If he feels vindicated, he doesn’t show it. As Marc Laidlaw waits for his co-workers to finish a talk, we sit down at a table in San Francisco’s cavernous Moscone Center and talk about Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004).
Its 1998 predecessor is legendary for pushing the form both narratively (bringing atmosphere and intelligence to the first-person shooter) and technologically (the Half-Life engine having been used for the online phenomenon Counterstrike). As if living up to that wasn’t enough, the sequel took six years to make and was plagued by delays and a code leak of a beta version of the game. But I meet up with Marc the day after the first-person shooter game has swept the Game Developers Choice Awards: it won Best Game, Technology, Character Design and Writing.
As indicated by the last two awards, Laidlaw’s background as a novelist (he got into games through writing Wired articles about the game company that made Doom) has given him a skill for character development rarely seen in the industry. He explains how he approaches the dramatic scenes in the game: “In the same way we set about designing an ambush with some monsters, we’re going to design a scene where we want a specific emotional impact. For instance, the scene where you first get to Eli’s lab, we wanted you to feel like you were watching a family dynamic with this daughter-and-stepmother kind of energy going on,” Laidlaw says.
Perhaps because he’s confident about his writing, he’s learned the difficult art of what not to say. “I’m not a big fan of too much dialogue; it needs to be just enough. But we tend to overwrite and record a lot of extra stuff that we don’t use, and then it’s kind of like scaffolding. Because as soon as you have communicated enough to the animators, they’re able to express a lot of it non-verbally and we can cut the scene down further and just communicate more visually. And it’s a visual medium.”
That was something I’d forgotten when I asked the publishers of Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar (Prima Games, 2004) to send me a review copy. For some reason, I’d expected a non-fiction account of the making of the game, but what arrived was a lavish coffee-table book featuring examples of the visually stunning work of the game accompanied by 100-word descriptions. What comes across in the book, which quotes dozens of people, is how much collaboration shaped the process.
Laidlaw explains that this was the case even with the dialogue, which could have been solely the domain of the writer. “We basically created radio plays, and we’d get a bunch of extra stuff: ‘Let’s try this line. You’re doing this line really close up; now you’re 20 feet away; you’re angry; you’re scared.’ We’ll take that stuff back to the lab, and these are our pieces for building the scene. And then in the process of that, we’ll usually find little weird bits and pieces in the outtakes and the alternates that will inspire one of the animators.”
And Laidlaw says it helped that there were a couple of pairs of ears cocked for inspiration. “Like in Eli’s lab, when he’s kind of teasing you and Alyx, and he goes ‘Awwwwyyyyiii!’ Well, that’s just the sound [voice actor] Robert [Guillaume] made. When Bill Fletcher and I were going through the audio stuff, we just heard this sound, and we were like, ‘Oh, we gotta use that sound.’ Bill instantly saw something to do with it, and so he took it away and fed it into the scene. It wasn’t supposed to be there, but as soon as we heard it, it had to be there. It was just such an interesting sound.”
Laidlaw says trusting what he finds interesting is key to working with a genre many consider hackneyed. “A lot of science-fiction stuff works in games because it hasn’t been done before in a game, although it’s been done to death in every other medium. In the first game it was the cliché of the trans-dimensional teleporter; this one has the cliché of the Orwellian future. We’re always on the lookout for the science-fiction clichés… They’re good because everybody recognizes them and you don’t have to explain them before you turn them on their head.”
Laidlaw’s co-worker Ted Backman echoes this reconstructionist sentiment in Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar. When designing the soldiers of the future, he decided they wouldn’t need the shoulder pads every other videogame had them wearing: “I don’t know if they think soldiers will be tackling people,” he quips. Similarly, when designing monsters, he rethought the genre standbys: the Stalker “was a kind of nullified amputated human the Combine turned into a slave labourer … that presented a moral dilemma every time you had to deal with it. It is more horrific to have to deal with an insane hostage than something that just wants to eat your brains.”