THE HALF-LIFE IS­SUE

Andy talks to the mak­ers of Black Mesa, and we cel­e­brate Half-Life2 in a five-part ret­ro­spec­tive.

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Andy Kelly

Eight years in the mak­ing, Black Mesa is fi­nally near­ing its re­lease. Ini­tially de­vel­oped by a pas­sion­ate team of hob­by­ist de­vel­op­ers, this re­make of the orig­i­nal Half-Life – fully backed by Valve – has bloomed into some­thing more am­bi­tious. With the help of Steam’s Early Ac­cess plat­form, the team has found it­self with the re­sources to re­make and over­haul the orig­i­nal’s con­tro­ver­sial Xen chap­ters, bring­ing them more in line with the qual­ity of the rest of the game. And when it’s done, this will be the best way to re­live the Black Mesa in­ci­dent. I spoke with project leader Adam En­gels about the in­cred­i­ble jour­ney so far. “The world of Half-Life is a de­tailed paint­ing, where the more you look, the more you see,” says En­gels, speak­ing on be­half of the Black Mesa team. “Even though all the events were scripted, it felt like you were af­fect­ing the world. You could find hid­den paths, make NPCs re­act to you.” It was, he says, the per­fect bal­ance of let­ting the player cre­ate their own ex­pe­ri­ences and “a sum­mer ac­tion movie”.

“I think a lot of peo­ple thought Half-Life: Source was go­ing to be an HD re­mas­ter,” he says. “In ac­tu­al­ity, it was a demon­stra­tion of how easy projects could be moved to the new Source engine.” As a re­sponse to this, two teams – Leak­free and Half-LIfe: Source Over­haul Project – de­cided to cre­ate their own re­makes around 2004. “But once they re­alised they were work­ing to­wards the same goal, they merged and started the ad­ven­ture that is now sim­ply called Black Mesa.”

To­day, Black Mesa is avail­able to buy on Steam, and I ask En­gels if the team ran into any le­gal trou­bles with Valve. “Nope,” he says. “Valve ac­tu­ally came to us to see if we wanted to sell the game and be­come an of­fi­cial li­censee to get ac­cess to the full game engine.” It was a big de­ci­sion, he says, but some­thing the team couldn’t refuse. “It gave us so much more re­sources to de­velop the game with.”

In Novem­ber 2015 the team even vis­ited Valve’s HQ in Belle­vue, Wash­ing­ton. “A num­ber of past and present de­vel­op­ers were able to make it,” says En­gels. “It’s hard to speak for ev­ery­one at Valve, but the com­pany must like us a lit­tle if it’s al­low­ing us

to do this project.” Not many game com­pa­nies would al­low some­thing like Black Mesa to ex­ist, let alone be sold on its own dis­tri­bu­tion plat­form. But the qual­ity, pol­ish and pas­sion of Black Mesa ob­vi­ously won Valve over.

Black Mesa is cur­rently in Early Ac­cess as the team works to com­plete the Xen chap­ters, a mas­sive over­haul of ar­guably the worst bit of the orig­i­nal Half-Life. “This en­abled us to ac­tu­ally go out and hire peo­ple, and ac­quire tal­ent we oth­er­wise wouldn’t have,” says En­gels. “We got a huge amount of tal­ent sim­ply by hav­ing a project peo­ple were ex­cited about, but hav­ing a bud­get let us seek out and hire spe­cific de­vel­op­ers.”

The Black Mesa team doesn’t work in one of­fice, which can make or­ches­trat­ing such a huge project dif­fi­cult. “We use chat pro­grams and on­line fo­rums,” says En­gels. “We try and use chat to work out spe­cific prob­lems, then use fo­rums to doc­u­ment what we talked about so we can re­fer to it later.” Time zones are one of the big­gest hur­dles for such a dis­con­nected team, and it’s ba­si­cally im­pos­si­ble to get ev­ery­one to­gether at once. “We try to sched­ule a few meet­ings or playtests where ev­ery­one can get in­volved. We’ve been us­ing Google Docs re­cently and they’ve been a huge help.”

En­gels thinks his­tory has been cru­eller to Xen than it de­serves. “I think the dis­like of those lev­els might have grown in our minds as time has gone on,” he says. “We see a lot of sup­port for the old Xen on our Steam fo­rums.” The con­sen­sus in the com­mu­nity, he adds, is that Valve ran out of time and wasn’t able to it­er­ate on the alien lev­els like they did with the rest of the game. “We can tell you from our own ex­pe­ri­ence that tak­ing your game to a new world is more chal­leng­ing than it looks on pa­per.”

