Interview With Marc Laidlaw: The Writer Of Half-Life

Marc Laidlaw, the writer behind the Half-Life series, is probably aware of the impact he has made with his work; but not so to the magnitude of it.

One cold December morning in 1998, I experienced Half-Life for the first time.  In an age where two-dimensional action heroes and glorified shooting galleries became the gaming standard, telling a compelling story seemed all but a pipedream.  That was, of course, until we took control of Gordon Freeman for the first time.

This paragidm shift in video game storytelling is why both Valve Games and their Black Mesa scientist have elevated to a fever pitch of cult popularity.  Standing the true test of longevity and becoming timeless in the process, people are still excited about any small hint towards the 'unicorn' that is a third in the series.  And for this phenomenon, we owe some of the credit to the writer behind the entire legacy so far: a sci-fi author with a taste for the dystopian, and his feet placed firmly on the ground alongside the fans.

We talk science fiction, Marc's time at Valve, and his future projects (Half-Life 3).

 

NRM: For those who don't know you beyond being the writer of Half-Life, tell us a little bit about your background and what you did before joining Valve.

ML: I started out as a writer of fiction—short stories and novels. I didn’t really play games until I was in my mid 30’s; they were nonexistent when I was a kid, so all my interests revolved around books. I encountered Myst, at the height of CD-ROM mania, and saw that games were going somewhere interesting. It was like the job I had been preparing for all my life was suddenly coming into existence.

I started writing game reviews for Wired Magazine and got an assignment to explain id Software to the nongaming world. I happened to wander in while they were in the early stages of designing Quake, so the assignment turned into an article about that: “The Egos at Id” appeared in Wired Magazine, where it was picked up by Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington as they were on their way to id to secure rights to license the Quake engine for this unknown little start-up called Valve. Through an unlikely series of further serendipities, I ended up joining Valve in 1997 and helping to create that game: Half-Life.

 

As a Science Fiction and Horror writer, what were your favourite novels from these genres growing up and more recently.  How strongly did they inspire you're writing?

I wish I could say I read indiscriminately, but really I avoided most books that weren’t fantasy, science fiction or horror—starting with The Journey to the Mushroom Planet and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and all the gruesome Poe I could get my hands on. I read so many it would be hard to pick a favorite…it’d be like picking your favorite cloud on a particularly cloudy day, or the best wave in a stormy sea. As soon as I think of one, another one comes along.

I had the usual Lovecraft fascination in my teens, when only fans of weird fiction knew about him…before his penetration into pop culture via the Call of Cthulhu games and Stuart Gordon’s films. It’s odd to encounter people who know so much Lovecraftian material and yet have never read a word he’s written. My science fiction interests eventually centered on Philip K. Dick. I guess the point at which I was reading SF as it was being written was a very memorable and charged time for me.

I think of neglected dystopian classics like John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar. I loved pretty much all the dystopian novels of the day. For fantasy? I plowed through the Ballentine Adult Fantasy series, and chomped down all that Dunsany and Eddings and of course more of the Weird Tales crew such as Clark Ashton Smith. At the same time, I had a strong love for satire, so writers like John Sladek and Tom Disch stood out for me--goofballs like Ron Goulart. I don’t know. It’d be easier to come up with a list of writers I hated. But I would never do that!

 

Don’t forget, in Half-Life, you could play as an absolute maniac, murdering your peers with crowbars and grenades, and having a great time while you did it.

 

What was/is the attraction for you to storytelling in games?

The attraction initially was partly that was the frontier. It’s pretty hard to find that in writing fiction—obviously a lot of talented people have been writing prose for quite a while. I thought that as a writer of prose I was probably never going to be one of the greats, I stood a better chance of making an impact in a field that hadn’t already been worked over. So, pioneering was a big attraction. I am attracted to storytelling in every form: movies, books, email…it was impossible to suppress excitement over the possibilities of telling new types of stories, or telling old stories in new ways, in the medium of games. Fifteen years of working at this, and the goal seems to recede as fast as I chase it.

 

Who (or what) were your inspirations for Gordon Freeman?

At the time we created Half-Life, the typical videogame hero was Duke Nukem. Cigar-chewing, wise-cracking, crude although effective. Obviously he was incredibly popular and it would have been hard to compete on the same ground. But he was also the kind of character in whom I couldn’t find anything to relate to myself. We thought making a character who was sort of a brainy scientist type would reflect a fair number of our audience, and then we could have fun with the contrast between this supposed know-it-all who actually had no clue what was going on at any time, and whose practice of physics was limited to turning power off and on by pushing buttons.

As a viewpoint character, he was in place when I joined Valve, so I think he just naturally came out of the setting. It was a research lab, so the likeliest inhabitant of such a place would be a scientist. Once the game itself started to come together, then Gordon and his dilemmas came into focus. We wanted to mess with the player’s concept of his own identity. Don’t forget, in Half-Life, you could play as an absolute maniac, murdering your peers with crowbars and grenades, and having a great time while you did it.

