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World War Z developer Saber Interactive has dipped its toe into quite a few series, including Halo and Quake, and it looks like it also tried to add Half-Life to the list, asking Valve if it could remake Half-Life 2.
"After we did Halo Anniversary and Halo 2 Anniversary, as part of the Master Chief Collection, I reached out to Gabe Newell personally, because I knew him from a past life, and I said I want to remake Half-Life 2," Saber's CEO Matthew Karch told Game Watcher. "That's all I want to do. I won't charge you anything for it. I'll do it for rev-share and doesn't even need to be a big rev-share. I just really want to do because I love that game so much."
Newell declined the offer and told Karch that, in the event a Half-Life 2 remake was on the cards, it would be developed internally. That's not been Valve's position previously, with the first Half-Life getting the remake treatment, and even a Xen expansion, in the form of Black Mesa. The difference is that it started out as a mod, though the distinction has been blurred by it being sold on Steam Early Access.
While Newell's response isn't an indication that Valve has any plans to remake Half-Life 2, modders have made plenty of demos, Unreal recreations and even a Half-Life 2 remake for the original Half-Life.
Predicting what Valve is and isn't going to do is a losing game, even with reliable information, so I'm giving myself a 1 percent chance of getting this completely right.
Valve is going to reveal the specs of its VR headset, the Valve Index, very soon, and we have good reason to believe it'll reveal some VR games along with it—one of which is rumored to be a Half-Life game.
Valve told me on April 1 that it was "targeting May 1st for pre orders and a full announcement" of the Valve Index. That plan may have changed (especially because the Borderlands 3 gameplay reveal is also happening this week), but the announcement will probably happen soon, because Valve also told me that it wants to start shipping hardware in June. I've asked Valve if this Wednesday is still the big day, and will update this post if I hear back.
We also know for sure that Valve has been working on three VR games, which Gabe Newell described as full-sized games (as opposed to tech demo-like projects such as The Lab) in February 2017. "We think we can make three big VR games," Newell said at the time. "We think that we know enough now to do that, and we're going to find out if that’s the case. We're pretty sure that all the other game developers are going to learn positive or negative lessons from what we do, which is sort of where we have to be right now."
Valve didn't tell me whether or not it's going to announce any of those games when pre-orders for the Index open up, but that seems like the obvious move. I'd be surprised if one or more weren't bundled with the headset to drive sales.
Now for the Half-Life part of it: In November of last year, a source told UploadVR that one of the three upcoming Valve VR games is a Half-Life prequel. At the same time, UploadVR's sources confirmed that leaked images of the Valve Index were the real deal, and that turned out to be true. The photos from November 2018 look just like the actual hardware that was revealed earlier this month.
Additionally, Valve News Network reported in March that "hlvr" and references to a shotgun appear in a Dota 2 update. Valve game files are full of references to other games, and that doesn't always mean anything, but it does strengthen the credibility of UploadVR's report from last year.
To recap, here's what we know for sure:
And here's what we're speculating about:
As always with Valve, there's a small chance it does what all signs suggest it's going to do, and a much bigger chance it throws us a curveball at 5 pm on a Friday evening—but I'm certain that I'm at least partially right about all this.
We'll be keeping an eye on the Valve Index Steam page this Wednesday to see if anything happens, whether it includes Half-Life or not.
The Mobility Mod adds wall-running straight out of Titanfall 2 to Half-Life 2. With it, you can even kill enemies by jumping on their heads.
While a version of the Mobility Mod has been around for a while now, the modder behind it has now released a v2 that is also compatible with both of Half-Life 2's episodic follow-ups. Among the changes are new melee controls, so you can perform rocket-boosted surge attacks and multi-target crowbar slashes. Using the surge attack in the air will even let you fly, at least for a moment.
You can download v2 of the Mobility Mod from ModDB.
I m not sure anyone at Respawn has properly busted their ass on the curb. It hurts. The last time I cracked my rear off the concrete in a moment of skating hubris, I was limping for days. Fortunately for the fifty million folks flying around in Apex Legends, a billowing cushion of air has turned what should be an embarrassing accident into the most compelling movement skill in years. There are, uh, a few> battle royale games. And each one has had to find its identity to stand out. PUBG has its impossibly large open fields and tense sniper standoffs. Fortnite requires you be a Minecraft building savant to change the level around you during battle. In Apex Legends, though? It s all about that need for speed.
