Monster Hospital: The Story of Nightmare House 2

By: James Archer

Published: June 22, 2011 Posted in: Interviews, Retrospective

Don’t look behind you. Don’t look behind you. Don’t look behind you. It’s a testament to the startlingly professional presentation of Nightmare House 2, a ten-month-old, free, first-person-pantsoiler mod for Half-Life 2: Episode 2, that when a text box silently pops up – a method of delivery that, in any other game, would be so biblically lame I’d roll my eyes clean out of their sockets – and instructs me in no uncertain terms to do something, blindly obeying it seems like the least terrifying option. Instead, I ran -whether it was from a jawless demon, a working light switch, or nothing at all, I’ll probably never know.

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My possible near-death experience with a few lines of captions was case of NH2′s Auto Scare System (which I’m not giving anyone the pleasure of acronymising). Every few minutes you’ll be given a brief, randomised shock – a distorted whisper in your ear, a sudden slap from an unseen hand. It’s one of many little touches that the Nightmare House series of mods and map packs have been using to gleefully confuse and harass players since 2005, when the original – a ten-minute skulk around a dilapidated mansion, occasionally beating off Half-Life 2′s zombie breeds with a crowbar – went live. Unlike NH2′s lengthy but technically impressive campaign, Nightmare House was quick and a bit rough, with scares that were well-implemented but lacking in any kind of narrative.

“It was the first map I ever released, and actually ever made” explains Hen Mazolski, creator and lead developer on Nightmare House 2. The missing horror story in a horror mod? “It was important for me to concentrate on the main thing I wanted it to be: scary”. Zombies and shotguns aside, NH”s frights embraced the paranormal. Shelves topple over an inch from your face, mirrors suddenly shatter, and metal beds violently slam into the ceiling in sequence, sending mattresses flying and cowardly writers recoiling. Poltergeist staples, to be sure, but sometimes the old ones are the best. More importantly, the mod itself wasn’t left to gather dust, and enjoyed a couple of reduxes – first up was a remake using elements from the sequel, still in early development at the time but poised to feature much richer writing. “I had the basic plot laid down so I started thinking about how to connect it with the first game,  and the idea of the NH1 remake came up. I actually placed a bet with a friend that I can remake the original game in a week and a half”, says Hen. “I won”. Five years after its initial release, the original’s second revamping would be included as the prologue to Nightmare House 2: a much more ambitious undertaking from Hen and the team he would lead, We Create Stuff.

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The poor chap from Nightmare House – that’s you – wakes up in a padded cell that’s helpfully been left unlocked. It quickly becomes apparent that the hospital you’ve been incarcerated in, comatose, has been abandoned for some time – save for a lone doctor desperate to contact you and the growling, shambolic walking corpses that were previously the building’s inhabitants. Them and a shadowy, stick-thin woman that haunts your vision and appears to be capable of manipulating your very perception of reality. Less claustrophobic than the original House it may be, but it’s probably a good idea to try not being there any more.

As it happens a hospital is perfect for NH2′s combination of physical threats and mind games – a horrible corruption of a place that should be tending to the damaged and vulnerable (you), yet is littered with so many dark red stains that it looks like Greg from Hematology’s been dicking around. Yet it was not always thus, and Hen recalls how numerous iterations of the mod were conceived. “During its development time, Nightmare House 2′s plot and settings were changed a lot, from another haunted house to a haunted town, a deserted island or a place made of only dreams and nightmares, and eventually the hospital/asylum idea was chosen. Even then the plot was nothing to what it is today…I still wasn’t sure if I want to take a more paranormal approach, with ghosts and demons or a more mutants/monsters/zombies approach”. We Create Stuff eventually settled on a mix of the two, and while the concept of a game set entirely within the minds of its characters is an interesting (if no longer unique) idea, the finished product is wonderfully atmospheric; a paranoid mini-adventure where you can be harmed with thoughts as well as claws.

