Saturday, 25 Jun 2022

Interview: Half-Life 2’s Beta Is Inspiring A New Generation Of Developers

Almost 20 years ago, an entire build of Half-Life 2 leaked online before release – the amount revealed was on a scale that hasn’t been seen since. The version that eventually arrived barely resembles the leaked build. In the leak, City 17 had an LA-esque skyline, children worked in factories, manhack arcades were controlled by unknowing citizens, there was the all-knowing Consul, Eli Maxwell, Captain Vance heading the Conscripts, and the Arctic. In the Half-Life 2 that launched, Eli and Vance combined, the Consul became Breen, and the LA-esque skyline can only be seen from the Citadel as a leftover of development while everything else became Eastern European.

The whole experience had a grungier aesthetic, far more industrial than the retail version we’d seen emerge in 2004. There was a steampunk edge that made the Combine more rustic and unrefined, rather than the unwavering interdimensional conquerors we know today. And that sparked something: an itch to play a game that doesn’t exist. Or didn’t.

The leak, combined with interviews, E3 footage, books, and concept art, is being pieced together to re-build the ‘Beta’. We’ve seen this a few times over the years. There was Dark Interval, the first major project of its kind, Missing Information, and the fittingly titled HL2 Beta, but more projects have surfaced with their own unique takes like Raising the Bar: Redux and Project City 17. They’re a new generation of developers, the modern Black Mesa in a way, tackling this huge undertaking to create a game that never saw the light.

“I really like the original Half-Life, but I didn’t feel that Half-Life 2 hit the same notes that the original did,” Raising the Bar: Redux’s lead, David Driver-Gomm, tells me. “I think Half-Life 2 was more of a demonstration of technology than gameplay. The cut content with the more varied creatures, the more varied enemies, the slightly more out-there storyline from the retail release, interested me a lot as someone who felt like Half-Life 2 wasn’t the sequel I was looking for.”

Project City 17’s solo developer Vladimir has similar thoughts. “I liked the retail [version] when I played it for the first time but, when I discovered Beta, the retail felt like a downgrade,” they say. “It’s like [Valve] took everything awesome from the game and made it into a straight line. Half-Life 2’s world feels a bit more repetitive. The Beta concept had this dark and moody industrial setting, a feeling of combined technology that was developing and janky, which created an amazing environment.”

Driver-Gomm got his start after leaving Project Borealis, another huge undertaking that saw fans adapt Half-Life lead writer Marc Laidlaw’s Epistle 3, a short story showing what the future of Half-Life 2 could have looked like. This was after his departure from Valve and before Alyx’s release, laying the groundwork for fans to build from. It followed on from Eli Vance’s death, taking us on the hunt for the Borealis, ending in a suicide mission where it would be flung into the heart of the Combine empire. Two different projects sprung up to take this short story and turn it into a fully-fledged game, and that focus on the Borealis is what drew Driver-Gomm to the Beta.

Vladimir, meanwhile, was only nine when he started his project. He got into Half-Life and modding because of Garry’s Mod, just like Driver-Gomm, and eventually learned through YouTube and practice how to work with Hammer and other Source tools. In the five years he’s spent working on Project City 17, it’s grown with him, showing how far he’s come as a developer, with old levels being revamped as he finds not only his own identity but that of his vision's. It’s something intertwined into Valve’s DNA, inspiring players to cross that line and become developers themselves. It’s what sparked Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, two of Valve’s biggest games. Both began life as mods. We’ve also seen Black Mesa, a complete remake of the original Half-Life.

“I would use props to make my own map [for Garry’s Mod] and turn off the AI for NPCs,” Vladimir says. “I didn’t know what Half-Life was – I just recognised it from Garry’s Mod. I started to watch this YouTuber who made videos and I found out how to get started on Half-Life 2 maps. I got an old broken version of Source from the bin folder because I didn’t know how to install it. Then when I found the Half-Life 2 Beta site and started looking at the concept arts, I just thought that it looked really epic with all the fog and the moody atmosphere. I’ve always been into dark games – that dystopian feeling.”

With how varied each year of Half-Life 2’s development was, these two projects are having to create their own cohesive vision, piecing together the jigsaw of its development.

“The Beta is a really complicated topic,” Driver-Gomm says. “There are a couple of schools of thought – basically it boils down to you having eras in the storyline. What was Valve’s pitch for Half-Life 2 in 1999? What was their pitch in 2000? 2001? 2002? 2003? And depending on the year you look at, it gets even further or closer to what we had at retail.