A calamitous crossing of worlds has occurred in Two Point Hospital, the spiritual successor to Bullfrog’s Theme Hospital, with Half-Life headcrabs glomping onto heads and all manner of decorative doodads from Sega PC games scattering around hospitals. If you’ve not yet played the wacky hospital management sim, hey, you’re invited to try the whole thing for free this weekend on Steam. The trial weekend has just started, so hop to it. Well, don’t hop if you’re suffering from Hurty Leg, Premature Mummification, Night Fever, Lazy Bones, or Mucky Feet, in which case the doctor will see you now.
We're digging into the PC Gamer magazine archives to publish pieces from years gone by. This article was originally published in PC Gamer UK 2005, and you can find more classic pieces here. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.
Great games don’t just appear. They’re moulded and shaped over years. Millions of man-hours are poured into their development. To create even a mediocre game is a massive technological and artistic challenge. To create one of the finest games of all time, one that demonstrates everything this entertainment medium can achieve, to rise head and shoulders above your peers... that takes genius.
Right now, three of those geniuses are sitting across the vast table that dominates Valve’s Seattle boardroom. Marc Laidlaw, Valve’s in-house writer. Bill Van Buren, a producer and designer. Bill Fletcher, senior animator, formerly of Disney. These three quiet, understated men are nothing less than magicians, responsible for bringing to life virtual characters, and at the same time satisfying players who just want to break things. The walls are covered in testaments to their skills: magazine covers, box-art, countless awards and trophies, and trinkets sent in by their legions of fans. The whiteboard behind us is bursting with arcane scribbles: profiles, plans for the future. They can wait.
We have other questions to deal with. What makes Alyx tick? Why does Dr Kleiner keep a pet headcrab? How did Valve bring these virtual people to life? These are all important questions. First though, we need to clear up something about a scientist’s beard.
PCG: I’ve just noticed, Marc, that your beard is an exact replica of Gordon’s.
Marc Laidlaw: Oh, er. It came from...
Bill Van Buren: Actually, the beard is from another member of staff. Gordon’s actually a morph of four or five Valve employees.
ML: Yeah. He’s the average dad developer.
He’s certainly an unconventional game hero. The biceps aren’t there, he doesn’t have rippling pecs, he even wears glasses.
ML: Imagine what he looks like when the suit comes off. He’s probably just about 90 pounds. It’s all exoskeleton and suit support.
Yet when a player enters Half-Life, you’re asking them to take on that role. I wondered, Marc, if in your writing, Gordon has a voice or some kind of internal dialogue.
ML: Not really. Gordon’s just the narrative conduit. I’m interested in everything else. What does all that say to the player? If you’re just a pair of eyes looking into a scene, how do we let the rest of the world tell you they know you’re there, or that they’ve been thinking about you, while you’ve been gone? There have to be hooks—they have to glance at you, occasionally. My favourite is the final scene, where Mossman is talking to Breen, and Breen is looking at you, he rolls his eyes. That’s clearly for your benefit.
I’m guessing that beneath all the storytelling you do, a lot of your work is in choreography... I don’t think anyone really talks about what’s a great ‘choreographed moment’ in a game. When you’ve got an idea for a great scripted moment, how do you begin working it into the game. Maybe you could describe how the teleporter scene in Half-Life 2 came to be?
ML: Well, we started talking about that scene many, many years ago. We always knew we wanted to do a parallel to the teleport disaster in the first game. Originally it was going to be Doctor Kleiner and Barney—you weren’t going to meet Alyx until much later on. Through our process of figuring out how and where we were going to introduce characters to the game, we realised we should bring her forward, into that scene, so you would meet her in the context of characters who you were familiar with. We could make it feel like “Oh, I’m back with old friends, she’s one of their friends, so she must be good, she’s one of my friends, too.” That just created an instant bond with the player.
That scene is all about setting up expectations. It’s very different from the first game, where you didn’t know what was going on. This time every player expected to jump into a teleporter. We set up the idea that something good could happen this time. We’d let Alyx get ahead of you, you see everything that you’re about to do. From the first-person point of view it’s hard to picture yourself in context. When you let someone else do it you have a good mental image of you getting in the teleporter, you know what to expect. Again, playing with people’s expectations.
As for drama, we knew we had to do some suit training, we had to re-introduce the characters somehow. But also, one of the important things was “we want to build characters”, and “we wanted to build other details in to the game”. We wanted to create something you hadn’t seen in a game: a family. We wanted to do a stepmother-daughter uneasiness. Then there’s the non-essential stuff—like the thing with Kleiner, Lamar and Barney. The more of these details we put in, the more real characters feel. They have a life that extends outside the boundaries of the scene, and the game. You get this feeling that “they know each other, they have history”.
