Dy_lasers Prototype

So, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring as far as the “let’s remake Decay” rush stands, and spend some time developing a map of my own. I don’t intend to fully remake Decay or anything of the sort, but rather to offer a sort of live look into how I would go about doing that as a demonstration- hence the ‘prototype’ in the title. I’m not going to choose Dual Access, because quite frankly it’s been done to death and I wanted to do a post-disaster map for once and additionally it almost entirely uses the Questionable Ethics aesthetic and I have a fair bit of experience with that.

I am already starting to think of ideas about what I want to do with this map, but since it’s been a good long while since I actually played the thing so reacquainting myself (and the audience) with the map would probably be a good idea. I don’t have Half-Life Source and the Decay for PC mod handy at the moment, so I’ll be using this let’s play:


I couldn’t find a good top-down screenshot of the level so the first thing I did was just draw out roughly what it looked like on pen and paper- not to scale or anything like that, just a rough sketch with enemy placement and important features noted. I’ve attached a cleaned-up computer-drawn version to the tail end of this post since the originals are rather cryptic do to their small scale, but if I was not making this public I would have had no problem just working off of the paper drawings.

It becomes clear that there are some serious problems with this level from a game-design standpoint. There’s a few things here that always bothered me, personally, as a player and facility designer- a stairway going down followed by as stairway going up with nothing to speak of in between, areas that require some sort of security access or decontamination to get into from one direction but don’t from another, general-access areas that you have to go through an area requiring protective clothing in order to get to, that sort of thing.

But the big issue is how vacuous the vast majority of the level is. Maybe Black Mesa with its ample prop budget and func_details has spoiled me to how hard level designers had it in the 90s, but there’s entire sections of the map that are just empty corridors with nothing of any real interest in them, and even things like the alien labs themselves have only one or two objects in them (1:00:00 and 1:00:30 have pretty major examples of this). All of the things I remember from the first time I played this map (the bullsquid vacuum, the vort gauntlets you need to turn off, the laser puzzle) are in fact stuck together at nearly the very end, and there is an almost complete lack of health and ammo pickups, NPCs or story elements, or for that matter enemies doing much of anything other than teleporting in to ambush you in wide open spaces. This lack of meaningful interaction with the world and the very linear structure of the majority of the level’s organization really drives home the on-rails, repetitive nature of it: advance a room, shoot three enemies, rinse, repeat. There are many Half-Life and Black Mesa chapters which have no objective other than to get through them, like Office Complex and Surface Tension, but those levels have much richer environmental storytelling that informs the player something is happening during the time they are traveling.

Then there is the laser puzzle itself, which is the centerpiece of the level even though it occurs at the very end. I remember it being much, much bigger and more complicated than it actually is, and I think this is because it’s not at all intuitive what you are supposed to do to solve it. There are three source lasers in the control room- red, blue, and yellow- which can be combined in pairs to form a green, magenta, or orange beam or all three for white (why they didn’t make the primaries red, green and blue and then the secondaries cyan, magenta, and yellow I have no idea). These must be diverted using mirrors into ‘sinks’ of the corresponding secondary color, to ‘energize’ three colored crystals which the white beam must then pass through. I think it’s possible for the crystals to switch off if the wrong beams are shone through them, but the let’s play does not demonstrate this and I really don’t remember. It’s not a bad puzzle, but there are multiple problems with it.

