Merciful Minerva!

At this point, I probably don’t have to tell you how awesome Portal is. On the off chance you haven’t heard of it, I’ll only say that it’s a first-person puzzle game about shooting wormhole-style portals in walls and using momentum in clever ways, and is filled with delightfully black humor. It’s also only $20 and takes 4-5 hours to finish which, as I think I’ve mentioned somewhere on here before, is the perfect length and price for me: twenty bucks, about five hours of game. Go get it right now if you don’t already have it. (Actually, finish reading this post first, because you might want to buy The Orange Box instead.)

Portal’s already been thoroughly covered by the other video game blogs, however, and they’ve already gushed about it just as much as I could, so I wasn’t compelled to post just about Portal. What really got me to sit down and evangelize this morning was an amazing mod called MINERVA: Metastasis, created solely by a guy named Adam Foster over the course of two and a half years. It was started as a Half Life 2 mod, but switched to a Half Life 2: Episode One mod to make clever use of Stalkers, Zombines, and some beautiful HDR lighting effects.

I first checked out Minerva a couple years ago when only the first chapter of the game was available. I was very impressed by the design, but was sad that it was so short, and presumed that that 8-minute-ish first chapter represented about a third of the finished game. The premise is a very clever use of Half Life 2: Episode One‘s existing assets; rather than yet another Gordon Freeman adventure, you control a nameless Combine soldier who’s been reprogrammed, Terminator 2-style, to be more or less one of the good guys, and is airlifted onto an isolated island fortress to do some reconnaissance for “Minerva”, a mysterious scientist who watches your progress through your eyes and talks to you throughout the game via on-screen text. Being a Combine soldier has its advantages; you can actually open most of the “Combine locks” on doors in the game. Of course, the other Combine soldiers on the island immediately sense that you’re no longer one of them and open fire on you as soon as land, which makes the beginning of the game somewhat of a pitched battle, but once you’ve cleared the beaches the difficulty calms down, and then steadily ramps back up as you descend deep, deep, deep beneath the surface.

The original release ended shortly after you began your descent, and like I said I presumed that the final version would be about three times that length, making it a very polished little mod with a 20-30 minute play time. The final, full version of the mod was recently released, and since Portal got me interested in Source games again I gave it a whirl, and was amazed to discover that that first chapter really only accounts for about a tenth of the complete game. Not only that, but as you move deeper into the facility beneath the island, the game literally becomes deeper in every possible way; the plot thickens, the map design improves, the fights become more complicated, and the puzzles become trickier. Minerva actually develops a sort of “Zelda” feel, with weapons and physics being used in clever ways that the official Source games never thought of (and without the over-used Gravity Gun making a single appearance!), and just when I thought I’d reached the end, I discovered that it was actually just the halfway point, resulting in the most entertaining “there and back again”-style game I’ve ever played (which is saying a lot because I usually hate that design choice). It has numerous, spectacular set-pieces, and is so well constructed that I honestly think it’s just as good as HL2: Episode One itself, and am absolutely astounded that it was all built by one person. My one and only suggestion for improvement is for the developer to replace the text communications from Minerva with actual voice acting (and I’m sure many quality voice actresses would be willing to work for free on a project this impressive), although by the end of the game I’d gotten used to the text, and Minerva thankfully only talks to you during breaks in the action, so you’re never trying to fight off enemies or solve puzzles with a screen full of text.

Because Minerva is an HL2: Episode One mod, you’ll need HL2: Episode One (which is only $10) to play it, but Minerva itself is free, and to tie back to the top of this post if you don’t already have Portal and Half Life 2 either, then you might as well splurge and get The Orange Box, because then you’ll end up with Portal for $20, HL2: Episode One (and, by extension, Minerva) for $10, and Half Life 2, Team Fortress 2, and HL2: Episode Two (that’s a lot of twos!) all for another $20.

Valve, if you’re reading, please offer Adam Foster a job on HL2: Episode Three, and please work with him to port MINERVA: Metastasis to an XBL download for the Orange Box so the 360 people can also enjoy this masterpiece. Adam Foster, if you’re reading this, thanks for making the best mod I’ve ever played. (The second best mod I’ve ever played being Don’t Eat the Mushroom, for the game Knytt Stories.)

games you can’t win because you’ll play against you

About a month ago, I put video games on hold (except the flash fighting game! I promise I’m not abandoning you, Joseph!), and started helping friends make movies. I couldn’t quite explain why I was doing it; the best explanation I could provide was that I was “lonely” making games, but beyond that all I could say was that it just felt like the right thing to do.

I had lunch today with a friend who did a similar thing; he put a lifetime spent writing on hold to help out on movie making (we’re currently working on the same movie, a family drama with a HL2-ish setting called In the Wind) because he was also feeling lonely and unrewarded. Talking to him, and comparing my experiences with video games to his experiences with writing, I was finally able to crystallize why I had lost my passion for making video games, and what it really boils down to is the amount of soul-crushing isolation. This also turns out to be a good insight into why making video games is nothing like making movies and never will be.

