Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cleaning out some old Black Mesa archives for PC Gamer

Here are two old level design illustrations I did for a PC Gamer feature on level design in Half-Life 1, quite a few years ago. In the overview map, I focused on the construction of the Black Mesa Inbound chapter as a whole; and in the more focused cross-section, I concentrated my analysis on a single setpiece, the "shark cage" sequence in the Apprehension chapter.

(In the PC Gamer print version, the diagrams are annotated and labelled, but the image files I submitted were blank like these. I forget which issue it appears in. If you're interested in this topic, you can watch my Practice 2013 talk on this stuff to get roughly the same material.)

Anyway, here's a bit about my process and intent with these illustrations:

I was inspired by those old but excellent DK Cross-Sections picture books illustrated by Stephen Biesty, which I loved reading when I was little. Of course, the projection / perspective is totally broken and messed up, especially on the Black Mesa Inbound overview map -- I basically just took a bunch of screenshots in Crafty with a very low field of view setting, and hoped for the best. Then I stitched it all together in Photoshop and painted over it to try to make it look more coherent. The shark cage diagram is a lot more consistent and illustrator-y, but to get that tone, I manually perspective-skewed a bunch of Half-Life 1 textures in Photoshop, which was a bit of a nightmare. Neither workflow seemed like the ideal ratio of time vs results.

Now, certain longtime readers of this blog may remember that I wanted to write a book about Half-Life 1 at one point, many years ago... And, uh, yeah, that book never really materialized. Turns out, writing a book is a really big project!

This PC Gamer article was kind of a test run for the book's general approach. In a bid to make formal level design criticism more accessible, I felt it was vital to try approaches that weren't just long essays and paragraphs of text, given that video games are such an intensely visual medium... unfortunately, this illustration process was really labor intensive for me, and I wasn't even a good illustrator anyway.

But who knows, maybe someday I'll get back around to that book... (and maybe I'd hire an illustrator too)