Review: ‘Half-Life: 25th Anniversary Documentary’ is worth your click

A must-watch for anyone who has ever picked up a controller or sat in front of a computer screen, Half-Life: 25th Anniversary Documentary, directed by Secret Tape’s Danny O’Dwyer, takes you on a journey through the history of one of the most influential video games of all time, Half-Life. Produced in high definition and featuring interviews with key figures in the game’s development (including Gabe Newell), it uses a Gordon Freeman inspired crowbar of curiosity to crack open the mysteries of Half-Life and really, Valve. Whether you’re a fan of tech history or just a casual gamer, the Half-Life documentary is a breezy hour that you should check out.

The history of Half Life 25 years later

If you’ve read yourself in the book Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar or spent countless hours watching IGN commentaries on YouTube, then some of the names and faces featured in this documentary will undoubtedly ring a bell. Nevertheless, it’s still cool experience to witness them reunited, reminiscing about a project that would forever alter the gaming landscape.

There’s magic that and talent that is revealed in this documentary. Kelly Bailey and the amazing sound, Karen Laur’s textures, and Marc Laidlaw’s storytelling prowess are all explored. While this is the story of Valve, this is also the story of the people and personalities behind Valve and how they shaped the Half-life as a first person shooter. 

Some unexpected philosophical wisdom

It’s hard to pick just one moment that sticks out in the documentary, because there are so many layers of wisdom that O’Dwyer unwraps with his interviews. But one profound section in the documentary has already ricocheted across the internet, setting off a flutter of clicks as publications rushed to push content. Gabe Newell, the founder of Valve (along with Mike Harrington), noted that “Late is just for a little while. Suck is forever.”

Newell is of course talking about how long it famously took for the game to come out. The documentary makes the point that it was a bit of a mess at the start, with separate teams acting autonomously without real cohesion until they found a system that worked for them. The powers that be (Sierra) wanted Valve to deliver on their promise and their contract for a game. Rather than deliver subpar, Valve didn’t and pushed the release to November of 1998, and the result is that the game still has playability almost three decades later. 

The message, then, is that there’s value in waiting, taking time to get things right, and observing. We are a society that is constantly rushing – to the next appointment, for clicks, and so on. The Irish musicians of County Clare in Doolin wait (just read our interview with The Job of Songs director Lila Schmitz for more on that), famously (and frustratingly) George R. R. Martin is waiting as he works on finishing The Winds of Winter. And we have learned now that Gabe Newell waits. Maybe there’s utility in this philosophy if it returns a richer life, or, in Valve’s case, a really impressive video game.

A moment years in the making for O’Dwyer

This documentary is also a big moment for O’Dwyer and the brilliant folks at his new production company, Secret Tape. O’Dwyer is best known for work with NoClip, a crowdfunded video game documentary studio that dreamed of working with Valve a few years ago. NoClip released a documentary called Unforeseen Consequences: A Half-Life Documentary. Now, through Secret Tape, O’Dwyer has achieved this fully sponsored project inside the building and been given unprecedented access. (I’ll note that O’Dwyer’s work with NoClip isn’t done, but Secret Tape has allowed him to expand.)

This release was a surprise, but hindsight is 20/20. In August 2022, O’Dwyer posted a playthrough documentary that required calling in the big guns of support from the Valve archives. They pulled it off, so something was cooking even then for the Valve project. 

A surprising but delightful release

One note about the release – the Half-Life documentary surprised the larger gaming community, dropping unexpectedly to coincide with Half-Life’s 25th anniversary. This documentary is such a gift to fans and almost as exciting as the days when Team Fortress 2 would get a surprise update. I hope there are more of these in the future and that Valve keeps these short histories coming – bring on the documentary films about Counter-Strike, Steam, Garry’s Mod, and of course, Team Fortress 2. Interestingly, O’Dwyer says that the Half-Life documentary team was at Valve HQ when CS2 released in September 2023. O’Dwyer’s X profile lists “secret projects” in the works along with his other work at NoClip, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed.

How to watch the Half-Life documentary

The new Half-Life: 25th Anniversary Documentary by Danny O’Dwyer and Secret Tape is available to watch for free on Valve’s YouTube right now. Check it out however you like to watch your streaming media. There’s no word on if there will ever be a physical media release.

Once you’ve finished watching the documentary, head to Steam to download the game for free, complete with the 25th anniversary updates.

Your thoughts on the Half-Life documentary

Have you checked out the Half-Life documentary yet? What did you think? Do you think this is a precursor to an eventual Half-Life 3 release? Are you nostalgic for the early community of Half-Life and video games in general? Join the conversation by commenting on the article below or following us on X (formerly known as Twitter) @MoviesWeTexted.

If you’re not in a documentary mindset, check out Alise Chaffin’s recent review of Apple TV+’s movie Fingerprints. 

You can watch NoClip’s Half-life documentary Unforseen Consequences: A Half-Life documentary by clicking here to visit their YouTube Channel.

(Editor’s Note: Banner wallpaper image courtesy of Valve. )