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  • Adam Engels On Black Mesa, Remote Work, And Game Design

    [05.19.20]
    - Oleg Nesterenko

  • It must have been quite a journey for you. Graduating from being a Half-Life fan to actually working on the franchise. How did your perception of Half-Life change when you started poking under its hood as a developer?

    It took me a long time to figure out what made Half-Life stand out to me, and to figure out what made it one of my favorite games. It is set apart from any other titles in the FPS genre by its elaborate world building, and connected linear story. Starting with the Inbound tram ride, the setting is established and Black Mesa feels like a real facility. Nothing has gone horribly wrong yet (apart from a myriad of OSHA violations). There are no bad guys, you are not enroute to cleaning up someone else's mess; it is just a normal day at work in the sprawling Black Mesa complex.

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    From there you, the player, cause the inciting incident. You, the player, travel through a series of CONNECTED levels to the game's climax. This is something few games in the genre do to this day. It is massively important to connect the player to the world and give them a reason to care about the outcome of the story.

    What about the game's weaknesses?

    A lot of the weaknesses of Half-Life were fixed in the new Source engine. The shooting and movement were greatly improved (or maybe "modernized" would be a better term), and we just had to utilize it and tweak it to reflect the original Half-Life. The first game being dated (even by 2004 standards) required us to extrapolate or make up large sections of architecture or machinery to make the world feel more realistic, and to fit the standards of the new engine. We expanded on parts we felt were too simple, and cut out parts that felt dated or confusing.

    Then there is Xen, which I think we can all safely say we underestimated. It is one thing to say "Xen was not my favorite part of Half-Life" and another thing to say "OK how do we make Xen better?"

    To figure it out, you had to learn from Half-Life 2.

    The strength of Half-Life 2 was its massive evolution in design. It is also a notable jump in technology. I distinctly remember being blown away by the graphics presentations Valve was putting on before release.

    I think for its time, Half-Life 2 represents about as close to a perfect game as you can get. There wasn't much they could do better with the tech at the time.

    One of the biggest challenges we had sticking to the Half-Life 2/Valve philosophy was not having cutscenes or tutorials. Got a cool game idea? OK how do you teach it to the player without breaking the 4th wall, and in the Xen chapters, without someone telling you how to use it?

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    You said you tried to stick to Half-Life 2/Valve game design philosophy.

    Yeah. Our guiding rule was "How would Valve make Half-Life if they made it today."

    What are the pillars of that philosophy?

    Valve themselves may have a different take on it, but OUR interpretation is you introduce a mechanic to the player, you teach them how to use it, then you test them on using it.

    A simple example of this is right at the start of Xen. We had to account for someone loading straight into the chapter, so we first have you long jump over a gap that, if you miss, you fall safely into the water below. That is the introduction. We then teach them how to use the long jump over a series of very easy jumps that are clearly signposted as "Here's where you go next." We then have the player make a very long jump onto a floating rock with no safety net, to test that they understand the core mechanic before they can move on and get to more and more advanced long jumping.

    They [Valve] are also not afraid to get a bit gamey with their mechanics. An example I like to use is in Episode 2, when you are driving around in the buggy from derelict house to derelict house fighting Hunters. They needed a way to tell the player "Hey you're done here, move on" so they flash the buggy's headlights on and off when you have accomplished your objective in that area. In the context of "realism" that makes no sense, but in the context of a game, it is critical to keeping the pace moving.

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