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Interview: Mister Minerva

If you haven’t played awesome Half-Life 2 mod Minerva: Metastasis yet (especially if you’re looking for more highly-polished Combine harvest post-Episode 2), you should do so now. I wrote why here.

I’ve since fired a few questions at the enviably talented Adam Foster, the wizard behind this acclaimed Oz (and who you may know better as Cargo Cult, a frequent visitor to RPS comments threads) about the whys and wherefores of Minerva, how Valve themselves have contributed to it, his thoughts on the nature of modding, and what’s next for this exciting episodic endeavour (or EEE, as no-one is calling it).

Sincer still (sorry grammar police, but I like making up words), he has answered… [Edit – now with the three paragraphs I accidentally deleted when posting it up restored.]

RPS: Start with the hard-sell – a one-line summation of why anyone reading this should play Metastasis right now.
AF: It’s a modern game modification which has actually released something playable. For a change.

RPS: Is your primary purpose with Minerva to pay tribute to Half-Life 2, to tell your own tale or something else entirely?
AF: Well, the first MINERVA map was mainly an excuse to build a nice big island – something I’d been wanting to do for years after seeing the first demonstrations of a certain ‘Halo’ on the Xbox. A map which would later be known as the Silent Cartographer.

I’m a bit ashamed how similar my efforts ended up. I started with my sea-arch, and worked my way around the island, ending with the short tunnel next to the harbour – then decided to start implementing some actual gameplay. At that point it was still called the Flatulent Geographer…

The next lot of maps are going to be set in a coastal city, dusted with snow – primarily because I want to build some city stuff, and because I really like snow in computer games. So essentially, the primary purpose of the project is to have fun building things! Using Hammer to build maps is much cheaper than buying more Lego.

RPS: What’s changed in terms of your vision for the mod during its two and half years of development?
AF: Originally it was just going to be something built to my liking, and sod anyone who disagreed – but I seem to be moving towards making a proper *game* that more people can enjoy. Puzzles are actually playtested, and advice listened to – and I’m also paying attention to what the general public says about it. Heaven forbid…

RPS: Presumably you’ve been bombarded with fan theories as to who or what Minerva really is. Do people tend to be close to the mark, or is almost everyone way off the truth?
AF: I’ve seen random, badly-spelled forum postings which have pretty much nailed who she is – but then you get the massive over-analysis which seems to assume a huge knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology. Far beyond the brief smatterings I’ve acquired from Wikipedia…

Her messages in the last instalment do say who, and what, she is. Except fans have located apparent ambiguities in those exact statements, and seem to reckon I’m trying to say the complete opposite. Help!

RPS: Her nature seems to have shifted a little during the course of the mod, from an oblique, colder creature to a more direct and hot-tempered one. Can you say why this is, or does it risk future-spoilers?
AF: What, you mean she may *not* be an omnipotent, omniscient deity in the guise of a Roman goddess? You do surprise me.
I’ve seen people complain about apparent inconsistencies in tone in the writing. It’s deliberate. Alleged goddesses can indeed lose their cool – and switch from paraphrasing Latin to spewing foul expletives…

RPS: How much of your average day did you spend on making Metastasis? Did it ever interfere with work or social life?
I’m really lucky in that I’m self-employed, and that I’m doing web programming and design stuff for projects funded by the European Commission – like anything related to Europe in Brussels, it’s pretty much dead over the summer. So instead of being sat in an office, bored silly while waiting in vain for confused academics to forget their usernames and passwords again, I can sit in an office working on a computer game mod. Hooray?

FP7‘s starting up now, so I’m a lot busier with actual work again – MINERVA kept me sane over the summer.

RPS: Why is Minerva a one-man show? Would you change that if you could?
AF: Between about 2002 and 2006 I was working on a gigantic single-player mod for the original Half-Life, that being Nightwatch, a near-total conversion set around important events in a certain Black Mesa.

We had a huge team of some incredibly talented people, many of whom are now working on some seriously big-name games – but despite all that, it still managed to flounder and collapse under its own weight. The plans were too big, the scale too ambitious – and while we got some great screenshots and character renders out there, and some major maps fully playable internally, it never really came together. (I’m slightly concerned to see many similarities with the fantastic- looking Black Mesa: Source – I’m really, really hoping that doesn’t suffer a similar fate.)

MINERVA’s pretty much been my reaction against the trend towards huge modding teams. Instead of there being a long chain of links required for the project to be feasible, with every single one being a potential project-killer if it fails – I’m the weakest, and strongest, link throughout. If I can do it myself, it goes in, if I can’t, I design around it. Music was an unexpected, glorious bonus I simply had to put in, but its absence won’t make the project fail completely.

