Action Half-Life: The 5 a.m.

By Quintin Smith on March 31st, 2010 at 2:21 pm.

[I wrote this article for PC Gamer UK last year. It's the story of my brush with one of gaming's most fearsome map secrets, and a true story, and a love story. Kind of.]

Strangest game I ever played?

Well, okay.

It started when we met in the underpass at dawn. The memory’s hazy now but I remember it was the underpass, and I remember it was dawn, because it was always dawn in AHL_5am.

You ever walked around a deathmatch map without anybody firing a shot? It’s creepy. The map’s still a dangerous place built from killzones and bad angles, but without all the noise and adrenaline filling things up you become aware of the presence of something else. I am telling you right here that every deathmatch map ever made is haunted as fuck. Got to be. That many men don’t die in one place without leaving some ghosts behind.

So, after meeting up the four of us made our way to the hotel where we knew our journey would start.

* The Hidden Love *

It is the hardest one I’ve made so far.

You must be on a roundless mode to access it.

I’m hesitant to use the word surreal in light of what lay ahead, but we definitely looked a strange bunch. My friends were Indiana Jones, a witheringly ugly Solid Snake and a Mr. T with day-glo orange skin. I think I was an Escape From New York era Snake Plissken, but I could have been anyone. I was a lot of people back in those days.

In the alleyway next to the hotel we waited and watched as Indiana Jones pulled a revolver and took a shot at a door. Boom. Nothing happened for a moment, and none of us said a word. Was the door the way in? No, it was just a texture. You could tell just from looking at it that it could never be opened and nothing lay behind it. Then Indiana turned around and made his way to a perfectly ordinary wall.

The rest of us watched as Indiana paused next to it, as if taking a breath, then clipped right through, vanishing from sight.

And now, the hints. These are all I will ever give…

To get in, try the hotel interior. However, the beginning is not IN the hotel.

This was what we’d come for. One by one we went through that portal and entered the 5 AM’s secret.

The game we were playing was Action Half-Life, an immaculately balanced mod built from a dream of FPS multiplayer combat that was more cinematic and less twitchy than what was offered at the time. AHL was our Counter-Strike, except it was slower and had more room for heroics and villainy.

But AHL was also the favoured mod of a mad cabal of mappers who obsessed over easter eggs. What had started as the routine addition of little secrets which l33t players could show their friends quickly spiraled out of all proportion as AHL grew in popularity, and soon levels were being unleashed on the community with entire levels hidden inside them, mazes so big, inventive and intricate that the PC modding scene hasn’t seen the likes of them since.

And if the AHL community was the mecca for crazy mappers, then Hondo was God. The immaculate deathmatch maps Hondo constructed were dwarfed by the secrets buried underneath them, areas so cruel, opaque and imaginative they felt like claustrophobic expeditions into a broken mind.

Two of Hondo’s secrets even tied together into a single epic saga where players traveled through time trying to defeat an inter-dimensional beast known as Hgrethedelon, who appeared as a giant, unblinking eye. To look upon Hgrethedelon was death, and one of these two linked secrets ended with players marooned on a floating island that gradually broke apart to reveal a city-sized eye staring up at them. Players were giving no choice but to fall into the inky iris, and drown.

AHL_5AM was Hondo’s swansong- on the surface a cramped city downtown intelligently designed to facilitate action and player motion, few of the players who dived around it blowing holes in one other knew what lay beneath their feet. Behind a secret portal in 5AM was a labyrinth so nightmarish that the only person who knew the way through was Hondo himself. No player had ever seen the end of it, and trying to decompile 5AM to look at it in a map editor would crash whatever software you were using.

So, of course my friends and I had to try and beat it.

We only knew three things on the muggy summer night we launched our expedition. We knew the way into the secret, we knew beating it required more than one person, and we knew those who had tried and failed before us talked in fear of something called ‘Pear smash’.

Stepping through the portal we were teleported onto the face of a giant luminous clock that was submerged in a well of darkness. The numbers I to XII floated in the air and marked out twelve hours, and above us two hands marked some meaningless time. All was silent. We looked at the secret and the secret gazed back at us. I felt like we were boring it already.

‘Right’, typed Snake.

