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Interview with the Developer: The Halloween Mod Chronicles

In 2002, the world was (trick-or-)treated to a Halloween themed Half-Life mod. 12 years later, a game design student (and fan of the original game) sits down with the mod's creator to reminisce about this Halloween cult classic.

In October of 2002, a Half-Life single-player mod called “Swiss_Cheese Halloween Mod” was released to the public, distributed mainly through the most popular community websites of the time (such as the now defunct Planet Half-Life).  I was 13 years old at the time; a middle school student with a love for Half-Life mods and a lot of free time on my hands.  I was a fan of a lot of different modifications back then: Desert Crisis, The Battle Grounds, The Specialists, even the original Natural Selection (back when it was still just a mod).  But out of all those mods, for some reason the Swiss_Cheese Halloween Mod really stuck with me after I first played it… so much so that have made it a sort of ritual to play through it again every October for the past 12 years. 

Fast forward to the present: I'm now twice as old, in my final year of graduate school, and am currently working on my own Half-Life modification as part of my thesis project for my MFA in Game Design.  Now an aspiring developer myself and with the Halloween season in full swing, I felt compelled to dive deeper into my annual play-through this year and determine just what it is that makes this game so memorable for me.  But I realized that the best way to do this would probably require some help, so I set out to track down and speak with the mod’s original creator... the illustrious Swiss_Cheese…  When I finally was able to get in touch with him he was more than happy to sit down with me for a quick chat. 

And so the stage was set: a former game developer and a student about to enter the industry would get together to discuss a 12-year old Half-Life cult mod; sharing thoughts, criticisms, influences, and reflections on the game's development from their individual perspectives.


Erik: Thanks so much again for taking the time to talk with me.  As a big Halloween Mod fan, I really appreciate it.

Swiss_Cheese: It's fun, I love hearing from people who enjoyed the mod.

Erik: Would you care to share some more information about yourself?  As a developer, most of us only know of you as “Swiss_Cheese,” but I know a lot of folks would be interested to learn more about the person behind the moniker.

Swiss_Cheese: I can share a bit. I'm 33 and not currently working in the industry at the moment, but am in the middle of learning a new engine.  I've been working with UE4 and learning how to develop small projects.  After some time releasing a few personal projects I may find a dev team working on a project I'm interested in or I may begin developing one of a few bigger projects of my own that I have in mind. UE4 is great by the way, so much more user-friendly than Source.  Sometimes you weren't working with Source so much as threatening it into doing what you wanted.

Erik: As someone currently working on their own Source mod, I hear you there.  I've gotten some exposure to UE4 and it's definitely an incredibly versatile engine. Source is starting to feel quite dated these days, but there's hope that Source 2.0 will be coming sometime soon.  And that it will hopefully be less painful to work with than its predecessor has been.

SC: Yes, and Half-Life 3 will release next week.

Hahaha, one can only hope.  Well that's fantastic though, I know a lot of people will be pleased to hear that you're still pursuing game development as a personal interest. On that note, let's talk a little about Halloween Mod and Pumpkin Night (the Half-Life 2 spiritual successor to Halloween Mod).

SC: Totally.

So first off, why make a mod about Halloween?  Does the holiday hold any special significance for you in particular?

SC: Without a doubt. My bro and I are Halloween obsessed. This is like our Xmas season. We have movies we have to watch, places to go, and shops to visit and decorations and all that.  And thinking back, do you remember the old HL1 mod called Vampire Slayer?

Hmm, I don't remember Vampire Slayer specifically.  About the closest thing I can think of is the Underworld mod that was created in conjunction with the film of the same name.

SC: I remember that mod too.  Well VS was my favorite mod for some time in around 2001. I had already released some maps for some mods so I wanted to make a VS map.  So I decided on a neighborhood at Halloween time.  I made the houses and the streets and the functionality and a custom texture pack for decorations and trees and the like.  It got some play on the mod and we all had fun, but one October in college I had to study for a test on Halloween night.  That totally sucked, I couldn't make plans or do anything.  So in the days leading up, I decided to take my one map and turn it into a single player mod.  Most of it was already done so all I had to do was add in some more functionality like enemy and other NPC spawns and event triggers.  I even made a red skateboard for the player to ride on while whacking grim reapers with his metal bat.  This was to help those like myself who had no way to do anything big on Halloween and that map eventually grew into a larger game later, "Swiss_Cheese Halloween 2002."  Did you play that one?

Oh yes.  That's the standalone singleplayer game that you're referring to, correct?

SC: Yeah, for HL1.

Yup!  I've actually played Swiss_Cheese Halloween Mod every October for the past 12 years, hahaha.

SC: Me too!

It's one of my many Halloween season traditions.  And a very important one I might add.

SC: That's awesome, it’s flattering.  That's the reason I made mods.

