This is a very long post about After-Life 2, the Half-Life 2 mod myself and Galen Ellis created and developed as a year-long Bachelor of Fine Arts project. It’s pretty much an explanation, or a behind-the-scenes look, something like that. Enjoy.

This isn’t meant to be an essay about why our game After-Life 2 is important, or even why video games should be considered art; this essay is just meant to explain some of the decisions we made in lieu of having an in-game commentary. I don’t really think people want to hear me talk these pages out while they play the game, I’d rather just let you read it. Perhaps I’ll call this an apology and an epilogue. I would like to think that I’m done with the game for now, so I’m in a position to speak of it in the past tense. We stopped developing it at kind of a half-finished state, I think. Admittedly, and as some have already pointed out, there’s a lot of polish missing from the “final release” of AL2. Most things that happened during its development I’ll cite as intentional, but I won’t claim intention on having it unpolished: I just stopped the project. I put a deadline on it and said that it would be finished after that deadline, no matter what. Had I not done that, I would have spent another year (at least) doing more and more to make the mod even more convoluted. Of course having that cutoff meant sacrificing some polish – the last thing I worked on before calling it done was the second ending. (Which I’m pretty sure I fixed, and will discuss later.) Anyway, that’s my apology, now on with the epilogue. Needless to say, there are a number of spoilers about the mod in this, so please play the game at least once before reading.

After-Life 2 started as a joke: a parody of Half-Life 2 that would only serve to exemplify all the ways Half-Life 2 was flawed and silly. Even then the idea seemed like taking the Mona Lisa and drawing a pink moustache on it: funny for a minute, but doing nothing in terms of being interesting, artistic, or original. This concept was the only thing I had come up with for a year-long Bachelor of Fine Arts project using interactive media. It was my thought at the time that an “academic” video game would be both a gift and a curse. It would be great because it would be allowed a lot of trite and pretentiousness (yeah, the reflexivity) while those allowances and pretentiousness would also drive away a key demographic (the standard Halo player). But it was a college project, and it needed to be academic.

As a kid in 8th grade first getting into computer games on a PowerMac 7200, I had played through the classic Marathon Trilogy and discovered the wonderful editing tools it came with. The ability to build one’s own scenarios and levels that could then be played with a commercial engine empowered me to create childish but intricate campaigns, each with non-linear storytelling and multiple endings. At the time I was filling out the application for the BFA program, I was again experimenting with level design, but forTeam Fortress 2. I found the same happiness I had found many years before: the ability to carve walls and paths out of the void, to create experiences and destinations. My first maps for TF2 weren’t about competition (as they should have been) but more about forming epic set pieces and recreating famous battles from the real world and from fiction. They didn’t serve well for the intended audience, but from those first attempts I discovered what would be fun to do for a lengthy project.

Then, the funny concept: a parody of Half-Life 2. But it needed more. Not only would it need to be a parody, but an examination; a deliberate choice to have a lack of choices, to expose the storytelling that was required for immersion. It needed to call out not only the decisions of the gameplay, but the aesthetics and the form of the game itself. I wrote a very heavy-handed and jargon-filled proposal letter: we’ll make an artsy-fartsy game, and it’ll be art. It’s not a new concept, but perhaps a new application of it. They bought it, and we were accepted into the BFA program. I started drawing out maps, writing out story (and lack of story), how it should flow and what the break points should be.

Over the course of the project I took two classes that were heavily influential to After-Life 2‘s formation: a class on contemporary art and another on experimental film. This was the first time I had taken studies-driven formal art classes, and largely informed a lot of the perceptions I had not been able to give names to. Structural film guided my usage of developer’s textures as akin to being the exposure of film to the audience (films likeT,O,U,C,H,I,N,G and Wavelength). The glitches of poorly-placed lights and models were my film grain. I wanted to push beyond Jodi’s deconstruction of Wolfenstein 3D by not just replacing textures with symbols, but destroying the textures entirely. Nam June Paik put magnets on televisions to make them bend the incoming signal… I didn’t want to have to go as far as physically breaking someone’s computer, only breaking the rendering engine. (Which many testers have complained about.)

Many games I was playing at the time also informed AL2?s outcome. BioShock‘s use of physical isolation (being underwater) as a mechanism for literally moving the player gave me the idea of having most of AL2 take place in a similarly limited location (underground).Portal and Fallout 3 exemplified the art of telling a story through the game’s environment, which I emulated. Crysis‘s ridiculous usage of post-processing filters also inspired me to add a few filters of my own for no real reason other than silliness. Team Ico games examined the art of light and sound. Metal Gear Solid 4 rendered enemies as infinite waves, an unending tide of faceless soldiers. I wanted to steal these ideas and make them jut out at the player for them to be confused by.

