informed that "Superbus Via Inscientiae" meant something close to "arrogance through ignorance", and that was close enough for her.
There was to be a security guard waiting in the booth of the first sterilizer chamber. He was to push the button and tell the player to get in the booth immediately. The animations for this scene can be found in the SDK. Another scene was to involve a Bullsquid jumping on a security guard, and both of them falling down (512 units in the level editor) to their death.. The height of the scene matches the room behind the destroyed wall in the laser room. It is possible that the destruction was to trigger this sequence.
The scientists mention their colleague Peters switched on the surgical unit, but never made it back. His body is never seen, but his remains can be found in the room. He actually appears in the game, but his body is destroyed by the machine on map load. His character model is randomly selected.
- Additional images related to Questionable Ethics
- Half-Life soundtrack, Nuclear Mission Jam
- Half-Life soundtrack, Dark Piano Short
- Interview with Dario Casali on Voltron's Map Workshop (May 1, 2000) (archived)
- Half-Life Prima Guide
- Half-Life (sentences.txt)
- The level plan for the laser puzzle
- Game Design: Secrets of the Sages by Marc Saltzman (1999)
- Superbus via inscientiae on LatinDiscussion forums (February 19, 2010)
- Half-Life SDK