BVB: This is all about emphasising the importance of other characters. We wanted to make the point that you’re not going to save the world alone. You’re a catalyst, you’re important, but other characters are setting up the scene. The goal isn’t just to liberate the world, or even to liberate you, originally it’s just to get Eli, the father of this girl who puts trust in you. You can’t do that alone. You need to work with the other people in this world. If you want to do something big, you need to have other people working with you.
ML: In Half-Life, things happen because you show up. We don’t have you turn up, as the thing starts. We have you show up, and the thing begins as the result of you showing up. You’re the first domino that knocks all the other dominos over. What we do is let you arrive, walk around, see a bunch of dominos, you push on them, and they fall. That’s what we like to do.
Marc, you were a published author before you came to Valve. Did you have to adapt your writing style to work in games?
ML: From a writing perspective, everything you want to reveal about characters should come through dialogue. It’s not like there was a bunch of backstory about the characters we wanted to deliver. We knew the characters, we knew a bit about their history, we wanted to make sure that when they were talking, they were referring to this whole backlog of things that have gone before, that they don’t have to explain to one another, just like if you walk into a room where two people who’ve known each other for a long time are talking. They wouldn’t spend any time at all talking about the stuff they already know. But you’d pick up a lot about their relationship just by watching them interact. That was the dramatic thing we wanted to aim for. But that’s not any different to how the scene would be laid out in a movie or a book.
But surely the demands are different. You’re going to be writing to fit the game, aren’t you?
ML: Yeah. Things change in the course of building the game. We’d cut a level, and that would alter a relationship.
Is it always that direction? Are you always writing the story to service the level design? Are you just fitting the story together?
ML: Yeah, that’s part of my job. We’re all interdependent. They might make a decision from a level design point of view, and it’s more like a fun challenge. “How can we do without that plot point? What does that afford us? Now that we don’t have to do this piece, what can we do instead?” Usually I end up with two pieces that are not connected, but right up next to each other and I have to think of a way of linking them. But you see this really, really obvious connection, that was there the whole time. Then you organise around that.
That could have an odd effect. We eliminated the guy who was supposed to be Alyx’s father, and suddenly that changed the whole balance of the cast. Originally, Alyx was a go-between for rebel forces, she was can-do, rugged and tough. Her father was an army general who’d been caught, and planted into a Combine installation. In the end we cut the Combine installation, losing him. We felt this was one character too many; we had a bunch of older men characters who started to feel kind of similar. At some point, I went “I don’t think we need this Captain Vance, it’ll be one less character to worry about.” We weren’t giving enough development to the characters we had.
As we did that, for a little while Alyx was on her own, just floating over here. Meanwhile, we had Eli, here on the other side of the table, unconnected. We just pushed them together, saying “Ooh. We think they’re related.”
Did that cause any conflicts?
ML: It wasn’t like there was big resistance to it. Everybody just went... oh.. yeah, OK, this really helps us. We rewrote her story, basically just filling in gaps we weren’t happy with anyway. If we had her be the daughter of any other character, that would have introduced a lot more complications, whereas, when you meet her as Eli’s daughter, then you instantly understand her connection with Black Mesa, and to you as the player. All those connections are shorthand—they help us in not having to explain a lot of stuff, in the background. That means we can spend the time in our scenes just doing the really direct, emotional thing.
So now you have the script. What happens next?
ML: The script represents things we want to accomplish with the story, and the stuff that the animators, that Bill, wants to get across and spend time animating. This is really abstract, but while this level is being built, we have to roll it out. We have this problem of making a scene come about in a space in the game. That’s pure choreography.
BVB: We actually have a choreography team, that’s what we call them internally, who deal with a character’s audio, animation, acting and scene design. A feature of the way we work is that the scene is constantly coming into focus. We have such an adaptive process, some of it is even collage-like. The more information you get into it, whether it’s the script, the acting sessions, the effects or the animation, the better it is.
We’ll have very good character profiles that inform the script, then some people will take that and bang on it. Marc takes their suggestions and rolls them in, then we’ll go back and do a recording session. The actors then bring in a whole new different level of intelligence and interpretation to the stuff that has been written. With some direction, knowing how it’s supposed to be played in the game, we’ll come back and put it in the level. Then, even more changes happen... “This is too long, we can’t fit it here. We can’t afford this line... but, this line the person did was a much better take, we didn’t realise that in the studio.
