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Interview with Jean-Paul Jarreau, Black Mesa level designer


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    MapCore speaks with level designer and photographer Jean-Paul Jarreau, responsible for reimagining Half-Life's iconic environments in highly-acclaimed remake Black Mesa (AKA Black Mesa: Source). Jean-Paul describes how he got into mapping, details the hairy development process of Black Mesa, and shares some useful pointers for budding level designers and photographers alike.

Tell us a little about yourself. Where do you live, and what's your day job?

Oh man. I unfortunately live in Rochester NY (no its not driving distance from NYC) and am currently unemployed. I graduated college with a degree in Photography and a minor in Philosophy in 2011 and worked for my step father's company until july of this last summer. So I currently spend all my time working on levels and photography, I honestly cannot complain right now.

 

When and why did you decide you wanted to bring worlds to life in 3D?

When I was 14 I had a passion — playing games. I loved it, it sparked something inside me and I had no idea what it was, but I liked it. My personality can be pretty analytical at times so naturally I tried to figure out how to make them. I love architecture, buildings and 3D space, so I just went for it. I spent hours and hours in every level editor I could find and I, admittedly, stuck with hammer because it was the easiest to pick up, had the largest support and the biggest community. I've been with it since. That's what, 9 years? 9 years of blue screens and move_rope causing crashes straight to the desktop — it's a love–hate relationship.

 

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How did you get involved with Black Mesa?

This is funny considering the level of amateur crap I have made. I applied to Black Mesa back in 2004/2005 by sending a VMF to the founder of Black Mesa (Jon) of my recreation of the first Power Up level. It was a mess and ugly as sin. I had quite literally no idea what I was doing, but it was satisfying to create, so I kept with it. I clearly remember Jon's words: "It looks, eh, amateurish". So, I spent the next few weeks refining my work and I applied a few other times. I eventually got on the team and I started work from there. I remember a good friend of mine, Daniel Junek, was already on the team and when I loaded up the private developer forums and saw his orange map layout of the blast pit silo, immediately knew I was going to be on the team for a long ass time — I saw what COULD be Black Mesa and was instantly inspired.

Funny story: I always considered Daniel's work (he did Blast Pit) to be godlike, it was just incredible, I had never seen anything of such quality and ridiculous planning and care. I have this habit of comparing anything I do to the current best work in the world so I know how to improve myself and I considered Daniel's work to be the best in the world. So, naturally, I compared my work to Daniel's and for years it never even compared, but I was slowly getting there. So, a few months ago I, slightly buzzed, messaged Daniel on steam and came to realize he did the same thing with my work this entire time.

I joined the team and looked at what was available to work on and I, of course, had to pick Lambda Core. I had no idea what I was doing and some of the early parts of Lambda Core show that.

 

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What was it like getting to reimagine the world that kicked off many MapCore members' interest in level design?

Oh wow I never thought of it this way. Want to hear something hilarious? Before getting on the Black Mesa team I had never played Half-Life before aside from one or two killbox matches on a friends computer. 

But as for re-imagining a world that so many hold dear? Its a difficult process, at least for me. I wanted to strike people on an emotional level with my work, I wanted people to see certain things I made and say "Holy shit, this is amazing", and while I don't know if I have accomplished that or not, I do know that getting there was an intense process.

I remember loading up a Lambda Core map and thinking to myself, "What makes this interesting? What makes this bad? What makes this fun? What makes this area instantly recognizable? How do I create something in the present that completely awed those in the past? It was honestly tough in certain parts and I can remember re-doing sooooo many parts of the game because I personally thought it didn't hold up to any creative scrutiny.

 

Were you often tempted to take a whole new approach to parts of the game? How did you find the right balance of old and new?

This is a good question and I bet some die hard Half-Life fans still think we screwed up parts of the game haha. For me it was mostly taking a look at the original and what it tried to accomplish and improving on that. Sometimes certain areas didn't even need improvement, it just needed refinement, an extra level of polish to really take home its intended goal. When there was a controversy over what should be done in the game, we would just look at the 'numbers'. Did a majority of Half-Life players like this certain area? If not just scrap it and try again but be sure to retain the original's emotional impact on the player.

 

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Did it ever feel like Black Mesa might never make it? Was your motivation affected?

