How To See in the Dark

Written By: Yousef Tehrani


I feel like a sheen of hemoglobin has hit my tongue and my eyes are ball bearings because I don’t know how many games we’ve been playing but I know that the number ends in “nth” and that’s too many. I need to buy weapons. There’s a numpad but I look at my keyboard and I press B and then 4 and then 3 and then I press B again and then 5 and then 1 but 2 if I can afford the helmet and then I press B again and then 5 again and then 3 or 4 or 5 but never 6.

I’m a counter-terrorist and I’m playing Counter-Strike. I have an M4 and I have Kevlar and the helmet because I could afford it. I only got a smoke bomb because I spent all my money on the helmet.

Same map again. cs_office. It looks like it snowed the day before. There are hostages in suits we have to rescue. If I scrounge somewhere in the game’s code, they go by hostage_entity. Maybe the irony should hit me that I’m in the midst of a LAN marathon with my cousin in some basement in Iran, a country that’s had an infamous hostage crisis of its own - But I’m only 13, and infamous hostage crises are not necessarily exclusive phenomena for any one country in this world.

Everything is confusing when you go back to visit family. I speak Farsi fluently and can’t understand a word these guys four years my senior are saying, I’m shooting the hostages cause’ I don’t even play hostage maps like that and I cannot understand why we’re playing Counter-Strike 1.6 when I’ve been playing Counter-Strike: Source, the latest version on the newer Source Engine, for a year now.

I ask my cousin if he’s played the latest version of the game. The engine is totally different, it feels sleeker. The assets are familiar and the sounds are the same. Desert Eagles and AWPs still explode and those servers where you hear that guy with that voice proclaim “double kill”, “triple kill”, “multi-kill”, “ultra-kill”, and “holy shit” in succession - Those servers are still there. The textures are high quality and it runs practically on anything.

I ask him if he’s played de_dust2 on Source. Everything has a slight bloom and textures are practically shellacked three times over but nothing really has any depth. There is no atmosphere because everything in this engine is an arena and we keep respawning in the same spot - The building corners are razor blades and there is no fog, let alone dust, but everything is lit and even the darkness is visible.

He says he’s seen some stuff, but not really. He asks me if I’ve played Left 4 Dead. “Of course, the second one?” He says he only has the first, which is fine, but everything feels behind here. I’m going to see him two more times in my life until I stop knowing whenever I’ll see him again. But I’m only 13, and I don’t know that yet so I might as well enjoy this while I’m here.

We boot up Left 4 Dead, released four years after Counter-Strike: Source, and on the same engine. The assets and gameplay are totally different. Some of the gun sounds are the exact same, though. The feel is there.

One thing I notice with Source Engine games is how inaccessible most of the map really is. Catwalks you’ll never touch - Skyscapes are jutted through by buildings that follow you like the Moon.

With every Source game I’ve ever played, I can only make out corners and turns - The pathways between are given, and I know their function but I can’t draw them by memory.

Everything is draped in matte and the guns can’t get louder.

Valve Software, creator of all these games and the Source Engine itself, built the preceding GoldSrc engine off id Software’s Quake Engine. GoldSrc made its debut with Half-Life in 1998.

Cut-scenes are totally emitted from the game, something Valve would rarely rely on moving forward. You sway through a predetermined cart as you start the game - The matter-of-fact Trebuchet MS font that’s seen in many of Valve’s earlier games reports you’re in the fictional “Black Mesa Research Facility” in New Mexico, a play on Area 51.

Throughout the entire game, you hug and throw through each corner of the facility, and later the outside world, unraveling the origin of an alien experiment gone wrong. You go up to things that look like they can be activated or toyed with in some way and press E. All you need to do is press E.

The textures are pristine, but the lighting is an afterthought and the movement is anti-physical. Surfaces are lipped off in gloss, no matter the material. Traversal is fun. This philosophy will carry over to the next game and subsequent titles within the Source Engine.

Half-Life 2 is one of the more atmospheric outings for the Source Engine. Ravenholm’s abandoned townways are so acclaimed that the level has its own Wikipedia article. The game’s coastal section, pictured above, is apocalyptic: Iris Murdoch by way of Aphex Twin’s Green Calx.

Fog is the “thick of it” that you ride through. The seaside is dried out - The thing that everyone needs isn’t there anymore. The textures are shrink-wrapped onto the engine’s terrain. Skybox images and the shore seem pulled from JPGs taken at some New England seacoast, like all Massachusetts ever amounted to was a collective 1.2 megabytes in texture packs.

It’s silent. I remember the first game being loud.

The first Half-Life set a precedent for how Valve would approach sound design throughout all their subsequent titles.

The sounds throughout Black Mesa are hydraulic. Zombie noises are post-biological. Swapping weapons and using charging stations buckle-off sounds sequentially: Punch-holes thunk through aluminum, fat-headed hums follow. There are 28 different room noises, each with its own distinct reverberations and echoes hard-coded in a game that came out in 1998.

