As part of the Critical Jim event, Jim livestreamed his analysis of Spherical Nightmares by David Lundvall.
Below is David’s response to the video and analysis.
Great episode, I really enjoyed watching it. AniCator was a good guest to have on the show. I wish there would have been more in-depth conversations about the problems in Spherical Nightmares. Many times a problem was discussed, but the actual problem didn’t shine through in the video. I feel that there should have been better preparation beforehand, since you are going criticize and give valuable lessons in level design.
With that said, here is my response to what was brought up in the Critical Jim event about Spherical Nightmares:
It started as a school project, estimated to take only a few weeks to finish. It took years..
I had a detailed plan on what the mod was going to be; story, narrative, progression, level layouts.. all that good stuff. I also had a roadmap with deadlines and estimates for each item.
But the problem was.. I had no prior experience in making a singleplayer experience, or a modification.. or anything in the Source Engine. So the roadmap with its estimate was useless. I had no idea what I was heading into.
During the first weeks of development, I got my first job in the game industry, so my focus shifted. I worked on Spherical Nightmares on and off. There would be long periods when I didn’t open it, other times when I worked on it during all my free time. This went on for years.
Finally I decided to make a full review of the project. See how far I have come and see if I could make an action plan on how to be able to finish it. I attacked the project from all angles, brutally. Removed anything that would be too far off. Simplified. All this without changing the vision. This was the key moment in the production and with help from playtesters and the support of my girlfriend Jennika I managed to finish the project.
Spherical Nightmares ended up being in development for 5 years.
Spherical Nightmares was not a random design process. It had a good foundation to build from, with a clear vision of how the experience would be, with its story pieces and also the many environments the player would travel through and how they were connected. Hearing Jim saying that the levels feel random and randomly connected.. was not the intention. I didn’t want the progression to feel abstract.
Jim talks about making the most out of each environment. I think this is a healthy mindset from a developer point of view. From a player perspective I don’t think it matters. It is what it is. It’s the experience.
With some of the large spaces or the additional spaces, I tell the player that there is more.. there are things to explore. The very first health kit, in the janitor office, is accessed through the vent on the upper floor, a whole section created only to teach the player that there are things to explore.
Having large spaces, that you just progress through, creates room for breathing. It let’s the player “out”, being free and not forced to move along a certain path and also gives the player a moment to take it all in. Pacing.
The large spaces are also there to make for a believable environment, selling it and give the feeling that there is more to it.
I agree that puzzles can be better in the Spherical Nightmares. The puzzle where you shoot the combine panel to turn off the force field is especially bad, since it’s not an established solution or feature in the Half-Life 2 universe. This is one of the low points in the mod, as it might be such an abstract way forward that some players might not solve it.. and quit the game.
Some of the “puzzles” are not meant to be puzzles. They are just blocking the player, creating a slower progression forward. Pacing.
AniCator is spot on here. This is something my girlfriend suggested to me, that I should replace all the closed/fake doors to not have handles, making them less interesting. A visual language and a design that I really like in this mod. So if there is a handle, it will open.. in some way.
The encounters vary. I agree with some points, mainly about encounters where the player is too safe and it becomes a “shooting gallery”. I could have solved this by dropping the player into the arena, disable back tracking or creating paths for the combines to access your location.
I think Jim’s opinion is all over the place when it comes to what a good combat arena is. Listening to Jim playing this mod there is no scenario that is good. It’s either a “shooting gallery” or combines that are acting stupid. The problem is.. Jim’s issues with the mod doesn’t shine through with what the video shows. And it’s a bit silly criticizing the combat when you are playing in “god mode”, with a play style showed in the video.
Anyway.. The first combine encounter gives you advantage. You are up on a balcony with access to a mounted gun. It’s meant to be safe. It also provides a good overview of the arena, to showcase the many possibilities. A tutorial in a way. But this encounter is longer than that. You drop down and then you have the choice of climbing up to the 2nd mounted gun or take on the fight on the ground with all its’ possibilities.
The encounters in Spherical Nightmares are spacious, giving room for whatever playstyle you have.
The use of vents is definitely a design choice. Something that I think is typical Gordon Freeman. If doors are locked, the ventilation system is a way forward. This is something that is used throughout the mod and something that is taught to the player in the first level. The way forward to the next level is through a vent and it’s also the only way to get the first loot item.
Just like with the offices and all the vents, the tram section is a flirt and heavily inspired of the Half-Life game. I love that section of Half-Life, it’s one of my favorite sections in video games. In Spherical Nightmares the tram section gives you the feel of momentum, progression as you cover large distances. It’s a different way of moving forward and also a different environment altogether.
I agree. The encounter is a spike in difficulty. It could have been made easier to make for a smoother difficulty transition. Two Hunters were too easy, and some playtesters reported back, saying they loved it.
