TREE: Why Chapter Titles are so Important

6th July 2012

Single Player First Person Shooter Maps and Mods for Half-Life 1, 2 and Episodes 1, 2 and 3

One of the things that has struck me about replaying Half-Life is the chapter titles.

They are such an important part of the game yet they seem to get so little attention.

What they do is help divide the game into neat little chunks and this in itself is important but they also help frame those chunks into distinct elements.

Mod makers would do well to adopt this strategy as it would help them plan their mod better.

I would love to have seen how the names evolved and changed. Did they come first or did they change as the level changed? I’m sure they had a working title, because that’s the point of the concept, but how much did that change?

However it changed or evolved, the final result is a concise textual element.

An Example

Let’s take the most recent chapter I posted; Questionable Ethics.

Immediately, we have a feeling of secrets and hidden truth. The scientists have been experimenting on the Xen lifeforms in what could generously be described as “curiosity gone wild”.

Clearly what they are doing is “questionable” because the welfare of the lifeforms has been ignored, but the benefits to mankind might outweigh those considerations.

Irrespective of the actual considerations of these actions, the title manages to encompass a lot of information.

Each chapter and chapter title “tells a story”. That story may be that “there is a lot going on” (Black Mesa Inbound) to “shit happens” (Residue Processing), the point is that each chapter is distinct from what comes before and after.

By separating the games into chapter (just like books it should be noted), the player is given the chance to stop without feeling that they are in the middle of something, but also allows Valve to shift and control attention, gameplay mechanics, story elements, visual aspects, all within a framework.


They are very clever. It would be great to see how they translated them into other languages.

As many of you know, I live in Spain but am English. Movie titles can be the hardest thing to translate because they may contain cultural as well as linguistic elements that are absent from the target language.

Surface Tension may be a good example. For me this title accurately describes the action and “tension” I feel when I reach the surface. It is also “a contractive tendency of the surface of a liquid that allows it to resist an external force.”

Are we resisting the Aliens or the Army? Once we break the surface, will we be able to return to the murky depths of Black Mesa.

Perhaps I am reading too much into the titles, but what I do believe is that Valve didn’t just pick the first name they came up with. There’s more thought there than that.

Please Apply this to Modding

If mod makers adopted this idea they might make better mods, that are easier to manage. If you can’t split a mod into distinct section than perhaps it just flows without thought.

It would be quite interesting to see it it is possible to retroactively apply this concept to some of the better mods.


  1. Bad Chapter Title jokes:
    This COURSE is really HAZARDOUS.
    The MATERIALS in this thing are really ANOMALOUS.
    The CONSEQUENCES of my bad jokes were really UNFORESEEN.
    I bet Phillips OFFICE at work is really COMPLEX.
    I love Kid Icarus. Playing as PIT is really a BLAST.
    I need to POWER my computer UP to play Half-Life.
    His APPREHENSION of what’s happening is uncanny.
    You may not be able to tell on the SURFACE, but the TENSION is killing me.
    People who want Half-Life 3 need to FORGET ABOUT FREEMAN.
    The CORE of Half-Life revolves around the LAMBDA symbol.
    I need to achieve a XEN state of mind.
    This guy is a real INTERLOPER.
    Well, this is the END of the GAME.

    Oh god why.

    1. I know you are just having fun, but this is an interesting topic.

  2. Vic

    I agree, a lot of thought needs to be paid to creating clever, creative, and intelligent chapter names. As you mentioned, there are a few great, really memorable ones, like “Surface Tension”; “Apprehension”; “Questionable Ethics” and “Unforeseen Consequences”, but there’s also a lot of really bland, and unimaginative titles: “Blast Pit”; “Lambda Core”; and “Office Complex”. These only manage to describe a location, and they fail to actually tell a story that ties into the subject matter in a meaningful way.

    Fortunately, HL2 and the Episodes (and, arguably, even the Gearbox expansions, especially Decay) feature almost no such “weak links”, so to speak. Each chapter title there is unique and clever, built around a distinct idea, that is central to the chapter in question. But more on that as we approach HL2 in the TREE progression. Even Portal 2 did a good job with its chapter titles, although they were a bit gimmicky, and their presentation lacked any kind of subtlety and therefore broke game immersion with all the grace of an ice-skating hippopotamus.

