the wide world of videogames, there are very few people designated
as writers who actually seem to integrate their work shrewdly with
gameplay. In fact, the phrase 'written by' in a game's credits is,
all too often, an excuse to show off a famous name from books or
comics, without necessarily making the connection to the interactive
medium. The lack of close contact between writer and designer/implementer
through game development also means the story can suffer, as gameplay
mechanics supercede plot logic.
Valve Software and its in-house writer, Marc Laidlaw, dispel that
concept. The company has shown that that having a full-time writer
on staff increases the game quality. Valve's debut title, Half-Life,
was (and remains to this day) a triumph of story telling through
intriguing plot, well-integrated dialog, and beautifully honed atmosphere.
It was an evolutionary jump among first-person shooters, moving
the genre away from blast-happy gib heaps to a more mature game
style, where even lovable security guards can get their own spin-off,
a la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Half-Life 2, one
of the most awaited titles of all time, also benefits from Laidlaw's
grasp of atmosphere and pacing -- even this early in its development,
the game demo exhibits a real world behind the gameplay.
entry into the games industry took him from a voyeur on industry
sidelines to the center of the maelstrom. Years ago he was as a
cyberpunk novelist, penning the cult favorite Dad's Nuke
(a "dark comedy of surburban paranoia"), written entirely
while working a day job at Pacific Gas & Electric. That led
to other books, such as 37th Mandala, Kalifornia and
The Orchid Eater, and a gig writing a screenplay for William
Gibson's cyberpunk classic, Virtual Light. But it was a series
of articles profiling id Software for Wired magazine which
really turned him on to the new storytelling opportunities in games.
I went to id, I had played only a handful of games," Laidlaw
recalls. "These had given me an impression of the 'art' of
games, but not the business or the creative process behind them.
I knew they were quickly becoming important to me, but I didn't
really know that I was basically going to throw over everything
I'd considered meaningful in order to get into the industry. I remember
having the kinds of nightmares and apocalyptic paranoia one has
(or anyway, I have) when one's life is about to undergo a major
change. I was excited but also terrified. There was really no place
for a writer in what they were doing, and it seemed like an absurd
thing for me to want to do."
it was another writing opportunity involving games, on the other
side of the Pacific, that provided him with more impetus to find
a way into the industry. He was commissioned to write the tie-in
novel, Gadget: The Third Force, for Synergy's Japanese CD-ROM,
Gadget. Marc describes the contrasting work environment he
which has since dissolved, was a very small, artist-driven studio,
making games about as different from Doom or Quake
as one can imagine. One can argue that they were not really games
at all, but simply node-based linear narratives using the CD-ROM
medium to give an illusion of gamelike choices (which ultimately
weren't really choices at all)."
novel was beguiling and poignant -- yet tricky to find. Gadget
soon became a casualty of the meteorite impact of real-time 3D games
which obliterated the "FMV adventure" genre and all related
products -- even related novels. Yet the experience taught him more
about creating atmosphere in games:
or not, I was welcomed into the Gadget design team in order
to add some more dimension to their cool and creepy universe after
the fact. The game itself was done at that point, and the novel
was an extension of the story into another medium rather than simply
a recap of the events of the game. But I had a glimpse of the work
that went into creating the digital world of Gadget, and
it was incredibly compelling."
stage was set for Marc's gradual spiral into the world of game development.
Even if it was a roundabout journey, it was one that made sense
in the end:
returned from Tokyo to take another trip to id, and at that point
I was pretty much in freefall. After the Wired article was
finished, id asked if I'd come and hang out and interview them and
write their company history for "The id Anthology." During
that trip I started pestering people about level design, thinking
that perhaps this could be a way of breaking into the industry.
The closest thing to writer's work in the id design process was
the act of level design, creating worlds and puzzles and setting
up your progress through the world. In Doom and Quake
and their cousins, architecture really did play the part of a storyline.
