Ten Years Ago: Half-Life Writer Marc Laidlaw

laidlaw.jpg Grubbing around for some original content to post on Kotaku this week, I came across some interviews I wrote for the now-defunct Videogamedesign.com - which, odd fact fans, was acquired by previous Kotaku guest blogger Geoff Keighley, and then seems to have blinked out of existence.

Luckily, I still have copies of the 1997-1998 chats with interesting game developers archived somewhere obscure, and I thought it might be fun to reprint highlights here on Kotaku, and compare and contrast them to what's happened to their careers since then - and how their statements have held up over time.

We'll start out with sci-fi author and Half-Life series guru Marc Laidlaw, whom I chatted to in late 1997, significantly before the game's November 1998 debut, and a few months after the writer got hired at Valve.What's your job on 'Half-Life' currently entail?

I'm the designated writer, which means I've been wrangling with a lot of story elements that existed in the game long before I got here, and helping reshape them into something with the structure and feel of an actual story-one's that not as obvious as it might appear on its face. For instance, we start with the Doom-style gimmick of the dimensional portal through which horrors are pouring. But...you can't just stop there. It was old when id did it, after all. Call it...a timeless theme. Anyway, you have to start looking for ways of handling these elements that no other designers would dream up.

I won't take credit for the basic story, but if you finish playing the game and feel like what just happened made a strange kind of sense, then I would hope that's because of some of the things I've been doing. In a creative group like the one at Valve, there's no shortage of great ideas, and it often seems to me that other folks come up with the really wild ideas and simply use me as a sounding board and to see if their wild notions can get worked into the story somehow. (As an aside, I was hired to get in early on the creation of Valve's mysterious yet-to-be announced Second Game, so I'll be taking more blame for that storyline.)

[As some students of history might know, that 'Second Game' was not Half-Life 2, but rather, as Laidlaw mentions in a 2003 interview with me: "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."]

Half-Life will rule because...

...Right now I am dying to see what the free-agent mappers do once they get their hands on the version of Worldcraft that ships with Half-Life. Our levels have to make sense as part of the Half-Life story. But when the mapping community gets to work on levels that don't have to abide by our conventions, and just get to employ Valve's bag of tricks, I predict a flood of absolutely insane maps. That should be fun!

[Lo and behold, what an embarrassment of riches, including Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, Day Of Defeat, and many more.]

Apparently, Capcom have hired George Romero to do the TV ads for "Resident Evil 2" in Japan. Which film-maker would be particularly suitable to film the ads for "Half-Life", if you could pick anyone?

Paul Verhoeven, if Terry Gilliam could sit in on the session. And if Jeunet et Caro would just stop talking French for a minute, then they could have the job.

[As far as I know, there's never really been an official filmed version of the Half-Life series, either in ads or longer form - though Valve did ask for feedback on a possible movie version a few years back. Probably wise.]

What was/is the attraction for you in making games?

I've been aching to do something pioneering. Storytelling is such an ancient form that it's rather hard to break new ground in terms of content-but presentation is a different matter. Our means of relaying stories keeps changing over the ages-from oral traditions to written glyphs and characters, to films and now...computer games.

I think we are now passing into something like the "silent movie" era of computer game storytelling. The opportunity for making classics is very exciting. Twenty-five years ago I was writing about and trying to envision forms of 3D entertainment in my earliest science fiction stories; now I'm actually working in a field that I liked to dream about before it existed.

What's the part of Half-Life that you're most proud of thinking up/designing?

ML: Right now, I'm happiest with our plans to turn the player into a real character in the game, without making a snarling asshole out of him. The player is going to be important-and not only as a target. He's going to feel he's doing things for a variety of good reasons, including sheer survival. As for things I had absolutely nothing to do with creating, I love the monsters. Half-Life contains more incredible creatures, with incredible creature behavior, than just about any science fiction movie or book I can think of. We could put together the best zoo in the universe.

[Looking back at this statement 10 years later, it's easy to see Laidlaw's sophisticated thinking helping make Valve one of the pioneers in this field - with Half-Life having sold 8 million copies in various forms, and "closest thing to a revolutionary step the genre has ever taken". Good job, Sir.]

Full Text Of 1997 Laidlaw Interview [GameGeekPeeks]


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