Rock, Paper, Shotgun - firstname.lastname@example.org (Nathan Grayson)
The rumors of Black Mesa‘s death have been greatly exaggerated. It has, however, been over three years since Gordon Freeman went for an all-too-brief jog in his shiny new hazard suit. No, gaming’s favorite man of zero words and 1000 crowbar swings per minute hasn’t suddenly affixed a chainsaw to his gun or moved his adventures to an unnamed wartorn Middle Eastern setting, but a lot’s changed.
Once upon a time, this was Valve’s firstborn with a fresh coat of paint. Now, though, the Black Mesa team’s pouring its own blood, sweat, and tears into one of gaming’s most sacred holy grails – for better or worse. Only time will tell. But how much time? One more year? Two? Half-Life 2: Episode 3 (aka, a billion)? And what state is the remake in now? I spoke with project lead Carlos Montero about all of that and more.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - email@example.com (Nathan Grayson)
The universe has a weird fondness for improbable coincidences. Name your franchise Half-Life, and it takes half a lifetime to come out. Create a robust mod based around a game in that franchise, and its development mirrors that of its crowbar-wielding, hazard-suit chic father series nearly one-to-one. The lofty promises, the incredibly lengthy periods of radio silence, the incessant cries of “vaporware” and “it’ll probably be a huge letdown” – all of it.
Maybe, though, that part’s not such a coincidence. To hear project lead Carlos Montero tell it, Black Mesa‘s an obsessively redesigned, rebuilt-from-the-ground-up love letter to Valve’s opus. The goal, then, is to improve> on something already considered by many to be perfect. And that, as it’s turned out, has been a lot harder than Montero and his constantly fluctuating team first assumed. So, first up, we’re delving into what exactly has taken so long – especially in light of 2008′s rather stunning trailer that promised a release date of, er, three years ago.
Gabe Newell been talking about the Valve sequel everyone wants, Half Life 2: Episode 3, in terms of the Valve sequel no-one wants, Ricochet 2. With almost audible air quotes around each mention of a possible follow up to Valve's year 2000 disk-lobbing multiplayer arena title, Newell told Seven Day Cooldown that the silence surrounding the next Half-Life is intended to spare fans from the unpredictable "twists and turns" of Valve's iterative development style.
"We'd like to be super transparent about the future of Ricochet 2," said Newell, "but the problem is that the twists and turns that we're going through would probably drive people more crazy than being silent about it until we can be very crisp about what's happening."
Earlier he also said "we always have this problem, when we talk about things too far in advance we end up changing our minds as we're developing stuff. We're thinking through the giant story arc (which is Ricochet 2) you might get to a point where you're saying "something is surprising us in a positive way" and "something is surprising us in a negative way."
SDC asked Gabe if Valve's fluid "work on what you want" approach to management style (captured nicely by the Valve employee handbook that surfaced over the weekend) has caused people to move away from the project to work on other things.
"No," he said. "Everyone who's working on Ricochet 2 continues to work on Ricochet 2."
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - firstname.lastname@example.org (Alec Meer)
The appearance of Valve’s Gabe Newell on the inaugral Seven Day Cooldown podcast seems to have generated all the headlines in the world. Apple’s new boss didn’t really visit Valve, DOTA2 will use a brand new kind of free-to-play and, now, why ‘Ricochet 2′ has been so long coming. There is, I’m afraid, absolutely no way that ‘Ricochet 2′ is a veiled term for another game rather than a sequel to weirdo Tron-like jumpy multiplayer mod Ricochet. And doubly-definitely not a game that might have a ‘Half’ in the title. No sirree. (more…)
The Internet is often a place for things that don't belong on it. Things like a 56-page internal manual written for the people that work at the most private gaming company in the world.
Yep, you can read that now. What appears to be Valve's 2012 Employee Handbook has crept onto the web, and it's just as insightful to read as that incredible blog by Michael Abrash from last week.
It's a rare, detailed self-description of the company that includes mantras like "We are all stewards of our long-term relationship with our customers," policies like "Nobody has ever been fired at Valve for making a mistake. It wouldn't make sense for us to operate that way," and expressions of Valve's independence that include "Fortunately, we don’t have to make growth decisions based on any external pressures—only our own business goals."
Click inside to see the handbook.
The document is also filled with custom illustrations. And at least one Half-Life 3 logo. Sections of special interest include the entries:
"What is Valve not good at?" (p. 52)
"How does Valve decide what to work on?" (p. 13)
"But what if we ALL screw up?" (p. 23)
The handbook (PDF) was originally found here. A bottom-page watermark claims "handbook courtesy Valve." Well, duh. I've uploaded a copy to our server that you can read here.