‘Yep’, I replied. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting. Four hundred palette-swapped bullsquids or something.

As our first cautious steps turned into less cautious jogging we quickly found we were walled in. After a minute we realised something was wrong. There were now only three of us. Indiana Jones was missing. His message popped up on our screens before we had time to start panicking.

‘WALK THROUGH THE ONE. The number one. There’s an invisible door underneath it.’

And so we did, and one by one we got dumped into the first proper stage of the secret.

This took us to an ordinary domestic living room built entirely out of a blue wireframes, suspended in that same endless blackness. Again we began our professional investigative technique of spamming the use key and rubbing ourselves against walls. Mr. T found the way out of the house first, which seemed like good news until we watched him take his first step out of the room only to plummet like a stone down into the shadows, where his body landed with an ugly, fatal sound. He reported he’d respawned back in the deathmatch level and would retrace our steps.

As the rest of us were wondering what to do we saw something in the distance.
A driverless flat-bed truck with glaring headlights was coming trundling up out of the black. Without a word we all threw ourselves into the back as it passed, the truck speeding us off to some unknown destination.

To dismiss Hondo’s work as ‘weird’ or ‘confusing’ is missing the point. The abstract realities he and many others created during the golden age of Half-Life modding and mapping pushed gaming in a direction almost never seen in commercial projects. Games always strive and sweat to recreate the familiar because people react better to it- as a developer, to attempt to play with the surreal is to alienate potential buyers and doom your game to sink without a trace. Think Vangers, Outcast, Project Nomads, Anachronox, Psychonauts, Darwinia, or even Omikron, all of which bombed at release due to a lack of either customer interest or publisher support. People don’t react well to what they don’t understand.

But as a designer, to doggedly have to stick to real-world rules and imagery is an unbearably sad thing. Not only are you putting your imagination on a leash, you’re ruling out a whole toolset that can be used to get emotional responses from your players. So many feelings thrive in the unknown, not just surprise and confusion but also fear, awe and wonder. Look at something like Morrowind. One of the reasons it earned itself a rabid fanbase while Oblivion merely sold well is because the creatures, cultures, architecture and landscapes in Morrowind were unlike anything we’d seen before. By contrast, Oblivion was trite. There is no moment in Oblivion that rivals getting lost in the Ashlands, seeing your first Netch or Silt Strider or piecing together the island’s odd bit of slang (fetcher, enwah, serah).

Or, to put it another way: The familiar is fucking boring, and some of us will dig very deep to find something new.

Back in 5AM we’d now made it through hours 1, 2, 3 and 4. Hour 5 had stayed closed for some reason, but 6 was wide open.

Hour 3 taken the biggest bite out of our stamina so far. It turned out to be a maze (joy) where the floor, walls and ceiling constantly flashed through a seizure inducing pattern of the brightest colours the engine could muster. Every time I ended up back at the start of the maze I’d felt a spark of genuine panic, and finally escaping it to be deposited back on the clock’s face was like sinking my eyes, brain and soul into a warm bath. So far progress had been tough, but nowhere near tough enough. We were being toyed with.

Hour 6 dropped us into a giant chamber made entirely out of alternating red and white tiles. Again we scouted the perimeter of the room and started flinging ourselves against walls like moshers to find the way out, but this time it wasn’t so easy. Ten minutes later we were still stuck, and I decided to take a break to go pee. Looking away from the monitor it was with no small amount of gut-terror that I realised something was very wrong and turned back to type a message to my friends.

‘OH FUCK’, I sent, followed by ‘LOOK AWAY FROM THE MONITOR.’

My friends’ responses were almost instantaneous. ‘oh god’, ‘ARGH’, ‘No fucking way’.

Our real worlds had turned monochrome. Some optical trick involving those red and white tiles had broken our eyes, and we could only see in pea green, sickly yellow and all the shades in between.

Doing our best to ignore this exciting new disability we returned to the game and began spacking against the walls with a new, crazed meticulousness, each of us splitting up to check one wall. We found the exit five minutes later- a single tile you had to jump to fit through. That got us back on the clock with hour 7 now open, and we dived into it with the same ferocious emptiness that had driven us here in the first place.

