No One Lives Forever was one of the bravest games of its time. A camp spy comedy set at the height of the swinging sixties, NOLF merged action, stealth and RPG elements while pitting you against henchmen and everyday sexism alike. And it did so while other developers released games such as Soldier of Fortune and Diablo II.
But it was by no means a perfect game. Working across so many different genres meant No One Lives Forever didn’t do any single thing as well as its peers – and the frequent stealth missions are an excellent example of this. They not only forced abrupt mission restarts the moment you were spotted – they also offered no way to gauge your own visibility.
“The mandatory sneaking sequences needed to be balanced better,” says Craig Hubbard, who served as NOLF’s Lead Designer. “I do regret that it was impossible to return to sneaking once you’d been spotted…”[Those sequences] were meant to be tense, not frustrating…but we didn’t have a playtest lab in those days.”
Lack of playtesting is a major regret for Craig, looking back. In 2000 Monolith’s approach was such that there was no time left for tuning or pacing, so as soon as assets were created then they’d be included in the final release for better or worse. On the plus side, that resulted in an enjoyable abundance of gadgets and gimmicks. On the downside, it meant an over-abundance of other content.
Cutscenes are a particularly striking example of this. NOLF’s overlong mission briefings have prevented many from completing even a fraction of the game and Craig is fully aware how painfully long they are – even with the occasional dialog choices taken into account.
“The cutscenes are interminable,” Craig laments. “If only there’d been more time for editing! Sadly, implementing them was so clunky and time-consuming that it would have been really difficult and tedious to prune them. But they needed it.”
“They could have benefited from a lot more custom animation too,” he continues, indicating that animation difficulties were a major limitation throughout development – albeit one which at least limited NOLF’s subsequent bloat. Had it been easier to create animations then it’s possible that even more ideas could have been forced into the sprawling design.
“We originally intended to have guard dogs in the game, for example…But quadrupeds are tricky from an animation and movement perspective. We had too much other stuff on our plates.”
Guard dogs did make an appearance in No One Lives Forever’s final release, however – albeit sealed in a few rare cages. Initially supposed to play a much larger role in the game, the dogs are why Cate Archer’s sizable arsenal still includes a robotic poodle for distracting roaming canines. Animation difficulties relegated dogs to a more minor role than planned, but Monolith’s test-less approach meant the robotic poodle remained as an all but useless hangover.
The poodle isn’t the only design remnant with such a story behind it either. Select the most polite responses in NOLF’s briefings and you’ll earn a Reputation Bonus at the end – but it’s never explained what that means. And that’s the only point where Reputation is even mentioned as a value. This led to years of personal curiosity, not to mention frequent speculation on forums.
“It doesn’t do anything,” says Craig, somewhat disappointingly.
“It was supposed to effect how certain conversations would play out…[but] it was a partially implemented feature that neither got finished or removed.”
It’s possible this is true for more of NOLF’s unsolved mysteries too, such as the mystery weapon fans noticed appearing in one level. Craig thinks it’s nothing more than a piece of placeholder content left over from early level design – but he can’t be sure. No One Lives Forever may still be a fairly recent game, but he admits he simply can’t recall such specific details of a game which by now came out almost 15 years ago.
Other details have started to fade too. When asked if the Game of the Year Edition’s additional volcano level was ever a part of the original game, Craig’s response is noncommittal. His main memories of NOLF are of things he should have cut but didn’t, not the other way around.
“I don’t recall that level ever being part of the original release, but I wouldn’t be surprised… It was a long time ago in a career full of cuts and revisions.”
The fact that these details and stories are starting to disappear would be a sad fact even if NOLF wasn’t one of the bravest games of its time – and it’s a fate that lies in store for most other games too, before and since. It doesn’t matter if it came from a major developer or if it sold well enough to earn a sequel or critical acclaim; it doesn’t matter if it was one of the bravest games of its time. NOLF was all of these and yet most of its history and context is already fading out of sight.
Soon, it will be lost forever.
More in this series…