Monday, January 28, 2008

Developer Commentary

Last week I bought “The Orange Box” as a birthday present to myself. Since then, I’ve probably written close to 10,000 words on in various unpublished blog posts. It’s been out for a while now, and after writing, I realized not too many people would be interested in reviews here when they can hop over to IGN or a ‘professional’ site.

One thing I really do want to write about it the ‘Developer Commentary’ feature. What I want to know is why all games don’t have this.

I’m a huge movie geek, and most of the time I’ll watch a movie just to get it out of the way so I can watch it again with the commentary. The ability to do a similar thing in a video game is just a total nerdgasm.

So, over the past few days I played ‘Half-Life : Episode 1’, ‘Half-Life : Episode 2’ and ‘Portal’ with the developer commentary turned on. (I’m not going to talk much about Portal here, because I feel that deserves its own post).

All I can say is that the commentary is amazingly interesting.

Fair enough, there are a few parts that went totally over my head, and would probably only interest people who are into the really technical details of how a game is made. (Some parts reminded me of the scene in Batman Begins where Fox explains how he made the antidote and Bruce Wayne says “Am I supposed to understand any of that?” and Fox replies “No, I just wanted you to know how difficult it was”)

What I really enjoyed, however, was the commentary from the voice actors, insights into how the designers ‘subliminally’ guide a player through an area and the problems of trying to put movie-like elements into a game.

Basically, in a game, the camera view isn’t ‘fixed’. Whereas a movie director can make sure the camera is pointed in the right direction, in a game, it’s comes down to where the player is looking at the time. Right at the start of Episode 1, there’s a spectacular scene of the Citadel beginning to collapse. I clicked one of the commentary nodes and the developer put it best:

“We can have an effect that took five people two months to get just right, and if the player isn’t looking in exactly the right direction, they totally miss it. In this scene, we had Alyx refer to the citadel multiple times and actually point at it just before the effect. We had to make this starting area fairly small and featureless so the player’s attention would be focused entirely on Alyx, so they wouldn’t miss the explosion.”

What the commentary in the Half-Life games really pointed out to me was how the attention to detail makes the difference between a good game and a great game.

In Episode 1, you spend the entire game with Alyx in tow. The commentary pointed out that if the player didn’t like Alyx, they just wouldn’t like the game so they had to go to extreme lengths to make the player sympathetic to the character.

This is very true. In Half-Life 2, I hated the co-op ‘squad’ style missions. The AI characters just got in the way, got you killed… and the way they ‘reminded’ you to reload every five goddamned seconds was nothing short of maddening. I don’t think I was the only person to play HL2 and actively try to get my squad mates killed.

The commentary pointed out just what a tightrope it was to ‘tune’ the Alyx character. Make her too weak, and you have one long escort mission where you’ll fail a lot through no fault of your own. Make her too powerful and it takes away a lot of the fun for the player (basically imagine playing HL2 and having to rush to get a shot in before an AI character finishes the bad guy off).

Plus, the biggest (and in my opinion) hardest thing to do is actually make the player care about the character. Not only do events in Episode 2 depend on it, if you’re playing through the game and don’t care whether she lives or dies…or even actively dislike her…the game just isn’t going to be fun.

The commentary shows the extreme lengths they went to in order to accomplish this. I mean, there’s the basic stuff that you’d expect, like they wanted Alyx to help reinforce the sense of urgency during the first part of the game, but found that play testers started to dislike her because she ‘nagged’. However, one of the commentary sections pointed out that everything, even down to the lighting was considered.

In one section you’re introduced to a new monster. A combine soldier that’s been zombified by a headcrab. In that section, Alyx makes a joke that it’s a ‘Zombine’. The commentary about this part said:

“Originally in this section, the light was red, which we felt really added to the oppressive, dangerous atmosphere. However, under red light, Alyx’s self-depreciating smile and facial expression after her joke looked more like a smirk at the player for not getting it. We felt that this harmed the sense of camaraderie that we’d spent all this time building, so we went through a ton of different lighting options until we found the one that looked right.”

That’s what I mean. It’s this incredible attention to detail that turns a good game into a great game. When I first started playing Episode One, I was extremely wary about having an AI character following me around. However, after the first half hour, I found myself wishing that Alyx had been around through all of Half-Life 2.

One of the other things that took me by surprise was the concept of ‘training’.

For example, it’s something I’ve never noticed, but when it was pointed out, it was obvious. The player will be given a problem to solve under stress free conditions so he can work out a particular gameplay mechanic, so the player will know what to do later.

For example, in the Citadel you use the gravity gun to fire an energy ball into some machinery to power up a bridge. Later, you have to bounce an energy ball off a wall in order to take out a bad guy you can’t take out directly. These simple puzzles make sure the player knows everything he needs to know for the climax of the first act where you have to shut down the Citadel’s core.

Basically, even though you don’t realize it, the game is filled with hundreds of mini-tutorials.

Anyway, I could go on and on, and go over pretty much all the cool stuff I found out through the commentary in all three games, but I’ll let you find out the rest for yourself…or I’ll end up with a 10,000 word post.


MC Etcher said...

very cool! I didn't know they had such things as developer commentary!

Paulius said...


Everything in the box comes with commentary, except for HL2.

You play the game as normal, but dotted around the map are floating speech bubbles that you click and get a bit of insight into that part of the game.

It's awesome.

Kato said...

I only listened to the commentary on the "Lost Coast" which was just a High Dynamic Range tech demo they released a couple years back. Still, I thought it was pretty neat, particularly since I'm into that kind of stuff (Computer Graphics).

I meant to listen to the Episode 1 commentary and never got around to it. Sounds like I'll have to go back and check it out.

As for your game posts... I think you should post them anyway if you have already written them. The nice thing about game reviews by bloggers, etc, is that they give insight into how Joe Everyman is playing and enjoying a game, as opposed to someone payed to do so for a living.

OzzyC said...

"... the ability to do a similar thing in a video game is just a total nerdgasm..." LMAO

I agree with Kato's comment. It's good to know what the average player thinks, not the fanboys.