"2003 is basically retail’s story with one or two other tidbits but once you go to 2002 and before, you start getting into what most people would call actual Beta content. But each of these years had a really different storyline and different starts with different set pieces. And we don’t have all the answers either. We have the names of maps, like Spire from 1999, but we have never seen this map. We don’t know what it’s meant to be. Developers straight up can’t remember. So there’s a lot of filling in the blanks.”

But while certain ideas might conflict, the two teams are trying to make them work in unison. “The gas mask concept will be used closer to the city because I imagine the city as a giant circle,” Vladimir says. “Each layer, each circle, is a sector – the most outer one is the canals and after that will be the wasteland. In the canals, the city will go from a neighbourhood type area to a regular city with Eastern European type buildings. If you go into the centre, closer to the Citadel, you’ll reach the New York-like original concept.

“And during the train, you have this flashback to the Borealis where you are working because City 13 is by the coast – I made that up for the Project City 17 universe. It’s been sunk and the Combine doesn’t know where it went and you’ve been relocated. They found it stranded in the sea.”

This juggling of different Beta ideas is a key part of both projects. The Beta has the same general story in terms of beginning and end – Gordon arrives, fights the Combine, and defeats Breen (or the Consul as he was originally named) – but the story of getting through these plot points is drastically different. Eli Vance was originally two characters. Original Half-Life enemies were abundant, the game was much longer, and there was a focus on the Borealis. You weren’t a ‘hero’ in the way Gordon is a messiah in the retail version. Things were much bleaker and more pessimistic which was reflected in the rebellion. It wasn’t a band of citizens taking up arms but the remnants of the world’s military, known as the Conscripts.

I was curious about how Raising the Bar was keeping the rebels from the retail version while also introducing the Conscripts, and it was something that Driver-Gomm had considered in-depth himself.

“The rebels are your normal militia people who just pick up a gun and go at it, but in our project, they’re not as effective as they are in Half-Life,” Driver-Gomm tells me. “They’re a little better than citizens, but not way better. They won’t be using the really good weaponry, stuck to SMGs and maybe the AK. The Conscripts, on the other hand, are the leftovers of Earth’s military force, maybe even ex-HCEU from Half-Life which we touch upon in the narrative. The Conscripts have better weaponry, they’ll coordinate with better tactics, and they’re a much more effective, formalised fighting force. They use vehicles, have a command structure, etc. While the pair will work together in the end, in City 17, to take down the Combine and the Consul, the rebels are people who picked up a gun to help. The Conscripts have been planning for years.

Limitations have meant the Consul will be absent in Project City 17, however: “I would love to go back to the Consul but there are no models for him and almost no voice lines,” Vladimir says. “I’ve tried to mix both personalities but Breen is more friendly compared to the Consul who looks like he’s been stripped right out of a propaganda poster, one of those large figures above the city looking down, smug. But I’m trying to get the best out of every concept. I’m trying not to make any sacrifices – I want to include all the content.”

With that being said, Project City 17 is taking a completely different approach to Raising the Bar. The latter is trying to be an entirely new game, maybe even longer than Half-Life 2, capturing the FPS spirit. It has more weapons, huge set pieces, and a tight narrative that connects the dots from recovered scripts, leaked levels, interviews with developers – some held by the team themselves – and the book, also titled Raising the Bar. But Project City 17 is a puzzle-focused game about exploration, showing off this dystopian city, letting you bask in its moody atmosphere. Combat isn’t the focus. A lot of the action will be in the background, like seeing citizens grappled by headcrabs just out of reach. Or there are the Cremators, a cut Combine enemy, walking down alleyways you can’t get to, burning corpses.

The mods are well underway but there’s a lot yet to be done. “I’ve only [finished] around 30 percent of everything,” Vladimir tells me. “I still have to script out the NPCs and I’m getting there slowly but school is everyday, hitting me with a two-by-four with three tests a week. But there will be custom NPCs with custom textures. For example, in the city, citizens will have a different type of uniform with gas masks. The inner-city citizens are supposed to be more loyal to the Combine – upper-class, sort of. Currently, I’m making an NPC to be a side character like Odelle – he won’t be in the Borealis here, but someone with the same personality will be an industrial worker that you meet as part of the new industrial map.”

Right now, the two projects have different trajectories. City 17 is fluidly growing. Not only are new ideas being brought into development but older maps are being tweaked and improved as Vladimir grows himself. Raising the Bar: Redux, meanwhile, has a team of 40 people who are working in an almost linear fashion, aiming to reach the end of Half-Life 2 where you go head-to-head with the Consul, taking him down as you destroy the Citadel. There are plans for the Arctic, ideas for cut enemies that may or may not be added, and a whole new NPC based on personally-held interviews with developers.