  • Probably the big one is that what you need to do is actually kind of abstract and I remember spending most of my time trying to figure out what anything was or what the rules were as opposed to actually solving the problem of how to get the right beams into the right sinks. I think I actually ‘solved’ it while I was still experimenting with what did what and accidentally fumbled it into the right configuration, which wasn’t especially satisfying. In particular, I was under the impression that these lasers (like the similar ones in Questionable Ethics, and for that matter most every video game everywhere ever) were damaging and being surprised when the LPer walked through them without damage.
  • For being the defining feature of the level, this puzzle is pretty much confined to a single area and the vast majority of playtime is spent not interacting with it or even being able to see it- contrast this with the lases in Questionable Ethics, which while not really a puzzle had visible signs of their presence all throughout the level and the player was constantly finding them as they explored various rooms in a nonlinear map.
  • It is not at all clear to me just what this giant collection of lasers and crystals is actually doing in Black Mesa, especially since the area it is in is otherwise devoted to biological research on Xenians and there doesn’t actually seem to be any equipment around the lasers that would allow them to be reconfigured or studied. Even when the system is turned on I am not entirely clear what happened- I guess it supplied power to the big satellite array in the Gamma Labs, but even that’s two or three steps removed from any sort of actually relevant goal as basically half of the Decay maps have the same premise of ‘stop the portal using this that or the other giant machine, and then it doesn’t work’- and whyever is the power system for the Gamma Labs located in a different, unrelated part of the facility?
    I already have some ideas about how I will actually be restructuring the majority of the level and have duly written them down, but a lot of the decisions I am making about the overall shape of the level will depend on how the laser puzzle at the end is set up so I am going to need to address that beforehand.

One thing that immediately comes to mind as a potential first step in solving the issues with the level’s confused storytelling is an explanation I developed for why there is a laser setup in the biological research labs in Questionable Ethics- that the lasers in question are being generated using Xenian biological materials, which is why there are the two ‘crystal rooms’ in QEPD with chem labs in them and a spare crystal being grown in a tray of green ooze. In the redesigned level, the lasers will be generated from the dismembered components of Controllers, Houndeyes, or some other energy-manipulating Xenian, hooked up to life-support and control equipment. This matches the slightly ghoulish quality of many of the experiments implied to have taken place in Black Mesa’s expanded Questionable Ethics, as well as the electric-gauntlet and to some degree the bullsquid-pumping research seen to be occurring in the quarantine labs.

I think a good place to go from here would be to have the laser system not be this pre-existing setup that’s just sitting in the middle of a bio lab, but rather something Cross and Green kitbashed together using available materials where the only really important parts were the Xenian energy-emitting biologicals- a practice I am intimately familiar with in the robotics lab where I work, where the cameras on our two-million-dollar da Vinci surgical robot are calibrated using push pins from the office upstairs, retroreflective safety tape, an articulated armature built for a completely different project whose results were published three years ago, and a flattened-out cardboard box impaled on a tripod to prevent glare from the fluorescent lights. This is especially appealing because it shows the numerous trigger-happy scientists of the Half-Life series actually using their degrees for something; it also provides the opportunity to make the level less linear and more exploration-focused by not having all of the components needed be set up and instead scattering them around different labs (although another option would be indeed to put them all in one place, and have that place be a busted-open crate of optical equipment that was going to be delivered to Dr. Horn).

This all provides us with a hint towards the how of the level’s main objective, but nothing about what all these mirrors and houndeye eyeballs the player is putting together are actually supposed to do. This is actually an extremely good question, as it deals with the rest of a remade Decay which was the thing I said I didn’t want to deal with. Some of the potential options are:

  1. Bounce a combined energy beam to some other portion of the facility or to one of the satellites said to be in orbit. This is essentially a clarification of what I think the original level’s purpose was, but in being such it has many of the same drawbacks in that it’s not clear what effect this has on the rest of the Facility and it’s just another in a long chain of technical steps that accomplish nothing much on their own.
  2. Create something vaguely similar to the original Resonance Cascade, where the combined beam strikes a crystal and it explodes in a fantastic light show and a bunch of warp effects occur. This is basically a flashier version of 1 with the same problems of why-did-we-do-this-again, although I suppose if I took some liberties with the Decay storyline the explosion could actually send the player to Xen.
  3. Have the laser blow a hole in the wall to a different section of the facility. Seems kind of cartoony, and also derivative of the lasers in Questionable Ethics.
  4. Have the entire system overload and destroy the quarantine labs as the player escapes, presumably to prevent the aliens inside from escaping. Seems like a rather odd thing to do when the entire facility is swarming with aliens anyway, though.
  5. Do something like 1 or 2 with the explicit purpose of drawing the attention of the military away from some other, more important objective. But what would that objective be?
  6. ‘Energize’ or otherwise alter one of the facility’s Xen crystals for use in some other component of the containment process. Similar to 1 or 2, but at least it offers the player something more concrete for their efforts.
    Some of these options involve the lasers being focused to energize a specific object while others involve the beam being sent somewhere else, but I think these can be made relatively equivalent by using the target object as a focusing element anyway. So with that in mind, I’m actually thinking the way to proceed here would be to keep the puzzle as-is, but dramatically scale it down so all of the lasers and crystals fit in one lab on some sort of optics table. Possibly the kitbashing element can be included by putting the crystals themselves somewhere else, and/or having the mirrors themselves be jerry-rigged- one thing in particular I sort of always wanted to do was have the player get large optical lenses by crowbarring some of those large swivel-able surgical lights.

