I had the pleasure of speaking with both Mxthe and Tom Stoffel of the Underhell team. They’ve been tirelessly working on this still mostly un-released horror/action title for Half Life 2. It’s worth noting that despite much support with websites and beta testing from them, WeCreateStuff (the makers of Nightmare House 2) are not involved in actual development of Underhell!
Below is an engaging and thoughtful, detailed interview and if you’re at all a fan of the Underhell project or long, educated reads on gaming philosophy then by no means should you miss this.
Interviewer: C-zom/Glenn Winkelmann Jr
Required Game(s): Source SDK Base 2006, Half Life 2.
#1: First of all, its nice to talk to you. Want to tell us a little bit about what inspired Underhell?
Mxthe : Hello there, that is a really difficult question, the ORIGINAL idea of Underhell came about in 2005, since then the concept has changed way too many times for me to count, it has been inspired by pretty much everything I watched or read since 2005, so I will try to answer about the Current Concept.
Underhell is inspired by many Video Games, Books and Movies that I love and grew up with, to name some of the largest sources of inspirations : Silent Hill, Max Payne, Resident Evil, Half Life, FEAR, all of Stephen King’s work and adaptations, JU-ON, Ringu, Shutter and many other
#2: Jake Hawkfield is a pretty dynamic character. How difficult was writing him and fleshing out his character in a FP perspective?
Mxthe : Jake was originally planned to have a voice, and to be just like any other characters during cutscenes, it was very late in development that Jake lost his voice, many of the beta testers and friends said that a First Person horror game with a silent protagonist would simply allow the player to take over the main role and feel more engaged. I agree with that idea, but my problem with Jake is that during many scenes he was talking with only one other person, and in order to remove his voice, I would have to review the entire dialogs to give the other person a reason to elaborate his speech without having an actual person talking back, but while I was reading the scripts I started discovering many clever and amusing ways to actually fix that problem and therefore, muting Jake.
It also allowed me to add other narrative elements to replace that missing voice, for example in The House, if the player presses use on some objects in the environment, you can read Jake’s thoughts, which help the player to get to know him better. It is a challenge to try and make players care about Jake and empathize towards him, when Jake never says a word.
That’s where the Emails, phone calls and Mails in The House come in, and you can expect to see many more of those details later on.
Also if you Press Tab to see the objectives during the Prologue, you will see that objectives are given in a “third person”, like an Order, because they are Instructed from Frank, but if you look at the “Objectives” in the house, they are given in First Person the same will be for any future objective that is given by Jake himself.
For example, if someone tells you to open a door, you will see “Open the door”, but if no one told Jake to open the door and the game actually requires him to, then the objective will read “I think I should open this door”.
It’s a great way of making the player feel like he is in Jake’s shoes.
#3: The action in Underhell is rather varied, sometimes I get John Woo vibes, others Matrix or FEAR. What made you go the action route rather than say, pure horror?
Mxthe : Underhell Prologue has always been Advertised (from the very first trailer) as an “Action Packed Prologue to a Survival Horror”, it is a very common issue that people think “this is it”, but what I tell them is this : “Underhell Prologue is the Equivalent of the first 10 minutes of a James Bond movie.” You get a rush of adrenaline during a confusing situation, where you try to piece things together and ultimately ends in the situation that will lead to the main story.
Even though some moments of the game will have action scenes, Underhell will remain a Survival game.
About your question, the Kicking Doors Down scene was a direct homage to John Woo, when I think stylized action, that is just the name that pops up in my mind, so it was just natural for me to go in that direction when I try to make an action scene.
I think the Prologue is very important, but might actually be a liability, people might expect the rest of the game to be like this, or might not understand everything until they play the future chapters, but this story was written as a whole, and the Prologue was actually written last as “A very quick action scene that would set the future events” I just got carried away while making it because I wanted to show as many locations as possible so that the player would get a grasp of the “outside world”.
Since the Chapter 1 takes place Underground, I wanted to show the players how big the world actually is, you can’t get claustrophobic if you have never stepped outside.
#4: I always ask this question: If you had no technical limitations in a perfect world, what would you love to add to Underhell?
Mxthe : Well that’s the thing, I designed Underhell specifically as “a project I could mostly do myself”, so when writing the story and thinking about the locations and scenes, I tried to remain very “down to earth”. Everything just came together around it, and as far as the story is concerned, it is exactly how I want it to be, I wish I could just tell people how excited I am about it, but the point of this story is to be experienced by themselves, with music and sound effects, which is why I have turned down so many people asking for easy spoilers.
To come back to your question, I don’t think there is anything technical I would love to add, so far I have been able to work around every limitations I had.