Sometimes even lines come up that were accidents, they weren’t even intended to be used... They’re so well said that we grab them and put them into the scenes. Bill, driving the animation/visualisation, knows what he wants to do with them in terms of body language... so that takes it again to another level.
How do your voice actors react to giving ‘game’ performances. Are you after something different from what they’re used to?
ML: I think it’s probably like radio. It all has to be there in the voice. We do a bunch of alternate takes – “give me this performance as if you’re right next to me. Now do it like you’re 20 feet across the street.” One of the things they provide is a range of experiences that we can get back here to see what works. We can do mix and match... It’s not like we go into the studio and get the fullblown radio-play version of the thing. We have to bring it back here and cook it for a while. It’s like the mad scientist in the laboratory. We put all these performances into a pot, some of them bubble away, some of them explode, some of them do something you don’t really expect.
Bill Fletcher: We might be having a quiet, whispered line, but we need it to be heard from across the street, or right up close. We need the same line, but different projections. We look for a different type of voice than other people. We’re not after ‘voice talent’, we want actors. We’re not looking for a funny voice, or a sexy voice, we’re looking for someone who adds character behind the voice, to create someone that you believe in.
BVB: We’ve worked with some of the Half-Life guys before, like Mike Shapiro, and Al Robbins, who did Barney, Dr Kleiner, and the G-Man. But I think in general, we found that it was great at the beginning of the sessions, and each successive take continued to get better. We brought some knowledge about who the characters were, and what was happening in the game, they brought this great wealth of acting experience. It was a flexible, open partnership. We’d have different ideas and make suggestions, they’d do the same. For them, I think it was a great leap of faith. They didn’t have the other person who they were acting with there, they were in isolation, and most of them didn’t have much experience of games at all.
The moment that really stood out for me was when Alyx passes through the teleporter. You see her on the monitor: when she arrives, she gives Eli a little peck on the cheek. I’ve never seen that in a game... it just nails the relationship, and perfectly sets up the later jeopardy. I don’t think I’d ever seen such a kiss like that in a game before.
ML: That was when the scene really came to fruition. It wasn’t in the script. It was implicit in their relationship, but that visual language is not... like... I’ll do everything I can with the words, but I’m finding that we can actually cut lines because the acting and animation supports silence. That’s what I’m shooting for, to get stuff into the animators’ hands that lets them go even further. We know there’s affection between them, we build it up like scaffolding, but when you’re on top of that... A lot of the animation seems to be the extra one percent that tips it over. In that scene, the kiss seems really simple. Even to me, it came out of the meaning of the scene.
It sounds almost like you improvise the final touches. Is that fair? Is there room to improvise?
BF: Not really. It’s impossible to improvise because of the sheer amount of planning that has to go in. Every movement needs so much work.
ML: You know, it seems like improv to me, when I see it. It feels like the little nugget that we’re working toward the whole time. You’re not quite sure what you’re going to do, or how you’re going to pull it off, until all the pieces are in place. You don’t really know what you’re going to work with.
BF: One thing I’m always conscious of, is that Marc handles all the dialogue, storytelling, and all that but I’m thinking “what can I do with that dialogue”, or “what can I do between the dialogue”. I’ll look at each scene and say “OK, there’s got to be a couple of moments here that I have to create. The kiss was something I was thinking about, but didn’t put in until the very end. I knew we had to put in this physical contact between Eli and Alyx. The first time I went through the scene, I couldn’t get it quite the way I wanted. Toward the end of the project, I came back to it, and worked on it again. It seems a lot of people had exactly the same reaction you’re talking about.
You seem to embed a lot of details about characters into their bodies, not just in the writing or dialogue. Like, for instance, the way Alyx wears a battered old Black Mesa hoody.
BVB: When we start creating characters we have ‘character profiles’. Instead of designing them totally from drawings, we cast faces. We’ll look at photos, find people who we think would look like the character. That would draw them into focus. We’d make sketches about what their body types are... Alyx had a sketch before we cast the face, then we ran a big casting process for the voice, which again helped inform us about her as well.
ML: Really, it’s just a bunch of individuals thinking about the hard problems. The people that think the hardest about those are the artists – they’re the ones who came up with the Black Mesa hoody. It comes from being immersed in the world, wanting to do it right. I love it when stuff like that gets thrown up, though, because it’s recognition that we’re all inhabiting the same world. It’s almost like we were all at Black Mesa together, that we recognised that she would have a Black Mesa hoody. The level designers have that level of inventiveness, too, the same level of creativity when they’re working with their tools – you see each person’s contribution as “what’s the coolest thing I could do with the little piece I’m working on”.
