“Level with Me” is a series of conversations about level design between modder Robert Yang and a level designer of a first person game. At the end of each interview, they collaborate on a Portal 2 level shared across all the sessions – and at the very end of the series, you’ll get to download and play this “roundtable level.” This is Part 4 of 7.
Months before releasing Atom Zombie Smasher to acclaim, Brendon Chung exploded onto the indie scene with the stylish FPS sketch Gravity Bone – but before then, us loyal followers (“Chungers”) had already been enjoying his short-form forays into FPS-dom for years. His Barista series, especially Barista 2, is proof that Brendon was doing this “indie FPS” silliness long before any of us. Damn.
(Be advised, there are substantial *SPOILERS* for Barista 2 and Gravity Bone, which are both freeware, so you should play them.)
Robert Yang: So, Barista 1. You wake up at a card game. That’s based on the Doom Bible, right?
Brendon Chung: It is. I was so taken by the Doom Bible, a plan for a story-driven first person shooter – and how completely different Doom turned out. History just changed so completely from then on.
RY: It struck me that no one makes games like in the Doom Bible: they sketched floorplans and did enemy / ammo placement, but they hadn’t even started making the game yet. It makes no sense to me.
BC: What makes no sense?
RY: To design a game before you even know what you’re making.
BC: Well, the designers probably didn’t have anything to do, while they were still coding the engine.
RY: You’re probably right. I’m too critical. The other big influence for Barista 1 was Marathon?
BC: Yeah. I think Halo overshadows [or obscures] Bungie’s other work, this fantastic group of games like Marathon, Pathways into Darkness, and Myth, all with such rich universes that were surprisingly complex and deep.
RY: That whole Marathon story page…
BC: Yeah. It’s fantastic reading, so I wanted to make an homage to it with the terminals, with drips and drabs of story bits.
RY: It’s weird that we think of that as an “old” device, but Marathon’s narrative is still such a classic.
BC: I agree. Stories in games are – I wouldn’t say they’re getting worse and worse, but you can play any big shooter these days and get terrible dialogue and cutscenes.
RY: Yeah, not enough Latin. [laughs at his own joke] Even something new like BioShock is basically someone reading the terminals aloud at us.
BC: I was watching Cloverfield, and my mind just couldn’t get past why this guy is recording everything in these perfectly framed shots. If I was in that position, I would just run. You’d see the floor the whole time. It’s the same thing with terminals: why are you recording this diary while being chased by a monster?
RY: Or those audio logs. “Oh my god, I’m going to die, here’s my last will…”
BC: “… By the way, the code to my locker is 0779.”
RY: Eventually you just accept it. That’s why I love something like Barista 2. It angers me that it’s not part of some indie FPS canon that everyone cites.
BC: The thing with Barista 2… it was made for an independent study in college. It was supposed to be an enormous sprawling open-world game. You were going to do all these quests, talk to people, and ride animals. [But it’s not that game.] So whenever I play my own games, I can only see…
RY: … what was lost. But we only know what you put into it, and back in 2003 your use of montage was so advanced: you start in a spaceship, then suddenly you’re watching a girl singing.
BC: I think what makes it work is that most games love explaining everything they do. “This thing is going to happen, and this is why.” It takes away from the mystery of things. There are no connections to make. I read a quote somewhere: “If you tell the viewer 2 + 2, but let them figure out it equals 4, they’ll love you for life.”
RY: Yeah. There’s some cute low poly body awareness – at the beginning you look down and now you know you’re a pilot. It takes 1 second.
BC: I love it when games remove more and more, giving you the barest of the bones of the game, but it’s exactly what you want. Like Ico or Shadow of the Colossus.
RY: But Ico is so frustrating!
BC: [laughs] Why is it frustrating?
RY: The narrative, to me, is about this girl who’s an utter liability.
BC: But the point is that she’s not just some NPC who stares at a wall. She plays with the little birds and stuff.
RY: Okay, I’ll rant more later, but back to Barista 2: we were talking about how to get the player to make meaning, and I want to ask about the Dogs Playing Poker.
BC: [laughs] If that wasn’t there, the world would seem too normal. It’s to make it clear that it’s not just some random mountain, but it’s a special place.
RY: “It’s a special place.”
BC: It’s Dogs Playing Poker. It’s a funny picture.
RY: But there’s three of them! Is there a puzzle there? Do I look at them in order? I’ve spent so long looking at those.
BC: They’re so tiny too.
RY: I guess I accept your rationale because I really love the ending, if I can spoil it for RPS readers: you watch a girl humming at a desk, as the desk flies through space.
BC: [laughs] Yes. That’s the end.