Half-Life’s sound effects library is legendary in its own right. Audio files come with that somewhere-between-ambiguous-and-clinical-with-an-underscore-in-the-middle naming convention that has stuck with the company to this day:

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cs_office again. Another round. My cousin gets up to stretch. It’s years later and I’m on ctf_2fort now.

I’m back from Iran and I’m playing Team Fortress 2 (TF2). Team Fortress, the first game, was originally a mod of Half-Life, as was Counter-Strike. It’s been a decade. Both games have sequels on the Source Engine.

All that plasmic ambiguity that Half-Life and Counter-Strike have, where “In the beginning”, God created grey and only grey, and the only maps we play have snow or surf - None of that is here. I’m playing as a big fat Russian man who eats sandwiches and has a big gun that spins and shoots a lot of bullets. It’s always sunny and it’s so loud.

Before you set off to mess around and fill that sense of lead in your head - holding W and gliding your mouse until you die again - you start in the spawn zone.

TF2 has 9 classes of playable characters, each coming with their own unique offensive, defensive, or supportive capabilities. Games thrive on chaos. Scouts capture points twice as fast and run twice as fast and jump twice as much. Pyros are burning Soldiers alive - That same Soldier was shooting explosives at an Engineer’s sentry - That sentry was firing at a Demoman who was also firing explosives at a Sniper who can’t aim. A Sniper who’s about to get stabbed by a Spy. No one is a Medic in this lobby. Everyone is using commands to scream out “Medic!” in Scottish, Southern, Bostonian, and Russian accents but no one is a Medic in this lobby.

Behind all that chaos, I’m in the spawn zone. I take it for granted but these Source Engine games, at their funniest or scariest or most sincere, have a familiar feel that seeps throughout. The bench, walls, and lockers feel more cartoony than Half-Life, but everything is still coated in matte, and the darkness above the exposed piping feels as visible as the tile below.

Just like Left 4 Dead, the game operates functionally differently from its predecessor, but those spiritual remnants are there. It just feels like a Source game. Engines themselves rarely have such singular, recognizable qualities. Aesthetic threads are usually found through genres or franchises. The Source Engine leans on its feel. Loading bars are the same throughout and feature one message: “This server is VAC-secured. Cheating will result in a permanent ban.”

I should hop on Portal 2 because I’m tired of playing the newest Counter-Strike and going through the same motions of clicking Shift and Tab at the same time to check someone’s profile and see if they’ve been VAC banned before. Valve slaps a notification on your account until the end of time if you’ve been caught hacking against their proprietary anti-cheat system.

I haven’t played Source in years. I’m playing Global Offensive but everyone calls it CS:GO. My cousin and I used to just call it all “Counter”. Cawn-Tehr, in that accent. Everything is still matted out. I don’t even know where I’m supposed to be. A town? I keep taking the same three or four paths - Bouncing around because the movement and the footstep effects feel like they’re pulled from Half-Life. This game is running on an engine older than most kids in this server.

I’m so bad at this game. My teammates are horrible. We’re in T-spawn setting off guns - Discovering noise like fire:

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I’m tired of hearing awp1.wav blast in my ear for a split second before getting bolted in the head through double doors in de_dust2. “Hacker”, I quickly say to no one.

Fuck this, I’m playing Portal 2.

Portal 2 is a total affront to the liminal. Every single place is a place to another place, so nothing is transitory, and no one was ever supposed to be here. The Portal series, along with Half-Life, is one of Valve’s most celebrated single-player experiences. Both stories unravel as the player moves through the world, and so much of the world is inaccessible, even though the portal gun - The protagonist’s only “weapon” and main mode of traversal throughout the entire game - is able to shoot physical windows into different sectors of the map.

I keep firing off my portal gun:

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I can’t get over the sense that I’ve grown alongside these games where nothing exists and so much is unreachable. Jesus, this room is hard. That bridge has yellow railing:

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Somewhere in my computer, there’s a folder of all these sounds. I think somewhere in my email I have pictures of my Iran trip from years ago. I don’t really know when I’ll go back. My head feels heavy. I’m getting that feeling I always do with these games. There’s a ladder:


Whatsapp messages are easy to forget. I haven’t played Counter-Strike in years. I haven’t played Team Fortress in years. I haven’t played any of these games in years. It’s been years, a new iteration of the engine is out. Of course it’s called “Source 2” - Maybe my cousin can finally get around to playing those first Source games. I need to respond to these Whatsapp messages.
OK - I don’t know where I am. I just booted this game up for the first time in years. I load up an older save and now I’m in a puddle. The left side of my screen is warm and the right is cold. This place is always this, huh? That’s actually kind of funny. Black Mesa is always gonna feel like metal. It is never nighttime in ctf_2fort and it always snowed the day before in cs_office.

I walk towards the water: wade1.wav


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madeintheurl 2023