When you’re working on a scene, do you use pre-visualisations? Do you storyboard? Lamar beating up Barney, for instance, must have needed a lot of preparation.
BF: We probably should use storyboard. Yeah.
BVB: Yeah. [laughing] That would really help.
BF: It’s just brainstorming, really. Then we just block it in, a bare-bones scene. It’s just characters walking around, hitting their marks, saying their lines, then walking off again. Then we slowly start adding things...
ML: The Lemar sequence started as a little idea in the script. We have a lot of those off-the-wall moments. When I bring them up, mostly people will just go “pfah,”, or they get this little look in their eyes, and they’ll start to do it. My instinct is, if no-one has any really strong misgivings about an idea, I’ll pursue it, until people finally accept it. I think the Lemar sequence happened that way. I had a crazy idea “What if Dr Kleiner had a pet headcrab?” It just seems like a silly idea, but if you keep repeating it and repeating it, when people start working on it, they buy into it. It would just never occur to them that he wouldn’t have a pet headcrab.
That would happen time and again: the little thing that you thought was crazy actually gets people excited. We’re not just building the game because you have to go from point A to point B. We’re building it because there’s fun little things you get to do on the way. The details, the non-essential stuff, is actually half the fun. Things we think would be cool, but we wouldn’t put them on the box. That’s the kind of thing I look for in a game. What’s the extra bit they did, that they didn’t have to do. That’s when you really see the personality behind the whole thing.
It sounds like you really enjoy what you’re doing.
ML: We’re having lots of fun doing this. If I were working on a Star Wars game, there’d be a bunch of in-jokes we could do, but it wouldn’t be as if you were creating the universe as you did them. You don’t get that creative buzz where we’re not just making jokes; we’re actually suggesting things about the world itself. I think that other games are kind of constrained in their inspiration because they’re given a story-Bible. Everyone here knows that if they have an idea that doesn’t quite fit the world, we can sit down and talk about it and adjust the world to make it work.
BVB: There’s a certain amount of empowerment that people here have. You’ve already heard the huge amount of influence everyone has over each part of the game. It’s not one person driving their vision. Do you remember coming down into Eli’s lab, seeing the Vortigaunt chefs? That’s an idea Dhabih Eng [One of Valve’s Senior Artists] had. That wouldn’t have made it into the game at any other company. It’s silly, our game’s supposed to be a scary game, but somehow, we have Vortigaunts in chef hats.
ML: Dhabih did the most amazing models you’ve never seen. We were watching him building this stuff, putting so much detail into something no one will ever see. But he’s so excited to be doing it. Even like a curmudgeon would look at it, and say “Normally, I’d say we shouldn’t be doing this. But this is so cool we have to keep it in the game.” Then we try not to draw attention to it, we just leave it there for people to discover.
I’ve noticed that you tend not to integrate storytelling and player action. It’s rare for the player to actually be able to interact with the scripted sequences. Is that a fair observation? Is it just ‘hard’.
ML: Yeah, it is. We can do it, but it requires involving more people in the development process. We do it in Nova Prospekt, when Mossman is putting Eli in the mechanical thing while all the doors are breaking down... We don’t want to do that in every scene, it’s complicated to pull off, and a high point. It has its place. But the gameplay has to be very, very solid. It is what we aim for, though, but those scenes are definitely the hardest to pull off. Compare that scene, which is just action, to the scene where Breen has you captive, and you’re basically just watching theatre. That’s something the level designers and animators could build entirely, without having to wonder “how strong is the gameplay going to have to be to support this?”
BVB: Gordon doesn’t talk, so the player can only participate by picking something up, hitting a button, turning something on, throwing something, shooting something, moving something, breaking something. We’re really taking a lot of that control. We try and keep hyperactive players interested with some little things, so they can bounce around, or look and play with certain toys. It’s funny how some people want to go into the scene and set up the perfect two-shot or three shot on every dialogue, and see exactly what’s happening. Other players just want to smack the characters and jump on their heads.
But there are scenes where it’s much more open, where it’s all about the gameplay, yet the characters interact with you. That’s certainly something we want to expand on, and go much deeper into, in future games that we do.
One of the interesting quirks of Half-Life is that you never actually complete the story. You never get to explain everything to the player. Why is that?
