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Marc Laidlaw On Story And Narrative

Marc Laidlaw, Valve's resident writer and game designer, was key to the strong narrative structure in Half-Life. With the trailer for the game's sequel making waves around the world, Simon Carless talked to Laidlaw to learn more about his work.

In 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.

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Valve's resident writer and game designer, Marc Laidlaw. [UPDATE, JUNE 2020: apparently this is not Marc, & he provided a fake headshot to a Russian magazine that somehow made its way here!]

However, 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.

Laidlaw's 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.

"When 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."

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Laidlaw's Wired article opened his eyes to the potential of storytelling in games.

Oddly, 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 encountered:

"Synergy, 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)."

The 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:

"Game 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."

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Laidlaw penned the tie-in novel for Synergy's Gadget.

The 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:

"I 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."

What happened next was, admittedly, not entirely to plan. Marc helped give birth one of the best games of all time.

"The 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."

The 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 elements.

"Half-Life 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."

When 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.

"As 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."

But 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 ways.

"I 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 them."

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The Half-Life series' protagonist,
Gordon Freeman.

Somewhat 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:

"I 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."

With 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.

"In 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."

For 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 too.

"I 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."

As for the sometimes-cherished, often-maligned "story bible", Marc suggests that, well, it only works up to a point.

"The 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'."

This "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 world.

"We 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 than consistency."

What 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.

"What 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."


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

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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.'"

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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."

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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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