I've never played as a black video game character who's made me feel like he was cool. Worse yet, I've never played a black video game character who made me feel like I was cool. Instead, I've groaned and rolled my eyes at a parade of experiences that continue to tell me video games just don't get black people.
The faces that look like mine that I've encountered in video games have been, at best, too inconsequential to be memorable and offensively tone-deaf at worst. What about Barrett from Final Fantasy VII or Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII, you might ask? Or Cole Train from the Gears of War games? Wait, there's Sheva from Resident Evil 5, right? No, no and no. Too many elements of caricature in each, I'd say, and they're all sidekicks. Their stories aren't the focus of the adventure players go on.
But, hey, it's a given that video games tend to present exaggerated characters. Marcus Fenix isn't like any white guy I've ever met, after all. But he doesn't have to be. For every Marcus Fenix-type grunt hero, you can also get a witty Nathan Drake, a charming Ezio or a regretful John Marston. Enough white characters exist in video games for a variability of approach. That's simply not true of black characters.
In creating Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance, Valve gave players a woman who was feisty and fragile at the same time. Alyx ranks amongst the best black game characters of all time, but she's another sidekick. C.J. from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas comes closest to this pie-in-the-sky ideal I'm dreaming of. C.J. managed to hold a core contradiction inside of himself—an intense love of family balanced against the violence of thug life—that added depth to his characterization. And while he was the lead of the game he starred in, he was still a gang member. Rockstar found interesting things to do with him but C.J. still comes into being by virtue of another overused stereotype.
Does this stuff matter in video games? Yes. The thing to remember is that beneath all the comforting platitudes about a character's color not mattering lies a sticky web of stereotypes and cheap myths that can still insult and anger people playing a game. Even if I wanted to like Sam B from Dead Island, for example, I'm still running up against the fact that he's a hot-tempered thug rapper.
Stop leaning on this stereotype. Stop creating loud black soldiers who only know how to yell. Stop putting spear-carrying primitives in games.
What I want, basically, is Black Cool. It's a kind of cool that improvises around all the random stereotypes and facile understandings of black people that have accrued over centuries and subverts them. Black Cool says "I know what you might think about me, but I'm going to flip it." Dave Chappelle's comedy is Black Cool. Donald Glover is Black Cool. Aisha Tyler is Black Cool. Marvel Comics's Black Panther character is Black Cool. Their creativity is the energy I want video games to tap into.
There's a book about it. In the anthology Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, author Rebecca Walker assembles a crop of personal essays that talk about how Black Cool manifested in their lives. One of those writers is Mat Johnson, a professor in the University of Houston's creative writing program. Johnson's like me, a lifelong comics-reading, game-loving geek who continues to bump into jarring, awful portrayals of black people in video games.
"I played Dead Island when it came out last year and there's a point when you get the Natives Camp area. I was like, ‘Oh, OK, we're going to have an African-style primitive out here,'" he told me. "The bizarre thing is that the stereotypes you encounter in the games don't even match up timewise with our current culture. That's what's so odd about it. The mainstream culture at large has moved beyond the trope of the black primitive. You can't get away with that kind of thing in a movie."
Johnson's written prose along with graphic novels and when he compares video games' racial awareness to comic and he says "comics had a much more concerted effort to change images of minorities in the work. And part of that was a market-driven concern." There's a difference of scale, too, he continues. "If comics can access another 5,000 or 10,000 in their possible audience, it has a huge impact. Whereas video games have become a mass market phenomenon that have an even bigger scope than movies. So they're not as worried about minority concerns as comics are."
The importance of seeing a face that looks like yours when stepping into a fictional universe can't be overstated. I'm a big Superman fan, but it was DC Comics' Black Lightning that piqued my interest when I was growing up. Every black superhero face I saw growing up was another signpost that said "Hey, you're welcome here. You can be larger-than-life, too." The absence of such characters doesn't make fictional constructs hostile; it makes them indifferent, which can be far worse.
"Another difference with games is that, as a medium, they're about invoking our fears so that we can overcome them," Johnson speculates. "I think that's what happens in both Resident Evil 5 and also Dead Island. They're not just invoking fear of zombies, they are invoking fear of blackness, and offering the gamer an opportunity to challenge their racial fears as well as their other fears. What you're seeing here is a subconscious action. And the reason it becomes clear because it's not in one game, it's in several different games."
Stop creating loud black soldiers who only know how to yell.
