Challenge = Opportunity
First and foremost, let me take a moment and thank some very special folks: First, Twentieth Century FOX. Also, SEGA of America, Gearbox, Timegate Studios, and, of course, my dear friends at Demiurge Studios. Saving the best for last, I wish to thank James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, and the cast and crew of ALIENS. Without everyone here, there’d be nothing to read.
It’s very rare in this industry that one is handed an opportunity like this. It’s also just as rare to hear a developer talk about the process and attempt to relate the experience.
Initially I thought no one would go for this map.
I thought maybe that it was off the table.
We asked. Gearbox said “do it”.
So we dove in.
The map’s timeline takes place before the events of the film and after the colonists are overcome. The player would be boots on the ground before the arrival of Hicks, Hudson, Vasquez, et al. We began by sizing up the scope of the setting. I blocked out the physical scope of the environment by restoring Main Street to it’s pre-ALIENS appearance. This allowed us to run around the outside and see how large of a combat space we were looking at. It was extremely large, but this didn’t concern us. My two cents was that the canon would dictate the experience, and gameplay would be interwoven throughout the canon. The intent being; if the actors in the film could have at it, so could the player.
Here’s my take on the vision for ‘Tribute’. It was less about playing a mode and more about creating an enjoyable, repeatable experience that would resonate and leave lasting impressions in the memory of the player by allowing them to continuously play in the field. As is. This was the embodiment of play-acting, served up on the set of one of the most iconic locations in sci-fi film history.
Using the exterior set piece as a jump off point, design blocked out the interior progression flow using both BSP as well as collections of hallways, floors, doors, and barriers. At the same time, I prepped the Ops Center, the Med Lab, the Facehugger Room, the Medical Exam Room, and I began vignettes, or visual studies, of the interior of the colonists quarters. A lot of folks assume that we studied the film to nail the layout. We did study. A LOT. In addition, we also had a simultaneous effort to piece together a holistic interpretation of the interior of the colony. There’s a lot of rhetorical information concerning the interior layout out there in the ether.
We knew which visual set pieces were needed, and we knew the essential layout of the Colony, but we had a lot of imperative to explore and interpolate areas not seen in the footage. We also wanted to keep the maps’ flow open, but not too open. So we juggled a lot of conflicting demands in the first few weeks of laying bricks.
By repeatedly studying the film, and examining as much of our reference as possible, we arrived at some very interesting and very obvious conclusions. First, we realized that it was common to re-purpose the hallway sets during filming. Often, the same corridor was re-dressed and filmed in multiple directions to suggest the Colony’s interior size and layout. It was interesting to realize that Hicks’ movement, if it was applied to a fully realized interior, would not have been possible (Hick’s ascends the stairs, peers into space for a moment, and continues on, moving past the camera. In a fully realized space he would have simply walked smack into a hallway panel.)
Down the Rabbit Hole
For me, with this particular project, creating visual set pieces often starts like building a filmic set, but quickly turns into architecting a holistic environment, in the round, with no break in continuity. After some time, I was able to freely walk about the Colony, on my own, from the North to the South Entrance, through the hallways, and through the various settings in one go. While doing this, I also started developing the emotional aspects of the environment. I intentionally adhered to a lot of the lighting and atmospheric canon, which is pretty hazy and somewhat well-illuminated, but I completely crushed the lighting in many areas (achieving a near-black scene) as I knew that players were most likely going to leave their shoulder lamps on and the weapons (especially the turrets) were going to light up the scene with a familiar staccato-like pattern. Here, I’d often just set a small, faint light to illuminate a portion of the scene. This draws your eyes one way while the Xenomorphs emerge from other directions.
Level architecting as well as lighting and atmospherics (the two are inseparable) required literally dozens of hours cross-checking both the film (frame by frame if need be) and the reference library. Some really subtle examples are the lighting on the turn wheel and pipes in the pit known as the “Hudson Spit Hole”, the highlight on the vertical bar in the “Facehugger Room”, and the double row of spray-painted white cups on one of the Medical Room tables. Less subtle is the debris-blocked stairwell outside the Ops Center, the debris tunnel outside Medical, and the annex to The Doughnut Room.
There aren’t any traditional Easter eggs in this map, either. Well, except for a static one that no one’s seem to have found yet. If look around carefully, you’ll know that Newt is there with you.