So that was the first area of game design to which I gravitated
-- not that I had any special talent in that area. Michael Abrash
spurred me to step back from that, pointing out that I'd be more
valuable to a game company if I took advantage of my existing skills
and strengths. He was the first to drop hints about Valve, although
I ended up coming here by a rather more roundabout route that involved
first exploring some work with Ion Storm and then Origin. All the
while, I was fighting the notion that by designing games, I was
somehow betraying my muse; in the end, I dragged it along with me."
happened next was, admittedly, not entirely to plan. Marc helped
give birth one of the best games of all time.
basic concept of Half-Life germinated in story discussions
at Valve which happened before my arrival. When I joined Valve,
in July of 1997, I was supposed to do a couple weeks of work to
consolidate the storyline for Half-Life so that it could
ship that year, while the bulk of my time was devoted to a science
fantasy epic called Prospero. Half-Life proved to
be an irresistible force; the Prospero team was soon absorbed,
and my full attention went into shaping the Half-Life story
and finding ways of expressing and clarifying it in the game that
was well underway."
famous "reboot" of the Half-Life project, in which
Valve's CEO Gabe Newell decided to give the team an extra year to
remake the game, helped concentrate the team on the important story
always had a great central concept -- one that immediately conjured
up strong images. The title alone was evocative of a certain kind
of experience. I think that's one of the things the fans responded
to right away, years before the game shipped. When Gabe hit the
big red "Reset" button on Half-Life's development,
we went back to the story's fundamental concepts and made sure everything
we kept strengthened that original vision of the project. We threw
away a lot of irrelevant, distracting stuff that had crept in, and
closed in on those core ideas."
the team went back to the drawing board, what came to the fore was
the chance to make a superior sequel without even releasing the
first title. The developers at Valve could learn from their mistakes,
and re-appropriate resources as necessary to make a game that flowed
better. Laidlaw's contributions to the story helped make this possible.
far as the narrative goes, I lived by two rules: Poe's "Totality
of Effect," which has to do with maintaining consistent atmosphere
and tone, and another unnamed rule expressed by the science fiction
writer, James Tiptree, Jr., which I'll quote loosely since I can
no longer find the quote: "Start your story 500 feet underground
on a dark day and then…don't tell them." Alice
B. Sheldon (a.k.a. James Tiptree, Jr.) is one of my literary heroes."
even this project restart didn't guarantee success for the game,
by any means. In the end, Marc and the other creators at Valve were
genuinely surprised at the success of Half-Life. It changed
their expectations and concerns going forward in quite unexpected
have a vivid memory of driving back to Valve from lunch one day,
about a year before we shipped Half-Life, and someone said,
'In five years we're either going to be gaming gods or we're going
to be completely forgotten.' We laughed at our own hubris, but it
was nervous laughter, since we knew that if we didn't succeed we
were screwed. Worse than merely being forgotten, I'd be working
as a legal secretary again. All of us wanted the game to be great,
but we were well aware of the price of failure. We knew we couldn't
influence the game's success in any meaningful way except by making
it the best we could. Don't forget that almost from the beginning,
Valve had a core of enthusiastic, supportive, dedicated fans. We
knew that their hopes were high, and we wanted to blow them away.
What happened when Half-Life turned out to be a hit was that
the size of that fanbase, and the level of its expectations, expanded
beyond anything we had imagined. The result was that when we started
looking toward Half-Life 2, we felt an even greater pressure
to set our goals very high, to top ourselves in every possible way,
so that we would not only satisfy the hopes of our fans, but surpass
unappreciated are the gaming conventions that Half-Life broke.
For example, why doesn't Gordon Freeman, the game's protagonist,
say anything? In an industry where developers constantly imbue character
using cut-scenes that employ big-name voice-acting talent, Half-Life's
presentation of Freeman seems, well, a little obtuse. But it works,
and Laidlaw strives to explain why:
just think of it as one of our game rules. It acts as a design constraint,
and it gives rise to certain opportunities we would not have otherwise.
Try to imagine the test-chamber sequence at the beginning of Half-Life
if Gordon Freeman were wisecracking all the way through, or telling
his colleagues he didn't have a clue what to do. The game would
grind to a halt. Instead, the player thinks, 'These scientists all
act as if I know what to do, and I can't tell them I'm a complete
ignoramus.' I live to create that kind of tension in the player."
