Novel Approach: Laidlaw’s Younger Self Talks Half-Life

Marc Laidlaw posted a fascinating blog entry from a younger version of Laidlaw about the development of Half-Life from the narrative perspective. By “a younger version” I mean that it comes from his own hand but via a file timestamped the day after Half-Life was shipped and is thus far closer to the game’s… ground zero? than the Laidlaw of now.

I came to the blog post as someone who appreciates Half-Life as a PC gaming milestone but who doesn’t share that personal, emotional connection most of my colleagues have with its milestoneyness. I didn’t have the right combination of platform, context, social group and so on to quite hit its sweet spot (Ocarina of Time was my own personal horizon-exploding game). Instead I played bits of it years later, like watching a classic film and missing the myriad touches that in-the-moment would have signposted “GAME-CHANGER” over and over again.

But Laidlaw’s account is a really lovely read. One of those accounts that helps knit bits of the creative process together in a helpful way, but also which has those little jolts of “I hadn’t thought of it that way”. For example, there’s an account of how, initially, he looked at the basic structure of the game and saw the sort of world you get in a shared anthology, with authors using it to create these related but distinct stories, sharing elements of architecture but each a separate entity:

“There is some obligatory overlap of characters and casual reference to events in other episodes, but overall each chapter is a distinct and separate performance by an individual. So it was with Half-Life. There was an experimental portal device, several silos, some train tunnels, a nuclear reactor, and endless miles of corridors and air ducts. They were great sets, but it was not at all clear what kind of continuing drama could ever unfold against them. Half-Life was still an anthology, when what Valve really wanted to create was something with the coherence and unity of a novel.”

There’s also just something I really enjoy about reading perspectives other than from someone who has always worked in gaming. I like seeing how other disciplines interpret games and how people from other sectors can come in and find their niche/make a new niche in games.

“We tried out and discarded quite a few grand schemes. Some of you may remember, as I do, early talk about how there would be no bottlenecks in the game; how you would be able to run from one end to the other and all the way back again. This would have been a very easy feature to implement, given the nature of our transitions, but I was very relieved when we jettisoned this notion. Total freedom for the player would have meant a total loss of dramatic suspense. All narrative forms of drama, but especially horror, rely on pacing and rhythm. In horror timing is crucial. You have to set up your traps just so, and wait until your victim is precisely in position. There’s nothing worse than springing them a moment too soon or too late. This would have been virtually impossible to control in a nonlinear game. would have been choosing to throw all suspense right out the window. We really wanted players to have an artfully structured experience, and time and trial have basically proven that the most satisfying narratives are linear.”

If I keep posting bits I like I’ll just end up reposting the whole thing so I’ll just leave it at that and say it’s a good read for a coffee break. I got through one mug of the stuff and two ginger nut biscuits while I was reading.

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  1. Artea says:

    “I came to the blog post as someone who appreciates Half-Life as a PC gaming milestone but who doesn’t share that personal, emotional connection most of my colleagues have with its milestoneyness. I didn’t have the right combination of platform, context, social group and so on to quite hit its sweet spot (Ocarina of Time was my own personal horizon-exploding game). Instead I played bits of it years later, like watching a classic film and missing the myriad touches that in-the-moment would have signposted “GAME-CHANGER” over and over again.”

    There was nothing in Half-Life that was really a milestone. All the ‘innovations’ the game is routinely praised for had all been done about half a decade before in older first-person games, most obviously in System Shock. Half-Life owes its reputation more to good timing and marketing than any actual revolution in game design.

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      phuzz says:

      Had anyone else done the playable-intro thing before (ie the monorail ride at the start)?
      I still remember the first time I saw it, I assumed it was an animated cut scene, until my mate moved the mouse and the view shifted. Blew my tiny little mind.
      Also, I guess the level design wasn’t a milestone, but they were consistently good, in a way I don’t remember any other games of the time managing (Xen excluded).

      • laiwm says:

        I think that’s the key, it was *consistently* good in its level design, pacing and worldbuilding. Interactive environments, chatty NPCs and connected levels weren’t new, but it brought all those things together into something that, as a whole, felt very fresh. It’s really the same thing with Halo and Tomb Raider and other games that came to be “genre-defining” – they were the work of smart designers that picked the right tools from their toolbox to make their vision work, without reinventing every little thing.

      • Artea says:

        The monorail ride is a scripted real-time event, which had obviously been done before in first-person games. That sort of illustrates my point that people erroneously attribute innovation to the game where there is none. The reason why games prior to Half-Life didn’t start with a scenic tour is because they prioritized player agency and usually put the player immediately in control.

        As for level design, Doom, Quake, Unreal and the aforementioned System Shock all predate Half-Life and I’d argue that they have superior and more consistent level design that has stood the test of time better. That’s not to say Half-Life is not a good or inspired game, but I think its accessibility was the reason why the game ultimately became such a big deal.

