Half-Life is one of our favourite games. In fact, I’ve got Half Life 2 running in a window somewhere right now… The guy who helped bring this amazing story to life? Retro gaming legend Marc Laidlaw himself dropped by the AA “offices” to tell us about the glory days, why collaboration is always the best way forward and his thoughts on Half-Life 3.
***Interview originally conducted in July 2017***
***Check out our Half-Life/Counter Strike special podcast!***
How did you get the opportunity to work for Valve?
I was working as a legal secretary, writing books and stories on the side, and stumbled into writing video game reviews for Wired Magazine, where my friend Mark Frauenfelder (better known for founding boing-boing) was working as an editor. That led to me being considered “the video game guy” at Wired, which led to them assigning me a feature article about id Software, which was known at that point for making Doom. As I started talking to the guys at id, it made more sense to focus the article on the creation of Quake. I started making Quake maps, using the WorldCraft editor (which eventually turned into Hammer), and right around this time Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington were trying to hire WorldCraft’s creator to do tools programming at Valve. In my journalistic capacity, I came up to meet him and wrote a recommendation letter for INS. I saw what Valve were working on and immediately wanted to be part of it. I’d made quite a few contacts in the FPS game community by that time, but nothing was really leading to creative work until I struck up connections with the people at Valve who would become my closest collaborators and friends for the next couple decades.
Half-Life is one of the most important PC games ever made. What was it like working on it and can you explain the atmosphere at Valve when this game was being developed?
It was thrilling, seat-of-the-pants, every day a day of discovery. There was lots of dread and anxiety and doubt, of course. Everything seemed to take forever, although in retrospect the game shipped just over a year after I joined the company. Other game companies were rising and falling all around us, groundbreaking games appearing and disappearing almost overnight. The specter of failure was always looming over us.
It’s also, arguably, the first ever first person shooter with a deep and complex story-line. How does it feel that you helped change a whole genre of games?
It doesn’t seem that deep or complex in retrospect; we were just careful to create an illusion of depth, I think. I knew when I joined Valve that nobody was really using the FPS tools for storytelling and this was something the whole team wanted to do, even if they didn’t quite know how. So I helped bring a grab-bag of old storytelling tricks to the new game and level design tricks that the others were pulling out of nowhere. I was in awe of them. It felt to me like I was just borrowing from old standards while they were the ones doing something truly new. But that was fine. The purpose of the story was to melt into the background and give the whole thing a sense of coherence. It was always meant to be almost invisible. As we gained confidence, in Half-Life 2, we started to push it a bit…while at the same time, we could see others getting much bolder with their narratives. It was a very exciting time to be working in that extremely narrow FPS niche. I’m not sure I could have contributed much of use outside of it. Right person, right place, right time, etc., etc. I owe a lot to luck.
What were your main inspirations and ideas when coming up with the story-line for Half-Life?
A lot of the story was in place when I got to Valve. I was mostly an enabler. I didn’t have a lot of original ideas, I mostly tried to come up with ways to make all the crazy elements work together and even occasionally dovetail. Most of our ambitious narrative ideas got put off for HL2. I would say the most effective narrative idea is right at the beginning, from the train-ride up through the escape from the test chamber. It wasn’t inspired by anything except the level design itself. I sat with the designer who built that section, Brett Johnson, and we ran through endless corridors and labs, all of them broken up and wrecked…clearly something had happened, but what? Seeing Brett’s busted levels, I asked what would happen if he could clean them all up and we could see the level before…and then the disaster that was supposed to happen would serve as a transition to the stuff he’d already built. Brett got excited by the idea and built a pre-disaster version overnight, and as soon as we saw it, we realized that it was going to work. So, it was a matter of improvising right there in the level design tools, not some kind of ivory tower authorial inspiration. Likewise, the opening train ride came out of a discussion with coder Jay Stelly, who had added a “train” entity to the tools for reasons I didn’t understand; I just assumed they were for making a train ride, not realizing no one had designed one, except maybe for a combat sequence. So that led to the idea of deliberately doing a show-case amusement park style train ride that would initially look like a prerecorded cut-scene, which is what other games were doing at the time by way of exposition. So inspiration, for me, came from the examples and incomplete work of my co-workers. The things they did continually inspired me to come up with ideas worthy of them.
Half-Life 2 seemed to do the impossible and improve on every aspect of the original. What are your views on the (critically acclaimed) sequel?