RY: It has nothing to do with the game, but everything to do with it. You see her all the time. She’s “Hanna.”
BC: Yes she’s – no… no, she’s not Hanna. You never meet Hanna.
RY: Oh. I just assumed it’s like Chekhov’s Gun: if there’s an unnamed girl character and an unseen but named girl character, then they have to be the same. I’ll just say they’re the same person anyway.
BC: Go ahead, that’s fine with me. That probably makes it better.
RY: Brendon Chung endings! They’re so… they don’t take the easy way out? Or maybe they do? Why make it like that?
BC: It’s an un-video game ending, that’s what I like about it. Video games are always too literal. “You’re the guy with the big gun, you defeated the big alien, and you saved the day.” That’s fine and understandable, but there’s nothing challenging about it, nothing for the player to think about two weeks from now. It’s wrapped up into a nice clean package. But if you explain things to the point where the player’s not confused, but you don’t explain enough so it’s still a mystery…
RY: It goes against conventional wisdom, about this Aristotelian arc where the player can trace their line of agency from beginning to end.
BC: Yeah, Barista 2 isn’t about actions. Maybe it’s about what your character does, but not what the player does.
RY: Now about Barista 3 and Pathways into Darkness, your Doom 3 engine stuff; I didn’t like working with Doom 3, so I felt like the engine held you back.
BC: Oh, what did you not like about Doom 3?
RY: Well… I didn’t like Radiant (a Doom 3 level editor) at first, but then I started liking it after a while.
BC: Me too.
RY: We joke how most Quake lineage engines can’t do large environments, but Doom 3 is smaller. It made Source look like Far Cry. And Doom 3 bet on this unified shadow model being really important, but with the way artists use dynamic lighting in something like Crysis, it all might as well be baked anyway.
BC: I agree, but for Doom 3’s gameplay with the flashlight mechanic, it worked fine. The game played to the strength of the engine. And I actually liked the scripting system a lot better than Half-Life 2’s visual entities. Once level scripting gets complex enough, entities get cumbersome.
RY: No, it’s beautiful in a way. Show anyone the scripting in HL2’s intro and they’ll see a hundred icons and understand the complexity.
BC: That’s a bad thing! It’s confusing and awkward!
RY: Okay, fine. Back to Barista 3: in it, you walk around and turn lights on and off, and turn tables on. I liked the idea of turning on a table.
BC: It was my way of learning the Doom 3 engine, and Pathways was more the real thing I wanted to make. Barista 3 was experimenting, checklisting off every feature of the engine and trying to put that into the game somehow. Here’s the lighting thing, the entity thing, the PDA thing…
RY: And then Pathways. I still think Doom 3 prevented larger environments and – okay, I’ll stop making excuses for you. How do you feel about Pathways?
BC: It was supposed to be a remake of Bungie’s Pathways into Darkness. But when I make stuff, I like being able to see the entire project through from beginning to end. For this, it was just the first three levels. I wasn’t remaking every single detail, but the plot and layout was roughly the same. The rest was all “re-imagined.”
RY: Rebooted. Refreshed.
BC: Rebooted, that’s a cooler word. I knew I wasn’t going to make a good ending for the game; it was just the first three levels. In Bungie’s, that just meant you went down to the fourth level. That’s not a good ending for me. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
RY: But in the original game, you had to go down, like, 30 levels – and then set the nuke and run out?
BC: Yes. Which was wonderful, but I can’t make 30 levels on my own.
RY: You couldn’t make your own ending?
BC: No, I didn’t feel comfortable. I really couldn’t have done that.
RY: As for Barista 4? I remember a map kind of like Bootleg Squadrog, with scripted squad movements.
BC: There were two more. Not much gameplay there, just me playing with Faceposer. One of them was Samuel L. Jackson’s monologue from Pulp Fiction, and the other was Glengarry Glen Ross.
RY: Oh, with Alec Baldwin?
BC: No, Al Pacino.
RY: Same thing.
RY: Did you ever make anything else for Source?
BC: I do have two things on my hard drive. One of them was a Bootleg Squadrog sequel where you and your Combine buddies do stuff. The other was based on the movie Death Wish, with Charles Bronson – which is funny because I was going to make that without having seen Death Wish. But you just ended up running around, shooting people, it didn’t feel very interesting.
RY: Speaking of Bootleg Squadrog, one of the only mods for Opposing Force ever made and possibly the best, I think it predicted the super-scripted, super-linear Call of Duty games today. We might take a shit on them now, but back then it felt so new. It was nice before it became normal.
BC: Bootleg Squadrog was made in response to all the shooters where you were a one man army with 20 guns strapped onto your back. I’m a big fan of Aliens. When I was growing up, I always wanted to make an Aliens-themed Doom WAD.
