[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?
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.
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.
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.