By the time we moved into a Half-Life 2, we thought the extra realism made the psychopathic behavior a lot less fun, and by then we were more interested in sculpting  a deliberate narrative. Gordon couldn’t be killing off his friends anymore. It meant a loss of some gameplay freedom…which was sort of like a loss of innocence. But anyone who wants to can still go back to the glory days of Half-Life and club extremely low-poly scientists to death with little remorse. (I assume this is also allowable in the fan-produced remake of Half-Life called Black Mesa.)

 

What are your thoughts on the explosion in fan-made machinima films surrounding Half-Life, such as 'Enter The Freeman' or 'When Gordon Met Chell?'  Do you feel it does the story and universe you created justice?

We don’t feel our fans have any duty to do justice to the games—we’re humbled that we inspire so many people to undertake these epic projects. When fans ask us about story details to work into a mod they’re putting together, it’s usually because they want to be true to the world and make something that feels like a part of it. We can’t share our plans, so we always encourage them to do whatever makes the most sense as part of their movie or game or story. We have gotten years of enjoyment out of these creations. With the introduction of SFM as a more powerful movie-creation tool, we are seeing more astonishing little films all the time. 

 

If you could choose any film-maker suitable for the job of turning Half-Life into a movie, who would it be and why?

If Paul Verhoeven returned to science fiction films, he would do something insane with Half-Life…maybe something objectionably insane, but at least not boring. Peter Jackson has proved himself an amazing purveyor of faithful adaptations. Guillermo del Toro has the horror vibe that I think a lot of people miss out on when thinking about a Half-Life movie. Half-Life is essentially horror after all. The science in it barely passes as hand-waving, but when a headcrab jumps at your head, it’s a precisely engineered jolt. There are probably a lot of good potential directors, but I think most of them are busy pursuing their own visions.

 

We stuck Gordon in a black leather HEV torture suit like something out of a Clive Barker film.

 

What was the transition from Half-Life to Half-Life 2 like for yourself?  Transplanting the ethos of the original, which took place in the contained location of Black Mesa, into a sprawling set of cities, countrysides and citadels (all under a Orwellian-esque sense of oppression) must have been a tricky process. One that I'd love to know more about from your perspective.

It took us years to figure out. Nothing was farther from our mind when we made Half-Life than the thought we’d have to do a sequel, and I remember the sinking feeling I had when Gabe expressed the certainty that we would make one. We never thought for a minute about the world outside the walls of Black Mesa. So we ran in circles for a few years, trying out all kinds of possibilities. We developed a world that had been invaded by numerous alien races that were in conflict with each other—there was a race of bugs, among other things.

We stuck Gordon in a black leather HEV torture suit like something out of a Clive Barker film. Eventually we settled on a fairly straightforward story of one man against an invading force…our twist was that Gordon was no longer alone, no longer the one man saving the world, that everything he did was part of a cooperative effort. He did things for other people—most of the goals in the game are someone else’s. Which is a good way to motivate a cipher. Once we had the world, we still had to make it feel like Half-Life 1; it still needed some kind of connection. And we found that in the Science Team—the survivors of Black Mesa, who knew how this had all begun, knew Gordon, and had (in some inexplicable way) been waiting for him.

 

Ravenholm was my favourite section of HL2, and one of the best pieces of horror gaming in my opinion.  What were your inspirations behind creating the story and atmosphere of this particular level?

Ravenholm was originally just a dark, dreary mining town—it was all about the claustrophobic streets, the teetering buildings, the oppressive sky. We planned it to be a haven that had been attacked by the Combine, we thought it would have one obsessive inhabitant who lobbed grenades and molotovs from a church tower, to help you get through town. But at some point, when we started integrating our physics engine with the game and designing environments to take advantage of that, we turned it into what we called Traptown. That’s when it started filling up with saw blades and zombies.

Father Grigori was just your average “preacher with a shotgun,” but of course that didn’t really fit the environment directly, so I started to work out a more unorthodox religious approach to the character. A lot of people were working on all these different parts, and eventually the pieces clicked. We moved Ravenholm’s appearance in the plot a few times…originally you were to have gone there before you met Eli, but we realized that the area was much more fun if you had the gravity gun already. And by putting Ravenholm later in the game, it gave us the chance to do all the typical foreshadowing that is so indispensible to horror settings, with characters pointing out the dark path to Ravenholm, and ominously warning, “We don’t go there anymore.”

The moment you hear that, you know you’re going there…and it had damn well better be terrifying to live up to your dread!

 

There are literally secret projects in some of these rooms at Valve now

 

The innovations in technology & video game design have moved the structure of storytelling forward.  How do you feel your approach to storytelling in games has changed since the original Half-Life to now, both in terms of technological capability and your personal development as a writer?