ML: Part of it is that we’re always creating the world, like we were saying before. Everyone wants to add something to the world. Because the technology changes all the time, and we want to take advantage of that, we don’t want to limit ourselves to hard statements about the world that, maybe a year down the road, we’re suddenly able to make playable, but we’ve screwed ourselves out of doing that because we cut ourselves off a year ago. It’s a function of the medium, I think. We don’t know what we might be able to do tomorrow.
The Seven Hour War, for instance, why show that when, say, in the future we could actually put you through this experience. In a sense, the world extends beyond the narrow limits of the game. It’s a fact of this medium we work in, that we don’t know what the territory is that we can reach next. It’s a function of this technology curve, new areas that are opening up right in front of us. We’re not creating it—we’re discovering it as we go.
BVB: It never occurred to us to stop and put some kind of expository section in the game, that we couldn’t actually support without the player experiencing it. That’s what we’re always trying to support, to keep you in the world. I think part of the fun is telling that story with the environment.
I thought you didn’t finish the world out of deliberate choice. That you wanted to preserve an air of mystery.
ML: More so with Half-Life than Half-Life 2. There is definitely a desire to make the game play out inside people’s heads when they leave their computer. A lot of the fans of the first game, kept wondering about it, telling themselves stories. I don’t mention it because it’s so much part of our mindset in the way we build these games. If we’re going to answer any question, we have to make sure we’re raising even more questions that are even more interesting.
How often do you play-test these scenes? Surely, as they develop, you become immune to their charms?
ML: The cinematic stuff is difficult. Usually, these scenes are a work-in-progress, so the feedback we get can be a little off. And play-testers will like all kinds of things which aren’t necessarily the point of the scene. They don’t like stuff that’s really important to get across. At the beginning of the game, for instance, we felt a lot of the combat started too soon. Play-testers loved it, because they had a gun in their hand, and they were already breaking stuff. It was hard to say, “we shouldn’t do this, yet” because the feedback was really positive. We thought it was too early.
We wanted the combat to start after meeting the couple who are being beaten up by the metrocops. For a while there was more before that, you’d go from instantly being in the lab, to beating up cops. We wanted you to witness the cops doing something horrible, and feel like what you were doing was a response to that—not that you were just a killing machine. Of course the play-testers are going to love this, but they don’t know what notes we’re going for.
You’re fighting against their urges, to an extent?
ML: We have to be extremely clear about what we want to achieve before we go in. We’re testing it to see if they can play the game without getting stuck. Not to see if they enjoy the combat.
BVB: No one ever says “Ohh, you know what. I’d love another emotional scene right here.”
ML: Exactly. People would have been happy just to be given a crowbar in Kleiner’s lab, so they could go around smashing glassware. But they wouldn’t have had the moment where Barney drops it to you. And a lot of people love that moment. We would have had great play-tests if Alyx had given you the crowbar as you enter the lab. But holding it back, holding it back... Players won’t say “Don’t give it to me, yet.” It’s about learning to have faith in the whole arc of the thing. We’re pacing it, holding back for the payoff.
I do adore that moment. It’s such an emotional moment, where you’re suddenly empowered.
ML: Yeah. It’s amazing how those little scenes have the big payoff. That’s one people mention over and over again. It’s the first time in a game, as far as I’m aware, that a character actually gives you a weapon. In the first game we wanted Barney to give you a shotgun, but we could never get it to work. It was like “Dammit, characters are going to hand you your weapons this time. You can either catch it, or it lands on the ground. We’ve been wanting this for years. We’re not leaving a weapon on the ground, ever again.
Bill, you came to Valve from Disney. Does working in an interactive environment offer a different kind of challenge?
BF: It’s a lot harder. In films, you have it all laid out for you. Everything is in there for specific reasons, you have close-ups, you have long-shots, we use them to tell the story. In this medium, we don’t have that to fall back on.
We have to make these characters live in this space. I can’t make my life easier and animate just in close-up. You have no idea how close the player is going to be, you could be trying to create a nice, quiet, tender moment but the camera is right across the other side of the room. Controlling the camera gives you so much more power over emotions. We’re not able to do that—what we try to do is draw you across and closer in, we do it so you feel you need to get in and close to the acting.
But you can’t just concentrate on the facial, like you would want to do in a traditional animation. You’ve got to work on the body-language, too. By the same token, you can’t have them bouncing around if the player is really close to them. You choose your battles. I try and keep it pretty low-key in the more emotional moments. It’s that much more gratifying, we’re creating a character, not a movie clip.