When you make a movie, you’re hanging out on the set with at least half a dozen people at any time — half a dozen on a tiny, shoestring-budget movie, and sometimes literally hundreds of people on a big-budget movie — and that’s just the crew. You’re part of a team, and after always working solitary sorts of jobs and spending my free time making video games, working on a team has been an amazing new experience for me. Everybody’s pitching in together, relying on each other, and helping each other out. Everybody’s getting feedback and ideas and interaction from everybody else, and the movie improves because of it. (Ideally, at least. Teams are certainly also prone to be giant terrible clusterfucks of clashing egos and drama.)

When you make a video game, you’re sitting at a computer alone, invariably in the dark because you’ve been working since there was daylight and haven’t bothered to turn on the light now that the sun’s set. You’re working with no feedback from or interaction with other people. Sure, you can take a break and hang out with your friends / spouse / whatever, but they’re not working alongside you to make the game. If you’re working on a game with a “team”, it’s nothing like the “team” experience of working on a movie; each member of the team is sitting in his own dark little room working alone, and usually the members of the team never even meet. I employed half a dozen different artists on Season Stacker, and I never met a single one of them. Even on big projects at big studios, my impression is that everyone working on a game is isolated in his own little cubicle, only seeing the rest of his “team” at meetings, breaks, and lunch.

Once the script is written and production has started, the closest thing to making a video game in the process of making a film is editing; sitting in the dark, alone, assembling the assets of the production into a cohesive whole and smoothing out the rough spots. But even then, the editor usually has at least the director sitting there in the dark with him, giving him feedback and ideas and interaction as he works.

When a movie is finished, you show it to people. Even if it’s low-budget, you can usually find a local theater that will show it, and pack the theater full of people for a few showings. And even if it’s lower than low budget, you pack all of your friends (the friends who helped you make it, plus their SOs and a few dozen others) into your living room and you play the movie on your TV. You have an entire room full of people, and you can sit in the back and watch them enjoy your work. Hear them laugh at the jokes, “eew” at the gross parts, maybe even cry at the emotional parts. And at the end, they all turn around and tell you what a wonderful job you’ve done, and if your movie’s good enough they’ll even be sincere when they do it. It’s an amazing, wonderful, visceral reward.

When you finish a video game, you cast it into the abyss. If it’s indie, then you put it up on the web. If it’s commercial, then you send it off to the pressers and it ends up on store shelves. And then you sit, alone, and watch a number go up, which either denotes how many people have downloaded the game if it’s free, or how many units it’s sold if it’s commercial. If it’s a commercial game, a few people will probably give it clinical, sterile, disconnected reviews, breaking it apart into abstract pieces and assigning each of those pieces an arbitrary number. Graphics: 7. Replay Value: 6. And if you’re really really lucky, the best thing that could possibly happen is that someone you’ve never met and whose face you’ve never seen might give your game a 10/10 and call it “game of the year”.

In either endeavour you might also make some money, the most ambiguous of accolades.

Making video games, there are two experiences I’ve had that I’d call “the most rewarding”. The first is that at one point, for no clear reason, Dungeon Escape became incredibly popular, and on one day alone 132,020 people tried to play it all at once and crashed the server. That 132,020 made me about as happy as any six-figure number that’s not a paycheck can make a person, but I have absolutely no idea who any of those 132,020 people are, or what they actually thought of my game. I can only presume that that number became so high because quite a few people DID like it, and recommended it to people who also liked it and recommended it to other people, but aside from the four of five people who have emailed me to say “Thanks for the great game!” this is only conjecture. The second experience was when I made In the Pit, and a few days later I took it with me to a friend’s barbecue, and as guests arrived we made a few of them play it. As they finished it, they each staggered out, grinning, and told me how much they enjoyed it, and I momentarily had the faintest glimmer of the kind of reward that filmmakers feel when they screen a finished movie, only instead of hundreds of people, there were eight. Eight. Because you can only personally present a video game to one person at a time, and there was only time that night for eight presentations.

So, which would you find more rewarding? Which would make you feel more appreciated, and be more likely to send you smiling yourself to sleep at the end of the day? The number “10/10”, or hundreds of happy people, telling you — to your face — how much they love your work?

That’s why I’m primarily working on movies for now. I haven’t totally given up on video games; I’m still uncontrollably compelled to make them and will keep cranking out new games from time to time, but a hobby is what you do to feed your soul, and there’s a lot more soul in working as a team face-to-face with people you like and having a room full of smiles at the end of it than there is in sitting alone in the dark, wondering to yourself if what you’re doing is going to be good enough to make a number increase.