Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Game Translation: Half Life Series

You play Gordon Freeman, a physicist with Black Mesa, who arrives for a typical day at work which ends in disaster when your experiment involving a mysterious crystalline substance in the Anomalous Materials laboratory opens some sort of rift that allows all kinds of alien monstrosities into our world.  You must face both the U.S. Hazardous Environment Combat Unit (HECU) and the aliens themselves before finally visiting an alien planet and killing the Nihilanth.  The mysterious G-Man collects you from the exploding facility, has a few mysterious words with you, and then drops you off in a train in a future where the Black Mesa Incident attracted the Combine to Earth.

First up, fill your levels with every cool thing you can think of in a manner that links them all together logically and with the maximum possible level of excitement.  Vents?  Got them.  Squad tactics?  Absolutely.  Rubble coming down at the right moments?  Yup.  In the second game you also get a Gravity Gun where you can fling furniture and other bits and bobs at the enemy which leads to some puzzles and some simply cool kills.  This game is certainly big on throwing obstacles your way so that you have to find a way around them.

So how to include this in your game?  Easy.  Look at the location and think about how it might fall apart in an inconvenient manner.  Could the floorboards be weak and break when they put their weight on it, forcing the PCs to jump backwards and then find a way around it?  Could a truck without tyres block the road and require the PCs to find a way to lift it off using some handy crane?  Obviously the PCs will have their own ideas about possible solutions which brings me to the next point....

In Half Life, the journey through all of the obstacles feels so natural and you really should try to give that sense to your PCs.  You go left and it turns out that left was the way to go.  You put weight on the seesaw and it turns out that was what you were meant to do.  The easiest way to do this with PCs is to let them be right so long as some effort was involved.  The PCs figure out a decent way to pass over the broken floorboards using the ceiling beams rather than heading outside to get those long planks?  Okay, that's fine.  Make that be the new solution.  Now they just need to make a few rolls.

Of course, if the PCs don't have any ideas in mind it can get tricky.  Draw their attention to the long planks.  Let them see one on the floor below through the gaps.  Allow them an Idea roll (Knowledge Engineering or Dungeoneering roll, Intelligence + Relevant skill roll) to point out certain avenues if they get stuck.  Phrase it in a certain way: "The weak floorboards are a gap between you and your goal" so that the problem is defined in such a way that crossing the gap seems like the best option, in case the players get confused because they think of the weak floorboards as a sign of a No Go Area or a puzzle where they need to find the solid ones.

Be willing to get creative with these obstacles as well.  Just look at those elements in Sandtrap where you can't step on the sand or else risk being attacked.  You therefore have to manipulate the environment around you so that you can go from object to object without, ideally, hitting the sand at any point.

Also choose locations for their sheer excellence.  Ravenholm is a good example of this.  A ruined section of an Eastern European city due to its high numbers of head crabs and head crab zombies.  The primary NPC here, an alleged priest, with his manic laughter and his love of killing the zombie is also really cool.  They also set up a number of traps that you could use against the head crabs and added some decidedly dark and creepy areas where people, living or zombified, had died.  City 17 with its suppression field preventing pregnancy and its dystopic mind-controlled soldiers is also a pretty cool location and they make the most of it with trips past empty playgrounds, around rooftops, and chased by said dystopic soldiers.

Where could the PCs visit?  What are the most awesome locations there?  The most atmospheric?  And how can you ramp it up?  A sheet of paper and a brief brainstorming session might help here.

Turn a few of those tricks on their head for more excitement.  Vents.  Sure, but at one point the HECU shoot the hell out of the vent you're in and the vent collapses into the middle of the passageway.  Headcrabs are damn creepy but how about black headcrabs that can't kill you but drop your hit points to 1 and therefore make it easy for anything else to kill you.
"Wait, did he just talk?  Nope, that was a grunt."
Also, squad tactics and enemy A.I.  You're not a computer programme and therefore have an even richer array of possible choices.  Play SWAT games or watch television shows.  Read up on military and police tactics.  Learn the rules of your game so you know the benefits, if any, that higher ground, charges, flanking, and cover can provide and then get your enemies to use all of those things (presuming the enemies should be that clever).  Instead of just generating a single enemy's statistics for them to fight, generating a squad with complementary merits or feats to ensure that they can all bounce off each other in a fancy fight.

A campaign based around Half Life, or including elements of it, should appeal to Tacticians and Action Heroes because of the use of obstacles, setpiece locations and a sense of 'flow'.  You go where you need to go because it feels natural.  This leads to a very streamlined and elegant gameplay experience where you get to feel clever without ever feeling frustrated.  Explorers would be more likely to notice that the game is on rails as even if you allow them to tackle the obstacles in any sort of ingenious way, these players are likely to run to the edges of the game world simply to learn something new about one particular aspect or another.  This will require a lot of bread crumbs to lure them back onto the path so that they don't become too obsessed with learning more about the Combine Soldiers.  They're here to explore the dystopic universe and see all the sights as well.  On the plus side, so long as your itinerary of locations are varied and interesting enough, they should be quite happy.

Investigators will be doubly troublesome due to their tendency to focus on gathering information on whatever piques their curiosity.  They also tend to be relatively combat shy (especially when it comes to confronting superior forces) and may go to great lengths to avoid combat and therefore find different ways to attempt to tackle the enemy Combine.  After all, they're more motivated by an intellectual game.  If you can insinuate that the answers to one riddle or another are behind those enemy soldiers, however (such as if you put recordings on their bodies as loot) then you can bet your bottom dollar you'll get Investigators more interested.

Communicators, as always, are generally more interested in the complex psychologies of other places and other times.  They will want to immerse themselves in that world and experience what it would be like to actually live there.  This might slow down the game a bit as they might be loathe to leave the resistance behind and might be quite happy to simply wander the streets of City 17 to see how people live their lives.  Couple them with Explorers and you'll certainly want to do some significant worldbuilding to ensure you can quickly generate the sort of locations and people they are looking for.

You can find the trailer for the game over here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Half Life used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Haunting Ground, Clocktower 3, Project Zero, Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Silent Hill: Downpour, Castlevania 64, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or In Cold Blood. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Silent Hill: Downpour as I'm pretty close to the end.
If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

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