There’s something about your work, actually. It’s in the eyes. Sometimes, I swear Alyx fancies me. Are you playing tricks on me?
BF: I can’t say there are any basic techniques. It’s about making them feel natural. I have in my head a shy but very alluring pose.
ML: Characters in the scenes do really over the top, crazy stuff to pretty subtle, day to day ordinary interaction. There’s Father Gregori, who is really over the top and crazy. The more time you spend with a character the more you have to tone it down, though. It would drive you nuts if every time Alyx looked at you, she was leering in. I was really surprised to hear people get quite choked up when you go in the elevator. She’s looking at you going down, hands pressed against the glass. It’s what we were going for... I’m just amazed they responded.
BVB: I think, too, that Ken Birdwell, the guy who set up our character technology, did a lot of work on eyes. That was the first thing he really solved. I’ve never seen a situation where they’ve got the eyes so right it actually feels like they’re looking at you. There’s that thing about the eyes being the window into the soul—it’s true.
BF: Oh yeah. If the eyes are wrong, there’s nothing I can do to make that character feel like she’s looking at you, or she’s grateful to you. Without that, this would be impossible.
ML: It gives the illusion of reality.
BF: Yeah. They can look not quite at you, at something behind or around. They actually focus, too. As you get further, or closer to you, they’ll track and narrow their field of vision. Otherwise there’s this feeling that they’re always looking slightly past you. We’re so cued into eyes. We can project so much via them. We can project intention.
That attention to detail in Half-Life 2 still surprises me. Even now, I don’t think we’ve really seen a competitor to Half-Life, no one’s really attempted to take you on. Why is that?
ML: After Half-Life came out, people pushed on it a bit, but immediately ran away. You could see, in the beginning, there were a bunch of games like that, with scripted sequence events, but no one tried to roll it through the whole game. You quickly run into how hard it is. And, it requires a really limited set of constraints for your game. I mean, the way we do it only really works in this type of game. I mean, we have a mute character. As soon as you put some dialogue in there, if Gordon speaks, or has a conversation tree, or something like that... then you might as well blow all these limitations off, and explore a completely different kind of space. I just don’t think that unless you’re building a Half-Life game, it makes sense to do it exactly this way.
Maybe a lot of games could benefit from emphasis on more non-essential character development. The other thing is that Bill’s comment on scenes coming into focus gradually... that’s one of the problems I have with the way writers are usually used in the industry... where they come in at the beginning, or the end, and they leave, or they take a developer’s script and polish it up. They never get to do that process where the game is continually focused on. We have our eye on every part of the game throughout development, and story is just one part of that. The scenes get to be that good because we’re all focusing on a little bit every time. It’s not like I came to Valve twice, looked at the script, went away, came back... We all have access to each other.
BF: A lot of people don’t see the whole picture, of what it takes. They’ll say, “We want to do great characters, I guess we’ll do it with more polygons... Or we’ll get some famous voice to do it.” It takes so much more than that. It takes everything. It’s all about the good acting, the good animation, the good writing, the good voices, the good technology... it’s all those things.
ML: The usual idea is to want characters that you’d care about as much as you would in a movie, or a book. Then they’ll make a movie. They’ll try and imitate a movie, and do a cutscene, or a bunch of text, so it’s like a book. But the reason I came here was to make games. Having these things happen for the first time in a game is what’s really cool. A lot of the stuff that we play around with is cliché and generic in any other medium. But there’s a whole dimension of it in the game space that’s completely unexplored. We don’t want to make movies. We want to figure out how we do these things in a game.
BVB: There’s a huge barrier to entry, too. It accounts for why Half-Life 2 took so long to ship. We started on our character presentation systems in late ’99, early 2000. Creating the system so characters can address you wherever you are, and other characters wherever they are, blend smoothly into a scene where Bill wants to take total control over how they’re interacting with each other... it’s a massive amount of technology. It’s how they blend walking in different directions. It’s about how Bill makes someone act when they may, or may not be walking. We had to create the system here, then expose it in tools so animators could actually function. I’m so grateful that Gabe [Newell—Valve founder] and Ken Birdwell [Senior Software Engineer] made it a priority to create this technology, so we were able to author for it.
I have this pet theory, that games are the pinnacle of human achievement. They combine every form of media, and squeeze them into a kind of playable state.
