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Valve Software Interview : Marc Laidlaw

Valve Software Interview : Marc Laidlaw

Written by John Yan on 10/27/2003 for
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A long time ago when the first Half-Life was about to hit the shelves and Gaming Nexus first started, I did an interview with Marc Laidlaw of Valve Software. Seeing as the second game is due to be out in the near future, I'd thought I catch up with Marc again to see how he's been doing since the first time. Rather than dwelve into the release date issues or that of having some code stolen, I'd thought it would be nice to actually get to know one of the people behind a highly anticipated game.

Gaming Nexus: For those who don't know you tell us a little bit about your background and what you did before Half-Life.

Marc Laidlaw: My background is as a writer-mainly of science fiction and horror, short stories and novels. I became interested in games while playing Myst, which struck me as an experience deeper and more involving than many books, and I quickly decided to light out for the territories to figure out how I could create stories in this new medium. Other games I played early on, which I found very influential in different ways, were Ecstatica, Raven’s Heretic and Hexen, and Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure. And Gadget, which was my entrée into working with game designers, as I was hired to extend the gameworld into a novel.

Gaming Nexus: From the looks on Amazon.com, the books of yours that are reviewed are really well received. Have you written any more novels or short stories in between games and if so which ones?

Marc Laidlaw: Since starting at Valve, I haven’t written any more novels, although when I first started writing about games I began planning a novel about the game industry…I’m still doing research for that. I’ve published a few stories in the last few years, but very few. I have been getting a lot of satisfaction out of writing for Half-Life 2, however.

Gaming Nexus: You were there from the beginnings of the company. Tell me what's it like seeing the company grow, expand, and become an important part of the PC gaming community.

Marc Laidlaw: It’s been fun to be part of Valve’s growth, and of course it’s an honor to have become part of such a creative, lively community. But I can also get nostalgic about the early days, when it was a smaller, close-knit, almost family-like group. The last five years have really flown by, from my point of view. It seems like only yesterday that we released HL1 and Team Fortress Classic, and watched the MODs start coming in, and started talking about what kind of things we’d like to do for a follow-up.

Gaming Nexus: Did you approach doing the story for the sequel any different than for the first game?

Marc Laidlaw: In the first game, I arrived midway through the project, and my job was mainly to take an existing story with many loose ends and arrange the pieces in such a way that they created a convincing illusion of narrative. The second time around, we tried to have an end in sight from the beginning. But of course, everything changes along the way, and you’re always surprised at where you end up.

Gaming Nexus: Did the experience of writing the first game teach you anything that you used to help you as you started on the second one?

Marc Laidlaw: I knew a lot more about game design going into the second game, and a lot more about how to prototype my ideas directly in the engine, which is the best way to work them out.

Gaming Nexus: Was it easier this time around writing on a universe and characters you were familiar with?

Marc Laidlaw: We didn’t really have a universe when we finished HL1. We had a single setting, Black Mesa, and that was it. So first we had to develop context for that setting. What we did have was a strong, iconic cast of characters who persisted outside the walls of Black Mesa. It was great fun to work with them again. I could write dialog for Dr. Kleiner till the stars go dim. It’s doubly fun because then my old friend Hal Robins records the lines, and they come out even better than I could have hoped.

Gaming Nexus: Without going into specific details of course, were there aspects that you had to leave out of the first game that you incorporated into the sequel?

Marc Laidlaw: There were some very specific sequences and characters we wanted in the first game, but had to cut for lack of time and resources. We had a major female character in mind, and a number of supporting female characters, and they obviously never made it into the first game despite Black Mesa being an Equal Opportunity Employer. It was a priority to make sure they were in the sequel.
[ED Note: I remember the first time I interviewed Marc and he mentioned this. I did find it rather humerous that being an Equal Opportunity Employer, the first game had no females wandering the halls]

Gaming Nexus: Were you ever limited in writing the story for the Half-Life because of the limitations of the engine? And with the new powerful Source engine, are you less confined in writing sequences that would not have been possible with the original engine? Or was that not even a factor when it comes to writing a story for the game?

Marc Laidlaw: I try not to think of engine limitations when I’m thinking about the story. It’s better to aim high and then see how far you get before you come back down to earth. The things that seem difficult to me might not be difficult to another person on the team. Plenty of editing happens when you are actually building the game-there’s no reason to limit yourself too early on. I just put the stuff out there and then, if it turns out to be impossible, make adjustments at the time.