Half-Life and Half-Life 2, Marc now sees both sides
of the coin: a pre-existing story which needs to be integrated into
a game realistically, and a world that can be developed from scratch.
He emphasizes the importance of creating a fully realized game world
that the sequel can slide into.
the case of Half-Life, I came in about halfway through the
process and was mainly involved in selecting the strongest elements
from a whole pot of conflicting ideas and urges. This eventually
required being involved in almost all aspects of the design to some
extent. With Half-Life 2 on the other hand, I've been involved
since the beginning. The first problem I had, as a writer, was the
fact that Half-Life had not been conceived originally as
a world that would give rise to a series. If it had been, I think
there would have been more attention paid to what was going on outside
Black Mesa and its place in the world; there would have been more
things that felt inevitable to continue in a sequel. So our first
task for Half-Life 2 was to create a new world that shared
enough elements with the first to flow from it logically."
Half-Life 2, Laidlaw plays the role of an egalitarian, low-key
director, involved in more parts of the game than one might expect
- not a hectoring, dictatorial producer who wants to write games
went through hundreds of pages of variant storylines and scripts
and gameplay specs over the years. At some points I've been involved
in the detailed design of puzzles, at other points I've drawn way
back from level design and concentrated on writing. I believe the
story creator should be an integral part of the design team, familiar
with (if not directly involved in) all aspects of the game's overall
design. This may not be important for every type of game, but it's
ideal for our type of game. One thing that has changed for me between
Half-Life and Half-Life 2 is that I spend more time
working with animators now, since characters and acting have heightened
significance in the game."
for the sometimes-cherished, often-maligned "story bible",
Marc suggests that, well, it only works up to a point.
story bible is just a way of communicating a vision of the game
to the rest of the team. For us, sometimes the bible is effective,
sometimes it's not very useful at all. Early in the design process
it is very useful, and in the end, when you want to pin down exactly
what you've done (for the benefit of posterity, sequels and third
party developers), it's useful again. But for a long middle section,
you have to rely on something more like telepathy to keep the team
in sync. Did I say 'telepathy'? I meant 'lots of meetings'."
"pinning down" of a document about the Half-Life
world helped when the Half-Life expansions started appearing
and they, naturally, needed to feel like they were in the same game
had a lot of conversations with Gearbox concerning the creation
of Opposing Force and Blue Shift, and I supplied them
with various documents that fleshed out background elements that
hadn't been woven directly into the foreground of Half-Life.
The place where you see this most clearly is in Barney's odyssey
to Xen, where a bit more light is shed on the Xen-relay teleport
experiments. Some of the reason for the overlapping narratives was
that it made sense for Gearbox to reuse existing content, such as
textures and design motifs, since they had limited schedules for
producing these games. Most of the moment-to-moment gameplay and
story decisions were left in Gearbox's hands, and we merely tried
to make sure they dovetailed with our own designs and didn't create
any huge conflicts. Gearbox, as fans of the original, had a good
eye for places where their stories could overlap with Half-Life,
but even so, they took plenty of liberties with the story for the
sake of making a fun game. Fun in a game is ultimately more important
Half-Life arguably has is a sense of cohesiveness -- a facet
that many games lack. So it's interesting that, when asked what
he misses in games, Marc focuses on this almost indescribable "sense
of whole" and feeling of individuality.
I miss in games is not narrative structure, but personality or a
sense of authorship. People pick their favorite writers, favorite
musicians, favorite artists based on their reaction to a distinct
personal style. Games are created by teams of people, but I think
there is still room for individual expression in the midst of that.
In the long run, I think there must be something personal in games,
in order for them to endure. It's not that I want to have some kind
of message or personal statement hammered into my game, but I do
want to feel that there is some kind of interesting personality
or consciousness animating the world of the game and giving it an
interesting shape. It's the difference between a Hitchcock movie
and one that is merely Hitchcockian. There are so many generic worlds
and storylines in games. The industry is drowning in waves of sameness.
Odd, interesting titles stand out in sharp relief when they appear…if
you can find them at all. Fortunately, word of mouth is very effective
in the gamer community, and we take a lot of delight in discovering
good, overlooked games and pushing them on our friends."