I know it's difficult to describe a creative process, but how did the character GLaDOS spark?
EW: It was just sort of luck. When I was working on Psychonauts, we'd hook up this temp dialog. We'd just get people around the office to hook it up. One depressing thing I noticed is that a couple of times I'd run out of people to do, and I'd just use a voice-to-text thing.
And people were laughing at that way more than what the lines were worth. I realized, "No amount of writing is funnier than this text-to-speech thing reading it." I was always thinking about that, and was kind of bitter about it, and by then, I was like, "I'm going to leverage this and use it to my advantage."
So that's what started it. And it was easy, too. I'm not a fan of temp voice, but it's got a place in the planning process and you can't avoid it. So I was getting the best of both worlds. I was in control of temp recording. I didn't need anybody to read those lines, and the weird artifacts of text-to-speech was going to make that stuff seem even funnier. So that's where I started with that.
But we were still fishing around, thinking that this would be announcements coming over the facility's speakers, and there was still going to be something else, like the villain, or somebody to interact with. It quickly became apparent that people were reacting to this voice. It may be a trivial realization, but it was a big realization for us. "Whoa, this voice is just the facility that's angry at you and will confront you at the end."
And you just built it from there?
It was interesting hearing the narrative analysis [at GDC Austin] and what Tom [Abernathy] was talking about up there. Was it interesting for you guys to hear people take a literary analysis of the story of the game? Does it surprise you with the things that people come up with? Are you like, "Well, that's not what we meant, but...?" How much of it is deliberate?
ML: People have fun connecting the dots, and the patterns that emerge might be different for different people. Some people have done really elaborate analysis of the meaning of these things, and it's dangerous as a creator to get caught up in that, because it ruins what people are going to get out of it later. We put these things together out of the things that are floating around in the environment. It's an intuitive process, and people receive them in an similar way.
There's intuitive stuff going on, but it's not like we had an agenda that we set out to make a dramatic statement. We never talk about theme. We just leave that to students to analyze. It's enjoyable to see what they come up with, but setting out to carve the meaning of your piece in stone and then building everything around that is not a very natural way to work.
So you're not thinking in metaphors most of the time.
ML: No. You want it to have resonance, and it's cool when you're doing something that you think people are going to recognize something -- because it's reminiscent of something going on in the world at the time. You look at a character like GLaDOS in terms of other science fiction AIs like HAL, and people are going to see this as a series of characters that are a convention in science fiction. But we're not thinking, "This is a statement that we're going to make."
EW: You try and write stuff that's truthful. When GLaDOS is talking to you, one of the rules I had is that she shouldn't talk to you like a computer. She shouldn't be all like, "Oh my nuts and bolts." She's got this computer voice and she is a computer, but she's talking to you like a regular person. In that sense, we've got a theme. It's not metaphor. We're just trying to make her sound like a person who is angry at you and is manipulative might sound.
Tell me a little more about writing in competitive multiplayer games like Team Fortress 2.
EW: There isn't really a lot of space to put anything, so you just try to be as brief as possible and then observe the game as much as possible.
ML: As far as somebody outside that but watching Chet [Faliszek] and Erik work on it, this is a case where the collaborative process worked really well. Chet would come in and say, "Look, we need to write 100 lines this afternoon." And then Chet and Erik would sit down with the spreadsheet, literally.
EW: That's the classic writer's room thing. You just sit around and try and crack each other up, and 80 percent of it is stuff that's so foul that it could never make it in the game. [laughs] But then you're left with that 20 percent that's decent. We all did that when we were sitting in the same room. We'd be like, "We've got to write all these lines."
It's way less fun to do stuff like that alone, then?
EW: Yeah. Stuff like that is the perfect collaborative effort. Left 4 Dead has some of that stuff in it as well. Just write short, because you don't have a lot of space to say those things.