Last night I decided to for the first time give it a go and the developer commentary feature in Valve’s games is actually pretty great. Sure, it’s just for superfans like the DVD commentaries are but it really gives a new view on the game. It’s a bit of behind scenes, where the developers explain about all the different things that went into delivering the experience to the player.
The experience of playing in the commentary mode is different. It makes the game a bit like a movie in the way it detaches the player from the game, but on the other hand it is really interactive. In Left 4 Dead, for example, a commentary bubble spawns player and enemy models in order to tell more about the thought that went into them. In both Half-Life 2 and L4D, the player is nearly invulnerable and in L4D the zombies ignore the player. It’s a bit like walking in a museum with those headphones on.
This mode allowed for exploration and admiring the surroundings in the game, which otherwise is impossible as you’re fighting for survival every second. I finally noticed many funny billboards and had time to model the levels in my head. I had been so focused on the action that they could have had a gorilla playing basketball in the background and I would’ve never noticed.
Do yourself a favor and grab a drink and launch any of Valve’s games since Half-Life 2: Episode One and turn the commentary on. You’ll appreciate the games in a whole new way1.