Astute readers will note that we still have yet to actually open up the Hammer editor.

Well, once Xen is released, the devs will have a lot more time to “listen” to us about adding coop support and other expansion features (Models, enemies, etc)

Developing a very rough concept of the scaled-down laser puzzle using the xen-crystal-energizing model. Instead of the highly structured laser setup from the original, the beams will bounce more or less randomly around the lab or in between two or three labs labs, redirected by mirrors and other equipment the player finds in the area and can place in different sections of the facility.

I am currently thinking that we can exploit the new ability of the Source engine to pick up and move physics props by removing the colored ‘sinks’ from the original and having the beam shine directly into various ‘uncolored’ Xen crystals held in fixed areas to ‘energize’ them; the crystal will then generate a puff of energy that shatters the container and knocks it onto the floor where it can be picked up and moved around by the player; they can then be placed in the path of the beam further on to shine it into another even larger Xen crystal. The fact that you need to shine the beam through energized crystals I don’t think would be immediately clear to the player, but I think whiteboards with text would be able to communicate this well enough. Something like “Experiment 035: Specimens are capable of absorbing incident energy of corresponding frequencies and retaining that energy for several hours. Experiment 037: energized specimens capable of amplifying components of energy beam falling within native frequency range. [in different handwriting] Possible to pass through all 3 in sequence to kick large crystal out of ground state?” In this plan the crystals are fixed until they are energized and instead of being moved up and down with switches the mirrors or lenses are either completely freely placeable or can be picked up and moved between predetermined ‘stands’ (continuing with the kitbashing theme these are probably not purpose-built fixtures like the ones in Questionable Ethics but rather convenient areas of level geometry where they can be wedged); or perhaps a hybrid system where the lenes are wedged into some structure but the structure itself is slidable (like the blue pushable boxes occasionally seen in vanilla Black Mesa).

It would be possible to put this all in a lab, but I liked my original idea of kitbashing it together from equipment in storage so I may put it in a dedicated ‘specimen storage’ area. This has some implications for the overall level design, which I will get to some time in the future.

Astute readers will note that we have still not actually opened the Hammer editor. I may do so soon, but only to see what sort of laser-and-mirror behavior I can get out of the Source physics engine using the physics constraint system and other motion-related entities- what feels realistic and is at the same time easy to work with in the format of the puzzle.

The results of my messing-around-in-Hammer period weren’t great. It may be possible to set up a completely free-moving laser system that bounces off of physics props, but I don’t think it’s tenable for the multi-stage beam in dy_laser. Therefore, I am thinking that I’ll be going with the option of having the mirrors be wedged at predetermined locations in the environment. There’s only three mirrors total in the original, so I actually have room to get somewhat inventive with their placement. The color-mixing was kind of the big draw of that puzzle anyway (and I do intend to switch out the R-Y-B system with R-G-B).

Knowing that the puzzle will still be confined to one room at the end of the level, I can now begin sketching out how I want the map to actually be set up.

