Thursday, July 16, 2009

Free Radical, Stalkerbot, and Other Table Scraps

Thursday, July 16, 2009
It was 2005, and like a lot of people I was obsessed with Half-Life 2.

I was still fairly fresh out of college and possessed of just enough ability, and time, and leftover invincibility that I believed if I worked hard enough, I could put together a targeted concept art portfolio that could get me a job at Valve. (Spoiler alert: it didn't.)

It was an invaluable lesson; the time spent playing in and around someone else's universe was an education in itself. Possibly more valuable was the understanding that a targeted portfolio can beg unfavorable comparisons to artists like the peerless Viktor Antonov, which is unwise.

I wrapped the images up in a special section of a larger but no less carefully curated portfolio, fiddled with the resume, and then sent the email off to Valve. Riding high, I posted the images on a few artboards including the forums.

On I was roundly excoriated by one poster in particular armed with a short, blunt list of my stylistic and technical shortcomings. Incensed, I clicked to the poster's profile--who were they to criticize, exactly?
It happened to be somebody with an email address that ended (no, I didn't recognize the name). I considered it my official unofficial reply from Valve, as none ever arrived in my inbox, and that was that.

Dreams settled back down to the earth and between then and now I traveled extensively and worked on various projects.
Years later, I feel rather fond about these illustrations overall, and consider their posting here a kind of exorcism of that old feeling of defeat--I've learned since to consider the work itself the reward, and the things that come or don't as a result entirely secondary. Life as an artist is a lot happier in this frame of mind.

But before I get to the "Valve Portfolio," I was referring to, here are a couple of mod/expansion type ideas I thought about in those days. Like everyone else--who wasn't thinking about Half-Life 2 then?

Free Radical would be the one and only clever name (in the vein of Blue Shift, Opposing Force) for a HL universe project that I ever came up with; the idea itself wasn't so great. Something about a rogue Combine soldier type's journey to the other side; maybe early levels would involve fighting against the Resistance but coming round to following Freeman eventually.

It was conceived to be graceful under the constraints of a one man mod project and so is naturally consigned to triviality by that nature... I still like the image, though.

Michelle is the leader of a small enclave far outside the realm of Combine control--she wears a trophy Combine Elite uniform as a dress. Largely intended as a anchor character for a group that the player encounters and possibly embroiled in petty politics. Gameplay scenario is the "drifter comes to town" where the player becomes familiar with a small, mostly closed defensive layout and then Combine stage a vicious assault. Player must defend and then help with the emergency withdrawal.

Stalkerbot (working title--I suppose Free Radical would have worked here too?) was more ambitious, though still basically a smallish mod project. It was intended as a day in the life experience of someone who slid hopelessly underneath Combine rule.

It opens on a HL2-style limited POV cinematic; periodic time-lapse montage from a vantage point inside an apartment whose walls peel as times go sour. You are a man who watches his wife wither and grow desperate and the (tastefully implied) death of a child from malnutrition. With no other option, you volunteer to become a Metrocop. One of them.
Actually building this thing would have dictated the resolution of the story here (how much Metrocop training/indoctrination?), but I liked the idea of showing how by degrees, even decent people (even you, player) can get roped into evil things.
Before long there's the sequence where the player is an active participant in the brutal suppression of a food riot, probably staged at the very train station from the opening of HL2. You thump on those helpless civilians and it's probably fun, in that Stalinist regime sort of way. You fall a little further down but at the critical moment there's an awakening, a forced ultimatum by a superior say, and it pulls you back to your basic humanity.

And for that, you're hauled away and turned into one of those ghoulish "stalkers" that haunt the corridors of the Citadel.
You end up being further dehumanized by random incorporation into an experimental man-machine weapon rig of the Combine (pictured right), and then fight war-crime worthy mission against the Resistance.
It'd be like fighting in a small-sized mech, HUD and all... at which point there again you reclaim one last stake in your humanity and I don't know, take the Citadel of City ## with you in an enormous explosion. These things always end in explosions. I'm sure it would have been really touching/ass-kicking.

A very early sketch from 2005 of Breen being confronted by three Advisors. I abandoned this fairly quickly when I remembered the implications of the ending of Half-Life 2--Breen would never had this sort of confrontation for the defeat at the hands of Gordon Freeman, because at that point, in order to escape the Citadel Breen had to abandon his body. Oops.