The four of us found ourselves at the bottom of a pit then. A simple brown pit that was so small we were standing shoulder to shoulder. Looking up we could easily make out the opening at the top, but it was obscured by something big and green that filled the whole pit–

‘oh NO THE PEAR SMASH’ typed Snake as the rest of stared up dumbly. The shape was getting closer. For the thousandth time that night we scrabbled at the walls, but this time it was pointless. There was nothing to be found. AHL does let you lie down though, and we all expertly flung ourselves to the floor hoping the massive pear would stop before getting that low.

It didn’t stop. In one thundering crush we were all reduced to paste.

We respawned in deathmatch formation back in the level, guns out and separated, as if the game was trying to stop this nonsense and get us back to killing each other. And while we’d arrived at that special time of night where perseverance turns to idiocy in your head, we’d also reached the meat of Hondo’s secret.

‘Alright’, Indiana Jones typed from whatever corner of the map he was in. ‘Let’s try that again.’

And so we did, and again we got our brains caved in by the giant pear. We were missing something. And so, with exhaustion peering over all of our shoulders, we started looking.

I could tell you we found that something we were looking for. I could tell you Indiana Jones found the switch behind the exit of the epilepsy maze, and that Solid Snake spotted the one sticking out of a wall in the eye-ruining prison. I could tell you Mr. T hit the third switch on the ceiling of the swiss-cheese room and that I found the last one by riding the truck past all the Escher-like staircases to the end of the non-existent road.

I could tell you that once all those switches were flipped it opened up a means of getting on top of the pear if someone acted as bait and lured it down first.

And it’s tempting to say we did manage it all, just to make this into a proper story, but we didn’t. Not even a little bit. After another hour of searching we gave up. We only found out about the switches when we read a guide to ahl_5am, months later, that got slightly further than us before the author’s team had encountered their own brick wall.

And you know what? I don’t mind that we didn’t make it. Not because we got further than so many others before us, and not simply because we tried, and not because of all the horrific crap that lay in wait that the guide went on to describe- the ugly tanks, the Forbidden Street, the reversed gravity, the dismembered little girl you find in a briefcase and then have to leave one player alone with to progress.

None of that matters to me. The reason I don’t mind that we didn’t make it is because that leaves AHL_5am a mystery.

To this day I’m not sure anyone’s made it to the end of the secret. No-one but Hondo himself, and he’s dropped off the internet since. That means that any group of gamers on the planet can still be the first team to make it through, write a guide and immortalize themselves in gaming history, defeating Hondo and turning his nightmare into a tourist attraction.

Maybe it’ll be you. What are you afraid of? Action Half-Life can still be found on the internet, and the 5am is still out there, still waiting. It can wait all day.

, , , .

126 Comments »

  1. Helis says:

    Use Noclip?

  2. Lagged says:

    When I saw the thumbnail, I started having weird flashbacks of getting smashed by a random fruit but couldn’t figure out why.

    Wish I hadn’t lost my copy of HL; I would love to try these maps out again. They were amazing.

    • Wulf says:

      If you still have the serial lying around, you can just plug that into Steam and get a free copy on there. You probably don’t, but I figured I should mention it!

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      Also, I believe anyone who owns the Orange Box — and if you’re a PC gamer, you really should own it — has access to all the old Half Life games, too.

    • CMaster says:

      @Wisq
      Nope.
      Although if you can find an old HL1 CD key, you wil get OpFor, Blue Shift ect thrown in.

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      @CMaster: Really? Because I recall gaining access to all those once I registered the Orange Box, and I don’t recall entering my HL1 CD key.

    • Vinraith says:

      @Wisq

      CMaster’s right on this. The Orange Box got you HL2 and Ep 1 (usually as gifts) as well as Ep 2, Portal and TF2. It did not include any of the HL1 series. Personally I didn’t have any HL1 products on my Steam account until two years after getting TOB, when I finally got around to plugging in my HL1 key. I have a friend who has TOB but does not have, and has never played, any of the HL1 games.

    • Premium User Badge

      jester says:

      so a copy of half-life source won’t work for this? it has to be the original half-life 1?

