Now You're John Hammond
The issue with Half-Life for me is that I was involved in a much higher percentage of the decisions about the games, so it's hard for me to look at them as anything other than a series of things I regret.
- Gabe Newell
If you’re reading this blog post then you probably know we’re remaking Chapters 1 and 2 of Half-Life: A Place in the West – Following Portents and A Very Modern Major-General, respectively. The short reason for this is that they no longer meet our expectations for the comic. But on the off-chance that explanation doesn’t suffice, and you’re willing to hear me out, here’s an excoriating deep dive into what led us to this point…
...and why we’re so damned excited about it.
The decision to remake the first two chapters of A Place in the West was a really easy one. And at the same time...very, very difficult. On the one hand, Mike and I had long since become dissatisfied with the chapters as they currently stand and the idea for what they ought to be took root some time around the summer of 2017, shortly after the release of Chapter 3: The Pit and just as Chapter 4: A Spy in the House of Long went into production. They were exciting ideas with promise. But on the other hand, we were potentially facing a twelve month delay in our release schedule and inflating our production costs. We’d also risk disappointing readers who were eager for the story to move forward. We get that.
We’re eager to move it forward, too.
We also know that writing is, in large part, about mistakes. You know, like life. We’ve never written anything that we haven’t looked back on and thought we couldn’t have done much, much better. You’re meant to recognise your failures, learn from them, and move onto the next thing – hopefully a little wiser, a little smarter. Failure’s essential. And boy, have we known failure.
For the most part, Mike and I feel we have learned from many of our mistakes. I mean, there are so many it would be damning if we had not. We look at Chapters 5 and 6 and we see the kind of comics we simply weren’t emotionally and intellectually equipped to make five, even four years ago. Onward and upward. That’s just the process.
And yet...and yet.
Chapter 1 was the first piece of work we ever published. We’d never made a comic before, despite having spent a few years extensively planning one (a project we’d allowed to grow laughably beyond our reach). Nor had we published anything else outside of some amateur contributions to a couple of modding projects. Sure, we’d been writing for over a decade, but for all the stories we’d created and all the scripts we’d written, nothing could have prepared us for the steep, fundamental, one-of-a-kind learning experience that is actually shepherding a story from the initial kernel of an idea through to releasing it to the public.
Nothing. And in a very real way, the first thing you write is really the first thing you publish. Yes, all the writing practice you’ve done leading up to that point matters. It’s crucial. But it’s not comparable to putting something out there to be read, evaluated and judged by readers. There’s no comparison.
Then there’s production. Writing is at the heart of making a story work, but the nature of production - the planning of the pages, the logistics of the art, the crafting of scenes between artist and writer, and so on - adjusts your approach to the story whilst forcing you consider the medium in ways you hadn’t anticipated. It’s an organic, highly collaborative process that we had long coveted but never actually experienced before. Turns out it’s a pretty big deal. Who knew! Who knew…goddamn frauds.
We are immensely proud of having been able to create and publish the first chapter of A Place in the West. It was a milestone for us, and we’re so grateful to the amazingly talented Heath Heil and Rachel Deering who brought it to life with their art. We owe them so much. Unfortunately, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the defects in the writing that so plague those first two chapters.
In the case of Following Portents, the writing is arguably tainted by our questionable tonal choices. It’s a dark chapter, rife with misery, poverty, and cruelty. Such is the world of the totalitarian Combine, you might argue. But it’s more than that. 2013, which is when A Place in the West was conceived, was a troubled period for me. As my time as an undergraduate closed and financial woes threatened to sink me, my life went into a bit of a tailspin. I was facing the likelihood of spending a whole year in a place I didn’t want to be just to study for an MA I didn’t even know if I wanted. And so, perhaps inevitably, those negative thoughts and feelings poured into Chapter 1. I just couldn’t see the link at the time.
It’s true that the Combine occupied world of Half-Life 2 is a desperate one, but Valve’s game is coloured with humour, friendship, and charming oddities, never tipping over the edge into a dark, unrelenting fantasy of alien brutality. But we did. Our protagonist, Albert Kempinski, was written to as overly cruel and nasty – a particularly unsubtle, lazy way of exploring the melancholy, regret, and hopelessness that are at the heart of the character. We wanted a protagonist who had nothing to do with the Resistance, who’d never been to Black Mesa and wasn’t a scientist. He was a civilian whose life had been upended by the events of Half-Life and saw Gordon Freeman and Wallace Breen as two sides of the same coin.
Somewhere along the way, we got lost in the fog and the guy we meet in Following Portents is just…he’s too much. We honed in on him pretty quickly come Chapter 3, but we winced whenever we looked back on him in the first two chapters.
We knew even as we pushed the comic out that we’d gone too far. Yes, we created the story we wanted to, but the tone of that story was grating to us. It was wrong. We knew the comic’s darkness was a step removed from the games, but on some level we believed that was the right decision to make. Once Following Portents emerged fully-formed, we realised it was the opposite of the right decision to make. We tried to work around it in the sequel, but felt bound to the tone we’d established previously and veered back into it. It was a mistake. Again.
To say nothing of certain language choices we’d made. Yikes.
Way back in 2016, we considered A Very Modern Major-General to be an improvement on the first chapter. It was bigger in scope, featured more characters, explored different perspectives, and introduced the city of New Franklin and its leaders, Cormac Long and Sejal Rajani, two characters who had been waiting in the wings for over three years. We couldn’t wait to get to them, and here they finally were! The visual breadth of the comic was able to expand. There was a distinct sense of having taken a significant step closer to the kind of story we wanted APW to be and the kind of comics we wanted to make, even though we had misgivings about the tone.