It’s interesting to talk about the concept of immersion from a development perspective. When you’re fully immersed in your work, when you’re “in the zone”, you automatically put in small details like this: Not after your all done and want to fine tune things, but when your are in-situ; when you are doing your initial lighting pass, when the film is cued up and you’re jogging through a scene, (some of the most helpful scenes were only a few seconds long), and when you’ve got your headphones on and are listening to the ALIEN and ALIENS soundtrack. When it’s two in the morning, your not even conscious of the time. You’re simply immersed in the process of recreating the experience and you’re really getting a kick out of it. Listening to the soundtracks really helped to set my development approach. Tremendously. Jerry Goldsmith’s ALIEN score is both a classical and avante garde masterpiece. James Horner’s ALIENS score connected me to my work in a visceral way, especially during the lighting and VFX passes.
The “Doughnut Room” and it’s small adjacent annex took roughly 8 hours to absorb, locate pieces for, block out, fine tune, and light as a first pass. This is the room where Hicks and Drake enter, cautiously, and Hicks leans into the Doughnut room for a look around. We did have a large reference library to go through with regards to the original film, and this was not only extremely helpful, but amazing to pour over. Most of this reference is most likely available on the Special Edition Blu-Ray, but not all.
The original film really helped for calibrating small details. However, the Extended Edition of the film offered the greatest reference for the details of the unfinished hallway near the end of the North Entrance interior and portions of “Main Street” as well as the surrounding terrain.
When the film’s characters move into the South Entrance, they take a hard left. From a practical viewpoint, this would not have been possible as the elevator is on the other side. We consciously chose to overlook the elevator and replace it with a stairwell. The elevator would have been the sole interruption in player flow and would not have been fun, nor technically feasible. Players would have become stuck in such a small space and the mechanics of an elevator would easily have led to a “Keystone Cops” scenario.
In terms of player progression, one of the more serendipitous moments occurred when we decided to have the second truck block the player’s progress as well as the view down Main Street. To solve this, we allowed the player to create the view for themselves during normal gameplay. You blow the charge, which jostles the yellow truck, which tosses the forklift off to one side. The yellow truck rolls down the side alley and bangs to a stop where you see it in the Extended Version. Voila. (Lead Designer Josh Glavine rigged, animated, and implemented this sequence by hand.) So, not only are players immersed in the experience, they’re also participating in creating a portion of the canon.
From an existential perspective, I really appreciated my time spent peering into the reference photos of the films’ set construction. I was always conscious of my attempt to translate as much of this detail as possible into the environment. I’ve been a fan of both ALIEN and ALIENS for years. I saw ALIENS at the movie theaters repeatedly. I have a deep interested in the works of both HR Geiger and James Cameron, among may other artists in the Sci-Fi and Horror genres. And so do a lot of my industry peers. As an example, many of us know what we mean when we use the term “James Cameron blue.” I really embraced the film’s heavy fogging of the sets, the haze, and the silence. The lonely lighting. The somber, abandoned tone. At times, the sets lean towards film noir, as when Hicks peeks into the The Doughnut Room. For the most part, there’s just this great juxtaposition between the windy and stormy exterior and the quiet and disturbed interior.
The process of restoring the Colony to it’s pre-ALIENS timeline, before the Marines are boots on the ground, was a huge exercise in juggling many, many points of reference. The Single Player Campaign was essential for pinning the location of key settings. However, as we know, in the Single Player Campaign, the Atmospheric Processor’s already blown the Colony to smithereens, but the sets are still recognizable. While restoring the environment, I would lift large, complete chunks of the Single Player setting from two different maps, place them into temporary maps, and strip the destruction down until it was gone. I’d clean the floors and and ceilings. Then I’d go through the content and attempt to locate what would have been, and I re-jiggered some of the relative layout to adhere to the canon. If content wasn’t available, I’d build or rebuild it myself. The exterior hull of the Ops Center is one piece that captures both interior and exterior details. In Single Player we see it in the Ops Center as the wide-open blasted set piece. I located the destroyed source model, made a copy for our project, and restored it and re-imported it.
I also adhered to the layout of Main Street from the film. Along the way I made minor set dressing changes based on some fantastic still photography from the set. As a player, you’re able to traverse and jump out of the large, enclosed connecting bridges which connect the main modules to the “Casino” B-Module, as well as another module. I made sure that the exposed openings were not at a place that could have been pinpointed in the film. I took advantage of the film’s editing to locate these ‘blackout’ areas.