  3. reginald says:

    whats the command ? sv_wireframe 1 ? change the render mode, it should make spotting entities
    easier.

    fantastic article. I remember spending a lot of time integrating hidden doorways and secret passages during my HL1 mapping days. I still yearn for that community and toolset. it was a time when you had the same tools as the “big guys” and with enough effort you could match or surpass their own work.

    even with XSI modtool and all that other crap, you can’t surpass Halflife 2 or Left 4 Dead. too much of games is materials, animation and normal mapping.

  4. Ninja says:

    Great Article.

    Reading that makes me kind of disapointed that I’m too young to have experienced these things (I mean, I could have played these mods when I was younger, but I had not the time nor knowledge to use mods or computer games).

    I thought bestinclass had a lot of secrets. If somebody started making maps on tf2 with puzzles like these, I could totally get behind it.

    In fact TF2 could take these to a new level. Not just puzzles, but class specific puzzles. I mean, it’s one thing to fill a room with no visual sign of the exit, but it’s another to put it high on a random wall, forcing people to rocket/sticky jump.

    Kind of depressing really. If I was clever enough to do something like it, and knew how to use Hammer I would totally do it, but Hondo probably has quit his mapmaking. Probably to write Tim Burton his movie scripts.

  5. Davie says:

    Wow. Good article, sir. I was quite intrigued, and I had no idea something like this existed. This sounds spectacular.

  6. Adventurous Putty says:

    Holy shit holy shit holy shit

    OK, I don’t know if the creepiness of the whole Hgrethedelon arc is just getting to me or what (it’s before my time, so I’ve only just been reading about it), but holy shit, I just googled “Hgrethedelon” to get info on it and this mod came up on ModDB.

    http://www.moddb.com/mods/tundra-cools-campaign/images/hgrethedelon-is-back1

    It’s a small, nondescript Left 4 Dead mod that makes very specific mention of that story arc, and nobody seems to have picked up on it. Has Hondo passed the torch to someone? Could we be seeing a revival of this sort of secret mapmaking on Source?

    Or maybe I’m just going insane. *shudder*

  7. Monk says:

    Dangit, Hondo, we wanted to port ASYLUM to RQ3 back in the day but I think you nixed that because you were going to do a port to AUT or something!

  8. Jayt says:

    this is why I love pc gaming, and reading rps

  9. Brimstone says:

    yeah playing old PC games it always felt like ANYTHING could happen. the grainy textures and endless mazes… you’d start in Wolfenstien and end up somewhere else….

  10. Jerry_111 says:

    have you guys seen this attempt by bunch of ppl from facepunch to beat the level?

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      I’m surprised by how much of that map I actually remember from my own excursions into the 5am secret. I definitely remember the checkerboard room, and I’m pretty sure I remember all the way up to the end with the strange liquid.

      There was another map, maybe the gas station one, where you would find yourself in a chamber with a giant eye and had to kill it, then go through the opening it left. Fail, and you get eaten. Fun stuff, but creepy.

  11. Hunty says:

    This is genuinely superb stuff. I feel compelled to take the thing on now. There’s something wonderfully evocative about subverting a space ostensibly constructed with only one purpose in mind. I remember wandering around AHL maps on my own as a thirteen year-old, thinking it would be brilliant if I could only find a server. I amused myself doing forward-flips out of the top window of that massive skyscraper into the pool below.

    DM maps really are kind of eerie when they’re empty.

  12. skeej says:

    Omg, awesome. I only found out about this epic easter egg about a year ago, and finished it, with the help of someone who knew all or most of the secrets in the AHL maps, and was also working on an easter egg database (triga, WHERE ARE YOU!!!). It is nearly unfinishable if you don’t know what to do exactly. You can try and analyse in hammer but even that won’t help you fully.

    Hondo, you are awesome. Your easter eggs are the epicest of epic :D

    Endlessrain’s egg is also so good. I mean, shoving the chair into the pool? That alone is genius :D

  13. Hawky says:

    It’s been some time since i’ve seen Triga online, wonder what happend to him…

  14. skeej says:

    Yea man… I hope he’s just been too busy leading his life or something… Would love to see him back online though.

    Btw if anyone wants to have a laugh and do the easter eggs, hit me up on steam (search for the same name). I don’t fully remember how to do them, so there will be some adventure involved. The easter eggs in Desert Crisis (also HL) are super fun as well!