More than you can ever imagine. We worked on it for about 9 years remember! Honestly? It probably felt like we weren't going to make a release more than we were going to make a release. There were periods of inactivity on our developer forums for months at a time. We all have personal lives to attend to and sometimes it would be a perfect storm of events where no one would work on anything for extended periods of time. Then, out of nowhere, something would happen and everyone would get sparked and jump right back in and get loads of work done for months. Rinse and repeat.

In the SUPER early stages of development there was a point where we didn't even have a coder for 2 years. You can only imagine how incentive was on the team at that point.

 

There's still a significant portion of Black Mesa yet to be completed. Will it be purely new material when the remainder is released, or are you revisiting and/or expanding existing material?

I will answer with a simple work-in-progress screenshot of something I am working on and nothing else:

 

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What do you think is a stand-out part of Black Mesa?

I have actually never thought about this! But the FIRST thing that jumped into my head is when you first enter the turn-table room in Power Up. You witness an intense fight between a Gargantua and a few human grunts. It's incredible because of the collaborative effort that went into it without a single f**king hitch. It's like it was done by one person! Let me explain:

  1. You enter a beautifully themed section of the facility created by Daniel Junek
  2. You witness well crafted animation by Nate of the Garg getting blasted by a human grunt and consequently falling into and breaking the concrete wall near him.
  3. The Garg was made by Chris
  4. The surrounding textures are made by Mark
  5. The dead human grunt bodies turning into scorched corpses, the flame effects, and the Garg behavior was done by Paul and Mark
  6. All the sound was done by Joel

Look at that! It's the personal work and vision of a team of people all together forming a unified and impressive quality of interactive work. It wouldn't even be possible to create something that well done by one person.

Now you may say "Hey, thats how all games are made." But, its a little different when you are creating something of this size and scope and all you have to communicate with your co-workers is Skype and a forum. There were a lot of times when I would be making a gesture with my hand or something while trying to describe the way I want a prop or texture to look. That was frustrating.

 

You do a lot of multiplayer level design in addition to your single-player work. Which do you prefer?

Single player is telling a story and using the environment to make playing the story fun and visually interesting while guiding the player through a struggle. If you can hold a player's attention and feed them the facts then you are good to go. Multiplayer is about cohesive design and fun welding itself into one entity and that can be difficult at times. Honestly I probably prefer the multiplayer work because of repetition. You know players will be running around your environments thousands of times which will eventually lead to an appreciation for the map on tiers usually only seen by the actual level designer. That is a double edge sword though.

 

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Briefly, what's your general workflow for putting a level together?

LAYOUT, LAYOUT, LAYOUT. I try to get simplistic layout for a map that is fun and cohesive before doing anything else. Why do you play a video game? Because it's fun, and as a level designer, that fun can be directly proportional to your quality of work. You are almost like a spokesperson of your entire team's work and I love it. I mean I could tell you about all my thought processes while I work but that isn't as fun. But, I usually tend to think of ideas in a 3D space, so I never really draw layouts, I usually just throw some brushes around to get my idea out of my head and see what can be made of it before I attempt any sort of real layout. A lot of my past ideas failed even before getting to the layout stage, so that is good (I think).

 

Which bit of the process is your favourite?

That part in a map's life right as you know everything is fun and you get to unleash your thematic ideas you had been planning in your head while working on the gameplay and layout.

 

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And your least favourite?

Any sort of tedious mind numbing repetition is annoying. Or when you spend a long ass time solving a problem in your level only to have it come out like crap but its 5am and you have to go to sleep knowing what you just created is terrible. That's no fun for anyone.

 

What's the hardest problem you've encountered while mapping?

Writers block can apply to anything really. There were times where I would just stare blankly at a map for hours not knowing what to do. Recently though? I cant stop with my ideas, it's great. I'm trying to ride that wave for a little.

Also, scrapping something you have put a massive amount of effort into can be disheartening but it has to happen sometimes. But what essentially is anything creative? It's the formation of an idea while hiding your influences. Sometimes these ideas need to go through an emotional struggle before work can continue.

 

Which piece of level design are you most proud of?

To date, my Black Mesa magnum opus is most definitely the final Lambda Core teleporter and its prior lower reactors. Fun fact I thought some designers might appreciate: the entire Lambda Core reactor and teleporter actually lines up like an actual facility if you copy all the maps into one file and place them correctly.