Well it shows, because while Halloween Mod is certainly starting to show its age due to the GoldSrc engine, there's no denying that it's chock full of heart and soul.  About how long would you say development of the 2002 game took overall?

SC: No more than a couple of months, but I was pretty much working on it around the clock.  In some ways GoldSource was easier to work with than Source actually.  GoldSource felt like working with an engine designed to make games with, whereas Source felt like an engine designed to build Half-Life 2 with.

Hmm, that's an interesting perspective, but I think I know what you mean.

SC: I was such a dork in 2002.  I was tutoring the hottest girl in class and I showed her the mod.  I think she got bored half way through.  I thought it was so much bragging rights though.

You'd be surprised.  One of the top criteria for hiring individuals in the game industry is actually "experience releasing content."  You've technically already got more development credentials than many of the students at my school, myself included.

SC: That's interesting to hear.  Yeah, I know a thing or two about releases.  Did you ever notice that there are two versions of Pumpkin Night out there?

Yeah, so there's Pumpkin Night and Pumpkin Night Redux, correct?

SC:  Yes.  The release of the first Pumpkin night in 2005 was such a heart break.  I have a strong adherence to the date of October 31st being the deadline for Halloween stuff.  Movie posters for horror movies releasing on November 7th always get a dirty look from me.  So a lot of the 2005 version was tossed together to meet the deadline.  And then there ended up being something really wrong with the final compile of the maps; they forced all the models to be jet black.

Yikes.

SC: I had no time for a recompile and had to release a patch on Nov 1st.  I had felt like I failed ALL Halloween fans out there.  Took it kind of personal.  That's probably why just a few months later I began work on the Redux version.  I was actually able to release it two days before Halloween, which was one of my goals for the project.  I was grateful that there were only a couple glitches in Redux.  I had actually created multiple masks for the male trick-or-treaters, but switching the compiler from draft settings to high quality settings... something happened and it forced all the masks to default to just one.  I think the only other problems were the rain lag and an issue with a couple of decal textures.

I think the biggest change in Redux for me was just being able to get past the bug with the tractor and the dumbwaiter physics.  I don't think I was able to get past my initial playthrough because of that, but in Redux it works perfectly.

SC: Yeah I spent some time getting that working properly.  One of the elements that took the longest was actually the book sequence in the attic.  There were countless complications, including an inversion in the lighting.  Somehow the engine figured to take the lit/unlit parts of the model and interpret them as inverted.  It was either that or jet black because of an unknown error.  I had to invert the polys to make it appear well at all. It was either that or redo the model and I just didn't have the time. So if you look closely, the book isn't lit at the bottom by the candles, it’s lit from the top.


Huh, no kidding.  Well it works, because I get the same amount of chills from opening the book in Pumpkin Night as I do in Halloween Mod.

SC: Hah, I almost forgot that that motif is in both mods.

 
The Ostium Mortis book, which unleashes the forces of darkness in both Halloween Mod and Pumpkin Night.

It's actually something I really love about both games.  There's this subtle nod to the original Halloween Mod in Pumpkin Night.  I mean both feature a protagonist living a normal life, encountering a mystical object, and then being thrown into a larger-than-life scenario.  And there's just something really powerful about setting all of that on Halloween night.  Even in Halloween Mod, we see the player in the intro cutscene looking at a poster girl and fantasizing about being with her.  And then he goes out trick-or-treating and ends up tossed into a series of unbelievable events.  There's something rather human about that portrayal.

SC: Before I forget, I have to give props to a couple of people.  I couldn't have made Pumpkin Night what it was without the help of my friend, the Clockworker.  He's a Montreal musician, his band is called Projekt F.  He made the score for the mod and I owe him a lot.  Also my friend Ben Rosner.  He made the necessary changes to the code so I could have usable enemy NPCs.  And everyone who used to be in the old IRC Room "Clubswiss" all those years before the internet forgot what a chat room was.

Hahaha, yeah that was definitely just another time... Speaking of which, with the collapse of GameSpy and the discontinuation of sites like Planet Half-Life, one of the only remaining places to get Halloween Mod is from ModDB, which was around even in the days of the mod’s original release.  Surprisingly, some new files were uploaded on the mod’s page this year (a patch and a walkthrough) which even pushed it into the Top 150 mods list.  Are you surprised to hear that people are still playing and enjoying Halloween Mod after all these years?

SC: I am surprised, actually.

Needless to say, it seems that there are definitely still lots of fans of the game who return every year or so, and even new players too.  After replaying the game again this year, I wrote down a couple of things that I was hoping to ask you about certain specific details.  For example, the Submachine Gun in Halloween Mod is a different model from the MP5 used in Half-Life.  Is there a particular reason for changing this model?

SC: Mostly just because I could.

