September 01st 2011

Nine years ago, Halfquake Amen began harassing victims, so I thought I'd use this moment and reflect on random trivia.

Back in the day, Half-Life mapping was a little more constrained than it is today. You had to watch your r_speeds, polygon counts of the textures, and overall framerate. After the first Halfquake, I wanted to do some larger outdoor areas and came up with the idea of stretching textures by 10 to 15 times of their original size to cut down on polygons, keep r_speeds low and the framerate happy. So I created a test map and threw in a bunch of transparent scientists.

I was quite happy with the result (and so was my friend Blackjack). The blurry texture style actually made it onto almost all of the walls in HQA, even for indoor areas. I'm not entirely sure why I chose to do that, probably because I liked how a small texture lost its noticeable repetition when blown up this big. In HQS I tended to do quite the opposite. I increased the texture size to something like 320x320 (instead of regular dimensions like 32x32 or 64x64) and actually splashed them onto the walls at half their actual size to make them appear slightly sharper. If players had a flashlight in HQS, the light would always look a tad bit too small on the walls. On the other hand, in HQA your flashlight would light up half of the map if you pointed them at those stretched textures. Explosions and the charging up sequence of the alien slaves would always do that, in fact.

(If you feel like checking that out real quick, fire up HQA multiplayer, create a LAN game on hq2_ambience with flashlight turned on in the advanced options, flick that flashlight switch and notice how the whole floor gets brighter, especially in the School of Sadism.)

There were other tests as well, for example the black and white pillars started out as a test map before I actually included it. I don't clearly remember how I got the idea to use such a texture, but it might have to do something with the training area of System Shock 2.

Which also looks similar to the Star Treck holodeck and I used to watch the series back then. The ending of Half-Life actually had white lines passing the tram, surrounded by absolute darkness - that may have inspired me subconsciously as well.

The initial inspiration for the black and white surroundings was of course that one dream I had, where I was floating towards three white dots that turned out to be three persons. So I guess my mind took that as basis and looked for pieces from other sources that would fit that puzzle.

One of the things that somewhat surprised me recently while I was scanning old HQA notes was that Ambience originally didn't have those windmills. In fact, I added those windmills three or four weeks before release. The inspiration for those came when I was on a train and saw those giant white rotating blades, standing firmly on seemingly endless green plains - a moment I can still clearly recall. Nowadays, I can't imagine Ambience without those rotating objects, and it's interesting to me that it almost made it out the door before I had that idea.

I also remembered that there were plans to add a pyramid to Ambience. The idea was to have a whole level being filled out by one giant pyramid that you first had to climb and then enter at the top to explore its maze. It didn't work out because for some reason I had problems compiling it, so I scrapped that part. In HQS, I actually created a smaller (and very blocky) pyramid and turned it on its head. The player had to enter it and crouch through a little maze. I removed that part later on because it felt out of place (and looked ugly). The room is still there though, it's right before the insanely fast platform, after the room with the doors you can't look at.

There's one texture in HQS of an entrance to the Pyramid of Cheops right at the end of the long hallway where you have to repeatedly press a button to advance and a sun-like thing is chasing you. That's the last remainder of the pyramid idea.

Patience had a different ending in which you actually entered the train and left the station through a specifically marked exit door. The second station is still in the game and accessible if you noclip to it.

The problem was that - ironically - the Sadism Train wouldn't want to work. My plan was to have the two doors (which are too small) be a separate func_train so that they could be opened and closed independently from the rest of the train. Back then, without the awesome Spirit of Half-Life entities, you could not have func_doors follow func_trains (hence the loading screen in the Half-Life intro before Barney comes along to open the tram door). And to a point - it worked. The train arrived twenty minutes too late (lots of fun to test, by the way!), the doors opened and I was able to squeeze inside. The doors closed and the train moved on.

Then something strange happened. For some unknown reason, at always the same exact point (which wasn't even a waypoint) the func_train would stop - but the hull of the train, the rendered brushes, moved ahead on their own. I think I've wasted two or three days trying to fix it, even remaking the whole damn thing from scratch twice. The train defied me, with the mocking evil smiley on its side grinning at me. So, I decided to blow up the train station and move on.

(In retrospect, the final speech of Patience is actually making fun of me, what with life being sadistic and absolutely senseless.)

The Somos level was originally designed to be fully rotating. And I mean the whole fucking thing around Somos, with four expandable bridges leading outside of the room. Those bridges, when in correct position, would lead to entrances of the rooms currently being accessed by simple teleportation. Half-Life didn't play along. You would sometimes simply fall through the floor or get stuck randomly. The rotating platform below Somos is the last trace of that undertaking.

