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Marc Laidlaw On Story And Narrative

August 8, 2003 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2
 

Laidlaw feels that games don't miss actual structure, but sometimes lack the correct interplay between gameplay, structure, and intensity.

Screenshot from Half-Life 2.

"As far as narrative structure, games are often rigidly structured; I don't think lack of structure is a problem at all. What's lacking is the emotional impact that usually accompanies structural highpoints or turning points in more traditional narratives. In most games, the feeling of finally achieving your goal is one of relief rather than elation or insight; the climax often merely marks a break from increasing frustration. I wish most games aimed higher than that. As an example of one game that got it brilliantly right, I'll point at Ico, where the narrative structure, the gameplay, and the emotional impact were all seamlessly fused into one. Near the end of the game there is a moment where the world comes apart and you nearly fall -- but you're caught. It was an incredibly poignant moment, conveyed through the game mechanics, the animations, a reversal in the storyline, everything all at once. This was a significant event not only for that game, but for the art of game design. And that was just one of several all-time-high moments in Ico."

However, although some claim technological or logistical limitations stop games in general from advancing, he isn't so sure.

"Right now, I can see limits on the Half-Life style of game (our limitations are important elements of the design), but I don't see any limitations at all for games in general. It seems to me that if you decided that storytelling was going to be the most important element of your game, you could design a particular type of game to support that design decision. I might as well add, that's not a game I can imagine wanting to play. Old Man Murray's Erik put it well: 'story lovers should just accept the fact that non-interactive media such as books, television, movies, and, in case all of those somehow disappear, plays, have stories and dialogue pretty much covered. Games are something else altogether. They require a new and as-yet-unformed way of creative thinking.'"

Screenshot from Half-Life 2.

When asked what advice he'd give to someone wanting to break into the games industry, Marc, like many of his peers, is most keen on wide-ranging skills and, most of all, practical experience.

"The best designers I've worked with are well-rounded in terms of their background, and easy-going in terms of personality. They genuinely enjoy collaborating rather than pushing some agenda that feeds their ego. All our best designs are the result of collaboration.

For the first few years I was working on games, when a young writer asked me for this piece of advice, I would tend to encourage them to hone their skills in the traditional print publications, since the magazines are limited markets and tough to crack, and will help you develop a thick skin for rejection and criticism while you're learning your craft. However, recently I've begun to feel that there's no reason one couldn't develop as a writer and have a career exclusively in the game industry, in much the same way that good screenwriters don't necessarily spend any time writing novels or short stories. This is assuming you believe you can express everything you might wish to express as a writer through the medium of games, which is a far-fetched assumption. Still, theoretically, you could have a rewarding game writing career without ever writing for print.

Finally, I think the mod-design community could serve as a proving ground for game writers, much as it currently serves that purpose for programmers, artists and other designers. I would recommend fledgling game writers seek out a gang of like-minded modders, and offer his or her services. That's basically what I did."

When asked what games and developers he sees that impress him, he displays an interesting slant towards stylish (and sometimes spooky) console products -- not the PC-based shooters that Half-Life was born from.

"I confess that I tend to seek out games that are very different from the projects I'm working on, and perhaps this is the reason that I tend to avoid science fiction and realistic games. I have spent most of my gaming time on the Gamecube and Playstation 2 in the last year or so. I'm looking forward to whatever comes next from the creators of Ico and Fatal Frame. I anxiously await Thief 3. And I am hoping that the follow-up to The Wind Waker will be the Gamecube equivalent of Majora's Mask--something incredibly elaborate and strange."

HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu.

But in exploring the spooky, almost mythical atmosphere that games such as Ico convey, conversation turned to why famed occult author HP Lovecraft and his Cthulhu-based creations have such an odd and pervasive influence in FPS games. There are particular influences in id software's output, partly because Sandy Petersen (one of id's former level designers) designed the Call Of Cthulhu paper RPG, plus Marc's Lovecraft-ian company history in the 'id Anthology' PC box-set, and Half-Life's nods to the eldritch horror. Laidlaw has an interesting theory about all of this.

"Today geek culture is pervasive, and Lovecraft was the ultimate geek. That explains some of the affinity. If you look at his correspondence and his involvement in the amateur press of his day, HP Lovecraft makes Dr. Derek Smart look like Silent Cal. The old-timey print journals of debate and discussion, dependent on paper and ink and the U.S. mails, would have given the Slashdot forums a run for their money. Still, I marvel at the life extension Lovecraft has received as a result of being picked up by the RPG community (you can thank the inimitable Sandy Petersen for that). When you overlap this with the influx of young writers who are continually discovering and imitating Lovecraft, it seems pretty certain that the geek obsession with things Cthulhuvian is not going to fade any time soon. My obsession with HP Lovecraft peaked when I was about 15 years old, back when (except for my best friend and a handful of pre-email penpals) I felt I was pretty much the only one in the world who'd ever heard of him. So now I consider myself an old Lovecraft hand, and I enjoy having stewed on the subject long enough to act like a cranky authority on something."

Finally, Marc is understandably guarded when it comes to Half-Life 2's imminent release, refusing to be drawn on what the long-awaited sequel will end up meaning to the gaming public before he hears it himself from them.

"I don't want to try to sum up any conclusions about what we will accomplish with Half-Life 2 until it's all done and we've had some time for it to sink in. I didn't have any perspective on Half-Life itself until I had a chance to see how the finished product resonated with our fans. It's only half what you put into it; the other half is what people get out of it."

He does, however, offer some choice teasers from his dialog for the sequel by way of consolation and a fitting conclusion.

"Here's a line I cut: 'When you think of the creatures we've driven to extinction without a second thought, aren't you grateful the Combine isn't just another one-dimensional superpredator like…well, like ourselves?'

Here's one I haven't cut yet: 'What did I expect from the man who brought civilization to a screeching halt?'"

 

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Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

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