What I would love, that has nothing to do with technical limitations, would be that every model and texture would be exclusive to Underhell, made by a team member. But as I said, Underhell was designed as a game I could do mostly myself, which is why I asked the community massive permissions for the use of all the content in Underhell.
Maybe later on if the mod picks up more hype and I actually get a modeler, I’ll end up replacing all the contributed content.
#5: Do you have any future plans if Underhell does well critically? It’s “pre-release” sort of thing already has.
Mxthe : There are 3 reasons why I am making this game.
Number 1 : For the sake of it, I wrote the basic pitch around 6 years ago, and it has evolved and mutated since, I pretty much grew up with that story and those characters, to me it’s alive, it’s like some part of my life that I didn’t really live.
Number 2 : To get a job in the Video Games Industry, creating world and stories is what I live for, I learned level design and other tools to tell those stories because I had to, but my plan is to get into the video games industry, either by getting hired by a company or making my own, it doesn’t matter as long as I keep making worlds.
Number 3 : The community, I do like sharing these worlds I create, and talking about it with people, it is one of the greatest feeling to see people enjoying your work.
#6: How do you personally feel about the incredibly positive feedback? How does that affect you?
Mxthe : I am surprised in a way, as I said earlier, to me the Prologue is nothing but a fraction of what is to come, to be honest it was made a long time ago and was just resting in a corner until Hen came along and basically said “Hey this is awesome, finish it and release it”. But really, when I look at the levels and some of the stuff in there, there are some things I am not really proud of; so when I see people saying “It’s the best mod ever”, well I just don’t get it.
To get back to my previous example, it’s like watching only the first 10 minutes of a James Bond movie and saying “this is the best movie ever”.
I do enjoy reading those comments though, but the feedback I prefer is the constructive one, some of the reviews are really interesting and deep, and they detail what they like and don’t like.
The reviews that I enjoy reading the most, are those who say that the only thing they didn’t like are related to the game not being finished, this feels satisfying and does help motivate me to keep going.
#7: Has Modding had an affect on your personal life or do you keep it private/to yourself?
Mxthe : Well I take this as a training, I am pretty much “studying” right now.
To be honest at the moment I do not have a full time job where I get paid, so I use all my free time to work on Chapter 1, and I will continue doing so for the rest of this year, which is when the release of this Chapter has been scheduled.
Let’s put it this way, the only human contact I have is through Internet by talking to family and friends, but this is “planned”, it was decided earlier this year that I would take this year to complete Chapter 1, because I am pretty confident and hopeful that it will open doors.
#8: Jake wife is an interesting enigma. Will fans be seeing more of her throughout the “series”, or will she stay in the back light?
Mxthe : Jake’s Wife is one of the many stories in Underhell, every character in this world have their own stories, some are directly related to Jake’s story, and some are just tied by specific events. “She” is directly related to some very important moments of Jake’s life.
You can expect her to be omnipresent; The House was a prototype for the “Random Scenes” system, you can expect to see many more of those in the new houses, or in the future chapters, no matter how many times you play through them, since many events will be random, you might still see something that you haven’t seen before, and knowing that anything can happen at anytime, even though you have played it before, is quite terrifying, because you think you know the game, you are not expecting things to happen differently.
That is why “She” and the Guilt are very powerful horror tools, but they are not the only “random” factors in this game.
#9: Tell us a little about the horror or mystery elements here, they’re not many but they’re there–and subtle. What is your personal view on horror in mods?
Mxthe : Well as I said, this is only the Prologue, and very few mystery elements were introduced here, but as the game carries on, you will notice that many things are not what they seem. Horror is not easy to define, there are so many ways to handle it. Either by flashing scary monsters in your face, or by putting you in a creepy room with a weak flashlight and scary sounds, or maybe simply by putting you in a very pleasant environment and telling you “There’s something here trying to kill you”.
My take on Underhell, is trying to use the horror to engage the players within the world and then use it as a narrative element to tell the story.
As for my personal view on horror in mods, well just like in any other genre, if it’s not done properly and if it doesn’t have a purpose, then in my opinion, it is not worth making, but that’s just me.
#10: Source is by a long mile the most common, dare I say, saturated modding engine right now. What made you choose it despite this?
Mxthe : I came up with the first concept for Underhell in early 2005, at the time Half Life 2 had just been released, and the SDK was right around the corner. I could have switched to another engine, and I still can, but right now there are just too many assets in Source that I use, and changing engine would just be more work than it is actually worth for.
I designed Underhell with Source in mind, so I don’t really want to change.
#11: Do you guys use any custom assets in Underhell like walls, textures, etc? Or is it all out-of-the-box?