"There have been exceptions in games like Left 4 Dead," Johnson observes, "where you have an actual black nerd character in the game." "I honestly think the move away from this going to be generational, when it's so easy to produce a 3D video game that it's the equivalent of shooting a movie today with a digital camera. But, until then, when I see a game that clearly walks right into a racial dead-end, I know I'm seeing a room of developers talking out a story with not one black person, not one Latino person of power in that room. So I think the single biggest thing that many of these companies could do to make sure that they are being representative of the larger culture's ethos, would be to hire in a diverse way."
"It's not a question of [developers and publishers] pushing culture forward," Johnson said. "It's a question of them catching up to mainstream culture. Part of it, I think again, is market success. They haven't had to worry about that at this point, because they're still going to sell a ton of games if the basic gameplay is good. But being better about black characters and characters of other races would make the overall quality better, too."
In other mediums and creative pursuits, there've been the black people who pivoted the conversations, expanded the possibilities and deepened the portrayals about what black people are. In jazz, it was Charlie Parker. In literature, it was Ralph Ellison. In comics, I'd argue that it was Christopher Priest, followed by Dwayne McDuffie. For me, the work of the deceased McDuffie managed to create characters that communicated an easily approachable vein of black cool.
Video games need this kind of paradigm-shifting figure. Not an exec, mind you—sorry, Reggie—but a creative face who steers the ethos of a game. For example, you know what kind of game a Warren Spector or a Jenova Chen is going to deliver. With Spector, it's a game that'll spawn consequences from player action. With Chen, you'll get experiences that try to expand the emotional palette of the video game medium. I want someone to carry that flag for blackness, to tap into it as a well of ideas.
Blackness can be a sort of performance, a lifetime role informed by the ideas of how people see you and how you want to be seen. One thing I've heard over the years is some variation of the colorblind testimonial: "I don't see a black guy when I look at you. I just see you." Well, if you're not seeing a black guy, then you're not seeing all of me. And if you're seeing just a black guy, you're not seeing all of me in that instance either.
I'm not naïve: no one's going to buy a video game because it's less wince-worthy on matters of race or diversity. But, maybe if Black Cool found its way into video games, I wouldn't have to hear the word "nigger" during online multiplayer sessions so much. Or maybe I wouldn't have to listen to characters that sound like 18th-Century minstrels in cyberpunk games.
While I'm sick of video games stumbling around the same ol' stereotypes and being afraid of black lead characters—"they won't sell!," cries the panicked logic— I'm not going to love Starhawk or Prototype 2 more because they have black lead characters. But if Emmett Graves and James Heller tap into some kind of deeper, more surprising portrayal than Standard Gruff Black Guy #29 and feel more human as a result, I'd feel better about the creative possibilities of video games.
Any mode of creativity that wants to be called mature needs to grapple with the sociopolitical issues of its time and place, especially if it wants to hold onto future generations. If it doesn't, then said medium just remains stuck in its own adolescence. When it comes to the examining the realities of how race can be lived in the world, movies, books and TV all do it. I'm not saying video games won't or can't, but damn if it's not a long time coming. Getting black characters who don't make me grit my teeth would be a great sign that video games are growing up.
And you thought it was some giant building in Dubai. Nope. According to measurements converted from in-game models ad referenced for scale, City 17's own Citadel, constructed by the Combine, easily takes the cake.
Standing at 8430 feet tall, the Citadel easily, ahem, towers over the competition, Dubai's Burj Khalifa only managing to get 2723 feet off the ground (note: the image above is in metres).
Before anyone complains about the tense used in this post, let's assume there are people here who haven't played Half-Life 2's episodes.
We've seen some impressive fan-made Portal guns in the past, but they've been rare, costly one-off projects. Valve are giving us the chance to get hold of our own Aperture Science Handheld Portal Devices without having to burn ourselves horribly putting together an injection mould. Joystiq mention that, at Valve's request, toy manufacturers, NECA have put together a life-sized Portal gun. It'll hit the shops this summer with a $130 price tag attached.
There will be lights and those lights will change colour, but will it make the "pwung" noise? There's only one way to find out, and that's to buy at least five. Perhaps ten. Maybe more. More. MORE.
NECA will also be releasing a line of Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life action figures, a few of which were shown off at the NYC Toy Fair. The Team Fortress 2 wiki has a snap of the new figures, you'll find that below along with a few shots of that Portal gun. Baggsy the Heavy.
German artist Daniel Ritthanondh is the man to thank for this Half-Life-inspired lamp, which will simultaneously light up your room and darken your dreams.
As big a Half-Life fan as I am, I could not own this. Wherever it went, I couldn't walk under it. Ever. That or I'd come home one day and creep up on it, shooting at it until it coughed up a human skull and giblets all over my living room floor. Which would just be too messy.