Technical iteration and improvement led us to want to improve our storytelling tools, and specifically our characters. I don’t think much radical improvement happened in the scripting itself, but there was now a level of fidelity we hadn’t expected. This meant we started thinking in terms of better performances, more convincing characters, and real emotions instead of just broadly comic slapstick violence. Spending more time with believable characters led to more thinking about a richer, deeper story. This informed everything. In a way, it too was driven by the tools. Would we have attempted a more ambitious story if we’d been stuck with Half-Life 1 fidelity, characters whose mouths were inflexible puppet mouths? I don’t know.
Who are your favourite characters from the Half-Life universe and can you explain why?
Dr. Kleiner was the first character I brought to the series. Hal Robins was an old friend, and as soon as I saw the Black Mesa scientists, I thought of Hal for their voices. So Dr. Kleiner is probably my favorite of them all. Next would be Alyx Vance, a strong character in her own right, but especially so because of the work Merle Dandridge brought to her performance. I think Merle’s reaction at the end of Episode 2 is the main reason anyone gave a crap about the cliffhanger. If she hadn’t pulled it off, nobody would have cared if we continued the series or not. Then there’s Dr. Breen, who was so much fun to write for; as a kid, I worshiped Robert Culp, so working with him was incredible, and his death incredibly tragic…I wanted to do more Dr. Breen somehow, even if it meant bringing him back in an alien grub (ohhhh, do it! – Ed). But how can I not speak of the G-Man, whose lines Mike Shapiro always found some way of delivering unexpectedly. Or Barney or…or… I guess the thing I’m proudest of is having brought these characters into being. Dr. Magnusson! The vorts! I’m getting all melty.
You also worked on other classic Valve titles such as the Portal and Left for Dead series of games. Were you in charge of writing stories for these games and which title did you have the most fun working on while at Valve?
I didn’t work on those at all. But I went on to get the ball rolling writing all the characters for Dota 2. With the help of a couple other writers (Ted Kosmatka and Kristopher Katz), we wrote and oversaw recording of over a hundred heroes in the space of a few years. It was fun but there was no narrative in it, and therefore not much for an author to revel in. I took to Half-Life like a duck to water. I took to Dota like a duck to a petting zoo with a tub of water in one corner. Still…fun!
Do you have any idea whether Half-Life 3 will ever be released and would you be willing to work on this title?
No idea. And I have no interest in going back. I had ideas for Episode 3. They were all supposed to take the series to a point where I could step away from it and leave it to the next generation. I had hoped for a reset between HL2 and Half Life 3 that was as dramatic as the shift between HL1 and HL2. I honestly don’t know if anyone else shared this goal, but it seemed important to me to give ultimate freedom to whoever inherited the series, with my own personal set of loose ends tied up to my satisfaction. Unfortunately, I was not able to do that. But I never thought as far ahead as Half-Life 3, unless you were to say that it and Episode 3 were the same thing. I will say that I expected every installment would end without resolution, forever and ever…there was some rumor going around that Ep3 or HL3 would end Gordon Freeman’s story, and I don’t think that was accurate. My intention was that Ep3 would simply tie up the plot threads that were particular to HL2. But it would still end like HL1 and HL2, with Gordon in an indeterminate space, on hold, waiting for the next game to begin. So one cliffhanger after another.
Leaving Half-Life 3 for a minute, how different is it to write a story for a video game as opposed to a novel and which gives you more pleasure?
I haven’t written a novel in over twenty years and the thought of it exhausts me. It’s a solitary pursuit. I loved writing for games, the collaborative energy, the way every idea I had was improved by others. But I do think I’ll return to novels to rediscover the process of thinking for myself. That seems important to me now. I had a lot of stuff to share when I went to Valve. Hopefully I can now share what I learned from games with my novel-writing self, when I settle down to that task again.
You’re obviously a huge gamer. What is your favourite game of all time and what game do you think has the best storyline?
I like to play games that are very different form my work but I still wish I’d had a chance to work on Thief. I couldn’t have done that and been at Valve, so I will have to live with this. I’m a big Zelda fan. I suppose my single favorite game is probably, at this point, Dark Souls…but I have never delved into the lore or cared much about it, although I do love that it feels like a world complete and original unto itself. I did spend a fair bit of time reading up on Bloodborne lore, which I loved. But this is not to say these games have great stories. Maybe after I’ve been away from games for a while, I will start to seek out the story-heavy games again for their own sake. I did just pick up Tides of Numenera. At the time I played Torment, I was not a fan of text in games…but maybe I’ve come around.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
Garrett, from Thief. I’d probably wake up with my wallet empty, and the secret panel behind my self-portrait looted of some prized magic journal, but it’d be worth it.
***Check out our Half-Life/Counter Strike special podcast!***