Half-Life 2 is a bright, action-packed shooter up until you step into Ravenholm, and then it’s suddenly a survival horror game. But despite that, Ravenholm still somehow feels like a Half-Life level, flowing seamlessly from the maps before and leading smoothly into the maps that came after.
This is because Ravenholm exemplifies the specific level-design guidelines that make Valve games so spectacular. Guidelines like making sure a level has a strong core concept – not for the map shape or style, but the narrative idea. The game should clearly communicate to the player not just what they’re doing – trying to get through Ravenholm as quickly as possible because it’s spooky – but also why. In this case, Gordon needs to escape Black Mesa East, and the only route is through Ravenholm.
Another key storytelling aspect of the Valve design strategy is that the map should be in media res. When the player enters an area, it’s easy to tell that something has already happened, and may indeed still be happening. The first level of Half-Life is a masterclass in this kind of design, but you can see it in every Valve game. It’s why you’re always stumbling on battles just ending, or interrupting battles that have just begun. It helps make the world feel both dangerous, and lived in.
And that’s just the start of Valve’s process for designing levels. Watch the video above to learn more about all the cool secret design tricks Valve uses to make its games more immersive.