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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.

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