Valve: The Lost Interview

Director's cut: Extended chat with Half-Life's story man Marc Laidlaw

Earlier this week we brought you an interview with Valve Software's Marc Laidlaw - the man responsible for penning the Half-Life plot - from the latest issue of PC Zone. However, what originally appeared in print was an edited-down version of the interview the magazine conducted with Laidlaw, and below are the 'lost files' that never made the final cut. Read on...

Should you have missed it, you can read the transcript of PC Zone's interview that appeared in print here.

It's strange to say, but despite its aliens, portals and gravity gunning I've always felt that Half-Life has been a bit more grounded in reality than your Quake 4s or your Preys. Is that more your style as a writer, or am I just babbling?

Laidlaw: Successful continuation of Half-Life depends on a persistent sensitivity to the things that fit the stylistic conventions of the universe, and aggressive weeding out of things that don't - before they can get established. This isn't due solely or even mostly to me as a writer (although from time to time I step in and throw a track switch).

It's the result of the whole team continually working to keep the vision of the project fresh. We experiment with new additions to the mix; sometimes they blend in, sometimes they stand out horribly - at which point, it's obvious to almost everyone that we've got a bad fit. We do try to ground our visual designs deliberately in realistic detail, just as we try to ground our characters in human nature.

In books and movies there's a clear split between pure escapist science fiction and weightier efforts like 2001 or the work of Iain Banks. Would you say the same is true of games?

Marc Laidlaw: There is that, yes: contrast the swashbuckling planetary adventure style of Rogue Galaxy, for instance, with the Aspergerian experience of spaceflight in Eve Online. One is about gleefully waving cool weapons around, the other about brainy Machiavellian bargaining for spare afterburners.

But notice that for both Kubrick and Banks, sci-fi is only a portion of their output. Kubrick made historical dramas, war stories, thrillers, satires. Banks's non-genre novels outnumber his sci-fi books (my favourite Banks novel is Canal Dreams). I think as developers chew through all the obvious genre staples, we'll naturally see finer shading and more varied sci-fi scenarios.

But I'm also not sure the "clear split" is all that clear. Plenty of my favourite books and movies would fall somewhere in the middle-highly entertaining, fast paced, beautifully written, but also thought provoking, memorable, haunting. The medium that has most effectively colonised this middle ground is television. Games will get there eventually, but probably won't look any more like the games we're playing today than Half-Life 2 looks like Pong.

Is there something to be said for mad cackling villains, comedy robot sidekicks and dialogue that comprises lines like 'Fire war-rocket Ajax!'?

Laidlaw: It would be hard to speak out against such things, given our world's improbably high ratio of mad scientists to ordinary citizens. My co-writer Erik Wolpaw wrote a line that one of the citizens occasionally grumbles in Episode 1: "Sometimes I think everyone's a scientist but me."

If you're specifically talking about the broad comedy aspect of science fiction in some games, then I have nothing to say against it. Satire is where many a genre has reached its peak. For consistently original and inventive use of classic sci-fi ideas, it doesn't get much better than Red Dwarf.

Are there any sci-fi clichés that really make you cringe?

Laidlaw: As a childhood consumer of the stuff, I have a nostalgic connection to some of the most cringe-worthy. As far as using clichés in our games, it's all about deployment. Any old idea can be treated in a fresh new way.

In fact, we acknowledge a heavy dependence on sci-fi clichés in the Half-Life games - recycling them, gutting them, turning them inside out. It's always a happy moment when we figure out a way to take a hackneyed sci-fi idea and do something really new with it.