Looking back now, my trouble with the all of the above is that they are generally more story-centered than anything that is concretely related to gameplay, which I think is a classic beginner's mistake.
We are taught to think in stories, perceive the world and recount it to others in stories; it's very difficult to make the transistion to being a designer who focuses on the gameplay experience of the player and the "story" experience as an outgrowth of that, not as the primary concern.

And I must also point out as a fairly slavish devotee to the House that Valve built that however much I like the cold moderism of the Combine "stalkerbot" look, I believe it at odds with the established fiction. The Combine generally developer bio-weapon/quasi-organic solutions for this kind of thing, as evidenced by the Strider and the deleted supersoldier character seen in the (excellent) HL2: Raising the Bar book, not cybernetic.

And finally here are the "Valve portfolio" pieces themselves.

I still like the Civil Protection Carrier & riot shield designs very much despite their derivative nature; I was a little let down by Episode 1's lack of depiction of civil unrest in the face of the Citadel's destruction (alluded to in the first image).
I also thought that Metrocops with riot shields were a gimmee for gravity-gun play--say you still couldn't grab the cops, but you could grab the shields and then launch them at the other cops, or hold one up in front of you to block shots. Great fun.
(This first image is the only one I really noodled with in a fit of George Lucasing before posting. Feel free to examine the original version to the left from November of 2005 and tell me Han shot first or whatever.)

The City 16 material is middling, mod fodder at best; though the citadel on Xen is still a strong visual to me and agreeable callback to the first game. The aerial shot was the very first of its kind I had ever attempted.

The Mobile Barrier is an almost complete failure since not only is it nonsensically redundant--functionally the same as the citadel's creeping outer walls but not as pure, not as abstractly menacing--I failed to communicate the key aspect of the design, which was that the upper boom-arm would in conjunction with the other barriers project a forcefield wall, a key visual I neglected to actually depict.

I've always admired artists that leave out early evidence that they were once mortal men--I'm still terribly mortal, as an artist or a designer, but here's hoping a generosity of spirit gets me somewhere later on.


Klow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Klow said...

No comments? What a shame! You are very talented! I love your concepts, Valve should have hired you. I linked you here:

Thought you deserved it. Cheers! ;-)

Klow said...

boy the Xen Citadel got be speechless. And the Citadel factory could have been great. Makes me think about Star Destroyer factories from Star Wars. So huge you cannot measure it. Great art, really. Just wow.

gauss said...

Thank you very much, Klow. And I'm glad you liked the Citadel factory as well--it would be a very difficult scene to pull off, but it would be unfathomably huge in scale and import; one of the most amazing "vistas" ever.

Ninjas said...

Yeah, I think this stuff is solid. It's a shame that the Valve guys didn't officially respond to you. I feel like a lot of great art gets ignored in favor of more pedestrian technique and execution.

I have gotten some pretty frigid assessments of my work from other concept artists, and yet people still seem to like what I do.

Andrew Holliday said...

The implied scale of the Citadel factory is mind-boggling.

gauss said...

Hahah, yeah thanks. If there's one thing that piece does, is sell scale :)

Will Taylor said...

Can I see the semi-official reply valve sent you?

gauss said...

Lost to the sands of time. And as it was a reply on a message board in a personal capacity, not at all "in the name of" the company, it's not even semi-official; just was the closest thing to a response I ever got.

Anonymous said...

This stuff is amazing! I myself am doing a little comic following the journey of a CP stuck in the middle of the uprising and the subsequent escape of city 17. So as a fellow fanatic, I commend your this awsome concept art!

Particularly those citadel designs, Xen Citadel being my favourite

Viagra said...

The graphics are great in this game!

Shin280891 said...

Great job! Sympathetic to your misfortune(

Anonymous said...

WOW...these are amazing, I have no idea why valve did not hire you,you have great ideas that would have made the Half-life games even better! So are you actually working on a game/mod based off of this?

Elliott Broidy said...


Anonymous said...

I love everything here in you're artwork gallery, the stalkerbot, dem citadels, especially with thier own roles adn of course the "riot" apc from the combine. Something like that had to be in the retail HL², but sadly you didn't got an official reply. You are one great (free-) man ;)

Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

You should be an concept artist, forget about valve, you are a very talented person
Don't waste your talent

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