One of the biggest themes I wanted to play upon was the questioning of the player in the world of the game: the player as a character in the story, or the story as just a game. One of my clumsy in-game examples of this is “the mirror scene” in which you (the player) walk into a room with a mirror on the wall, but you cannot see yourself because the game engine does not render a model for the player. The girl you are with notices this and comments on it. In Half-Life 2 the player is literally just a floating camera with a model of a gun in front of it. Self-reflections are never meant to be seen. The girl who runs around with you discusses things with a figment of her imagination, and your enemies shoot merely at the air you would be taking up if you had a body. Does this mean anything to us, as players of a game? Why should it?

The door you must enter to get into the orange tower at the end of AL2 is clearly labeled “door.” These are the things only developers see: they’re placeholders. Can there be emotional placeholders for the user to experience? Why can’t a designer trigger emotions the same way they trigger the next wave of enemies? (And why aren’t we trying harder?) There are signs in AL2 that are for the player to read signed from the “designer” and are meant to be a commentary on commentary and the intention of a designer’s choice. I didn’t make a stab at emotions in After-Life 2. Film is the art of creating an experience, but a more-or-less singular experience. A video game is the art of creating the intention for experience: the capacity for it. It’s impossible for a developer/designer to do what film does and force an experience without it leaving the realm of being a game. Games are about choice and immersive individualism. Games are not an evolution from film, no more so than poetry is an evolution from prose. They are simply two different methods for creating an experience for an audience. Game designers are only beginning to delve into the notion of creating intentions in a player, so that those intentions can become emotions.

Contemporary games are overwhelmingly about player-movement and opposition: in fact, try to name video games that are not entirely centered around those two things. Basically all platformers, first- and third-person shooters are about moving through levels/locations to achieve goals and eliminate those who oppose the player. It’s very fashionable to be running around, killing people: in fact, most players are consistently confused when that’s not what the goal is. They are overjoyed when those ideas are pushed to the extreme in open-world sandbox games where you can go anywhere and kill anyone at will. When testing After-Life 2, one of our largest intentions raised seemingly the most basic questions: where are all the guns? Where do I go next? Normally developers hear these questions and feel that they’ve made major mistakes in their design, but the confusion and annoyance players experienced was exactly what we hoped. Sadistic as it may seem, it had the desired effect: they questioned the necessity for the weapons, and when presented with only one pistol in the whole game they eventually figured out that the choice to even have it was a central point of the experience. Not only is there one weapon, but there is a very tiny supply of ammunition: not enough to beat off the infinite waves of soldiers. This forces the player to run away, and run away fast. It also usually forced the player to notice that their counterpart, The Girl, is completely invulnerable to enemy fire.

We wanted to have all of these obtuse gameplay choices but also have several counter-balancing fun points. I threw in a crowbar during the first level but you can’t pick it up. I also changed The Girl’s clothing from a Black Mesa shirt to an Aperture Science shirt (which are two rival companies in the Half-Life 2 universe). I re-textured several Half-Life 2 models to include references to other video games, and also to make fun of the original textures that were there. Throughout the game are also custom graffiti marks that directly reference other games. We got a couple of friends to do voice acting and provide life to our two star characters: The Girl and The Survivor.

The Girl is your counterpart and obviously a jab at Alyx from Half-Life 2 and all computer-controlled allies, and we tried to nail that into the player’s skull. She’s totally useless, does nothing but complain, and is really the only thing that moves the plot along. As players, we are made to think that we are the catalyst: but it’s most often the AI around us that dictate the story. The player’s character always gets a call, or a mission briefing, or something that we rarely determine, and that’s what moves the game’s story along. The player is always the savior, the focus, the chosen one, somehow special and different. While this is an obvious level of escapism engrained in gaming culture, it needs to be challenged and changed. I liked Call of Duty 4, not for the gameplay, but because the player is mostly an average soldier throughout. A soldier who dies before the end of the game, no less. One of the things I also think is successful about games like World of Warcraft, besides its addicting nature, is that the player is just one among millions, and it’s made to be so. It is explicit that the player has to carve their own path into the story, it’s not simply handed to you in an opening cinematic.

The Girl is an example of the mostly missed potential and misuse of “sidekick” characters. As much as I love Half-Life 2, Alyx Vance does nothing but whine and open doors. The player is meant to care about her, but by the time Episode One rolls around she’s the only thing that keeps Gordon Freeman from being as awesome as he could be. There has been a strong attempt to make AI better, but it’s concentrating in the wrong areas, especially for sidekicks. The first step in making a good sidekick is to have them complement the player instead of merely exist. If the player chose to become a long-range attacker, the sidekick should be a short-range defender. Artificial intelligence should first be able to analyze and recognize patterns in human behavior. Enemy AI is getting better, and will usually be able to take into account and eradicate players who like to camp in one spot.

The Survivor is our delivery mechanism for confusion. He is found six times throughout the game, mostly in a side-area, and always says something different about what’s happening in the game world. His excuses range from biblical apocalypse to terrorist conspiracy. His role in a more broad sense is just to point out the need and lack of need for background in a game’s story. Most contemporary games are filled with unnecessary background characters with a wealth of ancillary knowledge that they’re willing to vomit onto the player. Unfortunately, players like me find it necessary to spend many hours speaking to each and every one of these video game “civilians” just in case there’s an important game mechanic I’m missing. (Usually there isn’t.) Unlike The Girl, he is not invincible, and you can easily get him killed a few times in the game by luring enemies to his position. Much to my enjoyment.