A few months after the release of Halfquake Amen I submitted it for a game contest. The people wading through the submissions actually went out and bought Half-Life just to play it. Apparently, the jury had never been so torn on an opinion of a game. They hated it because of its difficulty, but they found value in the way it made fun of other first person shooters, in which - usually - dying is frowned upon, and in Halfquake it is actually more or less part of the gameplay. At one point I had to bring in my PC so they could demonstrate it (for some reason they couldn't get it to work on that one PC which was hooked up to a video projector). Seeing HQA on the huge silver screen with surround sound was awesome. The guy who played it really enjoyed it, saying that "it's like Doom". I had to play it myself then to load up a few levels individually and create save games so he would have an easier time for the presentation on the following day.

They told me I could have won the contest if it weren't for Personal Halfquake. The story of PHQ struck them the wrong way (or maybe it was just the text on the old startpage). Which is weird, and to this day, I simply believe it was just an excuse. The real issue probably was that they didn't know what would happen to all the kids if my game had won. So they dropped HQA - and a game about bees won the contest.

I was still promised a meeting with a marketing guy. However, he didn't meet with me, he simply called me a few days later and asked me about why I used sadism as the theme of the game. I can't remember my exact reply, but the general meaning of it was that even though I was aware that sadism was (or could be) a rather serious topic, I simply used it in a lighthearted satirical manner to tease the player. I knew a little bit about its origin and Marquis de Sade, so I wasn't as uninformed as I could have been. However, the guy started talking about one event that had occurred back then, in which a man had invited another - willing - man to eat him alive, emphasizing the moment in which they both ate the victim's penis. I can't remember how the call ended, but I remember sitting there for a while afterwards with an odd feeling. Instead of maybe a game deal or whatever I got a speech about why I shouldn't treat such topics lightly.

Seeing as I can still relive the conversation (or the gist of it) and that I actually am being more considerate of touchy subjects whenever I create things, one could say that call wasn't entirely for naught.

It certainly had an impact on the development of Halfquake Sunrise. In late 2006 and early 2007, before I actually started working on the version of HQS you can play today, I had serious doubts about the seemingly ignorant use of sadism as a comic relief or running gag, and I researched the topic thoroughly, finding horrifying stories like the abuse and death of Sylvia Likens and watching movies like The 120 Days of Sodom. I grew more respectful of the topic. Mapping began with those images in mind, and I didn't add spoken words until about half-way through the development time. The intro speech saw more revisions than any other part of HQS - only because I was trying to find a way to say words like "suffering" and "death" without trampling over those delicate subjects, while encasing them in a sort of safe frame of a satire. I spoke it maybe a hundred times to get the tone right; keep up a smile, mock the player a little, but be serious and respectful of the topical background.

Of course, all things can be overdone and overthought. George Carlin said that you can make a joke about anything, and maybe you even should, as Uwe Boll probably might attest to. But that one phone call seriously confused and unsettled me and burned the fact into the back of my mind that one's laughter is likely always someone else's lamentation.

Like when I laughed at SilverSorrow's hilarious reviews of Halfquake and Halfquake Amen. Good times!

Apart from teaching me that some people simply lack humour and that I have bad taste, the release of Halfquake Amen also showed me my personal limits. Being as stubborn as I am, I committed to finish the game by September 1st come hell or high water or girlfriend. If you speak to my better half about the last week prior to release, she will probably incinerate you, that's how much of an ass I was to her. Mind you, I didn't yell at her or anything, in fact I simply ignored her most of the time and stared at the screen, furiously fixing bugs and adding last minute details and multiplayer maps. You have to acknowledge though, it's not like she wouldn't understand - she understood perfectly well - it was simply supposed to be a special week, but it resulted in work, work, work. Despite being angry (or rather disappointed), she kept supporting me until the very last minute - which I still hold in high regard.

It was a test for our relationship - and a test for my health. I slept three or four hours a day, I had nightmares of Somos (being hunted down by my own creation - Alan Wake style) and a weird alien growth on the corner of my mouth (probably because I forgot to drink or the aliens didn't feel comfortable in their host anymore). I promised myself to never do that again and stay within my personal limits and the healthy boundaries of our relationship for future projects, gleefully unaware of what would happen during the development of Halfquake Sunrise a few years later (but that's a story for another day).

In the end, even though I paid a certain price for my stubbornness and I should've taken things a bit slower and paid more attention to people close to me, Halfquake Amen brought in a slew of new players that turned out to be awesome friends who keep on showing their support - for which I cannot be thankful enough. (You guys rock!)

One final fun fact before I let you go (that's right, you're chained to the monitor right now, I have the key right here): In the beginning when my friend Blackjack explains to the player that there will be a part called Patience - originally, instead of that whole area with the drawing on the floor, there was a simple jumping section with four platforms.

I wanted to make people aware that they really had to wait for twenty minutes and instead of explaining that at the train station, I decided to drop the hint right near the start of the game. Since the platforming after the field of letters wasn't that interesting, I scrapped the place in favor of the new drawing and a scientist in a box, singing Stayin' Alive.

That was actually more fact than fun. Luckily, I have a distraction for you made by CyberCowboyZombie which you can watch while I sneak away.