Thursday, December 13, 2018

"Unforeseen Consequences: A Half-Life Documentary" by Danny O'Dwyer

A month ago I got to be one of the many people interviewed for Unforeseen Consequences, A Half-Life Documentary by Danny O'Dwyer (NoClip). Here are some notes, thoughts, and reactions:

I think me, Laura Michet, and the Project Borealis folks, are all there to present some continuity and young(er) blood to the story, versus the middle-aged white guys who dominate the first hour.

But it's also a very telling way to present Half-Life's legacy: the game is 20 years old, which is like a million video game years. At NYU Game Center, the vast majority of our incoming game design students have never played Half-Life because it is older than them, it is a quaint curiosity that we force them to play. It's video game broccoli.

I was fascinated by the segment where Randy Pitchford (co-founder and CEO of Gearbox Software) talks about their company's history with Valve. They basically rescued Gearbox with a speedy deal to make Half-Life Opposing Force -- but according to Pitchford, Valve was also a difficult collaborator, providing very little input on Opposing Force and sabotaging the mediocre Counter-Strike: Condition Zero by demanding an ill-advised scripted single player campaign. It's roughly in-line with the company culture that most Steam indies know: they're eager to setup a deal, but rarely remember to follow-up or maintain communication.

I was most struck by how the various AAA dudes recall witnessing Half-Life: huddled around a coworker's computer, deeply anxious about how their own product would technologically stack-up. Half-Life is defined partly by its world and narrative approach, but also by the smart ways it leveraged targeted uses of game technology. Half-Life 1 was an early pioneer in skeletal animation and AI systems; Half-Life 2 popularized physics-based gameplay and detailed facial animation; neither engine was "top of the line", but cleverly hyped and promoted the tech advances they had. In contrast, Source 2 has basically zero hype at this point, and even diehard Valve fanboy modders Project Borealis decided to use Unreal Engine 4 instead of holding out for a new engine. The game industry has fundamentally changed since 1998 or 2004.

The documentary concludes with one big argument: Half-Life 3 probably isn't coming for a variety of reasons, and we need to find comfort elsewhere. There's a lot of rumors of a Half-Life VR project, but would a story-driven single player FPS still be relevant in an age of multiplayer open-world third person games? Could any possible Half-Life 3 feel like a proper Half-Life 3?

Or instead we could look to the countless modders and designers who still fondly remember it and interpret it in the Epistle 3 jam organized by Laura Michet, or feel its deep influence on perfectly competent games like Respawn's Titanfall 2 or Campo Santo / Valve's upcoming In The Valley Of Gods.

That's ultimately the argument I made when O'Dwyer interviewed me: if you actually love the Half-Life series, you should value the time you had together, but ultimately you have to let it go. Such is life...