There are three endings in After-Life 2, and one of them is the definite “correct” ending. The first ending is the easiest to accomplish, as it involves having the sole gun in the game and proceeding along the standard path. In this ending, the Girl believes she is still in the story of the game, and tells the player to run into a dark doorway. Inside this doorway, the game suddenly begins again. After beating the game once, the Girl’s dialogue becomes slightly different. In certain places, she will have either additional or alternative things to say about what’s going on. On the second pass through the game, she will be agitated that you didn’t finish the game correctly the first time, and she will suddenly somehow remember that you had done all of this before. This is an obvious attempt to break out of the box of the game world, but it’s an important concept that is rarely explored in games: timelines inside and out of the game, and the game being affected and distorted by it.

The second ending is my unapologetic attack on gaming story and character and my gift to those who have found themselves needlessly hindered by their ally AIs. The player is forced to kill The Girl in order to repeat the game. She blocks the way to the end, telling the player that the game must end. She runs away in fear of the player, at which time the audio track from Paul Sharits’s avant-garde film T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G plays subtly in the background. The film is a 12-minute structural masterpiece with strobing visuals that depict a boy cutting his tongue off with scissors and being clawed by a woman’s hand. The audio track consists merely of a man saying “destroy” over and over again at varying speeds for so long that you begin to think you hear phrases like “this girl I destroyed” by the end of the film. However, since the Alyx Vance model doesn’t really have any blood splatter effects and doesn’t really show getting hurt, it’s hard to tell that you’re supposed to kill her. About four or five shots with the only gun in the game (which you need to have to get to the second ending) should do it, at which point she collapses and the game cycles back to the beginning. What I found very amusing in testing this was that at some points she would moan “Gordon…” after dying, which I left in because of its allusion to the Half-Life 2universe. In the “story” of After-Life 2, her saying “Gordon” makes no sense. But by the end, not much makes sense at all.

The third ending is the “right” ending if there can be considered one. In this the girl is happy that you made it through and made the right choices, and says that it’s time for the game to be over. You walk through the doorway and walk through the mod’s credits sequence, which reflects the same kind of structural breakdown that the overall mod contained. The “right” ending is only achieved by NOT taking the sole gun in the game and also going off the beaten path at a certain point and taking an alternate route to the game’s ending. I don’t want to claim that After-Life 2 has “moral choice” or that you’re rewarded with the “right ending” by being non-violent, but that’s how it turned out. And I also wasn’t concerned with any possibility of episodic content to be attached that extends the story. I’m not saying that won’t happen, it’s just not my intention right now. One idea I had early on, after deciding on the underground theme, was the possibility of gradually adding on more “episodes” to the mod by expanding the subway system. Each additional “episode” would be a different train line. Interesting, but I don’t know if I’ll ever go through with that.

Replayability is a big issue being concentrated on in gaming, and the largest answer to it thus far has been “moral choices” that change outcomes. Usually this involves a binary choice: good or bad, and two possible experiences with a game. These are not pushed far enough in narrative form. Games need to be able to end and start again, not in the sense of turning off the console but in terms of the game’s story. One game that achieved this rather successfully was Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in the USA), that allowed a player to make the wrong choice, die, and end the story. The player could end there or go back and try a different route – and there were often different paths that lead to different conclusions. This form of organic story is important for the intention of experience I referred to earlier: not just creating an experience (narrative) for a player, but the intention of multiple possible experiences. Games like Spore and The Sims try to be infinitely replayable because they are randomized and procedurally generated, but they lack the organic nature of human drama that form webs and contradictions, so they usually fail and are reduced to recreating only the monotony of life. (You may have played The Sims and found yourself taking your Sim to work, telling them to cook food, watch TV, etc. How can this be a game?)

Anyway, I’ve gone beyond what I wanted to write about. I probably forgot to talk about a bunch of stuff. Maybe I’ll write more later. The most basic principle of After-Life 2 is the desire to make the player think more seriously about games as a medium. I want players to think more about what they’re playing every once in awhile. When you’re in a game: look around. Pay attention to what you’re being pushed towards. What do the actions you take in game mean to you? Not to infer that how we play reflects how we are. If that were true, Jack Thompson would be right about violence in video games. Play is an important facet of human development and recreation, but it can be even more beneficial if we learn about and understand it better. How do the games we play affect our lives? What do the stories found in games reveal to us about human nature? Should games even be used to reveal facets of humanity in the same way cinema does? I believe it should, and perhaps in the next decade we’ll begin to see games that take a firmer grasp on human emotion and the substance of story in a game. When the player sees their fictional counterpart – some future variation of Alyx Vance, I suppose – they should care about that entity and have some emotional stake in their well-being, beyond just understanding the need for them to open doors for the player.