RY: But there is an Aliens Doom WAD! (It was the Alien mod!)
BC: Well, yes there was, but I didn’t have internet at the time. So when I actually played the Alien vs. Predator game, it was so different from what was in my head: you’re a lone marine without any backup.
RY: Have you seen the new Aliens FPS, Colonial Marines?
BC: Yes, though like you said, it’s kind of normal to have these squad-based scriptfests now.
RY: But take the movie Alien; that’s one alien. I see the Colonial Marines trailer and they’re killing hundreds of aliens. These aren’t the smart raptors from the movies, they’re idiots.
BC: That’s what video games do, they throw tons of bad guys at you.
RY: But that’s not what Aliens is.
BC: Yeah, I agree. I’ve always wanted to make an experiment where a large part of the game is just getting stalked by one badass alien.
RY: I think it can be done.
BC: I think Amnesia does a good job of it.
RY: Yeah, you don’t even see the monster sometimes.
BC: [laughs] You’re just hiding in a cupboard the entire time.
RY: I actually haven’t beaten Amnesia because I’m too scared to play it. Maybe that’s why Colonial Marines didn’t go that route.
BC: Ehh, it just doesn’t fit into the whole testosterone thing, about blasting things to bits. Tough guys don’t hide in corners.
RY: Yeah! I just want to be Newt.
BC: You won’t sell many copies…
RY: More about NPCs — my favorite part in Bootleg Squadrog is right before the reveal of the aliens. The lights go out and you hear the nightvision goggles sounds from the NPCs. That’s just 2 multimanagers and some ambient_generics, but that was so genius.
BC: It was very easy to setup, but often games don’t give NPCs interesting things to do. They just walk from A to B and open doors for you.
RY: You don’t even have to give them real power, just fake it like you did, and it’s still extremely powerful. As long as they don’t do something that I’d want to do.
BC: I hear that a lot and I don’t agree with it. When I see an NPC torch open a door, he’s just the soldier who torches open doors.
RY: Say an NPC climbed a ladder, but you can’t climb that ladder.
BC: Ah, okay. Sure. But for wacky behaviors, like an NPC holding someone hostage – it doesn’t bother me.
RY: It bothers me if they do something awesome, but if they’re just cleaning up trash, fine, they can do that.
RY: It’s like in your mod Bugstompers, when you’re waiting for Barney to open the door but you just hear keypad error sounds every time. The rhythm of it was great.
RY: It’s not soundscapes, not sound design as we normally think of it. It would’ve been less effective if I could see through the door and see Barney’s custom animations and facial morphs. It’s more effective to imagine it.
BC: Yeah, you see it in your head, and the animation is beautiful and amazing. Adding these tiny human behaviors to NPCs, just a little bit, goes such a long way.
RY: I wish game AI problems were more focused on useless behaviors. More so-called “immersive” stuff like an NPC avoiding a puddle because their boots will get wet.
BC: But all of that is a pretty hard sell to the people running the company.
RY: Oh, that’s right. You were in the industry, at Pandemic. How was it?
BC: Yeah, I was there for five years. It was just so great to work with these amazing people. You learn so much from them. Then they might visit you, or you might visit them, and see a really cool physics demo they’re working on. That’s the one thing I miss the most: being able to see the weird things people were doing, in the same building.
RY: Because you work alone now.
BC: I do.
RY: That’s usually not part of the indie narrative. “I’m finally out of the company! I can finally do what I want, this is great!”
BC: Yes, you’re usually a small part of a very large machine. It’s fun to do everything as an indie.
RY: We rarely dwell on the other part though, about you being lonely and missing your friends.
BC: [laughs] Yeah. You don’t hear so much about that.
RY: Aw, that’s so sad. Um, okay – happy! Your games are always very humorous. It’s very important to you.
BC: It is. Games in general, they’re either very grim and gray and brown, or just completely wacky and abstract like a Mario game. For what I like to make, I wouldn’t say they’re “dark” but I like them to take place in a real world that’s slightly absurd.
RY: Like talking reindeer and rasta-penguins.
BC: That’s only slightly absurd.
RY: The humor sets you apart from indies in general. Take the “art game,” it’s usually some serious and profound thing. Your games have fun on the way there.
BC: I don’t have much time to play games these days. So when I do have time, I’m not a huge fan of the grim and morose. I try to make games that I myself would enjoy playing.
RY: I get sick of whatever I end up making, funny or not.
BC: I’m the same way. That’s why my games are usually shorter.
