There’s no shortage of Half-Life 2 mods under development, but none are as ambitious — nor as highly anticipated by the community — as Black Mesa (formerly Black Mesa Source).
When Valve re-released the original Half-Life for the Source engine, it featured some nice water and ragdoll effects, but little else to drool over. The volunteer modders behind Black Mesa, however, are working on their own translation of the original game — and they’re starting from scratch. Two members of the Black Mesa team, RabidMonkey and Kalashnikov, were kind enough to take a break from their impossibly busy schedule to answer some questions.
Chris Livingston: After doing some exhaustive research on your mod (ie: looking at your site for a few minutes), I’ve determined you are completely rebuilding and recreating the original Half-Life for the Source engine. My question is: are you guys completely insane? Or just mostly insane? Because this sounds like a ridiculous amount of work.
Kalashnikov: It really doesn’t matter how much work needs to or will go into Black Mesa, it’s the fact that we want to do it. We aren’t crazy, but we’re certainly happy that we’re still moving forward after so many other modification projects, far smaller than ours, have gone under due to lack of proper resources. When we first started, a lot of people called us crazy and that we couldn’t do it, but after March 3, 2005 that changed.
RabidMonkey: It’s a lot of work, but we’re certainly capable of performing such a feat. We’ve got some very talented team members on board, and our continuing growth to the development team overall with new members and work is definitely a boost to morale. It’s definitely a ridiculous amount of work, as well - Part of all the upgrading and redesign we need to do for Source includes things such as larger levels, bigger and better textures, prop models, new sound effects, and other often overlooked areas of development - But the transformation into a source-based game will definitely show in-game. We’re not just another ‘remake HL1 identically with nice textures’ mod, and we plan to use Source to it’s full potential.
CL: And part of that full potential now includes compatability with HDR, as your recent media release demonstrated. How much more work is adding HDR going to create for you? Does it require as much attention as conventional lighting effects, or more?
RM: HDR rendering definitely means some more work on our part, but it’s well worth it. We can’t really begin to compare it to conventional LDR rendering as it’s just so different. The main time-consuming process of implementing HDR is tweaking it - Making sure the values within the game are set correctly to portray realistic exposure values and what one might expect to see in real-life. The real devil of HDR is in the codebase, which we will need to implement once VALVe offers up the HDR code. Some tweaking is being done to indoor levels such as Inbound to make sure light values will look proper on both LDR and HDR rendering modes, so those who cannot play Source games with HDR will still be amazed by the levels to the extent their video cards will allow it. We’re putting a lot of attention into lighting values and contrast, moreso than Half-Life 1 - So outdoor areas like Surface Tension will definitely differ from indoor settings such as labs or offices, which may still be bright, but tweaked to look better indoors. Comparatively, areas like Blast Pit and Residue Processing (which is getting a complete redesign) will have high contrast between darker, abandoned areas and the active or occasionally-used ones.
CL: When you mention completely redesigning levels, or making levels larger, how much difference will there be between the original levels and the ones in Black Mesa Source? I mean, it’s nice that you’re not cut-and-pasting the maps inch by inch, but do you worry that fans might be put off by major changes to the game? Can you give me some specific examples of a level that you feel needs reworking — for instance, Residue Processing — why you think it needs changes, and some examples of the changes you’re planning to make?
RM: Well, it’s all dependent on the area and the designer’s inputs on the chapter. Areas which were very strong in the initial version of HL, such as the anomalous materials laboratories, are shaping up to still be updated and look very sexy with the powers of Source. However, areas like Surface Tension, Inbound, On A Rail, are all undergoing major changes to look better with Source - This was because while we felt some of the areas were quite incredible for their time in HL1, they would look plain silly when ported to a next-generation engine. We’re having to rethink some of these areas and do some new work on the chapters, but it will all be for the better.
One specific example of this ’sourceification’ which I can vouch for is in the Inbound chapter which I am working on - We’re doing a lot of architectural changes to this level (as are evident in the latest screenshots), utilizing more world brushes and higher resolution textures to bring this area to life. We’ve enhanced the size of this level drastically and added new prop models, scientists and characters with new sequences and focused on the detail of this level to preserve the original’s ‘wow’ factor.
K: One of the most notable differences in level design has to be Black Mesa Inbound. It has a lot of mixed emotion because of the alterations we have done. Surface is another change, but it’s a different change. It’s an improvement change, a size change. Something we have heard from fans is that they want relatively the same areas, except in Source. Something they don’t understand is that some areas, to increase the immersion and feeling of Half-Life, need to be changed. Source can do a lot of great things and we change according to what was, what was meant, and what Source can do. On A Rail is a chapter which we have heard cries for a massive overhaul of, and we tend to agree. Chapters like that need not only a Source visuals overhaul, but we also have plans to extend the exploration aspects of that chapter. While there is still a modest amount of battles, enemies and the like, we wanted to put together a mini, interactable Black Mesa Inbound for the player to tinker with whilst still progressing and fighting.
CL: Could I suggest a change in the level “Blast Pit”? Perhaps you could do away with the endless, infernal clanging the pit monster makes. I know I’m not alone in this, because I asked my friend Sam to tell me the first thing that popped into his head when I said the words “Blast Pit”, and he replied “CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG.” He added, “CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG.”
