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Half-Life dev Marc Laidlaw explains the making of the game's opening sequence

"It was a matter of improvising right there in the level design tools, not some kind of ivory tower authorial inspiration," the former Valve staffers tells Arcade Attack in a new interview.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

July 17, 2017

3 Min Read

"It was a matter of improvising right there in the level design tools, not some kind of ivory tower authorial inspiration."

- Former Valve staffer Marc Laidlaw, chatting with Arcade Attack about the making of Half-Life's memorable "another day at the office" opening sequence.

The opening sequence of Valve's debut game Half-Life is (in)famous for its mundanity: man riding tram is late to work, man moves object from one room to another, man causes cataclysmic rift in the space-time continuum.

In a recent chat with enthusiast website Arcade Attack, Valve veteran (and, as of last year, former employee) Marc Laidlaw offered a bit of interesting perspective on how that sequence was planned that fellow devs may find intriguing.

Notably, it wasn't really planned at all -- like so many things in game dev, it was all sort of cobbled together on flights of inspiration using assets and tools that had already been made. Here, Laidlaw tells the story:

"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."

These sorts of anecdotes are important to share because they both illuminate a game's development history (especially critical here, given that Valve itself lost some of the records of Half-Life's production) and demythologize the making of an influential work. A generation of game developers were inspired by what they played of Half-Life; in thinking back to the game's final year of development, Laidlaw remembers "there was lots of dread and anxiety and doubt."

You can (and should!) read the rest of his comments over on the Arcade Attack website. For a bit more insight into how Half-Life was created, check out our 1999 postmortem of the game

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