Mxthe : Yes I have personally made hundreds of textures for advertisement, mails, walls ect… or modified already existing textures for environments.
Many of the content in Underhell has been contributed by many great talents in the community, but for every single one of them I had to spend time making sure that they fit the game, and also had to optimize them. Countless textures had empty alpha channels, which doubles the file size, and other were just ridiculously large for a very small object.
One of the biggest contributor to Underhell is the well known Fake Factory, he has a reputation for making insanely high poly models and high resolution textures, he also made a great pack of “Detail Textures” which are a set of “Alpha” textures that fades in as you get closer in game. I went on and applied those “detail textures” to pretty much every single texture in the source engine, that was a lot of fun (sarcasm) and contributed in making Underhell look sharp and pretty different.
#12: Now lets move on to some technical and musical questions. As a modder, what did you feel the hardest part of creating Underhell was?
Mxthe : The hardest part, well I am still going through it, it’s related to the Code. Underhell Prologue used the SMOD as a base for it’s function, because the SMOD allowed for an easier and more flexible modification than the Original Source engine. Unfortunately the SMOD is limited to the Old source engine, which is pretty much dead right now.
Many features of the latest SMOD were added because of requests from the community, and some from my own requests like the flashlight using battery, or the gibbing being model specific, those are features I requested to “The Author” on the Japanese forums, with Underhell in mind. “The Author” was this really nice mysterious Japanese programmer that made SMOD merely for a “Discreet enjoyment of the community”. I don’t think he had any idea that SMOD would become this popular.
“The Author” has now gone missing, I hope he was hired in a real company.
So having to find a new programmer and, asking him to work for free is what I consider to be hard, everything else isn’t what I would call hard, but just work process and takes time. It’s not hard when you love making it.
One thing though that is a bit harsh is “Mapper’s Block”, it’s not a common expression but, imagine a Writer’s block for mappers, and you get an idea; there are just those days when I wake up stare at the Level Editor and, nothing happens… Every level designer knows what I’m talking about…
It’s no big deal when you are in a team right ? But when you are alone making it, it is quite a big deal…
#13: Musically, the Underhell soundtrack is phenomenal. It blends a lot of classical piano pieces with synths, strings, and light percussion. Where did you draw inspiration from for this?
Mxthe : To me, music is VERY important, I am a musician myself and a very cheap composer, so that does helps in a way, but as far as Underhell was concerned, I always had a very specific idea for how it would sound, it needed to have Catchy themes, that can stay in your head for hours, I wanted a killer theme that when you hear it, you go “Oh this is Underhell”.
When I met Tom, we got on Skype and we spoke for around 9 hours straight, all night long, just got to know each other. We kept doing that a couple of times, talking about music in general and just about each other, becoming friends ect…
So we talked a lot about multiple ideas and sounds, but I was very consistent that I wanted a very acoustic orchestral sound.
Those conversations are what Tom and I refer to as “Getting on the same page”, as soon as we were on the same page, Tom just started ROLLING out the music.
The entire sound track was composed in less than 2 weeks, only 2 tracks needed revising.
The way we went about it was to give every important character a specific musical tune that would remain within a specific scale, then during set pieces moment, whenever a character is present or is doing something crucial, I can tell Tom to kick in his personal Tune and blend it with the ongoing music he has planned, and you get a very specific and distinctive music that fits the circumstances.
The music is also reminiscent of the Inner feelings of Jake, The Adrenalin Pumped action music in the Prologue, the Stressing Guitar in the Hummer scene representing Anger, or the very long and unsettling music in The Red Chamber, all those were composed according to the events to accentuate the actions and inner feelings.
All this was carefully thought through by the two of us and brilliantly composed by Tom.
I could spend hours talking about the music and the creation process, every time we get on Skype, I say “Tom, we should record our creation process, I think people would love that”, because it is a lot of fun, and also helps in other areas.
Tom Stoffel :
Underhell has a really unique dualistic quality. On the one hand, it has the horror/thriller/lost romance thing going on and on the other hand, it has the whole action/fps/ass-kicking thing going on. I knew I had to find distinct musical sounds for both sides of this crazy coin. For the first side, I drew a lot of inspiration from 19th century classical music. Particularly, Beethoven’s piano sonatas and Puccini’s tragic operas. On the second side, I drew inspiration from one of my all time favorite film composers Hanz Zimmer and the tactical sequences from some of the action films he worked on i.e. “The Rock” and “The Dark Knight.”
#14: People are quick to say that Underhell is “art” in game form, at the very least, your music is. How do you feel about your music achieving such praise?
