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Interview: Marc Laidlaw, creator of Half-Life

Marc Laidlaw is the author of several novels, including Dad’s Nuke, The Orchid Eater, The 37th Mandala, and The Third Force, a novel set in the world of the computer game Gadget. Such a book served as a perfect lead-in to his current career as a senior designer at Valve Software, writing for a series of games that is on everyone’s “Best of” list: Half-Life.

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Feature Interview: Marc LaidlawTell us about the books you read growing up. What were your favorites, and which novels/stories do you think have had the biggest impact on you in your current career as a video game designer?

Laidlaw: I have early memories of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and The Martian Chronicles being read to me by my parents. The book that made me want to be a writer myself was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (to which I finally managed a small tribute in the story called “Sweetmeats”). The books I read most repeatedly were Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. But we cannot discount the influence of the Happy Hollisters or “Are You My Mother?” which earned me the nickname “Snort” owing to what in retrospect must have been chronic nasal allergies. The biggest literary influence on my approach to game design, however, was one of the writers I worshipped as a teenager: Alice Sheldon, aka James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree had one particular recommendation for starting a story: “Start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then don’t tell them.” This is precisely how we begin Half-Life. It was a deliberate antidote to the many game openings that involved pages and pages of backstory presented in scrolling text.

What games are you playing right now?

I just tore through Limbo, which I loved, and that was on the heels of Red Dead Redemption, which I played somewhat obsessively. I’m enjoying a radically fun co-operative building game called Minecraft, which is still in beta. In general, I find a lot of freshness in the indy gaming scene, where you can see the work of individuals and tons of idiosyncrasy without having to scratch through layers of corporate packaging. Not to say that the Triple A titles don’t still enthrall me from time to time. I finally broke down and bought a PS3, so I am looking forward to spending some quality time on Demon’s Souls, Uncharted, and before too long the next game from the Ico team [The Last Guardian].

Half-Life 2Take me through a day in the life of the meetings, the proposals, the playtesting.

Described from an external perspective, it looks quite boring: I drive to downtown Bellevue, Washington, where Valve is situated; I ride an elevator, walk up to my standing desk, and stand there all day long, mostly annoying my fellows with emails full of random thoughts, of which perhaps two percent concern game design. The rest tend to find some Cthuluvian perspective on lolcats. For the first years of Valve’s existence, I lived a fulfilling but lonely existence as the only writer here. But I’ve since been joined by others, of whom I am perpetually in awe. For instance, I am standing next to Ted Kosmatka, who is also standing. Have you read “Divining Light”? You really should. I am thrilled by the prospect of what a writer of Ted’s caliber will bring to our games. There are design meetings peppered throughout our days, and playtesting every afternoon, and somehow in the midst of that we manage to write content for the games as well.

You have said that you would have been into video games if they had been around when you were a kid. If you could travel back in time and give young Marc one game to play, hoping it would blow his mind, what would it be?

Well, I’m pretty sure it would have to be Half-Life. It’s not hard for me to imagine being a kid, playing that game. I have heard from plenty of kids who played it, and were warped by it to the extent that they wanted to grow up to make games. After Half-Life and HL2, it would have to be Thief, which inhabits a world as rich and weird as those in my favorite fantasy novels. And then Zelda, of course. Lots and lots of Zelda. My fear, I suppose, is that with all these games to play, I might never have stopped to create anything. On the other hand, I devoured books nonstop; I’m still not quite sure how I found time to write them. Oh, wait, now I remember. I didn’t have a job!

Take me back to the beginning of development for Half-Life 2. The original Half-Life was contained. The whole game takes place in the Black Mesa facility, excluding a brief jaunt into an alien dimension. Half-Life 2 opens a whole world to the player, including cities, sweeping countrysides, townships, and dark citadels. What was the process for expanding the world, while staying true to the mythos of the original game?

It was very difficult to find a way to connect the two. We wanted the second game to be another world, a completely new experience, without losing the connection to Black Mesa. We nuked Black Mesa because we did not want to give ourselves the easy out of going back there for the sequel. Yet Half-Life 1 posited absolutely nothing about the world beyond Black Mesa, so we had nothing on which to build when we decided to weave more world beyond its walls. The key, finally, was characters. Once we realized that our random set of HL2 characters could actually be the surviving science team from Black Mesa, we were able to reinvent everything else. It was the best possible way for linking the games because we were also investing heavily in the technology that would let us create real characters—especially facial animation systems.

