Interviews

Dissecting Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Interview: Project lead David Speyrer on the operating table

David Speyrer was interviewed for his job at Valve on the day the original Half-Life went gold in late 1998. He started working there soon after, just as Half-Life 2 began its lengthy development. Since then, he's risen through the ranks from programmer to project lead.

Now, David talks us through some of the processes that led to Half-Life 2: Episode Two being the remarkable game it is. (Warning: there may be spoilers ahead...)

Has Episode Two taken you anywhere near where you'd thought the games would head after Half-Life 2? The escape-from-the-city buddy story?

David Speyrer: No. Well, during Half-Life 2's development, there were times when it was incredibly difficult to predict what the product would look like at the end.
That's part of the huge monolithic development cycle - they feel very unpredictable.

At the beginning of Episode One, we did have a pretty good road map story-wise of where we wanted to go, broadly speaking. We knew we wanted to get to the event which concludes Episode Two. We didn't know all the details of how to get there, and a lot of that's driven by gameplay experiments - what succeeds and what fails directs the story quite a bit.

But we had a story to tell about Advisors and about Alyx and about the struggle of the Resistance versus the Combine. We had goals for things like setting - wanting to take players into more open environments.

The final battle is an example of a scenario we were interested in exploring. Really broad, non-linear combat with a freeform epic feel. But no, we couldn't predict Episode Two as clearly back then.

There seems to be a real depth of narrative structure. The narrative is far more focused than it was in HL2. Is that deliberate?

Speyrer: I think we're learning how to tell stories in this medium with every product we release. With HL2, we introduced the storytelling technology which governs our ability to do these scenes - the facial animation and all that.

We were building it as we built the game, so it was really hard to predict the quality of the scenes we could do by the time the technology was going to be done.

We targeted a pretty conservative goal with our dramatic scenes, mainly because of the uncertainty of what we could produce. Then on Ep One, we pushed it a bit further. Then with Ep Two, from the outset, we wanted to tell a more coherent and satisfying story - we set out to really craft an arc.

I mean, HL2 did have an arc. At the beginning of the game you see the citadel - you end up there. There's a fair amount of foreshadowing and what-not. But specifically in terms of the story arc of Ep Two, we really wanted to make it feel completely satisfying and somewhat inevitable, and reveal some specific meaty back-story and character details in this episode.

A lot of our customers feel we don't say enough in our story. They really want to learn more about our universe. We're trying to do more of that, and it really comes through in Episode Two. We had a lot of comments from people who say that the story of this episode is really cool.

Perhaps the most satisfying moment was reuniting Alyx and her father Eli. They were always separated by screens which fizzle out. You had a fear they'd never meet. And then it finally occurs in that oasis in the middle of the action.

Speyrer: We really wanted to create a calm in the story in that point in the game. So much of the episode pushes you forward. There's the urgency of getting to White Forest before the Combine, and getting the data package there and all that. And then the final battle demands so much of the player.

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