Normally, I would save figuring out how this area connects to the rest of Black Mesa for the very end of the design process, but I already have a good idea about it- in fact, it was one of the first things I thought of to actually do with this level that was new and interesting and unique. Due to its purpose in the biological study of aliens, I decided a long time ago that the Alien Quarantine Labs where most of the level takes place are in fact part of the Biodome, specifically located a level between the Questionable Ethics section and the Biodome ‘proper’ we see in Opposing Force. Thus, instead of taking a random hallway directly from the Gamma Labs, the player will come in through the second Questionable Ethics entrance (the one on the upper balcony), go across the balcony overlooking the lobby, and take an elevator down. I don’t want the player to be able to jump down into the lobby itself, but I don’t want to just put an invisible wall over the railing because it’s clearly something the player could indeed scale. I suppose I could make the fall damage lethal (Black Mesa does that sometimes; without the trigger_hurt it is actually possible to survive the fall down the elevator shaft at the end of Office Complex), or I could actually make the entire scene scripted and not under player control. Given that this is during On A Rail I am thinking that the lobby area itself will have a bunch of Marines forming up for their first push into the complex and listening to the “Freeman Advisory” radio clip while the player sneaks past overhead. This will replace the segment with the Gamma Labs corridor and elevator and the weird long hallway with a single security door in it.

Moving on into the level I think it is a good idea to keep the crystals and possibly the laser control room visible from the start of the level but not actually accessible directly. I am thinking this is accomplished through a sort of ‘atrium’ area with windows looking into the other labs, sort of like the one at the beginning of bm_c1a1c (I may even make use of that oval windowframe model).

I was initially planning to put a QE-style decontamination area at the very beginning of the level where the corridor is, then I decided to move it after the ‘atrium’ where the large U-shaped room is because that room reminds me a lot of a decon area (in that it’s lit with floodlights and is pretty much completely empty), but I actually think the administration area will come before it. That area is really weird and a bit out of place (and also not especially well-modeled, featuring a lot of empty or nearly empty square rooms lit perfectly evenly by a single overhead light) and so for a little while I was just going to cut it out completely. However, I am reminded of the relatively unique office area in bm_c2a4e, and think I could do something similar with that. There’s the level’s solitary living scientist in there in the original and he dies in a scripted sequence- I am not a fan of those and think Black Mesa overuses them somewhat, so I am thinking the objective of this area will actually be to rescue a scientist who is under attack by zombies and get him to activate the door scanner leading into the decontamination area (which may also have a few HEV storage units).

Then comes the alien quarantine labs themselves, with the disconnected vort gauntlets and the bullsquid and the laser lab itself. I’d sort of like to keep the ‘fin’-based design the quarantine labs proper have in the original, and expand out the area as it was kind of the central focus of the level. I am not sure if the quarantine labs have an ‘official’ entrance back into the lobby directly as this would require another decontamination lock or if it is an unofficial one caused by a broken window or something similar; nor am I sure whether the specimen storage area with the crystals is part of the sterile lab area or the non-sterile atrium- I am leaning towards the former, however. In that case, there will be some kind of breach or broken window exposing specimen storage to the lobby at the start, and then another door keeping it separate from the laser labs and the rest of the AQL which can be opened by the player to connect the two areas.

I think this overall redesign is on the right track; one thing that I am noticing is that dy_lasers was not a large map to begin with even by 1990s standards to begin with and I cut out a goodly amount of it in this design; all of which would lead to a rather small area indeed. I’ll try to brainstorm some other things to add or expand on- I particularly want to add more to the quarantine labs themselves as they were supposedly the whole purpose of the area and are criminally underserved by the original one-room-with-some-side-areas design that really only has three research areas in it. However, there is nothing particularly wrong with having a smaller map in general, and my experience with the pre-disaster maps has taught me that if anything I have a tendency to bloat areas up and add a bunch of rooms that, while pretty, serve no gameplay purpose.

Astute readers will note that- aside from about half an hour spent messing around with env_beams and physics props which yielded precious little- we still have yet to open up Hammer.