What is your proudest achievement in one of your games?

After hearing people like Steven Spielberg say for years that the first game that made you cry would be a cultural landmark, we were quite content to hear from many players that they wept at the end of the HL2: Episode 2. Not that we were the first to evoke this emotion, I believe; I certainly choked up playing Ico. I don’t know about its cultural impact, but it was certainly a personal landmark for me to hear how many people had been moved by that game’s climax.Half-Life 2

What is something you wrote that you loved but somehow couldn’t incorporate into the final game?

In Half-Life, there were quite a few ideas we had that we couldn’t pull off; the best of those ended up in Half-Life 2. Therefore, I will have to refrain from spoiling ideas for great things we haven’t done…yet.

Most people would label the Half-Life series as science fiction, but there are many elements of horror as well, from the dark, empty corridors of the original game, to Ravenholm, to the traumatic ending of HL2: Episode 2. What were some of your horror influences, and how do you find a balance between a game’s horror, action, and lighter elements?

Half-Life was conceived as horror first, and always intended to be scary above all else. The atmosphere shaded toward dark, dystopian SF in HL2, but in Half-Life 1 we treated the game as a Technological Gothic, with Black Mesa playing the role of the spooky old castle. The science fiction and horror elements set each other off nicely. At Valve, we are all about contrast. Unrelieved horror, like unrelieved anything, gets tedious, so we make sure our games are rarely flat: You’re either climbing toward a peak, plunging into a chasm, or approaching a dark corner. And when there’s no overt menace, you should be really nervous. Initially, in the Half-Life games, we crafted scripted encounters in a linear fashion, in the manner of a funhouse ride. More recently we have begun to pioneer dynamic or procedural pacing devices like our “AI Director,” which monitors the way players are actually playing the game, and modulates the experience in response to their actions. This method is showcased in Left 4 Dead, and I expect our other games will benefit from lessons we have learned in L4D. Pacing is, of course, a basic tool of storytelling, but like all the traditional narrative devices, you have to find a form that suits the medium of games. To make matters more complicated, every game is its own thing; there are very few tricks that can be used over and over again without tuning and tweaking them for each new challenge. The sledgehammer is the least used tool in a designer’s toolbox.

The horror in Half-Life is quite diverse, ranging from war brutality, to zombies, to giant bugs. The scares also span the spectrum, from the cold chills of coming upon the aftermath of a violent conflict, to the surprise of a head crab jumping out of the darkness at you. What kind of brainstorming goes into the development of moments like these, and how are they implemented in the game?

We usually start by coming up with compelling gameplay, and dressing that in visual elements that portray a world that, I hope, stands on its own as an original SF creation not mainly in comparison to other games or SF movies, but as the best of written SF. Good SF is always the model when it comes to creating the story. Of course, we build things up one grain at a time, so currently we are nowhere near rivaling the best literature. Baby steps! When we were making Half-Life, players of first person shooters were conditioned to expect they would have a gun in their hand from the very first moment. Violating that expectation felt like a huge risk to us, and we were nervous to learn if it would pay off. As we push the conventions farther, we invariably establish new ones, which we then feel honor-bound to subvert or dismantle. The opening “train ride” that felt fresh in Half-Life has now become a conventional opening for first person games. I lie awake nights thinking about cool ways to destroy it.

Half-Life 2

One of the things that has always impressed me with the Half-Life series is the environmental storytelling. It seems like it would be hard to build a world as complex as that of Half-Life using only objects and backgrounds. What is the biggest challenge, and when do you know these elements are working?

For Half-Life, our visual design philosophy has been to create a believable world first, and then mine it with alien details that tell you something about the way the world is changing. The mundane landscape must always feature some exotic element, and the most alien artifact must always appear in tension with something familiar. One of the reasons the final Xen sequence of Half-Life 1 proved so unsatisfying (apart from the double-jump mechanic that made it unplayable for many) is because the environment is purely alien, with no familiar elements. Those steeped in SF and in love with the idea of alien worlds, enjoyed these sections, which were created with classic otherworldly SF in mind. But many gamers don’t necessarily have that nerdish passion. We learned a valuable lesson there, and more importantly, we learned not to ship a game before discovering where the problems lie. We now playtest our games endlessly, throughout development, so that we can identify where players are having trouble, losing interest, or getting confused. This is ultimately how we know when our world is working as well.

