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How I made a game in three days

This is all about my time making Nestlings, a short mood piece built in the Half-Life 2 engine.  I suspect some people might find this interesting, but beware: spoilers lurk below.  You might want to play the mod first. (Requires Half-Life 2: Episode 2)

So. Those whom I regularly spam with information will know I’m currently undertaking a big project called Post Script.  It’s a series of Half-Life 2 mods, one of which came out a short while ago.  The response was mixed, as I expected it to be, given that it’s wholly experimental in a very real way.  As in, I’ve no idea how the hell to make a game, so I’m experimenting.  People have given loads of tremendous feedback, and the result is Post Script going back to the drawing board for a little while.  In the meantime, I found myself eager to create, rather than plan. Because planning sucks.  How could I fulfil my creative urges?

Well, it occurred to me that I should make a game in a single evening.  Of course!

Then I realised it was nearly 10pm, so that would be a bit silly.  So I altered my premise. Starting the next morning, I was going to design, write and build a single-player Half-Life 2 mod in a period of three days.  The other rule I set myself was thus: no thinking about or planning the mod until I woke up the next morning.  I would sit down, at the start of the three-day period, and go: okay, what am I going to do?

The result is Nestlings, and is what I’m going to term “a short experiment in story and mood”.  Short, as in really short. Story and mood, as in it tells a story and hopefully establishes a mood. As with the Post Script episodes, you can theoretically run from one end to the other alarmingly quickly. But I hope people will explore more carefully. Otherwise they’ll miss out on the story bit of the story.

My first task was to work out what, exactly, I was going to make.  I knew I couldn’t do anything particularly expansive, as the build time would be enormous. Realistically, it had to be something I could physically create in two days, in order to leave a day for polishing and packaging. I’d played a neat proof-of-concept mod called Quietus the previous day, a simple room-escape game set in a creepy house.  A creepy house seemed reasonable. Structurally, it’s buildable in an hour or two.  Allow a day for the art pass, and the rest of the remaining day for scripting and triggering and turning it into more than just an explorable set of walls and floors… and that’s that.

But what to do in this creepy house?  What I realised pretty quickly is that, with this time budget, I’d not left any space for actually designing a game.  So I had the tremendous idea of just leaving it out.  There is no game.  I’ve been talking to Radiator creator Robert Yang a bit lately, and it strikes me that we differ in our thoughts on the possibilities of game design.  He’s very much of the belief that the best games should offer meaningful gameplay that is tied to a strong narrative, all contextualised by a strong, identifiable aesthetic theme.  Which, for the most part, I’d agree with.  But where he sees pure narrative in game engines as a bit of a dead-end, I see it as something of which we’ve barely scratched the surface.  There’s something added to – say – Dear Esther by the fact that it’s you pushing that W key to move your unidentified avatar forwards.  For me, something like Esther occupies this fascinating space between film and the interactive media, taking a form that borrows from both but isn’t quite either.  I’ve said it before, in some length, but Esther would not work if it were made in any other way.

So I had no problem with leaving the game out, which ends up serving two purposes. One: it cut down on planning time.  Two: it kind of serves an aesthetic purpose in terms of what I’d like to see more experimentation with in this media.  And even though a load of people might not dig this style, whether Nestlings is any good or not kind of isn’t the point of the project anyway.  As I said to Robert yesterday, when I call my stuff “experimental”, I’m not just churning out a buzz-word.  I really am throwing things at the Source engine, and seeing what sticks.

So. It was going to be a story.  But what about?

I had a dream a few months ago.  In it, I played the most extraordinary game.  It was Eternal Darkness, according to the disc I put in, but it wasn’t; it was a co-operative exploration game set in a huge haunted house.  The aim of the game was to piece together the story, by collecting a variety of torn-up clues from various rooms in the mansion.  As you literally pieced them together, the story began to unfold.  It was a jigsaw in an adventure game in a mood piece.  It was fabulous.

What I loved about this nonexistent game was how it vibed off some really cool design ideas.  The first was that it was often pretty boring, and you’d want to do anything you could to speed things up.  That often meant splitting up and going off to find clues from different parts of the house.  But you could only voice-chat with players who were in the same area of the house.  And every half-hour or so, this astonishing cloud-thing, a little like the smoke monster on Lost or the Collectors in Korsakovia, would turn up.  And if you weren’t there to fight in a group, it’d absolutely kill you.  Like Left 4 Dead’s Tank on the highest difficulty setting, it really needed the whole group to bring it down.  So it became the most fabulously risky game, and the atmosphere skyrocketed.

Someone really should make this.  Email me for my bank details, so you know where to throw the royalties.