ML: Yeah. One person can’t do very much. It’s so granular. That scared me about games, originally, and it still overwhelms me occasionally. If you’re building that world, you have to build it from the atom, up. You can’t just get an actor, record them in a studio. There are so many stages—every little thing in the game has been worked on by multiple people. Are they worth the effort?
BVB: Yeah, definitely.
ML: When I was a writer, I would look at this huge range of people who wrote books. There was this overwhelming thought of getting into Hollywood and working on movies, all these millions of people who’ve made movies, it’s hard to figure out where you’d go to do your thing, and be really distinctive, to go and make your mark. This is the frontier, the edge. By definition, everything we’re doing is pioneering. If you did that in writing, you’d just have no audience, because experimental tends to mean so obtuse that no one enjoys it. We get to experiment in this popular form of entertainment. We’re creating worlds that have never been seen before. That’s totally worth it.
Viktor Antonov hasn't built a world like this before.
The games you know him for are bounded and largely linear. Every tiny detail has been touched by a human hand in Half-Life 2's City 17 or Dishonored's Dunwall, striking virtual places which Antonov has helped colour with particular social histories and inscribed with visual techniques that quietly guide the player to the next checkpoint. That's also true of other games that he's been involved with over the past few years, such as Wolfenstein: The New Order, Prey and Doom, on which Antonov acted as visual design director.
But Project C, as the game is currently codenamed, is very different. "It's one of the most ambitious projects I've worked on and, I have to admit, a fairly difficult one for me," he says.
There is a saying in architecture that no building is unbuildable, only unbuilt. Structures may be impossible in the here and now, but have the potential to exist given enough time or technological development: a futuristic cityscape, a spacefaring megastructure, the ruins of an alien civilisation. However, there are also buildings that defy the physical laws of space. It is not an issue that they could not exist, but that they should not. Their forms bend and warp in unthinkable ways; dream-like structures that push spatial logic to its breaking point.
The Tomb of Porsena is a legendary monument built to house the body of an Etruscan king. 400 years after its construction, the Roman scholar Varro gave a detailed description of the ancient structure. A giant stone base rose 50 feet high, beneath it lay an "inextricable labyrinth", and atop it sat five pyramids. Above this was a brass sphere, four more pyramids, a platform and then a final five pyramids. The image painted by Varro, one of shapes stacked upon shapes, seems like a wild exaggeration. Despite this, Varro's fanciful description sparked the imaginations of countless architects over the centuries. The tomb was an enigma, and yet the difficulty in conceptualising it, and the vision behind it, was fascinating. On paper artists were free to realise its potential. If paper liberated minds, the screen can surely open up further possibilities. There's no shortage of visionary structures within the virtual spaces of video games. These are strange buildings that ask us to imagine worlds radically different to our own.
Whilst many impossible formulations are orientated towards the future, there are also plenty from the past. The castle in Ico is one example of this. During the Renaissance, Europe was obsessed, not with future utopias, but with ancient Greece and Rome. While the box art of Ico is famously inspired by Giorgio de Chirico, the long shadows and sun-bleached stone walls only make-up a portion of the game's mood. It is the etchings of Giovanni Piranesi that best capture what it's like to explore the castle's winding stairs and bridges. Piranesi's imaginary Roman reconstructions were absurdly big - so colossal you could get lost in just the foundations. In a similar way, Ico's castle is impossibly large, the camera zooming out in order to overwhelm you and build up the unfathomable mystery of its origin and purpose.
A wide-ranging Half-Life 2 mod called MMod, which has been in the works for nine years, is out now, and it reworks Valve shooter's visuals, gunplay and enemy AI.
Combat is the focus, and the mod adds new weapons, changes weapon handling, and introduces new animations. I'm a big fan of the new idle weapon animations that you can see in the trailer above: when stood still, Gordon Freeman will wipe the scope of his crossbow to clean smudges, or lovingly stroke his trusty rocket launcher.
As for new weapons, the video above shows that you can grab a turret and haul it around, spraying down enemies. You'll also be able to aim down sights on some weapons, such as the basic pistol.
The mod redesigns both the audio and visual effects, and tweaks the graphics in general. It certainly looks prettier than what I remember of the original—I like the new glowy eyes for the Combine soldiers—and particle effects are far flashier.
MMod also "hardens" the AI and gives the Combine new actions to perform, such as firing underslung grenade launchers.
It's already garnering praise over on its ModDB page, where you can download it. Make sure you have a clean install of Half-Life 2 and both Episodes 1 and 2, as well as the free community-made Half-Life 2: update, which the mod runs off.
Thanks, Dark Side of Gaming.