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You are, of course, not alone. Besides the good doctor, who occasionally pops up on television screens and radios to give you directions, a glimmer of normality comes in the form of an “automated” female intercom announcer who, through an increasingly passive-aggressive (if constantly cheerful) series of messages, becomes a whole personality of her own. Neither spend much time barking into your ear, but wouldn’t the knowledge that you’ve got someone watching your back be detrimental to maintaining a near-constant state of fear?  I asked Hen whether he knew the risks of showing a gregarious side. “Yeah” he replies, “it’s all risky, but I think it came out for the best….most of it made Nightmare House 2 what it is today”. Playing through, it’s clear he has a point. Some of the best moments in the game involve the infuriatingly chipper announcer – “If this were a real fire, you’d be dead by now!” she beams as you walk, emasculated, from a door you failed to open yourself. Brief interludes like this one were a conscious effort ot break up the overwhelmingly sombre mood – Hen notes “action, plot advancement and humour” as the three flavours of interval that We Create Stuff sprinkled throughout the story.

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Having been spawned from Episode 2′s version of the Source SDK, Nightmare House 2 piggybacks on some of the engine’s strengths: convincing gunplay and physics, Faceposer support, integration with Steam and so on. The developers are also quick to praise Source’s “great scripting and trigger system” (a feature that enabled the unpredictable insta-headfucks of the Auto Scare System), even though this is likely to be We Create Stuff’s last game to use it. Still, NH2 was also forced to grapple with some of the limitations of Valve’s tech. “One of the things disturbing us the most was the lack of real time lighting, both in-game and both in the level editor. I remember how I used to render a map for hours to find out the lighting was totally out of place, or not quite right, there was really no way to know at first…one of the things we all wanted the most was to make a real time lighting system, like the one Portal 2 has now. We did manage to get something basic working, but it never went beyond that”. I’d add that borrowing the AI of Half-Life 2′s civilians – with their famous aversion to personal space and questionable self-preservation skills – to insert into the heads of a gun-happy SWAT team that break into the hospital and become your best pals did lead to some awkward doorway jams.

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That reminds me,  about halfway through, a squad of gun-happy SWAT troopers break into the hospital and become your best pals. Wait, what? You’ve had access to firearms from a very early point, but time spent with these guys is definately more about shooting than hallucinating. Their introduction is, subsequently, one of NH2′s biggest surprises. Including them was, according to Hen, “the thing that scared me the most” during development, and for good reason; should someone view the SWAT sections out of context, they’d be forgiven for thinking they were playing a very dark Counter-Strike map. Smartly, time spent with them is at most fleeting – bursts of shooty action to ward off ghost fatigue. In fact, despite objections from a loose estimate of “10%” of players, these guys are actually serving a handful of purposes at once. “From the very beginning  I wanted to have a twist in the middle of the game of some sort, having an ‘oh, snap!’ moment” says Hen. “In most horror games when you hear soldiers are coming they usually end up dead seconds before you reach them, or turn out to be the bad guys. Here I wanted to have a twist, and a friendly group of SWAT soldiers were great for that. I also wanted to show the player he’s not alone, and there is something bigger then he thought going on”.

I recall my own reaction to the first glimpse of a black helicopter; absolutely more of a “Thank God, help’s coming” than “Get the hell out of my psychological horror experience”, such is the strength of NH2′s terror-inducement. Frankly, if the SWAT team (who were reportedly loved by the other 90%) didn’t show up I might have gone a little insane, and even their reference-laden wisecracks weren’t enough to offset their reassuring presence. If nothing else, they’re expendable – not long after meeting them, and immediately following a successful zombie battle, you advance into a relatively brightly-lit room. The rear guard then pipes up: “Where’s Johnson?” Everyone stops. The HUD indicator for the number of team members drops one. Where is Johnson? Dread wastes no time setting in: something is here, it’s just taken a heavily armed man without you noticing, and it’s after you. Good luck with that. This, right here, is scripting done right – no bullshit glass walls, no control theft and no locking our heads straight.

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Nearly a year later, Nightmare House 2 is doing just fine. Hen remains confident he put out the best game he could, barring a few missed bugs and one case of weak signposting during the climax (“Every time I watch that I bash my head into the desk again”). That said, don’t expect a third installment. The entirety of We Create Stuff has moved on to new projects, including Flash games and lending the occasional helping hand on Underhell – another horror/FPS hybrid mod, revived in part by Hen after its original creator messaged him noting similarities between their respective efforts. It’s in good hands – NH2 is a creepy triumph, designed with meticulous attention to detail, packed with neat touches and easter eggs, and almost as compelling as the crème de la crème of singleplayer Source mods, MINERVA: Metastasis. You’d be a fool to miss it; just remember to break the wood at the end. You’ll be saving a forehead.

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James Archer