I was saddened and stunned to learn that one of Half-Life 2’s unsung and underappreciated creators passed away earlier this month at the age of 40. I was proud to work with Jake Nicholson on some of the most memorable and personally satisfying set-pieces of that game. I knew Jake as an animator, a core member of the “Choreo Team”–a group focused on the scenes where animation, character performances, level design and gameplay were most thoroughly integrated. I understood that Jake was an animator, but he was continually surprising and delighting me with touches of genius that went beyond what I thought of (in my limited way) as animation.
When we were making Half-Life 1, every time we wanted to give the player a new weapon, it had to be strategically placed on a table or a crate or simply on the floor. We had a crazy dream that maybe Barney could actually hand you a gun at some point, but it never happened. When, a few years later, I brought up this crazy dream again, I did so out of habit; it was just an old complaint that I had long since stopped taking seriously.
Then one morning I came in to Valve, fired up the latest version of the Black Mesa East scene, and there was Alyx Vance holding out the gravity gun. (It would be a while yet before she said, “You can call it the Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator if you really want to.”) I moved up to her and…she passed it to me. This sounds obvious now, and perhaps this kind of moment has become standard in first-person games, but at the time it was pure magic. It was code and animation, yes, but it was mainly magic. Jake understood the point of code and animation, the technical work, was to create moments of magic. That magic was pure Jake.
He put dozens of little touches like this into the game, inventive bits of detail and polish that were part of every scene he worked on. His character work was convincing and looked so natural; he brought Barney and others to life.
I was never close to Jake outside of work, but I sure enjoyed his company whenever we worked together–which, at that time, was often. He worked so hard, and was so unpretentious. I remember that we both played and beat Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga around the same time, and spent an afternoon sharing our enthusiasm for the “best evar” animated cut-scene at the end. I enjoyed the fact that a skilled 3D animator like Jake could go completely nuts for a 2D title sequence. He left Valve not long after Half-Life 2 shipped, went off to care for an ailing parent, and also I am told went back to school and gathered some more advanced degrees. I knew he was doing good things, but I missed working with him. And now I really miss him.