You have said no author’s work has meant more to you than H.P. Lovecraft’s. Your short story “Leng” appears in the inspired-by-Lovecraft anthology Lovecraft Unbound edited by Ellen Datlow. Can you talk about Lovecraft’s influence on you, and the Half-Life series?

The Lovecraftian influence is buried pretty deep in Half-Life—perhaps you can spot it in the sense we try to create of mankind being a tiny speck in a vast cosmos. The most Lovecraftian passage is probably Dr. Breen’s speech at the end of Half-Life 2, when he is trying to entice Eli with glimpses of the wonders he has been shown by the Combine. This sort of teasing view of things beyond imagining is one of Lovecraft’s techniques, on display most clearly in “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

You have also mentioned Philip K. Dick as an inspiration. Where can we find PKD‘s spirit in your work today?

I’m still searching for the way to do the perfect Phildickian twist in a game. One problem is that everything in a game is so patently false that it takes very little to jar you back to reality and remind you that you’re playing a game. It’s hard to imagine a revelation more disappointing than the one where you suddenly show the player that the completely artificial world they’ve been exploring is…not real! But the spirit of Dick is never far off, because he wrote idiosyncratic, original SF, and that’s what we’re trying to do, in our own way.

The success of Half-Life has led to sequels, expansions, and a popular spin-off: Portal. The influence of Half-Life on Portal is clear, but how have other Valve games like Portal and Left 4 Dead influenced Half-Life?

The learning runs in all ways at once. We share people freely between projects, so lessons learned on one team quickly percolate through into others. We also learn from the fan community, which picks up our tools and runs off to make its own games with them. In some cases, we bring those people into the company, sharing what we know, while gaining a continual infusion of freshness, creativity, innovation. With pretty much every game we make, I can see specific things that might be applied to Half-Life. The dynamic narrative tricks and replayability of Left 4 Dead are tremendously exciting to me.

Half-Life 2

Before working at Valve, you were a science fiction writer, penning novels such as Dad’s Nuke and The 37th Mandala. You have also published dozens of short stories including collaborations with Gregory Benford and Rudy Rucker. After a lull, you have published several stories in the last few years. What inspired the sudden resurgence? Can we expect more short fiction from you soon? Is it possible a new novel is in the works?

I never really stopped writing short stories, it just takes them a long time to get into print. I have stopped writing novels, however. The concentrated energy that a book requires seems to be very similar to the work that goes into making a game. This is more or less what I hoped would happen. The Orchid Eater and The 37th Mandala were books I had wanted to write for a long time; I carried them around in my mind and they grew and grew until I managed to get them down on paper. Over the last 15 years, I’ve been incubating others, but so far I have contented myself with writing short stories. This is one of the ways I keep my tools sharp for game writing, too. Recently Rudy Rucker talked me into running a chapter of one of my incubating novels in Flurb and working over the chapter got me thinking about the book again. The idea for God Mode was conceived when I was about to get into the game industry, so in some ways it is harder to write now because I know too much, and the industry has changed dramatically, so my extrapolative SF concepts now seem rather tame. The core idea is still strong, but everything around it needs drastic rethinking. Meanwhile, I’ve got a few more short stories either making the rounds, or coming out shortly. Classics Mutilated, from comics publisher IDW, is running my Pokemon-Grizzly Man mash-up in October: It’s called “Pokky Man, A Film by Vernor Hertzwig.”

I don’t see any classes in rocket launcher operation in the MIT course of study. Where did Gordon Freeman pick up his combat skills?

It is established canon that he built a tennis ball cannon when he was a kid. That’s about all we know for sure.

In a world of fast-talking heroes, Gordon remains the strong silent type. He also manages to woo Alyx, even though only terrible things happen to her when he is around. What’s the secret to Gordon’s success as a ladies’ man? Was a side effect of the resonance cascade that it gave him more mojo than any theoretical physicist on the planet?

Of course, every player of Gordon has their own personal relationship with Alyx. For me, it’s more of a big-brother thing. I’m not quite sure how Alyx feels about him. Eli seemed to think between the two of them they could solve the world’s population problem, but, well…that’s a sensitive subject. There is no question though that some of our fans have developed strong feelings for Alyx, and are waiting to see how that relationship plays out. We are well aware that expectations are high. Oh, now I’m reminded of one of the things we could never figure out how to get into Half-Life 2…a shower scene.

Half-Life 2

What advice would you give to aspiring video game writers and designers? What’s the secret to a game’s success? How does one break in to this competitive industry?