Anyway. I knew I couldn’t make that game.  But I liked the weird cloud enemy idea.  So I started thinking about how I could tell a story about that.  What could it be?  I’m not really into the supernatural as story ideas, generally – I mean, how do you write about something unexplainable, something you haven’t experienced to any degree?  So I bounced off that and thought, what if the things we think of as supernatural are actually totally natural, a scientific phenomenon, and people were trying desperately to work out what was going on?  Then I remembered Outcry, an almost obscenely imaginative adventure game that pours everything into the opening third then completely crumbles afterwards.  Its opening, about a man investigating alternate dimensions by synthesising disassociative drugs, struck me as really sensible.  Because, well, where do you go when you – and let’s not make any bones about this, as it’s pretty clear what Outcry was getting at – shove a load of ketamine in your face?  So, shameless as ever, I nicked Outcry’s plot.

The thing with Outcry was… it had some amazing ideas.  The world design was just astonishing.  It’s the game that made Quinns cry “Holy!” just upon seeing screenshots (and, importantly, go “Ghhhn” upon hearing that the game itself was a bit shit).  I have a feeling its artists spent a few hours on the mind-alterers themselves because, well, no piece of media has got that psychedelia thing so spot-on, so perfectly understated and quietly fucked up.  The story, as I’ve said, started out neat, but descended horribly as it went on, completely abandoning its earlier cleverness and going down a sort of pure-supernatural route, before forcing an ending that makes literally no sense.  And the writing itself – or, at least, the translation from Russian – was just horrible.  So I kinda feel okay about nicking some of its basic ideas.  I’m borrowing and revising, let’s say.

But from there, I realised I didn’t want to retell the whole “alternate dimensions” thing.  So instead, I brought in some visitors.  The weird smoke monster things from my dream.

There are two story strands running through Nestlings’ five-or-so minutes.  The first is about the nestlings themselves: what are they?  Where did they come from?  Are they real or a metaphor, and if a metaphor, for what?  This strand is intentionally loose, though I hope people don’t think that’s because I couldn’t decide myself.  The story is written in such a way as to show that a few different situations are equally possible.  I’d be interested to know which direction people lean in.

The second strand is what I’m calling “Annabelle and the Scientist”, which very nearly became the name for the whole thing.  That would have served a purpose, because while the story is superficially about the nestlings, it’s kind of more about an intriguing relationship between a researcher and his… well, his what?  His wife? Girlfriend? Daughter? Sister?  Again, left intentionally unanswered, for the simple reason that I felt it would have muddied the point.  I knew that, since I was telling a pretty abstract story, I wanted to have a more human element to it as well.  So the idea of this guy, so hopelessly obsessed with his work but longing for his lost love of some kind, came into play.  The scientist is torn between his work out here in the forest and his life back home, but ultimately, his work comes first.  Annabelle, who I worked in as someone who’d come across this bizarre phenomenon before, just wanted to be with the scientist again.  Hopefully it’s a really identifiable story of two people who are completely in love, but torn apart by external factors.

From this, I decided I wanted to make the ending a really simple, poignant one.  I’d already established that the player would “meet” the nestlings in some form at the end, and the way everything was coming together, it made sense for the scientist to have died in this place, killed by his work, essentially.  But I began to think about the idea of having Annabelle have come searching for him.

But the final scene, which is absolutely pure theatre (notice the single spot-light shining down on them, and the most basically detailed room in the whole building – it’s total Romeo and Juliette on-stage), came about pretty much by accident.  I’d had the idea that Annabelle would have died too, in the scientist’s arms, but trying to fiddle them both together into a sort of embrace without creating new animations proved impossible.  Sod it, I thought – let’s just have them both crumpled up dead in the attic.  So I placed two ragdolls, side-by-side (using Drs. Breen and Mossman from Half-Life 2 as models, but with Mossman reskinned to look older and Breen to look younger), and compiled the map.  What I never, ever expected was that Annabelle’s hand would land outstretched, as if reaching out for the scientist in a final parting glance.

I got shivers, honestly.  I hope that doesn’t sound big-headed.  But here’s a character I’ve created, and through the joys of technology, she’s ended up doing something that I completely didn’t expect, but which created the most astonishing, touching moment.  In her death, the character of Annabelle came to life.

I fiddled around with the scientist until the same thing happened.  In the final scene, they’re not embracing, but they are holding hands.  I almost find this more touching than a full-on hug.  There’s something really delicate about hand-holding, yet something that signifies two stronger people than it would have if they were clutching onto each other for dear life.  It almost feels as if they’ve both accepted their fate, and they’re just quietly there for each other.

And that’s the story.  Right there.

Setting it up in the game was the problem.  This is what I’m very aware I haven’t managed to do very successfully.  I knew I didn’t want to copy Esther and go for triggered dialogue.  Besides, I’m kind of doing that in Post Script already.  So I lifted another thing from Outcry: the idea of rummaging through the scientist’s notes.  This is something used in a few games, and to be honest, it always bothers me.  Why would someone leave torn-out diary entries all over the place?  The way I wrote this into the story is crude, to say the least.