More recently? It's my map cp_imbricatus for Team Fortress 2. I have a feeling that the map will fundamentally change the way a good three-control-point attack/defend map should play.

 

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In addition to level design, you're an accomplished photographer. How did that begin?

Accomplished? Oh you. Thanks, you. :D

Here is a story I have never really told anyone haha. I was an idiot in high school, I mean who wasn't? But when it came time to apply for colleges, I just straight up didn't make the cut. I applied to stupid high reach schools and nothing else, I think I even applied to the wrong program in a few schools. Needless to say, I didn't get in anywhere and I panicked. My mother had some connections at Rochester Institute of Technology and randomly one day called me while I was out and asked me a few questions:

She said, "I got you into RIT and their photo program doesnt require a portfolio, which would you like to do? Fine art, photojournalism, advertising or biomedical photography?" I got lucky and I knew it. I wound up graduating with a bachelors of fine art in advertising photography. Crazy.

 

A lot of your photos are taken in very challenging conditions, such as live music performances. What skills and equipment do you employ to get such great results?

Simplicity is key. Both visually and philosophically.

You must look at every situation like you are the one viewing the content with no prior context as to what is going on. Do you want to portray a story? Do you want to create something purely for its visual content? What's your end goal? I could honestly talk about this for hours.

I currently only use a Canon 5D Mark 3 and the only lens you ever need — a prime 35mm f/1.4. A good photographer with a bad camera is going to make better pictures than a bad photographer with a good camera. I also adhere myself to a lot of personal restrictions (in level design as well). An example being I never crop any of my images, I always thought it was best to just leave it straight out of camera. I do Photoshop my images, but I don't crop them. (Note: if you are a client that hired me as a photographer, I will do anything you want to the images if you request it. These rules usually only apply to personal work.)

Keep an eye out on my Tumblr for some new photography coming up soon.

 

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Do you find that your photography skills bleed into your level design? For example, when composing scenes?

Absolutely! And it works both ways too, photography helps my level design and level design helps my photography. Lighting plays a more important role in both than most even think. I am just lucky to have experience in both.

I don't want to toot my own horn here but look at the lighting in some of the reactor areas in Lambda Core. It got to the point where I set 50% and 100% falloff distances with a hard cut-off for the yellow lights surrounding the central cylinder so the centre reactor would ominously glow yellow without casting any mood changing light onto the surrounding geometry. Does that level of detail pay off in the end? I don't know but I hope so.

 

What games would you say have inspired you the most?

I have never thought about this before but here is a list of the first games I can think of to inspire me:

  • Ocarina of Time: Video game perfection.
  • Majora's Mask: I cannot even put into words the impact this had on me
  • Wind Waker: How do they even make this stuff? It's like they converted crack cocaine into playable form.
  • Half-Life: Was I obligated to say this? This game changed what a first person shooter could be with its incredibly inventive layouts and story telling.
  • Painkiller: The basic first person shooter mechanics perfected and in gory glory too. Incredible environment art to boot as well.
  • Banjo-Tooie: Incredible game design, just incredible.
  • Battlefield 2: The amount of serotonin released in my brain by playing this game should be illegal.
  • Super Mario 64: An amazing sandbox game before that term ruined a lot of modern day games.
  • Far Cry: It materialised my emotions while playing a game by me actually muttering the word 'wow' while playing in certain spots.

There are loads more but these are just what I could think of off the top of my head.

 

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If you could give a budding level designer a short piece of advice to help them succeed, what would it be?
  • Your work is going to suck for a long time, get used to it.
  • If someone is being a dick about your work, they probably have a good point. Listen to them without bias. This will push you beyond what you thought you were capable of.
  • You made the level, no s**t its easy to understand by you — other people HAVE to play it before anything is considered good.
  • Scale will make or break you. Do a lot of scaling tests in every game you want to develop for before attempting anything else.

 

MapCore would like to thank Jean-Paul for his time, and wish him the best of luck with his future projects. You can enjoy more of his work by visiting his portfolio and Tumblr. He's also looking for people to help out with testing his latest Team Fortress 2 map; simply download 'cp_imbricatus', take a peek at the

and join in on the tf2maps.net server.


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your tf2 map looks cool but the name isnt super memorablke, id change it

map names make a difference in popularity big time

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i want to install

Call of Juarez 2 Level Design

but having problems in installing on window 7.   PLZ PLz help me to intall it or send a valid link to download it again......

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