Interview with Marc Laidlaw, writer for Valve

Alex and I had the opportunity to cobble together some questions for an email interview with Marc Laidlaw, writer for Valve. Marc presents an earnest, matter-of-fact perspective to the relationship between story design and gameplay, which seems flavored by his experiences from Half-Life 2 and which illuminates moments of not-so-quite-serendipity when story design, art, level, and gameplay coalesce.

TMG: What’s your role at Valve?

Marc: I am a writer, one of several: Erik Wolpaw, Chet Faliszek, Jay Pinkerton and Ted Kosmatka make up our current complement of writers.

TMG: How has the videogame medium helped you tell a story?

Marc: The medium never exactly helps you tell a story – you’re always trying to figure out how to use its special limitations to come up with the best type of story for your game. It’s a continually challenging form (of course, they all are).

TMG: How often does the writing dictate level design, particularly with thematic tone? I assume that a dialog is created between the writing and the other aspects of a game. They, perhaps, feed into and off each other. Can you elaborate on this?

Marc: Yes, usually the exigencies of game design dictate the writing rather than the other way around. But because Valve has writers involved in every stage of a game’s design, we do get to have input all the way through the creation process. So often a story idea will drive initial decisions about levels, art, etc.; and all of these shape the gameplay. There’s a good feedback process when things are going well. When things are not going well, then the story or the gameplay or the level can be so fixed that everything has to work around them, and things feel brittle; story is just as blameworthy as anything else in this regard. It’s possible to get so attached to a story idea that you become inflexible, and this can become a liability if it hobbles the best possible gameplay.

TMG: Game narrative is usually so trite that it’s almost an accepted characteristic of video game’s persona. When not able to write setting and intent into scenes, when limited to dialog and when limiting the narrative voice to a first-person present tense (which removes the option for an interpretive narrator who is chocked full of opinion), how likely is it that game narratives redeem themselves while being so hog-tied?

Marc: Every game offers unique narrative challenges, which can be addressed in an infinite variety of ways. Redemption of narrative will always depend on the creativity you bring to solving those problems. Trite narrative is partly just a failure of imagination and commitment to doing better. Every game can solve its story problems by doing the first and most obvious thing that comes to mind. I see very small indy games taking wildly creative approaches to story, even when they really don’t have to, for the sheer joy of making something unexpected. I hope this sort of fearless inventiveness trickles up into more mainstream titles.

TMG: Any examples of early HL2 stories or characters that were canned?

Marc: Our book Raising the Bar is full of this stuff–rough drafts for scenes we never developed, characters who changed so much in development that they bore no resemblance to their original concepts, etc.

TMG: What were some of the inspirations for characters and episodes within HL2?

Marc: We started with the comic stereotypes of Half-Life, absent-minded professors and the like, who are basically science fiction’s ambassadors in pop culture. As we moved into HL2, we started turning them from types into characters, one at a time: Dr. Kleiner is a good example of a character who started as a caricature and eventually became an individual in our game.

TMG: Is it easier to heighten tension when you have music, HUD mechanics, and user interface to convey the importance of scenes or episodes within a game?

Marc: Our chapter structure helps us with pacing and with player expectation. Reading a book, you always know how close you are to the end–and it’s inseparable from that headlong feeling you get in the last few pages when you know it’s all got to come together somehow in 10 pages…9…8…7… Some people felt the end of the Half-Life 2 was abrupt and unexpected, and I believe one reason for this is that our chapter scheme broke inadvertently near the end of the game’s development. The credits and titles at the end of the game got broken out as a separate chapter, meaning many players came to the last chapter thinking it was going to be the second-to-last, and felt a bit cheated when they found themselves at the end. So even unconscious cues can have a huge effect on the perception of pacing.

TMG: Portal’s narrative links to the Half-Life universe but was originally developed externally by some students at DigiPen. That’s got to be a lot of fun, making new threads and links to the Half-Life universe?

Marc: There weren’t any links to Half-Life when we brought the Portal team into Valve. Those developed naturally as we worked on the game and started to see parallels between these two secretive and somewhat harebrained science facilities.

TMG: How do you think the episodic releases have faired and what’s it like to write them rather than a “full-length” release?

Marc: The episodes allow us to “go deep.” By not having to sprawl so far, we’re able to bear down on the details of the moment to moment gameplay experience in a way we’ve never been able to before. We can hold the whole experience in mind at one time, and tune every aspect of it to add up to a tight, coherent, unified chapter.

TMG: Do you think there’s room for experimental story-telling in games, particularly in commercial titles, not just art-house games?

Marc: Anything experimental is probably best done in a smaller format, a smaller venue. An experiment is not usually something I want to experience at great length. I would hope that a lot of experimentation went into the early stages of the big commercial games that are being delivered to me, and you can usually tell if that was the case: Games that don’t take any risks or try anything new, everyone senses it. They fall flat. Who can get excited about that sort of thing? But at its core, the game industry is based on experimentation, and on play, and I believe this will always be true–there will always be a thick seam of innovation running through it.

TMG: I assume you game, so: what are you playing now?

Marc: I have been in a bit of a lull right now, but I am just dipping my toe into Monster Hunter Tri. The last game I played obsessively, from start to finish, was Risen. It carried me away quite effectively.

TMG: Lastly, what would Gordon Freeman do?

Marc: He would probably play Risen as well.

Thanks goes to Marc for his time and his candid responses. You can follow Marc Laidlaw’s feed at Not So Few Monstrosities.