Big problem: where Outcry is a linear game, Nestlings lets you go into any room at any time.  So depending on the order in which the player enters the rooms, the story could be totally linear or wildly fragmented.  I knew, in this case, I’d have to have each note dated.  But something still doesn’t sit right about the delivery.  If I were to go back and completely revise one thing, it would be this.  I’m not quite sure how I’d do it, though.

For now, I came up with a sort-of work-around.  The idea was that I’d try to subtly guide players in some sort of order.  So when you first enter the house, what should catch your eye first is a note on the table.  Read that, and you’ll come out of the note pretty much face-to-face with the living room door.  Go in there, read that note, exit, and you’ll be face-to-face with the dining room door.  Leave the dining room and you’re at the bottom of the stairs, but it looks dark at the top, and hopefully you should have registered another door at the end of the corridor.  Go there, read that note, then take the plunge into the dingier upstairs.

Here, it all falls apart a bit, because of the way I designed the house.  One thing I made sure: you can’t get into the attic until you’ve read a particularly important note.  Another problem here: there’s a key texture applied to the note, but I couldn’t get it to vanish when you’ve read it and supposedly collected the key.  Just a quirk of the entity setup in Hammer editor, I think.  Hopefully it’s no biggie.

And that’s how it all came together.  There are a couple of lurking bugs, which I’ve not been able to fix yet, but on the whole I’m pleasantly surprised with how it’s all come together. In many ways, I think it’s a stronger offering than the first episode of Post Script; it’s certainly a lot tighter.  It’s been a fun project to tackle, too, and really fascinating to see it organically evolve over such a short space of time.  And if a ragdoll animation ever creates a moment of accidental beauty like that again in my work… well, I’ll think myself a very lucky man indeed.

Enjoy Nestlings! Feedback, as always, is more than welcome.

8 responses »

  1. I felt the same as you. I found the final scene incredibly touching. It was almost unbelievable. And I also managed to follow your guidlines to what rooms to enter. As you intended I didn’t really want to go upstairs, as I was scared, so I did the downstairs first. I also managed to go to the right once I got upstairs. Probably because I was scared to go up the ladder.

    Again, a wonderful way to spend 10 minutes of my time. And I’m glad you went for the touching aproach at the end rather than going for the Quitus aproach of scaring the hell out of you.

    Good work!

    • Thanks for the words of kindness! It’s good to know you basically followed the path I wanted to guide you around. I’ve no experience whatsoever in trying to do the old Valve trick.

      Oli: *Your mum* is TLDR.

  2. I really liked the mod. I’ve always loved the story in games (and movies) and so this mod really appealed to me. I really enjoyed it and look forward to your work in the future.

  3. I’m enjoying these experiments in story-telling via game engine (Dear Esther, PostScript, Nestlings). Thanks, Lewis!

    A few random thoughts:
    I just played through Judith and like the way it cuts back and forth between the past and present – essentially it’s using the Dear Esther approach of triggered dialog (though via text instead of audio due to the limited engine).

    I’m not certain these Interactive Fiction FPS stories are any less games for their limited player interaction. Exploration has been a central mechanic of 3D first-person games since at least Bard’s Tale. Granted, BT offered combat and RPG mechanics to give you “something to do” while you mapped the city and dungeons. But, consider Colony (also way back in the 80s). While offering a basic shooter element, the game was 90% wandering around the base reading diary entries from multiple authors to try to piece together what happened, where each child’s cryo-chamber was hiding, etc… I found the story enjoyable, though I never finished it – the rudimentary FPS element was its undoing for me.

    Anyway, historical survey aside – I’m pointing out that exploration is gaming…and that perhaps some earlier entries offer insight as to how to structure a modern, graphically and audibly intense incarnation (much as you borrowed/improved upon elements from Outcry and Quietus). The obvious ideas for expanding Nestlings center on size and breadth: weaving multiple threads into the notes left behind across larger locations – different authors telling different stories that intersect – even borrowing from Judith (one example) and flashing back and forth in time.

    As long as players are routinely making interesting discoveries and rudimentary navigation choices, you probably have all the gameplay you need. But, perhaps one direction the Interactive Fiction FPS genre could tackle is to make a game of collecting and assembling the information – via an engine whereby players capture each note/audio-log and try to piece them together into coherent stories? Essentially, assembling the scraps from your dream-game.

    No matter where the genre develops – tapping the creativity of a broader pool of storytellers by engaging those who wish to use this medium strikes me (a net consumer of fiction) as a good thing. I’m looking forward to the next installment of PostScript or Nestlings or whatever is next!

  4. I had one major problem with Nestlings. The fact I had to interrupt the atmosphere to go to moddb and find out what on earth to do with the key. That glitch of it not working on the ladder is rather a major one, leading me to believe I hadn’t yet found the door to which the key was for.

    Also the sparking lightbulb was a cheap ending. A haunting sound and a dark mass appearing would have been far scarier.

  5. Pingback: Radiant Whisper » This entire post is so that I can use the word ‘microcosm’…

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