A solution could have been to have two Hunters to begin with and introduce a third after a couple of seconds.. or when a certain condition is met.
One of my favorite parts of the mod. Moody, eerie and a spooky atmosphere.
The batteries are not meant to be a puzzle, only to slow the player down. I wanted the player to move around in this environment, not feeling completely safe.
Seeing a battery before the actual problem, is fine for me. Same as with seeing an explosive item; you know its use.
But.. of course it’s sexier to face the problem first.
I agree that this level could challenge the player more. There are some challenges, surprises.. moments of panic. I understand some of the irritations and dislike.
But this section is more about the atmosphere and again a completely different environment. The same uneasy feeling of the Harbour, but now indoors and with enemies. The feeling of having threats near you, all the time.
The Tunnels is a section, similar to “the old passage to Ravenholm” in Half-Life 2, a place where you don’t go.. it’s sealed for a reason. But it’s a path the player has to go through.
It’s a not a perfect encounter, definitely room for improvements. I both agree and disagree with what Jim and AniCator are saying. They raise some good points, especially with Half-Life 2 games doing it better. But they are doing it differently, so this feedback is impossible to apply to Spherical Nightmares.
For me, the chopper fight in Spherical Nightmares have flaws.. The Rocket Launcher is introduced at the same time the encounter starts. There are a lot of different enemy types thrown at you. The combat arena is not very well presented. There is too much information presented and it becomes a messy experience.
But it’s challenging.. and near the end.. and a good checkpoint in case of death.
I agree that the flashbacks are not evenly spaced. They appear in the beginning, stop happening in the middle and make a comeback towards the end. It’s not perfect. I would like to have more of them. It’s a cool feature and something I think people remember from Spherical Nightmares.
I don’t agree with Jim that all the story pieces should be “in your face”. The main thing.. the important pieces.. everyone will experience. But if you are missing out on information of where you are, who you are, what’s going on and where you are going.. then you are not very invested in this mod. You are not looking for that information. And that’s fine, I really like that. I don’t want to hand out everything to all the players. I want the player to look for some things. Explore, investigate and be rewarded.
I do like level design tips and advice. I just don’t like the word “rules”. Being a Half-Life mod, I do agree that Spherical Nightmares needs to follow the design rules of the Half-Life universe. But for me that’s it. Having rules is something I don’t believe in, it makes for a very predictable experience. Like having a rule saying “there has to be a boss fight” … I say no. Let the experience be what it is.
Spherical Nightmares is created for players who wants more of the Half-Life universe and its gameplay. It’s an experience that give room for all kind of player types. If you are the explorer type, you will be rewarded with secrets, power-ups, Gnome sightings, G-Man sightings and story pieces. If you are into combat, you will notice the many ways you can tackle each encounter. Do it your way.
I also like the idea of creating a unique player story. What happened when you played? I just love the reactions of Jim and AniCator when they went on different paths in the last level. That’s what I want. I don’t want a truly linear experience.
In Spherical Nightmares it makes perfect sense to make another playthrough.. another loop. With all its wasted space there is plenty of room to make it unique the second time around.. or third. Enjoy!
Thanks for playing and discussing Spherical Nightmares!
A thrilling read. I always find these response interesting, and the mappers are always polite even if they disagree with Jim. I will say, though that David’s point about god mode is pretty accurate. A hunter fight is gonna be different if you can’t get hurt, and when you do get hurt your view flinches, messing up your aim. I’d say Jim should play on Buddha mode next time around, so he still has to worry about health, but not about dying.
I would concur with your statement about “rules.” If there is one thing I have learned with all my years as a designer, it’s that pragmatism is the designer’s best friend, not rules.
I didn’t watch/listen to the review, but if there were complaints about the puzzle bits I would strongly say I liked them a LOT and thought they were well placed and well done overall. The fact that the combine ‘shoot through’ piece was outside of established norms: fine. I liked that, I thought it was clever and it made ME feel clever for figuring it out. I’ve seen that “shoot through x” misused as well, or very poorly implemented, so to have something that you look around, look down, see a break in an otherwise normal set piece: that’s your in. I liked it. I also liked the harbor search for the batteries, but then I might have a personal interest in such a thing because the mod I’d like to have built also revolves around at least one battery-locating puzzle.
I think there’s a tendency to take the word “puzzle” too literally, as if to imply we need to stop and solve a Rubik’s Cube before moving on. It’s not really about puzzles as much as it’s about pacing, allowing the player to put some mental distance between the previous battle and the next.
This was one of my very favorite mods. I thought David did an exceptional job! The pacing was just right and the puzzles well placed as well. I do agree with Jim that the flashbacks could have been a little more consistant. Thanks for all the hard work of putting the mod together and giving the player a lot of fun!