The best advice for someone who wants to be a writer is to write. Similarly, the best advice for someone who wants to write for games is to write for games. A good game, even the smallest indy game created by one or two people, can gain plenty of attention and devoted fans. Learn some coding: C++ is fun. (I can’t believe I said that, but I am having fun learning it in fits and starts.) If you can find a team making a mod that needs a writer, offer your services. If you can’t find one, see if you can learn to use some of the basic tools of game design to start your own game. Writing for its own sake is great, but it is not the same as writing in the service of a game; you need to take on the challenges of writing for the medium, which often means working well with a group of enthusiastic programmers, artists, animators, and sound designers. Playtest your game; incorporate feedback; learn from your mistakes; and ship something. The world will tell you how you’re doing. Learn from that and keep going. It doesn’t hurt to write stories, in the meantime. The bar for fiction has had many years to reach lofty heights. It’s good to have impossibly high standards for your writing, and bring those standards to your work writing for games. That is one reason why I continue to write fiction and see how far short my work falls from that of my idols: It reminds me of how far games have to go, and how much better we can do.

It looks like Portal 2 drops in February of 2011, and HL2: Episode 3 is on the horizon. What comes next for Valve? (You have permission to coyly dodge this question.)

I must take advantage of your offer!

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Matt London

London, MattMatt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, and a columnist for Tor.com and Realms of Fantasy magazine. His story “Mouja” appears in John Joseph Adams’s anthology The Living Dead 2. He has no less than three escape plans should the zombies take Manhattan.

2 Responses »

  1. Dear Mr. London,
    I was very happy to see Marc Laidlaw’s reference to The Happy Hollisters in your interview. It was my grandfather, Andrew Svenson, who wrote the Happy Hollisters under the pseudonym Jerry West. The Happy Hollisters were a mystery-solving family who featured in adventures similar to the Hardy Boys. (In fact, my grandfather also wrote a number of volumes of the Hardy Boys.) The Hollister children were patterned on his own children: my father, aunts, and uncles. I think my grandfather would be delighted to hear a contemporary author mention this book series as an influence — the first book in the series was written nearly 60 years ago! I’m not sure what he would think of today’s science fiction and the gaming world, but he loved gadgets and inventions, so I’m betting he’d find it pretty fascinating!

    I thought you might be interested in some exciting news. Over the years we’ve heard from many fans who, like March Laidlaw, have fond memories of the Hollister family and their exciting adventures. People who grew up with these books now want to share the stories with their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, but don’t want to give up their collectors’ editions. We have just released a new paperback edition of the first book in the series, The Happy Hollisters. The story is identical to the original, with its 50s-style dialogue and charming illustrations.

    If you’d like to learn more about this new edition, and see pictures of the “real” Hollister family, please visit our website: http://www.TheHappyHollisters.com or join our Facebook group (http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=h#!/pages/The-Happy-Hollisters/33291503077).

    Thank you for helping to keep The Happy Hollisters alive!

    Sincerely,
    Andrew E. Svenson III

  2. Please note, previously sent response contained error in Facebook link; this one is correct. Sorry!
    Dear Mr. London,
    I was very happy to see Marc Laidlaw’s reference to The Happy Hollisters in your interview. It was my grandfather, Andrew Svenson, who wrote the Happy Hollisters under the pseudonym Jerry West. The Happy Hollisters were a mystery-solving family who featured in adventures similar to the Hardy Boys. (In fact, my grandfather also wrote a number of volumes of the Hardy Boys.) The Hollister children were patterned on his own children: my father, aunts, and uncles. I think my grandfather would be delighted to hear a contemporary author mention this book series as an influence — the first book in the series was written nearly 60 years ago! I’m not sure what he would think of today’s science fiction and the gaming world, but he loved gadgets and inventions, so I’m betting he’d find it pretty fascinating!

    I thought you might be interested in some exciting news. Over the years we’ve heard from many fans who, like March Laidlaw, have fond memories of the Hollister family and their exciting adventures. People who grew up with these books now want to share the stories with their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, but don’t want to give up their collectors’ editions. We have just released a new paperback edition of the first book in the series, The Happy Hollisters. The story is identical to the original, with its 50s-style dialogue and charming illustrations.

    If you’d like to learn more about this new edition, and see pictures of the “real” Hollister family, please visit our website: http://www.TheHappyHollisters.com or join our Facebook group (http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Happy-Hollisters/33291503077)

    Thank you for helping to keep The Happy Hollisters alive!

    Sincerely,
    Andrew E. Svenson III

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