The Black Mesa team’s main goal for Xen is adding the same level of world­build­ing seen else­where in Half-Life, while re­tain­ing its alien, oth­er­worldly feel. “Valve does a won­der­ful job of in­tro­duc­ing me­chan­ics, let­ting you get used to it, then us­ing that me­chanic in an un­ex­pected way,” says En­gels. “We’re not look­ing to rein­vent the game with our take on Xen, but it will be much more than just get key, open door.”

In the orig­i­nal game, what most re­fer to sim­ply as ‘Xen’ is ac­tu­ally five chap­ters: Xen, Gonarch’s Lair, In­ter­loper, Ni­hi­lanth and Endgame. They’re all be­ing re­made and ex­panded, and some sec­tions Valve had to cut out are be­ing rein­tro­duced. “We made the de­sign with these in mind,” says En­gels. “In the end we hope to have built a world that is bizarre but con­tigu­ous. We want the bor­der world to feel like a place that ex­ists, even if we hu­mans don’t have the ca­pac­ity to un­der­stand it.”

When Valve cre­ated Xen, tech­ni­cal and time lim­i­ta­tions had an im­pact on how it looked. “With the earth-based as­sets, even if they were su­per vague due to tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions, we at least had an idea of how Valve wanted them to look,” says En­gels. “But with Xen, we had lit­tle to go on. Even if we built a 1:1 replica of the old lev­els (which we haven’t), we still have to ask our­selves: how was this sup­posed to look?” It’s un­clear whether the planet was sup­posed to be as bar­ren as it is, or if Valve had in­tended it to be much more elab­o­rate and de­tailed.

“Our big­gest chal­lenge has been de­sign­ing the Xe­nian tech­nol­ogy,” says En­gels. “It’s both me­chan­i­cal and or­ganic, which is a dif­fi­cult bal­ance to strike. Our team is tal­ented, but it’s vastly dif­fer­ent to mod­ernise hall­ways than to cre­ate an alien world com­pletely from scratch.”

As for the Black Mesa fa­cil­ity it­self, the team went above and be­yond merely re­mak­ing the ex­ist­ing lev­els. “I think you could ar­gue that the main char­ac­ter in Half-Life is Black Mesa it­self,” says En­gels. “We

“the main char­ac­ter in Half-Life is Black Mes a”

wanted to mod­ernise the game, so we had to re­ally dive into Half-Life 2 and the episodes to look at how they were de­signed.” The team adopted Valve’s phi­los­o­phy of cre­at­ing games that are “sim­ple on the sur­face but com­plex un­der the hood”.

Some ar­eas, par­tic­u­larly the dam in Sur­face Ten­sion, have been hugely ex­panded, feel­ing a lot more dra­matic than in the orig­i­nal. “We used real-world ref­er­ence to get things look­ing as re­al­is­tic as pos­si­ble, then built the game on top of that,” says En­gels. “When you make your way through Half-Life, what made it feel real was how the fa­cil­ity ex­isted be­yond what you could see. A sim­ple closet or the hint of a sprawl­ing com­plex through a win­dow was enough to cre­ate that il­lu­sion. And the Source engine re­ally helped us cap­i­talise on that in Black Mesa.”

But while Black Mesa largely re­mains loyal to the source ma­te­rial in spirit, the team did change quite a few things. “The big­gest ex­am­ple of what we changed was the chap­ter On a Rail,” says En­gels. “We made the player path much clearer at the ex­pense of hav­ing it feel a lot more lin­ear.” They also up­dated the game’s ar­chaic crouch-jump func­tion. “The player au­to­mat­i­cally crouches when they jump now, which makes it feel a bit more mod­ern. Crouch-jump­ing was cool back in 1998, but these days it feels overly com­pli­cated.”

When you play Black Mesa it’s re­mark­able to think that it’s a pas­sion project de­vel­oped by, at least ini­tially, a small team of vol­un­teers. I ask En­gels about the chal­lenges of work­ing on a project like this. “Com­mu­ni­ca­tion has his­tor­i­cally been a big chal­lenge for us,” he says. “De­vel­op­ers can feel pretty iso­lated. If the whole team has their heads down, work­ing away on their tasks, de­spite the fact a large amount of work is be­ing done, you have no idea un­less they make a post about it or dis­cuss it in the chat.” Shar­ing work takes time, he says, but is ul­ti­mately worth it to keep the team mo­ti­vated.