Gaming Nexus: Tell me, what's the feeling like seeing the both Half-Life and Half-Life 2 gradually take shape over the years and seeing your story come to life on the computer screen.

Marc Laidlaw: It’s half discovery, and half recognition. Nothing ever ends up on the screen completely the way you envision it. When it does, there’s a moment of recognition, the satisfaction of seeing the vision realized, and then you quickly go on to enjoy the stuff you didn’t expect, the surprises. Working on the game, I am constantly surprised by things that others bring to the project. This is the best part of the design environment.

Gaming Nexus: Which was more fun, generating the story for the first game or Half-Life 2?

Marc Laidlaw: HL1 was fun because I was in an environment where I was continually learning new things, using my writing skills to navigate in this new terrain. HL2 has been, obviously, a slower process of creation…a lot more deliberate, and rewarding in very different ways. These things tend to be more fun in the later stages. The first part of game design is a lot of planning and writing design documents. The final stage is one of implementing, reworking, finding the fun. I think that’s the same for both projects. It was certainly true in writing novels-first drafts are painfully hard work, but by the time you’re into the final draft, it’s really enjoyable. You keep finding ways of making connections between the bits and pieces you’ve assembled. Assembling them is not always fun. But hooking them up is a thrill.

Gaming Nexus: What games do you like to play in your spare time other than the ones by Valve of course. :) Any all time favorites?

Marc Laidlaw: I most enjoy games that draw me into original, atmospheric worlds. Thief is probably my all-time favorite PC game. I am a devotee of Zelda in almost all its incarnations. I still play Animal Crossing on Friday nights when K.K. Slider is in town. Symphony of the Night and Um Lammer Jammy were my favorites for the first PlayStation. Ico and Fatal Frame are my favorite PS2 games, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequels. I have to say, Wind Waker spoiled me for other games. Since finishing that, I’ve been reading a lot of books, watching movies, and thinking about playing it through again.

I'd like to thank Doug Lombardi, Marc Laidlaw, and Valve Software for taking time out of their busy schedule to grant us this interview. Let's hope it won't be too much longer before the game is released so we can all enjoy the fruits of their labor. And be sure to also check out our E3 Half-Life 2 article.

Would you like to see the original interview with Marc that was posted on September 25, 1998? Well go to the next page!
This interview was originally posted on September, 25 1998. It took a little digging, but I found the original interview and I thought our readers would enjoy seeing how Marc responded to questions before the first Half-Life was out.

John Yan: Hi Marc, glad you could take time out of your busy schedule to do this interview.. Tell us a little bit about yourself.. What you do.. How long have you been in this business? Was it something you always wanted to do? What did you do before this?

Marc Laidlaw: My background (aside from the boring dayjob parts) is that of writer. I started writing when I was a kid, started selling professionally around 1978, with stories in Omni Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and plenty of other science fiction, horror and fantasy magazines and anthologies. I sold my first novel around 1984-it was called DAD'S NUKE and was basically a satiric response to cyberpunk. (I have a story in MIRRORSHADES, the quintessential cyberpunk anthology.)

My next novels were, in order, NEON LOTUS, KALIFORNIA, THE ORCHID EATER, and THE 37TH MANDALA. I also wrote a tie-in novel for the fantastic Japanese CD-ROM, GADGET, which was called THE THIRD FORCE: A NOVEL OF GADGET. By the time I wrote THE THIRD FORCE, I was starting to come heavily under the influence of computer games. I'd been hooked by Myst, and felt viscerally challenged to get into the field. I started writing game reviews for Wired Magazine, became known as the "game" guy there, and was offered an assignment to visit id Software and try to capture the corporate culture there. That turned into "The Egos at Id," which was a Wired cover story, and which tried to describe some of the process by which Quake was created. In the process of developing a huge respect for id, I also developed something of a creative relationship, and I was given the opportunity to write (anonymously) The Book of id, which was packaged with the id Anthology. My interest in games just kept growing and growing. In the same period when I was studying id, I was offered the Gadget assignment, went to Tokyo to meet the incredibly talented gang of surrealists at Synergy (which is now, incidentally, working with David Lynch on his game WOODCUTTERS FROM FIERY SHIPS), and wrote THE THIRD FORCE.

I just couldn't help getting sucked into the world of computer games-storygames-whatever you want to call them. In the process of writing the Book of id, I really got most interested in the creation of 3D maps-and Tim Willets turned me on to all the resources available on the Internet for budding level designers. I started building Quake maps (the only one I finished is called shoggoth.bsp, and you can find it in the usual sites on the Internet, although I can hardly bear to look at it now). When John Romero heard that I wanted to build levels and write for games, he offered me a position at ION Storm-an incredibly flattering offer, which I considered long and hard before deciding that I really didn't want to move to Dallas. But I'd heard whispering about this place that was starting up in the Seattle area, and I've always loved the Northwest best. My interest in level design led me to Worldcraft, which led me to Ben Morris, who led me to Valve. And when I first came up to see what they were doing, and met the team at Valve, everything just clicked. I can't say it's something I always wanted to do, because when I was in that formative state (my early teens), I was just reading tons and tons of horror and science fiction and fantasy, and when I wasn't reading it I was writing it.

Computer games didn't exist when I was at that "what I want to be when I grow up" stage. If I were a teen right now, I would almost certainly be obsessed with computer games the way I was obsessed with books. For most of the people I work with, games occupied the state in their adolescence that books occupied in mine. They talk about the games they played, the impact games had on them, key moments in their favorite games. I didn't play most of these games, myself, but I certainly understand the obsession and enthusiasm for stuff that is considered non-mainstream, unhealthy, junky...whatever. Plenty of my favorite books were originally published as pulps, and no one points to the work of H.P. Lovecraft for its moral value.

John Yan: Do you miss writing novels?

Marc Laidlaw: Writing is undeniably a huge part of my identity. However, I have always tended to let a bit of time pass between my big writing projects-partially because my really novel-worthy ideas are few and far between, and partially because I like to recharge and reinvent myself every time out. I tried like hell to be a chain-writer, and write one book after another, but I have never managed to pull that off. Even though my writing idol, Philip K. Dick, slapped them out with astonishing frequency, and I'm as big a fan of his slapdash insanity as I am of an iron-clad Cormac McCarthy paragraph. I have a lot of new learning going on right now; every portion of my brain is being utilized (perhaps even drained dry) on a daily basis. In my old job as legal secretary, I used to feel basically soulless and wasted 9 or 10 hours a day, and I'd wait for a little free time to actually use my imagination at the worn-out end of the day. And then I'd find I had nothing new to write about, no new experiences, nothing but the office job drudgery. So I really hope and expect that this all-involving experience of creating something truly new will pay off in my writing as well, when I get back to it. When I started my article about id, I thought that maybe someday I could use the research as the basis for a novel about the computer game industry...and that's still pretty much my plan. It's scary to think about starting another novel after this long away from the blank page, but it's also exciting. I have always written very very quickly once I get started. It's finding that starting place that is so difficult. There's no forcing it.

John Yan: What did you do as a legal secretary? What led you to that?

Marc Laidlaw: "Legal secretary" is simply the job that paid the most with the marketable business skills I had: i.e., the ability to type quickly, follow directions and maintain a sense of humor under horrible stress. I ended up working as a patent secretary, which was slightly less stressful than litigation, but ultimately pretty tedious.

On of our programmers, Yahn Bernier, was actually working as a patent lawyer not long ago; and one can hear sighs of relief coming from his office on an hourly basis. The jobs I had were simply the most effective way I could find of feeding my family.

John Yan: Have all the novels you written been in the science fiction genre? Would you like to write a novel one day with a different focus?

Marc Laidlaw: DAD'S NUKE is satiric science fiction. NEON LOTUS is futuristic Tibetan science fantasy. KALIFORNIA is satiric s.f. THE ORCHID EATER is a thriller about a psychotic eunuch. THE 37TH MANDALA is supernatural horror about a New Age charlatan, in the mode of Lovecraft. THE THIRD FORCE is just plain surreal-an excuse to play a bunch of my favorite Phil Dick riffs. All my novels differ fairly widely from one another. I like to write in all different styles, and cycle through a few favorite tones of voice (horrific, satiric, etc.). John Yan: Which novel of the many that you have written is your favorite, one that you recommened reading?

Marc Laidlaw: Well, the most personally gratifying of them (for me) is THE ORCHID EATER. but that's because it's a book I had tried to write for many years. When I'd done it, I felt I'd truly captured some of the fucked-up quality of being a teenager in the mid '70s. How so many teenagers make it to adulthood, I'll never know. Probably the most professionally accomplished of the books is THE 37TH MANDALA, although I'll never be as happy with it as I am with ORCHID EATER. I just bit off way too much. Still, there's stuff in there I'm very happy with. Horror is really my first love, and it's one of the few times I felt I might be making some kind of real contribution as a writer to a field that gave me so much...uh...so many weird fixations.

My wife's favorite book is KALIFORNIA, probably because it's got lots of quirky human characters in it. I think Hollywood has ripped off a lot of my stuff-like that CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD thing with Carrot Top. If you read KALIFORNIA you'll find a long section about this young guy who inherits his family's business and spends his time surfing around the seascraper. Carrot Top owes me, dude. Except, uh, no, please don't bother getting in touch with me. We'll let this one slide. Anyway, I figure Hollywood's scavengers will soon be fighting for the right of picking through our leavings, so maybe payback time is somewhere around the corner.

John Yan: What's the atmosphere like at Valve? How is it different from when you first started with the company and now that Half-Life is almost fully done?

Marc Laidlaw: Valve is just a blast. It is incredibly exciting to work with a team of uniformly talented, wildly inspired, and good-humored people. I've never been in the company of so many purely creative types on a daily basis; it is the most addictive experience imaginable. Writing is a solitary occupation, but I have always loved to collaborate, and this is a completely collaborative effort.

A large part of the last year has been about Valve figuring out how it's supposed to work. I have been through a few corporate reorganizations-from traumatic mergers to the subtler trauma of a small company turning into a large one. These are always incredibly stressful processes, and I'm sure that all start-up companies experience untold tension-even those that succeed. Valve is no exception. However, what has always more than compensated for the stress is the work itself, which remains challenging and invigorating. There are very few days that I don't wake up thinking something like, "Oh boy, I get to go to work today!" Also, the stress level at Valve has waned now that people are focused on finishing their work. I find for myself that I'm never more stressed than when I think I have no clear sense of what I'm supposed to do. We don't have that confusion right now. Everyone knows exactly what needs to be done and how much time they have to do it in. There is very little time for stress.

When I first got here, we were all working very hard to create something that no one had a clear picture of...that is, we all had visions, but they were distant ones, and it took time to build the shared vision. This meant a lot of work got discarded or transmuted into very different forms, and that was quite difficult-especially for those whose early work was apparently wasted. But revision is a large part of any process, and I think we're all starting to figure out which things we do best, and what roles we can most usefully play at Valve-at least for now. As we move beyond Half-Life, roles will undoubtedly change. But I think the overall vision of what Valve is about, and what kinds of games we want to create, will just get clearer and clearer.

John Yan: Is there any differences in writing a novel and doing writing for a computer game? Do you find one easier than the other?

Marc Laidlaw: There really aren't many similarities in the writing process. It's a team activity, purely collaborative. However, in a broad sense, any large creative project tends to share a lot of similarities. You start with a grand vision, sketch it out (or not) and quickly get bogged down in details. You come to believe that you will never reach the end of what you embarked on an endless span of time ago.

You lose inspiration and find it again on a daily basis. You have to have faith that it will all work out once you've learned what things belong in the work and what things do not. Consistency, atmosphere, rhythm and pacing, mood, surprising twists and revelations, irony and character...all these things are important in traditional forms of entertainment and I believe will be important in nontraditional forms. Although we're pioneering at the moment, someday this stuff will all seem quite staid and traditional. It's hypermodern storytelling...we are using all sorts of unconventional techniques to elicit time-honored human responses. Working very hard to get someone to jump out of his chair in terror is a worthwhile human endeavor.

John Yan: Do you want to see one of your novels developed into as a game? Movie perhaps?

Marc Laidlaw: Sure, but... I think novels should be novels, movies should be movies, and games should be games. Lots of games are based on ideas that would seem pretty stagnant as literature or film, and converting a novel to a game would probably take all the interest out of it. However, I have a few ideas that never seemed to work for a novel, but which might make a good background for a game. That might happen if I were too lazy to write the book and instead convinced a whole team of people to work it out for me, and then convinced a whole bunch of other people to play through it to see if it made sense; then maybe I'd hire a writer to novelize it.

John Yan: Half-Life's such an eagearly anticapted game and a big draw is the story and depth of the single player aspect of the game. Do you think the gaming crowd is getting tired of mindless shooters and wanting the story as well as the technology?

Marc Laidlaw: Well...like they say...if you've got crack in the house, you just can't be bothered to drive down to the wine store and pick up a bottle of Merlot. Doom and Quake and the id universe of games are endlessly addictive. They don't get by on subtlety or character development or plot but...they really don't need them. But there is only one id, in my opinion. Their formula works well for them. But everyone else should really find their own angle, something right for themselves. I expect lots of HL influence on future games, but I also expect that only Valve will really deliver the particular kind of thrills you'll get in Half-Life. I'd be happy if this game merely encouraged other developers to be more ambitious about figuring out some new thing they ought to do, instead of doing imitations.

John Yan: How many "drafts" did you go through before coming up with the final story line? Or was it a dynamic process where you came up with aspects as the game was being developed?

Marc Laidlaw: There were several specs, which is the closest thing we've had to an actual storyline. I've written a handful of synopses, and they change all the time. In fact the spec changes all the time, and I should probably go update it right now to reflect all the new stuff that was added last night. Which is to say that yes, it's totally dynamic. The level designers start with the idea of the story and how the map they're building fits into the grand scheme, and then they use their amazing magical level designer abilities to improvise and make it all real for a player. Did I mention that level design is my favorite part of the process?

John Yan: What aspects of Half-Life that you worked on are you most proud of?

Marc Laidlaw: Well, I think the story has come a long way since I got here. I am really happy with the way it starts slowly, with a train ride, without weapons, without conflict...instead with a sense of things on the verge of going wrong. I am really happy with the contrast between the beginning of the game and the REAL beginning of the game. I am happy that the whole game has gradually come to hang together, as a result of everyone (not myself only) continuing to say, the story is important to Valve, and we're going to make sure that it's an integral part of the maps and the art and all the design elements, and not something you can throw out in a teletype message during the installation and be done with it. Gabe Newell has continually hammered on the importance of story; I think that giving Half-Life an actual story is more important to Gabe than to anyone else here, myself included. This is crucial. If the owners of the company were not completely dedicated to the importance of the story, Half-Life probably wouldn't have one, and they wouldn't have hired me. I didn't come in and impose the idea of "let's have a story" on anyone here. They brought me in and said, "How can we make our story better?" In this sense, I am a tool. A fairly well-honed one, hopefully.

I put together a lot of the conversational sequences, in a very basic sense-that is, I assembled the entities to make characters speak in proper sequence, and then gave them to the designers to work into their maps. I wish I could say I had a physical level in the game, but I don't. I've prototyped a few little pieces to try out ideas, and then let the real artists build them and polish them up. I'm very proud, however, of the sequence just after the diasaster which will happen if you go back to look for the train that brought you in. I did that one-not the room itself, but what happens in it. It's nice to contribute one little visual element to the game. Next time out I hope to have more of an active hand in level design, but I'm really just a beginner in that regard. I'm a would-be level designer who rode in on my own professional writer coattails. So far I haven't fooled anyone here into thinking I'm an actual level designer, however.

John Yan: Are there some story elements you eliminated that you wished you hadn't because of certain reasons? Any that you are going to use in future products that didn't make it in Half Life?

Marc Laidlaw: There are quite a few story elements that went by the wayside-most of them we're probably better off without. But for a while we had a female character, Gordon's love interest, if you will-I still miss her and hope we'll be seeing her one day. There's a black version of Gordon around somewhere; some folks at Valve agitated to make him the main character; he was really cool, but the story would have been the same regardless of Gordon's ethnic background. Maybe you'll get to see him in deathmatch. We had really planned to fill the base with women and different ethnic groups, but memory constraints shot down that touch of realism: Right now there's a certain irony in a line you'll hear in the opening about Black Mesa being "an Equal Opportunity Employer." Most of the Black Mesa employees are actually produced in clone vats...or that's my theory anyway. Keeps personnel costs down if you can grow your own employees and then just drop them in an amino acid reclamation vat as they near retirement age. By the way, there are
women at the base, lots of women, but they all had this premonition and called in sick on Day One. That's probably why everything goes wrong.

I could fill a book with all the story elements we tried out and discarded. In fact, if I ever do write a Half-Life novel, it will probably include most of the elements we couldn't fit into the game.

John Yan: Thanks for your time again, and good luck on your future products. Maybe Carrot Top would read this one day and give you back some royalties. :) Any last words for those eagerly awaiting Half-Life?

Marc Laidlaw: They won't have long to wait.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

About Author

I've been reviewing products since 1997 and started out at Gaming Nexus. As one of the original writers, I was tapped to do action games and hardware. Nowadays, I work with a great group of folks on here to bring to you news and reviews on all things PC and consoles.

As for what I enjoy, I love action and survival games. I'm more of a PC gamer now than I used to be, but still enjoy the occasional console fair. Lately, I've been really playing a ton of retro games after building an arcade cabinet for myself and the kids. There's some old games I love to revisit and the cabinet really does a great job at bringing back that nostalgic feeling of going to the arcade.

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