For a while I spent a lot of time toying around with dy_lasers, so I figured I’d give my two cents as to how I think all this fits together (or at least what I was able to figure out so far)

So, first topic of interest is the office area. Not only is it really out of place in terms of aesthetic, but also finding a purpose for it would be considerably difficult considering that BM shows a majority of office work taking place in the sections of the biodome you explore. Seems like it couldn’t be an administration area considering that most of the administration personnel are stationed on the second floor of the biodome, but considering that it looks somewhat upscale in comparison to the other offices it does seem like a place that upper-level personnel would work in. I’m not sure what operations could potentially be relinquished to that area or why their office would look so different, though, so determining what exactly it’s used for was something I never was able to get around to.

Next area of interest was the Quarantine Labs themselves. First idea of mine involved actually segregating the labs based off the hazard level of the specimens inside (which I’ve seen happen at actual government facilities involving handling of pathogens and other biohazards). I was thinking of dividing containment into 4 levels: Low, Medium, High, and Extreme. I’m not sure how the individual segments would be laid out relative to the rest of the facility, but I imagine having to pass through the lower level labs in order to access the higher level ones. This also would mean that the higher level labs would have no direct exits to the outside in order to prevent the spread of highly dangerous specimens, though, so that could make exploring the higher levels and exiting into the regular facility difficult (I only have Outbreak to go off of, though, so I can’t exactly verify that these are accurate statements)

Going all the way back to the beginning, we have the laser area itself. I’ve always found it a bit weird that it appears to be part of the biodome, looks like a part of the biodome, and is very close to another facility related to the biodome, but yet contains equipment designed to serve the gamma labs (which, judging by the lift ride, are a sufficient distance away). I haven’t quite figured out how to explain that bit yet, nor how such a place wouldn’t make an appearance on any biodome maps (assuming, of course, that the Quarantine Labs are on some sort of “Level 0” between the biodome in BM and the biodome in OP4 and as a result this area is on Level 1). It could have to do with the area not actually being part of the biodome itself (which makes sense considering the equipment it houses), and perhaps the laser system feeds off the same system the laser on the second floor in QE feeds off of (which explains the proximity to the biodome). In this case, however, that would mean that it might make more sense for a more direct connection to the Gamma Labs themselves, although the current connecting hallway definitely leaves much to be desired. The whole idea of making it separate has issues though, especially for the aforementioned office area. It seems a bit weird to have an office for the Gamma Labs so far away (assuming it’s part of the Gamma Labs), and if we assume it’s part of the biodome we still have the issues of an unclear purpose as I mentioned earlier. Furthermore, considering that there’s a significant amount of linkage between the two levels, it just seems a bit odd to segregate the area entirely despite the equipment housed.

Mainly just tossing ideas out since I never made it past the experimentation phase, but at the very least there’s probably some things you could work with in there

One thing I am thinking of in regards to the offices is presenting them as a sort of ‘development office’ area where scientists can sit down with a coffee and analyze experimental results, read related papers, build computer models, and do other research-related tasks without having to worry about cleanroom precautions. That’s why I am thinking that the beginning of the level will be a sort of public lobby that leads into the office area, and then decontamination locks leading to different lab areas (only one of which is open, implying this floor of the facility is much larger than what we encounter in this relatively small level).

I too thought that the placement of the lasers in a QE-like area of the facility somewhat removed from the Gamma device proper was strange; this is why I decided that the objective of the map would involve improvising a new focusing crystal from samples held in an unrelated lab complex. I am even thinking that the entry to the lab will imply that the player got there through the tram system and the quarantine labs are in fact nowhere near the Gamma Labs.

While I like the idea of the higher-containment labs being inside of the lower-containment ones I’m not sure if there’s enough room in the level to do that without making the labs really small. I dunno, it could work for just two or so levels of containment.

I’m feeling a little bit stuck on this project and am currently focusing more on ev_office, but once that’s done I think I’ll be able to come back to this with fresh eyes.