    That’s another point worth bringing up – a chapter title needs to be fairly subtle and inconspicuous. The Half-Life games do it right: a simple, small line of white text placed in the center of the screen, only visible for a few seconds before quickly fading. Just the way it should be done – hopefully this remains unchanged in Half-Life 3.

    The point is, developers need to put a lot of effort in these areas. And naming a chapter after the area where it takes place isn’t enough; you need to come up with something great and memorable. Referential chapter titles can also work well, but only if used and done right (see HL2: Episode Two – “Our Mutual Fiend”; “This Vortal Coil”).

    And don’t be afraid to make a few tough changes if you have to. Just take a look at some of Valve’s scrapped chapter titles for the original Half-Life:

    “Blast Pit” – originally “Screams And Whispers”
    “Power Up” – originally “Footfall”
    “Apprehension” – originally “Abandoned Silo”
    “Surface Tension” – originally “Cliff Hanger”
    “‘Forget About Freeman!'” – originally “‘You’re On Your Own!'”
    “Lambda Core” – originally “Down And Out”

  3. I do agree that the chapter titles are very important and carry multiple meanings. Most mods don’t use them. The only mod off the top of my head that used them was Brave Brain(or as Phillip would call it, Brave Brian :P).

  4. 2muchvideogames

    Well, it’s nice that the titles are more meaningful than they could have been. Like, I mean, come on. “chutes and ladders”? LOL

  5. It’s no question that chapter titles should be memorable and well-thought-out, especially for games. Especially for these kinds of games. Does anyone remember if the DOOM series did any sort of chapter titling like this? I can’t remember if Duke Nukem 3D did it, either; but (again, IIRC) I think American McGee’s Alice did very interesting and apropos chapter titles, and they helped set the tone and feel of the approaching chapters. They helped make the game fun and scary at the same time.

    So, yes: they are important and integral to telling the story. Immensely so.

  6. Dias

    Every half-life mod I see that has a unique name for their chapters usually both sound terrible & have almost nothing to do with the chapter itself. Half-life also does this pretty nicely with some of the soundtrack’s song names.

  7. Well, chapter titles in books, movies or games are not important to me.
    Regarding HL it’s usually more or less clear what to expect after reading the titles – which indeed increases tension, mostly.
    However, it’s not necessary as in HL you can feel that something changes in the environment…
    It’s okay for a little story-telling anyway, but hey, IMO it also can be neglected.

    As I’m German, here are the translated chapter titles for HL and my English translations in brackets.

    While I only have some English version of HL+OF+BS left I’m not sure about the correctness of the German titles here as it seems there are different German titles, especially for #01. which can also be called “Der Weg zur Arbeit” (“Underway to work”).
    The titles below are taken from

    00. HAZARD COURSE – GEFAHRENKURS (1:1 translation)
    01. BLACK MESA INBOUND – AUF DEM WEG NACH BLACK MESA (“On the way to Black Mesa”)
    04. OFFICE COMPLEX – BÃœROKOMPLEX (1:1 translation)
    05. “WE’vE GOT HOSTILES” – “FEIND IN SICHT” (probably “Enemy in sight”)
    06. BLAST PIT – EXPLOSIONSKRATER (“Blast crater”, although it’s 1:1 too)
    07. POWER UP – ENERGIE (“Energy”)
    08. ON A RAIL – AUF SCHIENEN (1:1 translation)
    09. APPREHENSION – FESTNAHME (1:1 translation)
    13. “FORGET ABOUT FREEMAN!” – “VERGISS FREEMAN!” (1:1 translation)
    14. LAMBDA CORE – LAMBDA-KERN (1:1 translation)
    15. XEN – XEN (guess)
    16. GONARCH’s LAIR – GONARCHS VERSTECK (1:1 translation)
    17. INTERLOPER – EINDRINGLINGE (1:1 translation)
    18. NIHILANTH – NIHILANTH (1:1 translation)
    19. ENDGAME – SPIELENDE or(?) ENDSPIEL (1:1 translation)

    Glad, I can support you with the correct German chapter titles for HL2 and it’s episodes when we replay these jewels 🙂

  8. Knowitall66

    I strongly suggest looking at the chapter titles from the “Halo” series (The games, not the novels), all of them a quite well thought out. Additionally I find most of them quite memorable, they instantly bring to mind their respective section of the levels and the game-play involved.

    Examples (All from the first game):
    – “The Horse I Once Rode”
    – “The Gun Pointed at the Head of the Universe”
    – “Fourth Floor: Tools, Guns, Keys To Super Weapons”

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