For example, Minerva herself doesn’t need a character model – which doesn’t need skinning, rigging, animating, AI programming, scene choreography, voice acting or a myriad other complex tasks which modders overlook when drawing their initial concept art. She’s just the chapter titles system, repurposed and with a modem screech to indicate her presence. In terms of workload, she’s an absolute bargain.

I’d love to have a great big team of talented modders pandering to my every whim, but I’ve seen how easily it can go wrong – plus, I’m an absolutely atrocious manager. I’m too nice?

RPS: What’s the grand design for it ?
AF: The overall plan is to have three ‘chapters’ – Metastasis, Out of Time and an as-yet unnamed third part. Possibly each of those also divided into three sub-parts (yes, the number three is important in MINERVA, for rather secretive reasons)…

The next chapter will definitely require new code (I’m already pushing the basic Episode One stuff to its limits), and I’m toying with the idea of making some of it *properly* non-linear. As in, start at A, have a compass pointing to B and have to cross a large segment of city to get there, with no pre-defined route. This requires experimentation – if it doesn’t work, I’ll just seal up some main routes and make the player meander through something more conventional. (Sudden thought – a basic radar system pointing out major Combine patrols? Hmm…)
I’ve got the physics of my particular Half-Lifey universe all planned out, and a vague story arc in development – it’s more a slow voyage of discovery than a double-crossing mess of intrigue, but it should work out well.

RPS: What sort of assistance/input have Valve given on the most recent chapters?
AF: I went out to Bellevue again in June – for an unfortunately cancelled mod developer’s conference. I’d already booked my travel, and it was a shame to waste it… So I got a few days of nattering to Valve personages, playing their games (I can point out absences of bugs in Episode Two and Portal which were my fault!), and best of all – I got to see Robin Walker and Marc Laidlaw play through the in-development MINERVA.

Which was a bit of an eye-opening experience. The former played it almost through FPS shorthand, effortlessly pointing out potential pitfalls and problems for unwary players, and then broke the scripting in the let’s-destroy-the-facility underground blast by demonstrating that bored players could jump down the shaft to his or her death. He knew what players might think, so he knew what to test.

The latter? Well, he truthfully demonstrated how someone could run entirely the wrong way down corridors, and get utterly and completely lost in a seemingly linear map.
It was great. ;-)

RPS: What d’you think Depth Charge and Pegasus have been like if Valve weren’t involved in any way?
AF: Seriously horrible puzzles, and nobody would have noticed the whole off-world thing. Despite the grand portal thing…

RPS: Conversely, do you think any of your own methodology of level architecture (or indeed any other aspect of Minerva) has affected how Valve use (or will use) the Source engine?
AF: I’m not sure if it’ll affect Valve’s design strategy too much – they seem to design gameplay, then wrap story and places around it, whereas I design the story and places, then wrap the gameplay around those.

RPS: Why are singleplayer FPS mods (decent ones, at least) relatively rare?
AF: Everyone thinks far too big, and assumes that just because it *can* be done means that it *should* be done. Someone’s first modding project should *not* be a massive total conversion, with a team spanning thousands of people – it should be small, self-contained and with limits applied so that it doesn’t bloat out of control. It *will* take longer than expected, and you *will* run into problems. I should know. In nearly ten years of mapping, I’ve released just eleven maps. Five of which were for Doom 2, back in 1999…

I’ve tried persuading other modders to go the MINERVA route, to think small, to release episodically – but I’ve seen far too many projects fail. It’s a bit depressing…

RPS: And what, to your mind, makes a good singleplayer FPS?
AF: Interesting places to explore, in interesting worlds. I’m not so fussed about conventional ‘story’, as such – I’d far rather be set free in a carefully imagined City 17 than sit through the usual, badly-written intrigue and exposition thrown at me through drama- laden cutscenes.

RPS: Choose: Episode 2, Portal or Team Fortress 2?
Possibly Portal – GLaDOS is my favourite computer game villain since SHODAN.

I really liked Episode Two, but still wonder if the Outlands are just a bit too welcoming – if I was a resident of City 17, I’d be far too eager to borrow a shotgun and wander off into the wilderness for a bit. Compared with the dying, desolate coastline, it’s a glorious, mountainous, forested wonderland. Which bears more than a passing resemblance to the area surrounding Seattle.

Team Fortress? Best multiplayer game in years, except I’ve already just about exhausted it. Wake me up when some new, official maps are released…

Many thanks to Adam for his answers, for making the mod and, most of all, for being really good at spelling so I didn’t have to spend hours proofing this.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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