RM: Definitely. We’ll probably be rigging some sort of nice effect for the clang noises outside of the actual firing silo, or a locational sound depending on where the tentacle hits. Since it’s not smashing things up before you barge in, no reason to have the annoying sound effects. We’re doing some other changes to Blast Pit, as well, although nothing to momentous. Mostly, we’re increasing the scale, and making the actual silo look quite a bit better. We’re also adding a couple more objectives you may have to complete (Instead of simply fuel, water and air? I can’t remember how it was in the first one.) - Such as opening the blast vents and visiting other areas of the silo as opposed to simply two maintenance areas, a big fan, and the firing area itself. This is one area which has deviated slightly from the original, but should still keep new and old audiences hooked.
CL: How about the Xen levels? I know most of the complaints about Half-Life are based around the low-gravity jumping puzzles of Xen. (Personally, I noclip through the Xen levels when I play Half-Life these days.) Any changes planned for the Xen borderworld?
RM: The Xen levels have a special design direction we prepared for them. We’ll be restructuring some of this area, partly to fit in with displacements, and partly to take advantage of the bigger environments we can use in Source. We’ll be using some cool skybox effects here, too, whether portraying distant planets or moving nebulas or to show a larger field of ‘xen islands’ floating off in space. Some more human elements the Xenians have absconded with might appear here, although we’ll be keeping close to the original on these levels.
CL: Half-Life 2 features one Barney, one Kleiner, and one Dr. Vance — but the original game had multiples of them, all looking and sounding the same, and delivering the same lines of dialogue. You state on your site that the Barney we meet in HL2 will be the first Barney we see in HL1, knocking on the door in the “Inbound” tram tunnel, in keeping with the “Half-Life: Blue Shift” expansion pack, but are there any plans to change some of the other models or voices, in order to differentiate the various Barneys and scientists we meet in your mod?
RM: The other models, both Scientists and Barneys, will have about a dozen or more variants to ensure you never see the same person in the same area. Voices will probably have multiple variants as well, but this depends on how many extras we can get high-quality recordings of for the game. Developers will most likely voice the Vox system and the Human Grunts, with some heavy filters applied by our talented sound technician, Plink. However, this is still up in the air at the moment, so I can’t really give a final decision as everything is tentative to change.
CL: Can we, the slobbering, ravenous Half-Life gaming community, expect any sort of playable demo, or perhaps in-game video anytime soon? Are there any levels, or portions of levels, that are nearly complete beyond the mapping stage?
RM: Well, it was intended as a secret, but Uplink will most likely be making an appearance as a demo for Black Mesa. We’re too far off from in-game video right now, too - We’re still working on weapons and code and fixing bugs and making maps and getting custom content ready before we can show off video footage. Expect some this year, though. We have a few levels which are nearly complete beyond mapping - We’ve Got Hostiles, Forget About Freeman, Office Complex, and the dam sequence, to name a few. We’re constantly improving our content with new props and textures, though, so nothing’s ever final until the release moment, and still not completely final even then. We relentessley adapt our levels through community criticism, team criticism, among other forms of suggestions, in the aim of pleasing almost everyone we can. Rest assured, though - When video or a playable demo is on the way, you’ll know.
CL: What difficulties do you face in keeping such a large, ambitious project afloat with only a volunteer workforce? How big is the current Black Mesa team, and how do you go about assigning tasks and goals for each member? Are you currently looking for new members, and if so, in what departments?
RM: Well, a volunteer workforce is certainly interesting. Real-life commitments make it so that not everyone can contribute as much as some others on the team, but the fact that you’re working on one of the most-watched and most-popular upcoming HL2 mods is definitely a big motivator. Our active team has about 25 members, and the team is split into different departments (models, textures, level design, etc); each under the lead of one or two department heads. These people are ultimately in control of the rest of the team in that section - Kester and myself are both in charge of the level designers, for example. Tasks and goals are assigned either through our developer forums or directly via Skype or another communication medium. As for jobs - We’re actively looking for texture artists/skinners, additional prop modellers, and another character modeller or two. Of course, although we aren’t actively looking for positions doesn’t mean you might be useful on the team. Anyone’s free to drop an email to email@example.com with some links to their past work, and if we like it, you may find yourself with a job.
CL: The immersion of the original Half-Life was heightened by the background loading of levels… there was only a slight slow-down when moving from one level to another, instead of the complete in-game pause that occurs when changing levels in Half-Life 2. Is there any way to incorporate this “background loading” of levels in your mod, or is it just not possible in Source?
RM: Well, Source loads stuff completely different this go around. We’ll probably experience HL2 load times, unfortunately, although once one level is loaded a lot of the content we use, such as textures or props, will already be in Source’s content cache and things will load a lot faster after the first few levels have run.
CL: Your FAQ states that your mod will feature a completely original soundtrack. What’s the thinking behind this? Is it a rights issue or a design issue?
RM: It’s both a rights and design issue, really. We’d love to use as much custom content as possible, and our sound artist, Joel, is very enthusiastic about recreating the HL1 soundtrack as he interprets it. As you can see from the samples provided on our website, and from our forums, the community reaction to this decision has been very positive. Joel is also working to make the music abit more atmospheric and suited to the gameplay the player will be experiencing rather than upbeat combat music as HL1 featured. We’re taking a more ‘HL2′ approach, here, and I think it should please most of HL’s original fans. I remember reading on a forum when HL1 was still the game of choice about displeasure with the soundtrack, and I think this should be one of the areas we really excel at for those who disliked HL1 for the musical score.
CL: Guys, thank you for your time! Now get back to work. I speak for the entire community when I say we can’t wait to play your finished mod.
Visit the Black Mesa website at www.blackmesasource.com.