As good of a reason as any, I’d say.  I think one of the most notable alterations in the game is the Eric Cartman soundclip that plays whenever the Crossbow is fired.  I can never make out what he's actually saying or what episode it's from; do you recall either of those details?

SC: "Nobody screws up my trick or treating and gets away with it."


Hahaha, that’s incredibly fitting now that I know.  Who'd have thought back in 2002 that South Park would become one of the most culturally important shows on US television down the road.

SC: I know.  That sound is one of a few we always have going on in the front yard haunt over a set of speakers.  Since like 1999.

Halloween really is a holiday that thrives on the power of nostalgia, isn't it?  I think maybe that's why it's such a popular celebration, and why a number of gamers are still playing Halloween Mod after all of these years.

SC: I think you're right.

I think the one aspect of Halloween Mod that stands out the most to me (and this is true of Pumpkin Night as well) is your conversion of all of the character and enemy models.  It's really astounding, especially with Halloween Mod.

SC:  Yes, that was fun to do.  My favorite part of the design.  I did something similar with a smaller HL mod I made called LV426.  Have you ever play that?

I have not, I'm afraid.  But my guess is that it's Alien related?

SC:  Yeah, it is.  4 maps, 2 single player maps with multiplayer counterparts.  I had made NPCs of Aliens, soldier aliens, and even chest burster aliens.  The mod actually was just for my friends and I to play, so it didn't get any big releases.

Well you certainly have a knack for replacing the default models with quality alterations.  I mean turning the Gonarch model into a giant pumpkin on legs?  Simply brilliant.

SC:  Thanks. I think that's my bro’s favorite too.  That was one convenient thing about changing models in HL1.  The animation of an action was tied into the action itself. So if you didn't want an NPC performing a particular action, you could just remove the animation from the list of available ones, so the engine would ignore the prompt to perform the action.  So say you wanted an NPC that shot at you, but also kicked, to be relegated to just kicking.  All you had to do was remove the shooting animations.  In Source, I think it gave you a serious error and called you an ethnic slur [if you tried that].


There's also one enemy conversion in particular that I've always been curious about.  The Banshees (I believe that's their name) have a very distinct human face.  Is this modeled after anyone in particular?

SC: Yeah, Lucy Liu.  Some of those models were actually borrowed from some of my older failed mod projects.  A couple that I remember I took from one of my first mod attempts, a mod called Club Swiss.  Same thing for the witches that bear a striking resemblance to Tyra Banks, haha.

 
Just two of the many converted models in Halloween Mod, sporting some... particularly familiar faces...

Hahaha, I'm sure both Lucy and Tyra would be flattered.  Going back to Pumpkin Night real quick, I think you really nailed the early sequences of two friends just trick-or-treating around their neighborhood.  I actually really enjoy the voice acting, their back-and-forth banter and the dialogue in general just really fits.  Are you voice acting either of those roles by chance?

SC: Yeah that is one part that fell together nicely.  No [it’s not me], my coder friend Ben Rosner did the voice of the main character and this guy named Anthony who wanted to do voice work for the mod played your friend Toby.

Have you played any games that you felt were particularly noteworthy over the past 12 years since Halloween Mod came out?  Any favorite games since then?

SC:  Easily the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series.  I decided to dabble with the 3rd game for a bit, but when a certain series of sequences happened I could tell it was a game like no other and was hooked right there

Lastly, do you think you could expand a little on any future development plans?  Is there a chance that we might see another entry in the Halloween/Pumpkin Night series for Unreal 4?

SC: I always want to explore that world more, so I wouldn't say no.  I actually was tinkering with an idea for a small free game where you are a single adult on Halloween whose video game playing is constantly being interrupted by trick-or-treaters, [and] then by some slasher style intruder who is always one step ahead of you.  It would definitely take place in the same world as Pumpkin Night and maybe even the same town.  I know with the power of UE4, I could actually have the player playing the main character’s video game on the screen and being really into it, only to have to hit pause to give out candy or your house gets egged.  Like a side-scroller inside of the 3D main game.

That sounds really awesome, actually.  Well I think that about wraps things up, but I do want to take this opportunity to personally thank you for making both Halloween Mod and Pumpkin Night and let you know what an inspiration they've been on my own work.

SC: That's amazing.  It really makes me happy I could do that.  Thanks for chatting with me.


Both Halloween Mod and Pumpkin Night can be downloaded from their respective ModDB pages:

Swiss_Cheese Halloween Mod - Download (Note: Needs to be installed as a HL1 mod)
Halloween Half-Life 2: Pumpkin Night Redux - Download


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Erik Waananen is a Graduate Student studying Game Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.  He is currently working on his master's thesis project, a Half-Life 2 multiplayer mod called The Hunted, which is currently scheduled for release sometime in 2015.

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