Many fan remakes are suffering disastrous results and have been canceled. However, the Crowbar Collective was more fortunate. Their fan-made Half-Life remake, Black Mesa, was finally released this March with the blessing of Half-Life creator Valve Software. The critically acclaimed Black Mesa is a big hit after 15 years of development. Gamasutra spoke with Black Mesa Lead Designer Chris Horn to learn more about reimagining the classic 1998 FPS.
Half-Life is considered an important game, which Valve initially ported to the current version of Source. When and why did you decide to try to redo it yourself?
Initially, Black Mesa started out with two teams of Half-Life volunteers and fans. At first, the two groups were independent and created their own versions of Half-Life Source: Overhaul. The idea came from a general frustration with the simplicity of the Half-Life: Source port and the belief that the original game could be brought to a higher standard with it.
In the end, the two groups joined forces and in mid-2005 announced a new project name - Black Mesa: Source. After a successful year of development and the success of the first trailer, we received a request from Valve to remove the word "Source" from the title, as our project was mistaken for an official Valve product, and therefore [around mid 2006] the project became simply Black Mesa.
It's been eight years since the original Black Mesa mod was released. Did you expect the new development to take so long? What problems caused the delays? In an industry where technology is advancing rapidly, do you think Source will still be relevant?
Initially, I think some of us suspected that transferring a mod version of a game to a new engine would take quite a long time in itself, but porting a mod to a commercial version with new features and improvements would take even longer. Besides that, we also had Xen. I took over as Chief Level Designer in 2012 and we split the workflow into porting the engine, improving the mod's levels, and creating decent multiplayer for a commercial release. Work was also underway to create final level design guides based on the original Xen. I created a development plan back in 2013.
One of the biggest challenges at this stage was updating the game to be visually relevant. Given the age of the engine, this was not easy. The difficulty of the levels on the new Xen maps was significantly higher than on the previous ones, tied to the Earth, sometimes three times the amount of resources on the map. This led to the necessary increase in the limits of the engine: it was something that we could not do with an unlicensed version of Source.
We didn’t think Source would still be relevant by this time, instead we constantly insisted that it be in line with our goals, updating it and improving it where necessary.
How did you persuade Valve to agree to the existence of the project so that it would not be closed [which is quite common in such projects]?
We didn't have much contact with Valve at all. As mentioned before, the only time we were officially contacted before the offer was to request the removal of the “Source” title from the project name. Valve then called us in 2013 to suggest a commercial license, which was pretty new to the industry.
Overall, how does Black Mesa improve on Half-Life, which for all its merits is already 22 years old, and which was released in a completely different game world?
I think we improved the environmental storytelling in the chapters first. Not only because of the increased interaction with NPCs, but also with the overall more realistic structure of the game. It seems obvious to state the visual improvements, but the key difference was the accuracy of the details in the places you visit - they help create a world-like atmosphere for the player.
We've also updated several mechanics to better match those found in Half Life-2, such as in-game action tips and built-in map tutorials to teach the player the mechanics before they start playing.
Keeping nostalgia for the original while introducing improved gameplay for the Half-Life 2 level was the main goal.
A lot of people talked about how much improved the game is at many levels, especially in Xen. What have you done to improve them, and why do you think they are held in high esteem by the players?
Xen was short and I decided to change it from scratch, create a unique version. The first thing to do is look at the overall flow and structure of the cards from our own design perspective. Take memorable components from the original, such as the fight with the Potter, the escape from Gargantua, and integrate them into a new and unique design. The tower was the first significant difference I conceived early on in the process as a locator that the player could use in Xen to get a sense of the world.
This formed the central focus of the design. A Xen atmosphere was created around her. It looked menacing, and the colors of the levels changed as you approached the tower, increasing the sense of its impact on the environment.
I think this is the theme, structure and attention to detail that players really appreciate, as well as the “wow” moments we've built into areas with multiple perspectives and animated creatures. The complexity of this new world and its symbiotic nature contrasted sharply with the earth's stretches, while at the same time it expanded the story and created a richer world to explore than the original.
Could you describe your workflow and how you stayed true to the original Half-Life?
Our original workflow was completely different than it is now. At the start of the project, each level designer took on at least one chapter, sometimes more [in my case Questionable Ethics and Surface Tension], as their main job. You are responsible for creating all things from block to artistic finish. Over time, work was inevitably done on other maps. Art assets were created from scratch for each chapter, on a case-by-case basis, to match the style of the area.
In terms of how long it took, "man-hours" are very difficult to measure in a 15-year project, some of us work thousands of hours each.
In most of the original areas, we wanted to create a nostalgic feel and structure for the environment. With Xen, we had a little more artistic freedom, and we created a single theme across all chapters, using the original narrative as a basis. Concepts for key components of the original have been created to reinforce the feel of the new Xen as the original. When creating reimagining, it is important to play on the strings of nostalgia, not bombard it and
The Topic of Article: Reimagining 1998 Half Life in Black Mesa: From the Developers.