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Valve writers Marc Laidlaw and Erik Wolpaw delivered a talk at GDC Austin about the processes and principles of video game writing, drawing from their experiences with the Half-Life and Portal games.

Kris Graft, Contributor

September 16, 2009

5 Min Read

"Creative process" is kind of a misnomer, because so often, creation of anything involves a good amount chaos. But nevertheless, at GDC Austin on Wednesday, Valve Software writers Marc Laidlaw and Erik Wolpaw attempted to describe what is what like writing for video games including Half-Life and Portal. When Laidlaw joined Valve during the development of the original Half-Life, the renowned first-person shooter that many say helped push video game storytelling in the right direction. But as a sci-fi novelist, his writing background wasn't in video games. "When I came to Valve, it seemed like a lot of people weren't quite sure what to do in this form, and all I had to offer was a sense of process," he said. That process was derived from his experience as a novelist. The young team at Valve knew little about storytelling, let alone storytelling in such a new medium as video games. And it was new territory for Laidlaw as well. "One thing that's different from writing a novel initially is that writing is such a solitary process, while your vision when writing a book is a solitary vision," he said. "That's a real difference. [In games] that vision has to evolve with other people." He was still able to help guide the story making process at Valve. While Half-Life began with a very strong vision, as the story developed, along the way the team was "lost in the weeds," and doubted the path that they were on. That's where Laidlaw's experience as a solitary book writer came in handy. To him, the hang-up was all too familiar. He told the Half-Life team, "It's all right. This always happens." After pushing through such creative rough patches, Laidlaw said often that's when things begin clicking again and the story comes together. At Valve, the writing process is part of the overall development process, and the different departments all intertwine. One of the most memorable parts of Half-Life 2 came about when a programmer came up with a feature called a "track train," which allowed for platforms to move smoothly over long distances and curves. When Laidlaw heard about the tool, he took it literally. From that interdepartmental intersection came the introductory scene where the player, as Gordon Freeman, rode into City 17 on a train, much like an on-rails Disneyland ride. "It was one of the advantages of the writers and the crew building the game all together. We had a lot of ideas for the opening for Half-Life," Laidlaw said. "...Really it all comes down to level design, using all these things in a game and making them part of an experience." The Strong, Silent Type Half-Life's leading man Gordon Freeman is the strong silent type -- he doesn't speak. It's a choice that was made in the original Half-Life and has been adopted by other first-person games, including BioShock. Laidlaw said the choice was simply to put the player in the shoes of the lead character. "It wasn't a big statement," he said. While now it just seems appropriate for a game based in the Half-Life universe game to have a silent lead, the writer isn't entirely sure he'd do it again. "If we were setting out on a game like that, would we decide to do it any different?" he asked. "...I wouldn't wish that process on anyone else, because it does have limitations." The outspoken fans of Half-Life have their own ideas about Gordon Freeman. "One of the number one [fan] suggestions is to [have Gordon talk]," said Laidlaw. "It's like they think it's an accident, or that we don't have enough money to have Gordon Freeman talk." Initially, Half-Life writers wanted Gordon Freeman to be devoid of virtually any identity at all -- to be a blank slate. Laidlaw said, "As far as Gordon Freeman is concerned, we didn't initially have visualizations [about what he would look like]." But marketing insisted otherwise. "There was kind of an unpleasant shot of this guy [on the game's packaging] who we didn't want any preconceived notions about. ... So there was an uneasy truce that we had to show the guy." But Gordon Freeman and his dark glasses and facial hair have become iconic in the realm of video games, and the Valve team has built upon his character. Cut Scenes And Story Stoppage Another trait of Half-Life and other Valve games are the lack of cut scenes -- story unravels not through non-interactive cinematic sequences, but through in-game dialogue, visuals, and other means. "When I'm playing a game, I don't like it when the writer stops the game and says, 'Hi, I'm the writer and I'm going to tell you a story,'" said Portal writer Wolpaw, who was also the writer on Double Fine's Psychonauts (which he said was a "grueling" process). "If you write for a game, why would you want to bring a game to a dead stop? What could be so important that you have to say it when I'm in the middle of fuckin' fighting aliens? Just tell me as the game happens." He equated stopping to tell a story mid-game to a great sex scene that is interrupted by a knock on the door from a writer asking, "Could I read you one of my short stories?" Wolpaw said if someone wants to stop to tell a story mid-game, "it better be a pretty damn brilliant piece of writing." For Wolpaw and Laidlaw, moments of brilliance often come after the moments of chaos and confusion that occur during the "creative process." In the end, it's persistence and patience -- the latter of which is afforded by Valve's corporate culture -- that have helped the company's writers create some of the most memorable stories and characters in games.

About the Author(s)

Kris Graft


Kris Graft is publisher at Game Developer.

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