  15. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    I have so many fond memories of Action Half-Life. I think it was the first online FPS I really played in any major amount. I used to be an expert in the stealth slippers + handcannon, and later, stealth slippers + throwing knives.

    But the knives were just for when I was doing a straight-up fight — where possible, I preferred to use the game’s kick attack to kill, when combined with gravity and hard surfaces. The huge number of high-up sniping positions in AHL also made for a huge number of places I could sneak up on snipers and punt them off the edge to their deaths. Yeah, maybe I was a bit of a jerk that way. :)

    Granted, it certainly explains why, in BFBC2, I have eight gold stars with the knife and no more than one or two in any other weapon.

    (“Knives are good, because they don’t make any noise, and the less noise they make, the more likely we are to use them. Shit ‘em right up. Makes it look like we’re serious. Guns for show, knives for a pro.”)

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      Oh, and to this day, I still use the Action Half Life sound effects for various event notifications on my IRC client. The beretta racking sounds in sequence for startup, the radio static for messages, varying degrees of pain sounds for people leaving channels / quitting, etc. — and of course, the sound of a kick connecting when someone gets kicked.

      Naturally, that means seeing any video of AHL brings back a weird combination of memories from when I played, combined with sound effects I still hear every day. A very odd sensation.

  16. kalgor says:

    Great read!
    Made me remember a novel “Codex” by Lev Grossman it’s like “the Da vinci Code” but with books and videogames (and of course, easter eggs!) instead of silly grials.

  17. The Pink Ninja says:

    You know what would kick-ass?

    A clue for an ARG that is inside a map for HL2 or the like

    That would be great

    • Chevluh says:

      That’s kinda sorta what they did for Portal 2′s announcement

  18. Monk says:

    Dangit, Hondo, I just remembered Holy Goat made that map! DOH!

  19. Omni says:

    Hey guys, my friend told me of this new update for steam about killing floor being free. it’s almost over, so download it now :D

    http://steamkfoffer.tk/
    The link is huge so I stuffed it into a TK for you.

    OH, and rate on pic!

  20. SEKCobra says:

    I was wondering if a instruction how to get in is aviable somewhere, because I wanna play it with some friends.

  21. manveruppd says:

    I really enjoyed reading this, you made it sound like a David Lynch movie! Thanks Quinns!

    And thanks to H for making them in the first place – there should be more people like you in the games industry!

  22. -FuzzyFish- says:

    All of Hondo’s maps were quite brilliant. These days it’s quite though to find all the info on how to beat them. And even when you think your done, you are not. Putting secrets in a map is hardly dead though. :)

  23. theSAiNT says:

    Not sure how accurate this information is but apparently Hondo is female:
    On one of the maps made for Action Quake:
    (http://www.hlfallout.net/topic/30799-anybody-know-hondo/)

    in one of her maps, she hid her face. She’s real good at hiding stuff and making cool easter eggs. in the first Endless Rain, if you press a button on one side of the map, a locked door will unlock for about 10 seconds. if you haul arse across the map or set up a bot to do it, you can enter the door. Down the hallway, there’s a lobby and a soda machine. if you pick the right soda, you can drink it and it’ll teleport you someplace, if you drink the wrong one you’ll die. After that you’ll be taken to a room with two doors. One door goes nowhere except into a HUGE green void. The other goes into a solid, lime-green maze. if you make it through, there’s another portal. Walk into it and you’ll be pulled into this HUGE virtual vaccume. At the end of the tunnel, you’ll be teleported into a bedroom…except it’s spinning around. After about 15 minutes of stumbling around, if you manage to fling yourself out the door, you’ll fall into this really big, open room, you’ll fall in slow motion, down down down closer to this image of a cute goth chick, sitting at her desk. THiS is Hondo.
    There’s a little bit more to it then that, but if i share all the rest of the stuff, it’ll psoil the whole inchilada. The readme files that come with the maps give subtle hints and there are subliminal messages hidden everywhere. it’s actually quite trippy.

  24. theSAiNT says:

    Also, Hondo released the source code for all his/her maps before disappearing. The original link is dead but there must be people out there who have it. The original post still exists:
    http://aq2zone.actionmods.com/omb/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=5;t=000965