“One big thing that we’re doing for the next release is T-Bot and Skitch who are basically the prototype version of Dog,” Driver-Gomm says. “In the retail version, you saw a lot of combinations of characters so there was less diversity in characters. Alex’s dad and retail Eli Vance are a combination of Captain Vance and Eli Maxwell. Dog was the same. There was Skitch who was Alex’s pet and T-Bot which was Maxwell’s junkyard assistant. They haven’t been touched on in a mod before, mainly because it’s really challenging. For T-Bot, there’s not a lot of information known and Skitch requires an entirely custom model with custom animation and sounds. But we have done both and actually held an interview with the Valve developer who made T-Bot to learn more about what he had in mind for them.”

Raising the Bar seeks to bring old content back whether it’s vague ideas, level names with no information, or more concrete ideas in older builds. But City 17 is a puzzle game at heart about showing off the city itself, focusing on the atmosphere of the Beta first and foremost. One of Vladimir’s future plans reflects that goal, emphasizing the aesthetic of his project.

“I’m planning on mixing the technology like having an old rusty brown Victorian steampunk engine with the retail version,” Vladimir says. “For example, there’ll be a big Victorian generator in the train station which is halfway consumed by modern Combine technology with bits of regular metal sticking out, looking almost like an organism that is slowly but surely converting.”

Driver-Gomm was drawn to the Beta by the Borealis, though, something that Vladimir also touched on with his plans for City 13, and that’s another huge part of Raising the Bar’s future. The Borealis in the retail build is a vague idea we hear about. It’s an Aperture ship shrouded in mystery – Eli wants to destroy it, Kleiner wants to use it. In Laidlaw’s Epistle 3, Alyx and Gordon fly it into the heart of the Combine, planning to die as they take out their Empire. They satisfy both Kleiner and Eli. But G-Man interferes and the two survive while the Borealis doesn’t even make a dent. It’s futile. That’s completely different to the original idea. The ship was to feature prominently and be a major plot point in the original Half-Life 2. It even had a different name at one point – the Hyperborea. And this all pre-dated Portal, unlike Episode 2 which is where we see the Borealis.

“The concept of the icebreaker ship in the Arctic is something I’ve always wanted to pursue,” Driver-Gomm says. “The Arctic in general and stuff like the weather control and Spire are basically not documented – we know very little about them. We have references and script files and that’s pretty much it. Remaking that is going to be some of the most creatively taxing but also, I think, most rewarding stuff we’ll ever do. We’ll have to make up so much of it. We’ve got names and nothing else. So we’re going to have to go off our own ideas and figure out how to make it work. That’s really exciting.”

Right now, both projects are free and updated in a similar fashion. Developers share tidbits on Discord while new builds are constantly released to keep people interested. You can try out new levels, updated old ones, and see how far it’s coming. The aim is, of course, to end the project with a full build that has every single level playable from start to finish – that goes for City 17 and Raising the Bar. But neither has an interest in going paid. These are passion projects through and through. However, Black Mesa started in a similar fashion and so I was curious if Driver-Gomm would take a note from its book later down the line.

“Black Mesa was a development journey fraught with complications and difficulties that, 17 years after starting, isn’t done,” Driver-Gomm says. “They’re still pursuing updates and fixes and when you bring money into a mod development, it makes things very complicated. When you start thinking about, ‘Do I need to pay people salaries?’, it becomes complicated. You have to start weighing up people’s worth and my team is built around the fact that everyone is valued equally. Everyone has something to say about the mod – it’s a very collaborative process. And I have minors on my team. If the mod was professional, they’d have to go. And then what do I pay myself? Do I pay myself anything? I’m not saying you can’t solve these problems – Black Mesa evidently did – but it’s too much for me, personally. I want it to remain a passion rather than being my job.”

With both projects being hobbies, tackling an incredibly difficult goal of piecing together something as mystified as Half-Life 2’s Beta, it’ll be a while before we’re playing the complete builds, but both are being run by passionate developers with a love for Half-Life and everything it ultimately wasn’t. One day, we’ll get to experience that same day we had in 2004 where we stripped off Half-Life 2’s packaging and booted it up, mesmerised by its world. Only this time, it’ll be a new City 17 beckoning us in, a new City 17 luring us toward its dystopian gates.

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