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You Talk, I’ll Decapitate These Zombies

Saturday, August 26, 2006
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Giant Robots and Speech Bubbles -- The Future is Now!

By now commentaries are so standard on DVD’s they’re expected. There’s even an attitude out there, one that irritates me quite thoroughly, where some folk deem commentatoring a filmmaker’s duty, and that Steven Spielberg’s a self-righteous dick for not talking over his movies for us. A movie can be a red pile of shit, but if there isn’t an alternate audio track from at least the SFX guy, it kinda feels like a rip-off.

For something so common in movies, commentaries are, as far as I can tell, brand-new to games. When Valve Software released for download a “deleted level” from their 2005 masterpiece Half-Life 2, called Half-Life 2: Lost Coast, they included a commentary mode, and it’s actually really fascinating.

And Lord, let our pixels be shaded and our ranges be both high and dynamic...Obviously, a game’s commentary can’t operate in the same manner a film’s would, but Valve’s solution is pretty natural for the medium: as you progress through the level, you’ll come across a number of shiny speech bubbles, just sitting there. Activate one of them and someone from the game’s (large) design team will give you a short little speech, describing some interesting item of note about this area — it is, appropriately, like a cross between a film commentary and HTML hyperlinking. And being as this is already taking place in an open, virtual space, they don’t just have to tell you things, they can also show you things: below is a screen shot from a commentary about “node maps” — those green lines you see laid across the floor help guide the game’s AI enemies to more realistic combat strategy; and after that is a shot comparing light rendering done under the original Half-Life 2 technology to a new one they had implemented in Lost Coast.

It all comes back to triangles.

Gary McTaggart says 'Light is pretty.'

This hypercommentary format means you won’t find the “natural” camaraderie you often get from film commentaries — it’s purely informative (at this point; but if this type of thing catches on, there’s a lot of potential that could be tapped). One thing that makes this different from a pure-information movie commentary is that while even people who have no interest whatsoever in the behind-the-scenes of films still tend to know the basics of the process — screenplay, storyboards, trailers, makeup, lighting, CG — the process of making a multi-million dollar video game is still a relatively new thing, and one that’s typically hidden away in cubicles. When a director like James Cameron tells us some nitty-gritty detail we didn’t know about Aliens — his didn’t shoot it in anamorphic because that format creates depth of field problems! — it’s a bit dull; there’ve been a hundred movies about making movies that have told the world the most interesting aspects of the process already. But when Gabe Newell, head boss of Valve, talks about the requirements and challenges of designing an interactive arena of battle, or the tricks they use to make sure players don’t look the wrong way and miss an important story detail, or how they create a character who will be a constant presence at the player’s side through the bulk of the game and keep her realistic and sympathetic — it’s entirely new.

Gary McTaggart says 'Glowing balls are dangerous.'

Half-Life 2: Episode 1 is the continuation of Half-Life 2 that was released a couple of months ago, and Valve has been kind enough to include commentary with it as well. Lost Coast was a fifteen minute adventure; Episode 1 holds a good five to six hours of gameplay (which is short for a game, but as its title suggests, it is only the first part of an episodic release; parts 2 and 3 will come later). This means lots more comments.

Just as most movies simply do not call for a hundred minutes of the director describing his process (oh, the insights John Stockwell must have for us about his Into the Blue shoot!), this is not a practice I hope to see on every game. I think Madden is pretty self-explanatory, and the latest cascading tiles variation needs only three words of explanation: “Kinda like Tetris.” But Valve is blazing the trail in the newest and most quickly developing storytelling medium out there; what they have to say can be pretty significant. If this little bonus does catch on, and we start getting similar commentaries from creators like Miyamoto, Kojima, the guys at Rockstar or Will Wright, the information about their processes would not only be really welcome, it would certainly inspire new gamemakers to raise this medium even higher. If it doesn’t, then I suppose game companies will have to start making games about making games. laebmada

So long from the friendly robot!

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, August 28, 2006 10:41 am

    What happens if you shoot the speech bubbles? Does it destroy the commentary?

  2. Monday, August 28, 2006 9:46 pm

    The speech bubbles are unharmable. Because you can’t destroy an idea.

  3. Tuesday, August 29, 2006 8:02 am

    I think that’s really unfair. What if they become belligerent?

    What happens if you’re trying to take out a robot or something and one of the speech bubbles comes at you from behind? Doesn’t that make the game unfairly skewed?

  4. Tuesday, August 29, 2006 7:56 am

    Tell that to my Grade 7 art teacher…

  5. Saturday, September 2, 2006 1:14 am

    Not really related to the commentary aspect of this post, but here‘s a cool little Half-Life 2 video. Ever wanted to take a walk through Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater?

    I once built my childhood home in the Doom engine, and my college bedroom in Half-Life 1, and the ground floor of my highschool in Duke Nukem 3D. I had more free time back then.

  6. James17930 permalink
    Sunday, September 10, 2006 3:38 pm

    Too bad you never finished that Duke Nukem level. Hey, did that new Duke Nukem game every come out? You know, the one that was delayed like 5 years?

  7. Sunday, September 10, 2006 11:55 pm

    Nope. They’re still working on it. Their publisher recently offered the company making Duke Nukem Forever (that title was originally a play on Batman Forever — that’s how long this thing has been in development) half a million dollars to get it released on PC by the end of this year. It was first announced in 1997, so we’re almost at the ten year mark, not five.

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