As a developer, in terms of technical work, we know that what a player sees in a map is really only about half of the assets. The other half is comprised of thousands of objects that act as triggers, emitters, spawn points, collision bodies, notes, nodes, lights, you name it… From an FX and lighting standpoint, so much is choreographed. This, to control and maintain proper memory and performance standards. Especially on the PS3. One example is post-process and lighting. When you enter the interior, both lighting and post processing transitions occur. The night-time lighting and heavy outdoor humidity is replaced with a completely different setup to support the tension of dark and gloomy interior spaces.
I remember a lot of nights spent testing some little effect or something, by myself, and I’d be in the hallways walking quietly around my work and a Xenomorph would emerge from the shadows and takes a swipe at me. Talk about a memorable development experience… I was never, ever, prepared for that. And it happened a lot!
“ …Michael Biehn said what ?!?”
Another thing folks don’t appreciate is all the people and support that go into making this happen. Artists are converging to create the hard assets we all know and love. Other folks are making libraries of VFX that you can use and modify. People are there to help coordinate content and make sure nothing changes under your feet. And so you end up working with each other somewhat indirectly, vicariously, or as point guards on a huge team. Whether you’re using one artists’ incredible props or prop set, or you’re looking at how someone implemented a real elegant solution to an otherwise problematic issue, we’re all passionate and highly skilled artists, engineers, designers, producers, directors, and peers and fans of each others work. This is one of the greatest aspects of this industry.
People are contributing in so many ways to bring you to the point where you can make your dreams come true, whether you’re a passionate developer, a die-hard player, a fan of the franchise, or all three. I’ll always wonder what Michael Biehn would have said after playing this map…
It’s interesting when you think about the idea of unconscious vs. conscious work. The term for this is ‘Flow’. In a state of flow individuals become unaware of both time and their surroundings due to deep concentration. There are several key conditions that must be met. Knowing what to do. Knowing how to do it. Freedom from distractions. These can be achieved very simply: Worthy goals (Let’s make Hadley’s Hope), Good and stable tools (Unreal Engine technology), Solid Process (We know how we want to work), and Control (We’ll take it from here).
Another flow condition which I agree with is ‘Highly perceived challenges’. As a developer, I’m never looking for a cakewalk. I want a goal that’s challenging for me and my team. And I often see challenges as opportunities. For Tribute, the challenge of pulling off an immersive experience in as large a scope as this map presented, with the potential it was offering, and having it fit within memory and performance specs for the PS3, without level streaming, were fantastic opportunities to push the limits. The result for me was one of the greatest benefits of flow-based activity; The enjoyment of the process.
Another notion I find fascinating is team flow. Is it possible for an entire team to be in a flow state? For many developers it’s true. It’s sometimes called ‘headphone time’. The time when no one’s talking, everyone has their headphones on, and all you hear is the clicking of mice or the tapping of keys. All of a sudden, though, it’s the witching hour and time for checkin, compile, and team testing. From that point forward it’s the opposite. Huge raucous, sounds of Pulse Rifles and Sentry Turrets, Xenomorphs’ screeching, player voices over headsets, walkie-talkies (when someone is in the testing lab, for example). We’re now immersed within an experience of our own making, with our collective hands. So, flow doesn’t necessarily have to be a silent activity. Our industry is team-based. Our team was self-motivated.
Freedom from distractions is probably the key ingredient in flow-based team management. On this side, I had my friend and Producer, Tom Lin, to thank. It was his job to clear our path and he did it elegantly, like a reed blowing in the wind.
For me, the experience and memories of developing this map is something to really embrace. The author Milan Kundera, in his introduction to The Unbearable Lightness of Being rhetorically argues that humans strive to return to a state of comfort and familiarity. This is known as ‘eternal recurrence’. For the unlucky, they become like Sisyphus. For the fortunate, it’s a transcendental state. Fulfilling player promise is a damn hard thing to achieve if your not completely immersed and the expectations for this map and game mode were daunting, to say the least. As a kid, I remember seeing ALIENS several times in the theater…and again on VHS…and again and again on DVD. It’s become a pillar of pop culture. Sure, there were endless days of testing and bug regression, and we had a tiny team, but this was certainly one experience worth repeating and I hesitate to call it work. For me, it’s simply Joie de Vivre.