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'Black Mesa' remix: The men who modernized 'Half-Life'

Black Mesa
Dabe Alan/Penny Arcade Report

By Sophie Prell
The Penny Arcade Report

"Black Mesa" isn’t a remake, it’s a remix.

That’s what four members of the team responsible for the "Half-Life" mod told the Penny Arcade Report this week. The audio analogy doesn’t stop there, either. Much of the team’s work has been focused on creating new story content and that means new lines to be recorded for the player to hear.

Gathered onto what was collectively referred to as a virtual beanbag chair was Carlos Montero, project lead; Mark Abent, programmer;  Ben Truman, story lead; and Mike Hillard, voice actor.

Truman was clearly excited when I asked about his work. I told him it surprised me that someone could be considered story lead on a game that had been written 14 years ago.

“I got a lot of flak for that when people asked me, they were like, ‘So you hit Ctrl+X, Ctrl+V, or what?’ The first 'Half-Life' is known for its storyline so of course we preserved that, but there are a lot of things that were introduced with all the different Source games as the engine developed, so we wanted to take advantage of that functionality.”

“The NPCs in 'Half-Life 2' are very different from the NPCs in 'Half-Life 1.' They’ve got a lot of chatter, ways that they communicate information to the player, and they interact with the world around them,” Truman explained.

In other words, "Black Mesa" is not a straight translation of the original "Half-Life." In the near decade and a half that has passed since "Half-Life's" release, many lessons have been learned.

A house of cards, glued together with nostalgia – DON’T TOUCH!
“There was a lot of stuff that was acceptable in 'Half-Life' that wouldn’t be acceptable nowadays,” Montero said. “Like when you turn a corner, and there’s just a guard standing there, and he just starts to follow you, and he didn’t say anything. We tried to make all that stuff make sense, just like, ‘Oh give him a line. He should say hi, or he should talk about what he was doing, he has to fit into the world.’”

The changes in voice acting and writing are sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, but the goal for all of them has been a sense of proper place. Truman described the situation as one full of fear and hesitation.

“It’s scary going into it. Putting in lines and everything, I realized, I am directly messing with someone else’s sense of nostalgia,” he said. “That has the potential to bite you in the ass so hard when you are taking somebody else’s dreams or memories and putting your own spin on them. It can be very, very dangerous.”

“It’s like building a house of cards,” Montero added.

“Exactly,” Truman said. “And everyone has their own house, and it reads, ‘Do not mess with my house.’” It makes sense, and is a fascinating, ironic circle: 'Half-Life' is often regarded as a revolution in video game storytelling, and it features one of the most iconic silent protagonists. Yet here was a team of men daring to add story and alter voices.

The men told me they tried very hard to walk the line of improving the game and staying true to the original vision. I told them I hadn’t even noticed Hillard had provided a new voice-over. I mistakenly thought it was the original audio, albeit cleaned up with distortion removed. 

 “That’s the ultimate compliment,” Hillard said with a laugh.

When you do it right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything
Hillard told the Penny Arcade Report that five years of voice work went into "Black Mesa," which led to some obtuse requests.  “[Ben] might go back and say, ‘Hey Mike, can you say a line this way, to make it sound like it did two years ago?’”

Not only did voice-over have to match across the five-year stretch of time, but the team also spent a lot of focus on making the tone consistent across re-created lines and newly-written ones.

“A good example of this is the ridiculous ties line,” Hillard said. The line in question is simple: “Why do we all have to wear these ridiculous ties?” Hillard explained that the mod team wanted to deepen characterization while retaining the original tone of such lines. “So if you click on that scientist a bunch of times, he’ll say more things about his pants being pleated, and everything like that. But the big thing is they all have to sound the same.”

The sad part is, even with a project eight years in development and five years of voice work, it feels like a lot of work is going unnoticed. The team told me that the only communication received from Valve has been a notice of their acceptance to Steam’s Greenlight program, and players don’t seem to explore as much as the developers would like.

“We noticed a lot of people would just go in a linear path, and never look around. We were like, ‘Look around, look behind you!’” Abent told the Penny Arcade Report. “We were yelling into our mics going ‘Look, look, look! Just turn around, you’re gonna see something awesome!’ But they just kept going forward and it’s like… ugh.”

The team seemed grateful for every person who has played "Black Mesa,"  even if Steam has been quiet and players don’t often act according to expectations.

The mod’s release marks fulfillment of a dream for them, Montero said. “When 'Half-Life: Source' was released, I think there was this spark. It was a dream, you know? And everyone had it at the same time. Everyone had this dream of what 'Half-Life' could be after playing 'Half-Life 2.' That’s exactly what we wanted to make. That’s really the crux of it.”

"Black Mesa" isn’t a modded version of "Half-Life," it’s updated, remixed, and in some subtle ways re-imagined. You can download it now to see for yourself and, on behalf of the people who put it together, I humbly suggest you do a bit of exploration.

For more from the Penny Arcade Report see: