Over Labor Day weekend, I got around to finishing Half Life 2: Episode One, the deeply satisfying expansion pack that picks up the storyline of Gordon Freeman as he tries to escape from City 17.
As great as the game was, I was blown away by the in-game Developer Commentary system. Each bit of audio is a “commentary node,” a little floating speech icon that can be activated by aiming at it and hitting the “use” button. The dialogue then plays, with additional information about who’s speaking and the length of the clip. (See videos below.)
Most of the game’s 115 nodes are audio only, pointing out interesting tidbits about the scene you’re currently in, such as the visual design, character dialogue, or gameplay. Some of the best examples discuss the iterations a stage or puzzle went through, why original versions didn’t live up to expectations, and how they reached their final design. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the minds of the developers, very much like sitting next to them as you play through at your own pace.
But a few commentary nodes do much more, taking over the player’s view to show them something hidden or entirely new. I’ve captured video from some of my favorites.
Here, in the Citadel’s Core control room, you can see three separate commentary nodes. The first two were from earlier in the game, referring to the first time I was in this room. The third node — my favorite of the game — whisks you away to an entirely hidden part of the map to explain how real-time TV displays are made. Note how the color of the third icon changes after it’s activated, marking itself like unread-to-read mail.
In this turret scene, the first commentary node explains Alyx’s behavior and how the turret design was modified after playtesters complained. The second turns on a hidden “node graph” layer and discusses how designers can use it to improve NPC’s movement and combat. Note that the player is invulnerable to damage for the duration of each clip, so as not to distract from gameplay.
This final video explains Alyx’s dynamic fighting animations by taking over the player’s perspective and cloning multiple copies of Alyx and a zombie, which creates a Mortal Kombat-style walkthrough of several variations. Fun!
There have been a couple earlier attempts at in-game commentary, most notably the “Developer’s Cut” of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (2004), a game that sounds awful but is widely considered one of the best modern first-person shooters. Valve was clearly inspired by Riddick, but has refined and improved the idea, making it so vital and interesting that it easily added four hours of replay value to my $20 purchase.
Sadly, according to Valve’s game statistics, only 15% of players have ever turned it on. So, try it out and help raise that number (it’s buried in the audio options). I really hope this feature becomes more popular in new games, or even as special edition reissues for older games. Hearing the original developers discuss, in context, games like Ico, Deus Ex, or (gasp!) Day of the Tentacle would be a dream.
Also, if you’ve finished HL2:EP1, this 47-minute fan-made commentary is thoughtful and funny. Highly recommended.