I am loving the ideas so far. I wish you would redesign the entire Decay. (It is a mess really)

But that was the main drawback of the many people who wished to play Decay. It was co-op only and that sucked. (you can’t always find that second player) While I wouldn’t say no to having the option to play it co-op, I would also want to have the option to play it singleplayer. That’s why while I was doing my Decay mod (something I tried and failed miserably), I was going to turn Colette Green (second player) into a full fledged NPC similar to Alyx. With her own dialogue and facial expressions and all that. In co-op mode, that would function in a similar way to it does in Left4Dead. Characters still have dialogue, they are just controlled by another player.

Offices being R&D areas would work I think. Some parts would be used for cataloging and classifying different specimens. One part would be used to menage resources and decide which departments get the use what specimens and equipment depending on the requests while keeping records I imagine. Standard office stuff. So office in that setting makes a lot of sense.

Generally attempts to add new NPCs run afoul of Black Mesa’s issues with custom script content due to the Steampipe update (among other things) . However, some HL2 NPCs and other objects (like combine mines) can indeed be spawned in Black Mesa by default and I suspect others can be enabled through modifying the FGD; it may be possible to create a functional Dr. Cross by reskinning Alyx. I’ll look into this.

Obviously the presence of a second NPC like this will seriously affect level design; however I think I will keep my prototype singleplayer as my intent was never to completely remake Decay.

And after working on Pre-Disaster Questionable Ethics I can sort of design labs in my sleep; my big issue currently is the “loop-around” from the specimen storage area with the crystals to the lobby at the start of the map. I’ll keep thinking about it on a low level as I work on Pre-Disaster and ev_office.

Had a bit of a flash of inspiration regarding this level and the laser puzzle and thus have resurrected it.

Tried to get Alyx to spawn in Black Mesa and it seems that she and other HL2 NPCs are not present in the game’s code. Stuff like Combine mines and antlions might be, but those really are not useful to me. I’m not particularly disappointed by that, though, as I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bother trying to include a co-op or persistent NPC system even if it was possible. Part of that I’ll admit is simple laziness, but also at quite a lot of points I felt like the cooperative element in Decay was somewhat forced and the developers were going out of their way to come up with mechanics to justify its existence which didn’t really add much to the game.

I am, however, REALLY convinced that I do want to go with my original ‘kitbashing’ idea with various parts being found throughout the AQ labs in order to assemble a laser redirection system in an experiment storage area. I’m currently outlining what some of those might be, but feel like I am also close to figuring out how I want to handle the connection between the lobby area that player ends up in after coming out of the elevator and the specimen storage with the crystals in it. I’ve actually got a few different ideas for it which could easily be put into practice but don’t fulfill all of my objectives, and so am still working a little bit on the possibility of some sort of synthesis. The original idea here was to have the specimen storage room be connected to the lobby by a busted-out window, but the storage areas in QE are pretty much pure concrete and do not have windows. Now, however, I have decided that I’m going to instead blow out an entire wall dividing the two. That sort of damage isn’t really seen in Questionable Ethics before Freeman carves his typical swath through it, but if I put some trashed shelves and explosive-crate shrapnel around the area I am pretty sure I can provide enough of a decent explanation. The AQL itself will then actually be visible through a fence with a locked gate.

The AQL itself will then be somewhat expanded into a fairly nonlinear and decentralized area with a bunch of little side labs- some of which have supplies, some of which have components for the laser reflector, and some of which don’t have anything particularly useful at all but still are interesting to explore. This is where the bullsquid stomach pump and vortigauntlet rig will be making an appearance.

Not sure quite what I want to do with the long, mostly empty route between the lobby and AQL with the office section from the original game. I suppose it comes down to how expansive the AQL themselves end up being and how much “allowance” (both in hard limits like ent budget and soft ones like the player’s patience) I have left once the labs are fleshed out. I was thinking that instead of just having the player cut through an office to get to the AQL, that area is actually locked down from the start due to the containment breach that occurred there and the player must rescue a scientist from the offices which are in fact in another direction entirely in order to override it. However, there is such a thing as including too much nonlinearity in a map so I may not do that. Unsure what else I would even put IN that section since it’s just so goddamn empty and pointless, actually… but I want to have something in there because I feel like there is very little payoff in just going directly from the lobby at the start to the AQL with a possible loopback into the offices.