“And let’s be hon­est,” he adds. “Dead­lines are a huge chal­lenge for the team, too. Tran­si­tion­ing from a team of vol­un­teers to a team work­ing on an Early Ac­cess project, with a re­spon­si­bil­ity to the cus­tomers who spent money on it, is a re­ally big com­mit­ment.” En­gels also men­tions that, be­cause peo­ple with skills spe­cific to the Source engine are get­ting rare these days, it’s be­com­ing more of a strug­gle to re­cruit peo­ple. But the team gets by. “Some­times we’ll go out and find de­vel­op­ers we like or post a job open­ing, but of­ten they’ll con­tact us and their re­sumes will be so good we can’t say no.”

Au­dio is an­other area Black Mesa ex­cels in, with pro­fes­sional sound, mu­sic and act­ing. The voices, par­tic­u­larly that of the sci­en­tists and ‘Bar­ney’ are im­pres­sively close to the orig­i­nal game. “We had some au­di­tions in 2006 where we found Mike Hil­lard for the sci­en­tists and Kevin Sisk for the se­cu­rity guards,” says En­gels. “Au­dio is of­ten un­der­val­ued in projects and we were su­per thank­ful to find peo­ple who

“Our co mmu­nity con­tin­ues to as­tound me”

not only sounded like the orig­i­nals, but re­ally took the au­dio por­tion of the project onto their shoul­ders.” En­gels sin­gles out com­poser Joel Nielsen for his mu­sic and work on the game’s au­dio. “He de­serves a lot of credit for all the work he did on the mu­sic and sound ef­fects.”

Over the years, Black Mesa has at­tracted a lot of at­ten­tion, and a large, vo­cal com­mu­nity has grown around it. Xen has been de­layed a few times as the team strives to make it the best it can be, and while some have re­acted badly to this, most peo­ple have been sur­pris­ingly en­cour­ag­ing. “Our com­mu­nity con­tin­ues to as­tound me,” says En­gels. “Through re­leases and up­dates we get great feed­back. It’s a large-scale test­ing ef­fort that we just wouldn’t be able to do oth­er­wise and it is in­sanely valu­able.”

En­gels has been work­ing on Black Mesa for close to 11 years now, and it’s been a large part of his life. “It’s easy to get iso­lated in devel­op­ment and it can be hard to stay mo­ti­vated. But com­ments that say some­thing like, ‘I love your work, keep go­ing!’ are life-savers. The on­line world can seem like it wants ev­ery­one to fail, and to have a com­mu­nity that wants us to suc­ceed… well, we never take it for granted.”

For some­one so in­vested in Half-Life, I won­der what En­gels feels about the third game. “Per­son­ally, I’m not ea­ger for Half-Life 3, but nor do I want it to fade away,” he says. “So much an­tic­i­pa­tion has been built up that it couldn’t come close to liv­ing up to it. I’d love to see more games in the Half-Life uni­verse, even if the ti­tle doesn’t con­tain the num­ber three. I’d love to see Valve, or an­other de­vel­oper, take it on.” Black Mesa is due to leave Early Ac­cess, com­plete with the over­hauled Xen lev­els, in De­cem­ber this year. It’s been a long road for the team, but the qual­ity of the fin­ished prod­uct will hope­fully make all that ef­fort worth it.

36

ABOVE: All your favourite clas­sic Half-Life weapons re­turn in Black­Mesa, but with mas­sively im­proved sound and vis­ual ef­fects.

BOT­TOM: Isaac Kleiner from Half-Life2 shows up, look­ing a lot younger than when we last met him in City 17.

RIGHT: The Black Mesa fa­cil­ity en­trance looks in­cred­i­ble, and is much more dra­matic than the se­quence in the orig­i­nal.

BE­LOW: Con­cept art pro­duced by the Black­Mesa team in or­der to fig­ure out what Xen would ul­ti­mately look like.

BOT­TOM: The ex­te­rior of the Black Mesa fa­cil­ity has some gor­geous views of the sur­round­ing New Mex­ico desert.

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