I consider gm_school to be my first real attempt at making a map in the Source Engine. I had experimented a bit with Source in the past with my map Hall, as well as The Test Map, but those were simply that—tests. Development on this map started in November of 2014, shortly after I finished The Test Map. The big idea was to create an interpretation of my high school (hence the name) in the form of a Garry's Mod map. This is a common theme among novice map makers who sometimes like to create their house or some other cherished location in a game engine as a first map.
I had originally planned for gm_school to be a collaborative project with a good friend of mine, though that never took off as I simply found it easier to work alone (it didn't help that my friend had no experience in level design). As such, the map started out small, with just the kitchen and cafeteria being the first areas to materialize. At this point the map was called gm_cafeteria. It was great fun playing it with my friends as I continued to develop and improve the map over the subsequent months. By mid 2015 the map was essentially complete, with many of my school's real life counterparts having been incorporated into the map in some way. I continued to enjoy playing it with my friends, and by September I had uploaded it to the Steam Workshop for everybody else to enjoy. I continued to work on the map periodically all the way through late 2018. Those four years saw many new ideas of mine incorporated into the map, and you can see some level of improvement in the newer areas compared to the original kitchen/cafeteria combo. I always hold some level of sentimental value in each of the maps I make, but this one resonates with me in a way that most others don't. No other map of mine has encompassed such a large span of my life. In a way, the development of gm_school reflects my own personal growth throughout high school as I stumbled my way through it. Under the surface of this map's disparate spaces lives my own deeply entwined tapestry of ideas, feelings, choices, and mistakes—forever woven into its clunky geometry.
One prominent feature of the map is the multitude of secret rooms. I had always dabbled with these in my older Quake III maps, but this map doesn't hold back, with a total of seven secret areas of varying significance. There are a number of inside jokes as well that my friends and I can laugh about. One in particular involves soda cans—we would search the map for various soda cans and horde them in predetermined locations, and whoever collected the most cans won the game. I expanded upon this by creating a rather eclectic variety of stylized soda can props that we could use for the silly game. Many of these soda cans feature kitbashed bits that I grabbed from Team Fortress 2's festive weapons (pictured below). Another interesting secret can be found by falling down a large tube into a pool of water, leading into an Escher-esque room that is the precursor to what would become CrazyRooms later on. An upside-down radio here plays "Future Creatures In Soup", an obscure yet haunting track by the great electronic musician Amon Tobin. Other secret rooms feature the map's credits, teleporters, and secret cameras. You can tell I had a lot of fun implementing these secrets over the years.
Stylistically, the map is all over the place. Many rooms are somewhat accurate to the real life school, albeit with a prominent Half-Life 2 look, though many areas display pretty heavy creative liberties as well. You'll find quite a mixture of ideas and design choices depending on what I felt like experimenting with at the time. Fires, piles of debris, dead bodies, and just utterly dilapidated rooms are a common sight. Some areas are heavily inspired by the canal chapters of Half-Life 2. One room makes use of some Portal 2 assets to incorporate the 1950s style of Aperture Science as a sort of homage to the game. I also used many of Portal 2's foliage and detritus assets to give the rotunda area a deteriorated, overgrown feel—complete with the sound effects from the game. Another area rips some assets from Black Mesa for a bit of an alien twist (I was drawn to the early Xen foliage they had created and was eager to make use of them in some way for my map).
So, is this map a marvel of level design that should be treasured for eternity? Well, not really. It's fairly rudimentary by today's standards and certainly falls somewhat short of having a unified theme. However, I think viewing the map as more of a testing ground rather than something to be taken seriously makes its shortcomings much more understandable. I didn't set out to push boundaries technologically or artistically, I just wanted to get some proper Source Engine level design experimentation underway, and more than anything, have some fun with my friends in an environment that we could all intrinsically relate to. I do believe it succeeds in creating a very distinctive atmosphere despite the stylistic dissonance, and to this day it's still a blast to play thanks to all of the interesting rooms—whether you're messing around with your friends or just exploring alone. I still love it to this day and I might even say it's my favorite.