The production of Chapter 2 was long and protracted. We had settled on the unwieldy length of 50 pages for a single issue, as at this point in time we meant to conclude our story in six chapters (for reference, it’s now fifteen, but each one at a sensible 30 pages). We wanted Heath to come back as we loved what he’d done with the first chapter, but he was understandably hesitant about the length. He was also pretty direct about wanting to focus on his own original work and spend time with his new baby. We didn’t listen. As I dealt more directly with Heath than Mike, I pushed. I shouldn’t have, but I did, afraid of reaching out to a new artist so early on in the series. Understandably, I was of the opinion we had struck gold! Hectored, Heath reluctantly agreed and set about the arduous task of putting it all together.
If Chapter 2 saw a dip in the quality of the artwork, it rests on me for being pushy and demanding as regards getting Heath to produce it. With the first chapter he’d pencilled, inked, and coloured every page. We wanted him to do the same with the second, but the amount of time it would take to produce wasn’t acceptable to any of us. It was decided he would only pencil it, and he was open about how this would impact the quality of the artwork: he worked better when able to complete every stage himself. But we pushed forward any way...and inevitably ran into problems. True, we found the marvellously talented Ester Salguero, Javier Puga and Ivan Miranda towards the end of production – for which we will be forever grateful – but our attitude and our approach weighed heavily on the entire chapter.
By the end of it, Heath was exhausted, and so were we. To make matters much, much worse, Chapter 2 was going to be launched as paid-DLC on Steam, which was to prove controversial in and of itself. We had done a dismal job as writers, creators, and project leads. It was a low point. The lowest, all told. Once it was out, Mike and I retreated briefly to consider our options, conscious that mistakes had been made. We couldn’t release the third chapter as planned, for it was even bigger than the second - a whopping and wholly unnecessary 80 pages. No artist was going to want to take Heath’s place – having politely bowed out, likely in need of convalescence from the two maniacs he’d spent the last few years working with – to create the behemoth we’d conjured up.
Things were dicey.
The T-Rex had escaped and was laying waste to San Diego. David Koepp was going to get eaten, no way around it. Mike and I were sitting on the dock, shell-shocked at the enormity of our mistake.
Now we were John Hammond.
With no Ian Malcolm and Sarah Harding to clean up our mess, we took the whole story as it had been outlined, and we edited it into smaller, more focused issues. And guess what? Suddenly, the story was no longer treading water. We had characters moving the plot forward with - gasp! - agency, rather than being tethered to the artificial superstructure of the ‘plot’ itself.
Forced to study the story in micro, we saw only a parade of errors, each of which threatened to derail our entire enterprise. See, we always knew what kind of story we wanted to tell, even if we weren’t able to effectively control and convey tone owing to our lack of experience and understanding. We knew the important beats, each character’s arc, and where it would ultimately end, but knowing what we wanted to tell was a whole different question to knowing how to do it.
Once we broke Chapters 3, 4 and 5 – the original Chapter 3 – we found ourselves with a newfound faith in our narrative. Assured confidence took the place of brash arrogance, and so when we brought Kristian Rossi into the fold we felt a renewed optimism in the future of the project. There was never a chance of us not finishing A Place in the West, but after the release of the second chapter there was a period in which we feared for the form it would take.
Maybe we weren’t good enough.
Maybe we actually just sucked.
Maybe we really were just a pair of miserable hacks.
Well, okay, we’re definitely a pair of miserable hacks, but we’re reasonably confident we’re on the right track with our writing (for those who object, I will attach Mike’s email address to the bottom of this post). And it’s why going back and course correcting the comic is absolutely the correct decision. Because we can do better. You, reader, deserve better. And future readers deserve better, too.
Once Chapter 6 was released, it was now or never on the remakes. If we went any further with our story it would cease to be an option. We needed to do it whilst we were still relatively close to the beginning (we’re just shy of the halfway mark). I had started writing a new script for Chapter 1 towards the end of 2017, and concluded the first draft of 2 at the beginning of this year. In a very real sense, the remakes you’re going to read in the Spring of 2020 are the story we’ve been building out from for a very long time.
They are true to the spirit of Half-Life, but more importantly, they are true to the spirit of A Place in the West.
The remakes will be pencilled and inked by Kristian Rossi, coloured by Ester Salguero, and lettered by Javier Puga, creating a consistent visual aesthetic from the very beginning. We’re ecstatic they’re going to be able to really make their mark on APW. Indeed, if it wasn’t for their outstanding work on the series so far then we likely would not have made this decision. APW is as much theirs as it is ours. We are likewise indebted to the efforts of Heath Heil, Ivan Miranda, and Rachel Deering, each of whom helped craft this world. They are all part of it.
As for now, we’ve released a new ten page prologue to introduce readers to the world of Half-Life, insofar as it pertains to the story to come. We’re really jazzed about it - the artists did an amazing job, and hopefully it will go some way towards assuring you of our intentions. It's the first of the 'remakes'.
All of these pieces come together to create the story we always wanted to tell but never knew how. And once it’s done, we’re going straight into Chapter 7: The Dark Between the Stars (promise!). We have a few years ahead of us before Half-Life: A Place in the West reaches its conclusion, but for the first time since it all started – way back in 2013 – we couldn’t be more passionate about what’s to come for Leyla, Kempinski, Sejal and Dreyfus.
Thanks for reading.