Sponsored By

A view from the '90s: Marc Laidlaw reflects on writing Half-Life

Former Valve staffer Marc Laidlaw has dug up and republished a blog post from 1998 in which he recounts, in interesting detail, his experiences helping to write and ship the original Half-Life.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

October 3, 2016

2 Min Read

"By the time I had finally figured out the difference between c2a3 and c3a2, and was wondering how to pull the loose Half-Life story together into something fairly taut, Mike and Gabe decided that the entire game was in need of reworking.

At Thanksgiving, just when we should have been bashing open headcrab pinatas, we took a crowbar to the game itself."

- A passage from Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw, circa 1998, shared by ex-Valve employee Marc Laidlaw in 2016.

Early this year writer Marc Laidlaw publicly departed Valve after roughly 18 years at the company.

Now, he's dug up an old blog post written when Half-Life shipped in the fall of 1998 that runs down some of his lessons learned from the experience. It's a personal postmortem of sorts, one that game devs with an interest in conveying meaningful stories through games may appreciate reading in full.

"When I started working at Valve, Half-Life was almost finished," he wrote, in November of '98. "It would be on sale for Christmas. If I was lucky, I would get to put in a few weeks of touch-up work on the story, and then get on with a far more detailed storyline for our second game. That was in July of 1997."

What follows is a lengthy retelling of Laidlaw's experiences as Valve gutted and reworked the game, "tearing it to pieces" in an attempt to make it better than whatever it appeared to be in the summer of '97.

He often likens the game development process to the novel-writing process (Laidlaw published many books of his own before taking a job at Valve, something he also speaks to in this blog post), and even nearly two decades later some of his insights may prove valuable to fellow devs.

"My ideas about game design are in a constant state of creative tension between tradition and experimentation. When I consider our main character, Gordon Freeman, as a conduit through which a player invents an identity for himself, I can’t think of a literary or cinematic equivalent," he wrote. "That right there excites me immeasureably. How often does a writer get to work with tools that are completely untried?  The early history of literary and cinema is already written. For any writer who wants to know what it feels like to pioneer—this is the place to be."

In the years since, of course, many in the game industry have expressed similar views. Game writers have honed their craft, swapped stories and opened up with real talk about what it's like to write video games in 2016.

For further insight into what it felt like to write video games (or rather, a very prominent and respected video game) in 1998, check out Laidlaw's full blog post on writing Half-Life. 

About the Author(s)

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like