Speaking of Left 4 Dead, that's another game where you get dropped into a situation and things just kind of unravel. With Left 4 Dead 2, are you taking a similar approach to how story is told? Do you think the games are better off the way Left 4 Dead was, or is it important to have more of a backstory?
EW: I'm sort of speaking for Chet here because he's the lead writer on it, but I've been helping with that lately. Splitting the difference on Left 4 Dead 2, it's not necessarily a more complex narrative. It's more of a coherent narrative from Campaign One to Campaign Five. They each connect in the characters and situations. There's an art to the environmental story that's being told about the progression of the infection, from point A to point B.
The thing with Left 4 Dead is that it's replayable. As much as I'm against stopping the game to give you any exposition, I really think it would be a bad idea in Left 4 Dead. It's designed for people to play it 20, 30, and 40 times.
So we try to put enough lines in there so that you'll have an opportunity to hear new things, mainly because lines only play in certain situations so that as you're playing, you won't get totally sick of hearing that information.
Can you speak as to why you decided to have an overarching story?
EW: Only because we thought of a way that was lightweight and didn't seem like it would impact the game that much to do it, and it seemed like it was an interesting thing to pursue. In talking to people and listening to playtesters, it was something that, while not the most important thing...
ML: It really helps to have an organized theme or setting when coming up with levels which drive gameplay. You have to get really specific. You can't talk in vague generalities like, "It would be fun to have some combat to some sections of a place." You have to have resources. You have to have a list to say, "We need to build a city street. We need signs to hang here. We need to know what the signs say." It becomes very specific details. So if you have a good overall story or theme, that just drives all that.
Like, "Okay, we're doing this in the South." Suddenly we have this environment, this one, and this one, and you've got something to build from. If you don't ever come to some kind of focus, story is a good way to provide focus that's really low-cost. If you have a good idea for a story, nobody has to build anything, but they can build things out of that idea.
EW: And having those constraints early on, because the general story arc was determined right after Left 4 Dead, it helped to produce a full game in a year, because there wasn't a lot of time wasted dressing out sets in ways that we would later change.
It gave everyone a lot of focus on what these sets should look like, and what sort of information we should convey in the environments. Because writing is a lot of work, but building everything in those games has to be manufactured and placed by hand. It takes a lot of time if you go down the wrong road.
Can you talk a little bit more about how the whole train thing came about in the intro of Half-Life?
ML: It was a code thing. One of the level designers was constantly asking for more features they could use in the level editor, and trains are sort of a general-use thing. Every time a platform moves in Quake, that was a type of train. Usually they just go back and forth, and they didn't move very smoothly. So one of the programmers on Half-Life created a track train that would move over long distances and turn and pivot on certain points and go around curves and certain things like that.
I don't remember what the original request was for what the original level designer had in mind, but I remember when I heard about it, the first thing that came to my mind was an actual train. I just took it too literally, and I started thinking in terms of, "What could we do with a train in Half-Life?"
Then we came up with an idea like an old carnival ride, where you would literally be on a train. And to help set the pattern for the whole game -- the whole game is sort of this linear ride experience -- we start you off, literally, on a train.
And then the rest of the game is basically that haunted house feel, where around every corner, something jumps out at you. So it went from being a request for a technical feature that I sort of misunderstood what it meant, but it suggested something narrative, and we all started to see potential in there.
Without having the writers on board with the process the whole time, do you think something like that would've happened?
ML: Oh no, definitely not. I think in the case of a writer coming into Half-Life really late, they'd have a game that was very much built already, and would just be there to come up with lines of dialog for the security guards and scientists to say.
If I looked at what the game looked like before I arrived, it was sort of a series of unconnected lab rooms. They were building this huge, sprawling base, and you'd just fight your way through there, Doom-style. Every room would spawn a bunch of monsters, and you'd shoot them. And you'd go to the next room and fight some more monsters and go to the next room.
At some point, that's what we were building. That was the origin of us looking at it and saying, "No, we've been telling people we were doing something different, but this looks like everything else. Back to the drawing board."
At that point, we tried to deliberately integrate the story and level design in a really concrete way. And everybody wanted to do this. It wasn't my idea to hire me as a writer. The people at Valve wanted this kind of narrative experimentation to go on in this game. I was just there to try and help enable what everybody wanted.