Viktor Antonov hasn't built a world like this before.
There is a saying in architecture that no building is unbuildable, only unbuilt. Structures may be impossible in the here and now, but have the potential to exist given enough time or technological development: a futuristic cityscape, a spacefaring megastructure, the ruins of an alien civilisation. However, there are also buildings that defy the physical laws of space. It is not an issue that they could not exist, but that they should not. Their forms bend and warp in unthinkable ways; dream-like structures that push spatial logic to its breaking point.
Richard Seabrook woke one morning and realised his life wasn't where he wanted it to be. He was 23 years old, he'd graduated from university and he'd taken a job he thought would lead to his dream career in games. But it hadn't quite worked out. He was stuck in the British seaside town of Bournemouth, in quality assurance testing, where months were sprawling ominously into years. "You know what?" he said to himself that day. "I'm sick of this. I'm just going to go for it." He set his sights high: Seabrook wanted to go for a job at Valve.
Half-Life 2 is a game built of great moments, and of its designers' desire to change the pace, the structure, and the feel of the challenge while you move from one sequence to the next. As a celebration of City 17's 10th birthday, we asked a handful of developers to tell us about the specific moments that stuck with them the most.
Half-Life 2 has met the fate of all exceptional games. The 'classic' moniker almost instantly embalms them, gradually fossilising to a few forever-parroted talking points while the living entity is obscured. Physics, story, environmental design - Gravity Gun, City 17, Ravenholm. The game is shorn of context, too, and compared with successors that stripped its bones of ideas and sometimes improved on them. The keenly-felt absence of Half-Life 3 helps with this impression, but Half-Life 2 feels like a game on a tightrope - not stuck in the middle, exactly, so much as a pioneer of the modern first-person shooter that still contains much of the 'old' first-person shooter.
In the middle of the sixth floor of the Washington State Convention Center is a man running in place inside a bowl-like surface with a plastic gun controller in his hands, motion sensors on his limbs and head, and an Oculus Rift VR headset strapped to his face. Above him, Gordon Freeman's gun bobs around a beach shooting giant alien ants. The man in the machine is controlling Valve's machine of a man - and this culmination of motion sensors, VR goggles and high-tech exercising equipment is touted as the closest man has ever come to the Matrix.
Adam Foster tells me he's "faintly terrified" by the response to his old Half-Life 2 mod Minerva being released on Steam. Tens of thousands have downloaded it in a couple of weeks and he didn't expect that, he insists. But then he also didn't expect the chain of events that unfolded after he first released Minerva back in 2005. Back then he worked for the European Railway Industry doing web development and programming. Today he talks to me from within the hallowed walls of Valve.
If there's one question Valve must be sick of hearing it's this: where is Episode 3? No-one's saying anything - not yet. But inquiring minds might find their own answers by playing through the preceding two episodes.
The employee handbook that hit the internet earlier this year pulled the curtain back on Valve, suggesting staff float about the company's Seattle offices working at desks made of gold and sitting on chairs made of clouds.
That the closest touchstone for Dishonored should be BioShock, a game from 2007, speaks volumes to the stagnating creativity of video games. As celebrated art maestro Viktor Antonov put it to Eurogamer: "It's been a poor, poor five years for fiction in the video game industry." And he should know - he created Half-Life 2's iconic City 17, not to mention he's now making Dishonored.
Last week, 10,000 people took to Steam to play Half-Life 2 as part of a gentle protest against Valve's silence on the development of the series' next instalment. It's part of an ongoing campaign that rose from the background noise of forum discontent to deliver an open letter to Valve.
At 6am on 7th May 2004, Axel Gembe awoke in the small German town of Schönau im Schwarzwald to find his bed surrounded by police officers. Automatic weapons were pointing at his head and the words, "Get out of bed. Do not touch the keyboard," were ringing in his ears.
On a recent trip to Germany to see Left 4 Dead, of which more soon, we sat down with Valve's VP of marketing Doug Lombardi to talk about things. Things like Portal, and whether we'll see an Orange Box 2. Like everyone at Valve, Doug's job title is a bit misleading; he does a broad range of things across the company, and has even - as he points out here - dabbled in development to some extent. He also plays Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead with us when we fly over to see Valve, which is nice of him (it's nice of him to let us win all the time, too). Anyway, enough being nice about Doug - here are a few selected excerpts from our discussion, with more to come when we're allowed to talk about what the developer was actually in Germany to show off...
Despite the massive acclaim and the shower of awards thrust upon Valve in the wake of Half-Life 2's release in November 2004, the developer listened more than ever to the feedback from the community, meticulously cataloguing thousands of hours of playtesting feedback from hundreds of playtesters and setting about to continue the Half-Life 2 story episodically, but while also fixing many of the niggling issues that fans had with the game.
After spectacularly 'raising the bar' (with a gravity gun) of the FPS genre in 2004, Valve last week turned its attention to extending the Half-Life 2 universe episodically with the release of the first in a trilogy of episodes that finally reveals what happened to Gordon and Alyx after the destruction of the Citadel.
Half-Life 2 is a game I always wanted to review but never got the chance to [Ed snips 4,000 words]. In the end it was a science-fiction first-person shooter - usually a very narrow-minded genre - that managed to encompass many themes on many levels, but the thing I probably liked most about it was the way it applied "less is more" logic all over the place.
As refreshingly optimised as Half-Life 2 was to run on low and mid range PCs, there's no doubt that a hugely significant chunk of its owners went out and upgraded their rigs with the specific intention of playing Valve's game without compromise, in all its staggeringly gorgeous glory. But while many of us went out and upgraded to a gigabyte of RAM, stuck in a high-end Radeon or GeForce and spent a fortune, it's pretty clear that our PCs had plenty of headroom left - and now Valve wants to take advantage of that with the forthcoming release of a specially designed level called 'The Lost Coast'.
We know the exclusive presentation has now leaked out onto the net, but any game that makes us physically shake with excitement deserves some measure of evangelism nevertheless. With Half Life 2, Valve has taken the FPS by the scruff of the neck, whirled it around its head, and drop kicked its sorry arse into another dimension. The five years of quiet hype-free development have positioned the US team so far ahead of the competition it's almost embarrassing. Better than Doom III and Halo 2? Yep. But how?