Tom Stoffel : First off, I am very grateful for all of the wonderful comments and support I have received on Moddb, the forums, youtube, and all of the other places. Underhellians, you rule! Thankx! I think I speak for most, if not for all composers in the video game field when I say, that music is a very very important part of any gaming experience. Music is about emotion. Music is the warm gooey paste that fills in the gaps. It’s the magician’s wand. In a gaming experience,music can really help to guide a player through the new and unexpected world of madness, mayhem, romance, tragedy, action, and excitement that lay before them. Underhell is an absolutely amazing story. The game really stands on its own as a marvelous work of dramatic art. Although, I am, and will always be satisfied when in-game music is felt and appreciated on its own terms. Especially, to this level.
#15: I’ve worked with many composers myself and always get varied answers. What is the hardest part of working with a mod project for you?
Tom Stoffel : To me, the most difficult part of working on a game project is dealing with what I like to call “the X factors.” The X factors are the unknown emotional landmarks of a dynamic and interactive dramatic work. i.e. video games. In film, opera, and of course concert music there are little to no X factors. In these mediums, the dramatic high points and emotional mountain tops are set in stone. In some cases, like in a concerto for example, the composer has control over the X factors! In games, I the composer, am in a lot of ways at the mercy of the X factors a lot of the time. It is very tricky to compose music that is ready and available to accompany and compliment a player’s changing motivations and decisions. Of course, there are some moments in the game where a cut scene might occur. These scenes are planned moments used to heighten the drama or move the story along in a specific way. I took to these scenes like a fish that just made it back to the water (haha). Of course, Jeremy crafted some brilliant cut scenes in Underhell. As time went on, I think I adjusted to the dynamic variables of the gaming experience. In the end, I think between the dynamic atmosphere, the exciting and epic Cutscenes, and the captivating plot elements of the game, I was able to create a soundtrack that danced eloquently enough with the X factors.
#16: I’m led to believe you’re classically trained or at least very educated in the art of making music. Do you have any previous soundtracks you’ve done? Did you go to school for musical endeavors?
Tom Stoffel : I don’t have any previous soundtracks to date. Although, there are a few more in the mix currently. I did in fact go to school for music. I hold both a B.M (Bachelor of Music) and a M.M. (Master of Music) degree from Indiana University. You might find it interesting that although I did study some composition at University, my main focus was classical singing. So, that may help to make sense of some of the opera inspirations above ; )
#17: This is to you, Mr. Stoffel. For all the aspiring composers out there what advice would you give them?
Tom Stoffel : Hmmmm well considering that this is the first full soundtrack that I have released I don’t know how qualified I am to be giving any advice, but if there was one thing I could suggest it would be to stay consistent always. I meet a lot of people in the entertainment field, particularly in the music field, who struggle because they are inconsistent. Inconsistent with the quality of their work, inconsistent with their level of dedication, and inconsistent with their effort to find work. If your mind is set on composing music for a game, then consistently send our your demos to project leads. Consistently post composer profiles. If you want to be hired again, consistently turn out your best work every time. So, yea….I am stepping off of that little soap box now. Ultimately, keep your head up and keep doing the best work possible on a consistent basis. If you can do that, it won’t be long before someone will notice you
#18: Likewise to you, Mr. Mxthe. There is a huge resurgence of source Modders appearing again. Your advice to them?
Mxthe : My advice, don`t make a mod…
I know hundreds of people who try level designing, I have myself “trained” dozens of mappers, and spent many years giving tips and explaining basic systems, I guess we all do, but it often ends up the same way, they end up wanting to make a mod. So they spend lot of time on it and don’t really achieve much, and then something else in their lives takes over and the project just ends up dying…
Making a game is no easy task, I have read thousands of ideas by just browsing through MODDB, some are great, but most are not, most of the mods on MODDB will just never get released, people think they can just make a few maps and place a few bad guys and here you go…
So yeah my advice, don’t make a mod…
Why? Well because if you are going to give up just because I tell you to, then you’re not going to go far anyways…
The only ones that will succeed are those who keep going no matter what…
When you have no team, no one supporting you, just your idea, it is hard to keep going, the greatest talent for a modder is to never stop.
#19: It has been wonderful talking to you both, I appreciate the opportunity and look forward to further Underhell or new projects from both of you. Any last words you want to share with fans and readers?
Mxthe : Underhell Prologue is just the tip of the Iceberg, it`s not even a mod yet, it`s like the train station level in Half Life 2, it`s like a “pre-release” to place down the plot and characters.
So my word is simply, wait and see.
Tom Stoffel : Thank you so much again for all of your support! I am sure you know this already, but it is you guys that make a project like this so special! I look forward to hearing all of your feedback on “Underhell: Ch.1” and I can’t wait to watch all of your pee-your-pants and hide in the closet videos on Youtube! BWAH AH AH