RY: You have this keen sense of timing, how to tell jokes. Gravity Bone is designed to payoff for two specific moments when you get shot, then get shot again later. It was fun… to get shot. That’s an achievement.
BC: For Gravity Bone, I was building off a series of Quake 2 maps I made called “Citizen Abel” where you do all these different missions. It started off as a game where you shoot monsters, but that was kind of boring, so I added a hacking tool or a zipline or a freon can to break open a lock. Then it became clear that these toys were more interesting than the guns. So after iterating over and over again, it eventually (somehow) became Gravity Bone… so no, I didn’t set out to make a little two level experiment.
RY: But you were getting tired and burnt out, so you just ended it right there?
BC: Well, I knew how I wanted it to start and I knew how I wanted it to end, with falling off a building. Everything in the middle was made-up as I went along.
RY: I’ve been trying that approach. I get stuck with filling in the middle with a game. But I can’t make Gravity Bone! You already did it!
RY: It’s amazing how people went crazy over that empty weapon slot in Gravity Bone. When really, you just had a gun and decided you didn’t need it?
BC: Basically, yeah. I wasn’t making a statement. I didn’t even notice that.
RY: But it’s a big deal.
BC: Yeah, I love it when games leave things open, and people read into it. You generally don’t get those little warts and bumps if the game is perfect.
RY: It’s fantastic that we tell you what your game is about.
BC: [laughs] Yeah, I agree.
RY: I have to say though, I miss your old website from PlanetHalflife, with the individual game pages / fake catalogs / fake research papers; like the feelies that used to come with computer games.
BC: Uhhh… I miss those also.
RY: Oh! Then why didn’t you keep them?
BC: When Planet Half-Life shut down, I wasn’t aware of anything like source control. I need to learn how to use the Internet better.
RY: Get ready to learn even more about the Internet; let’s start the Portal 2 part of this interview. [demonstrates and explains the still buggy Portal 2 map, complains about VMF instancing, etc.]
BC: Hmm. Does Portal 2 have any NPCs? I don’t know what’s there.
RY: [looking through model list] They might’ve ripped the AI for generic_actors out.
BC: Wait, what’s that car? “Car_wrecked”?
RY: That’s from that map they had, based on Super 8.
BC: Is there an actual “car” car? An actual vehicle? That’s what Portal 2 needs: vehicles. Let’s add a train to the level. Something that looks intact with wheels.
RY: Wait, one of the wrecked trains?
BC: Yeah, I could see that moving around.
RY: [laughs] Okay, now what?
BC: Have it move from point A to point B, then disappear.
RY: Where? Would it be on the ceiling, upside down?
BC: No, that wouldn’t make any sense.
RY: [laughs] Oh, of course not…
BC: Yeah, just have it floating. Go from A to B, then it goes “bop!” and disappears.
RY: Where’s A?
BC: To the right of the box dropper.
RY: … in the air?
RY: … because that makes sense.
RY: Right here.
BC: Yes. I like that.
RY: Oh my god. No one’s going to play this level.
BC: Yes, it’s my goal to ruin your map.
RY: My map? You mean our map.
BC: That’s exactly what I meant. I misspoke.
RY: It should go into the next room?
BC: What about that glass thing?
RY: You mean through the window? I don’t know how to go about breaking the window.
BC: Just play a sound effect. “Clang! Crash!” That sells it. You don’t need to modify the window, just play the sound effect.
RY: But I’d need to make the window disappear?
BC: No, you’re playing the sound effect. That’s enough.
RY: But nothing is going to happen?
BC: [barely stifling laughter] Yeah.
RY: Oh my god. Um, okay, when should the train trigger?
BC: Right when the player enters the room.
RY: [incredulous] And should it play a glass sound, or something else?
BC: No, a glass sound is fine.
RY: And then the train disappears, or we just leave it in the window?
BC: Sure, let’s leave it there for now.
RY: Oh my god, what is this?
BC: Sweet. I’m so excited.
RY: Should it make a train sound as it moves, or should it float silently through the air?
BC: A bull horn, yes… does the train have collision on it?
RY: Not the train model, but the train solid does, yeah. Why?
BC: I was just thinking it would be funny if it knocked over all the boxes from the box dropper… Wait, that’ll totally screw up the puzzle though. Let’s not do that. How about we make it go really fast? Like 1000 [inches / second]?
RY: Okay. Um, can I add a track underneath in future iterations, or do you forbid me?
BC: No, do whatever, it’s fine.
RY: Hmm, no, I’ll keep it floating. You’ve convinced me.
RY: Thanks for your time.
(Transcript edited for clarity and length.)
(Looking for the Portal 2 map? Sorry, you’ll have to wait until part 7.)