I never felt I challenged myself more as a writer and a designer than when we were working on Half-Life; I was constantly learning new things. I learned to write for actors, and to work with them to develop a character beyond what we had imagined. I worked with animators, level designers, programmers, sound designers…it was a rich creative experience in every way imaginable, and pushed me. Even then, I felt like I never came close to the level of quality I wanted, but we made the games we were able to at the time. I was going to say that as hard as I tried, we never made a game that was as good as a good short story, or as polished and enjoyable as a really original novel…but that is no longer true.

As soon as I played Portal I felt like it was the perfect example what I had always hoped to see—the game equivalent of a perfect short story. And when I played Portal 2, there was our first original novel. I didn’t work on these games, so I think I can judge them fairly. I’m in awe of what those teams, and those writers, accomplished in terms of character, narrative structure, and outright brilliant writing. They are clever and hilarious. They are also, as science fiction, completely original. There has never been a movie or a story like them. They are things that can only exist as games.

To me they totally justify the attempt to tell stories in games. But…there’s no standing still. Every time you start a new game, you find new things are possible that never were before. So there’s a chance we can continually better ourselves. The Portal games, and Half-Life I suppose, are only the beginning. I guess it’s a shame we don’t see more people going in similar directions. Dishonored is a recent example of the first game in a long time that felt like it had taken cues from Half-Life and done something new with them. I hope Bioshock Infinite also pushes open some new doors.

 

What is it like to work at Valve, watching the company grow into the industry-defining organisation it is today? 

Overwhelming. I mostly work with a fairly small number of people, although it shifts as I (and they) move from project to project. For the past few years I have been working on Dota 2, with two other writers, creating dialog and lore for the 100+ heroes who inhabit that arena. There’s a big room beyond our little corner with a few dozen people in it, and I can’t keep track of them. The thing is, that room probably has more people in it than built Half-Life. And it’s just one room on a floor with three more like it. And there are five floors…I think…we keep expanding. So in that sense it’s disorienting.

On the other hand, I bob around in a tank full of strange shapes and projects that I occasionally get a glimpse of. There are literally secret projects in some of these rooms now…I think if I wandered into them by accident, I would never be seen again. Another employee recently saw me walking around looking in offices to see if I could find someone I knew, and asked if I had gotten separated from my tour group. 

 

What games are you playing now?

I tore through Dishonored and look forward to playing parts of it over and over again. I’ve been hacking at things in Chivalry, and quickly hit my tactical and IQ limit in the new XCOM…it started to cause me as much stress as the original did. I’m playing the new Assassin’s Creed game because I am a sucker for Revolutionary War history, and I just fired up Dark Souls again, which was a terrible idea because now I can’t think about anything else but I also can’t make any progress. I am terrible at Dota 2. It is a humbling thing to work on a game for years and years and still absolutely suck at it.

 

What are your favourite horror and science fiction films?

Kubrick made both of them.

 

We have read your answers about a cancelled "Ravenholm" project developed by both yourselves at Valve and Arkane.  They've gone on to create the (really rather good) Dishonored; but what does the future hold for Half-Life?  Of course you can't confirm an Episode 3 or Half-Life 3, and I wouldn't expect you to, even though with the demand (and the radio silence from Valve on the subject) it's pretty safe to say something is definitely on the way! But looking at the success of, say, Telltale Games' The Walking Dead, are you personally interested in further exploring the idea of an episodic narrative?  Or do you want to return to writing the more complete story?

Well, I’m up for any storytelling challenge, whether it’s episodic or monolithic, in games or comics or prose. The most narrative fun I’ve had in a long time was collaborating with Jim Murray to do a promotional comic for Dota 2. It’s probably the most ridiculous talent overkill ever applied to the visual aspect of a tie-in comic, as you can see if you look at Jim’s incredibly beautiful and detailed work. (I speak only with embarrassment of the writing, because in an afternoon I would create literally months of work for poor Jim.)

 

And finally, what advice would you give to people aspiring to become video game writers and developers?

If you want to write for videogames, learn to write. Write what you love to write—do whatever you would do to succeed in any area you want to master. You will have to get incredibly good at it, because the level of talent—and of competition—is rising. Maybe you can get all your experience working on games alone, if you are lucky enough to fall in with a crew of talented neophyte designers who realize they could use a writer/designer; but I wouldn’t count on it. If you’re the sort of person who naturally loves to write and writes all the time, then you will naturally get better at it.

That’s really the only requirement. You have to love it. It has to be pretty much the only thing you have ever wanted to do. If I look back at my youth, when I wrote and wrote and thought maybe I’d write movies or comics or something I couldn’t quite picture, I felt I was preparing for something I hoped would eventually appear. I believe I was dreaming of writing for games before they even existed. 

Jason England