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          phuzz says:

          “a scripted real-time event”
          Yes yes, that much is obvious, but am I right in thinking that it was the first time someone had tried to do something like that as the intro sequence of a game?
          Other games in ’98 were still doing pre-rendered (or pre-drawn in Thief’s case) intro cinematic, before you got dropped into the game.

          • jj2112 says:

            As far as I remember it was the first time I saw that. And I was playing games even before the Videopac/Magnavox came out (yes, I’m old).

    • Sizeable Dirk says:

      HL steals the Historical Importance spotlight a lot from other things.
      The breastbased health and rubber arm physiced Jurassic Park: Trespasser from the week before or the groin shot driven storytelling of (N64) Golden Eye a year earlier are hardly mentioned.

      • April March says:

        Yeah, Goldeneye is the big milestone for me. A lot of the things HL does, it does as well and in many cases does it better. However, I appreciate that it doesn’t take place in a single, giant connected place, and requires you to have dinosaur-like claws to play.

      • Josh W says:

        Breast based health? Autocorrect?

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      Head Bob says:

      Yes, and you could go back to any of those older games and probably find they everything they did was in some way prefigured by even older games. What Half Life did was to include all of those cool things *all at once*, and to a consistently high standard.

      • Sizeable Dirk says:

        So it was iterative, derivative or evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Someone else would’ve done it eventually.
        Like a combined VCR and DVD player.

        • RichSG says:

          I evolve, but I don’t ……. revolve.

        • benzoate says:

          I would be a little more generous, and say that it’s more like the iPhone. Or maybe a good summer blockbuster.

          Half Life took lots of ideas from other games but put them together in the correct sequence, at the right time. Which is actually really hard to do.

          A good summer movie is essentially getting an above average result in all parts of the movie. The script, acting, directing, special effects, action, jokes, everything has to be just above average. It doesn’t have to be great, but it can’t be great in some components and bad in others, it all has to be decent.

        • PseudoKnight says:

          Stop getting caught up in the word. No one on this page called it a revolution except people that were complaining that people call it a revolution. It’s mostly a straw man.

          Everything has influences. Every creator knows this. VCR has precursors. If a “revolution” is something with no precursors, there are no revolutions. Something can be hugely influential and still ultimately be derivative.

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      You need to look at it as a whole. As with most great works, if you break HL down to it’s constituent parts then yes you can say these individual pieces are all recognisable in games past, but the fact is only Half Life brought them together in that way, at that level of quality, tied up in a neat narrative bow. If it were that easy why has nobody been able to recreate it? Call of Duty came along with it’s more obvious innovations and the industry chose to copy them ad infinitum instead, the only FPS that has come close to recreating Half Life is Half Life 2, don’t you think that’s weird if its innovations are so obvious?

      • ThePuzzler says:

        A lot of what Half-Life did was copied by the Call of Duty family of games. First-person shooters tend to be maze/exploration (Doom, Bioshock 1), open-world (Far Cry series, Just Cause) or linear/scripted (Half-Life, Modern Warfare).

        The formula for the linear/scripted shooter is ‘set-piece, disguised corridor, set-piece, disguised corridor, set-piece…’. Half-Life might have been the first game to do this. It just disguises its corridors and varies its set-pieces better than the big-budget military shooters that followed.

    • ThePuzzler says:

      First game to combine well-executed first-person shooter gameplay with a strong linear narrative? (I never played original System Shock, so I don’t know if that counts.)

  2. Kefren says:

    “time and trial have basically proven that the most satisfying narratives are linear.”

    I’m not sure about that. Most of the time I give up on a game it’s because I feel like I’m being railroaded and having choice taken away from me (e.g. the Tomb Raider reboot). So the linear narrative in cases like that is the least satisfying. Likewise I’ve often had incredibly satisfying “narratives” evolve in games with very little imposed structure but lots of inter-related complex systems. Some of the “stories” I experienced (and created) that stuck with me were from games like Minecraft, 7 Days To Die etc. So the statement is an over-generalisation.

    • jomurph86 says:

      The statement was made in 1998. Don’t you think non-linearity only began fully coming into its own in the past decade?

      • Artea says:

        Fallout, System Shock and the Ultima games had all been released prior to 1998.

      • Frank says:

        As Artea pointed out, nonlinear games were already a thing at that point. Valve just didn’t want to make games like that.

        Here’s are quotes from an interview with several Valvers in 2006:

        Gabe Newell: “This is an argument I have with Warren Spector; he builds a game that you can play through six different times. […] if only one per cent of your customers see this cool thing that takes five per cent of your development budget, that’s not a good use of resources.”

        Robin Walker: “Playtesting drives a lot of this. Often, you’ll watch a playtest and something incredibly cool happens, and the first question you ask afterwards is how can we make sure all of our customers see that? They’ll say ‘the gunship nearly crashed on me when I shot it down and I had to jump to the side to dodge it and that was incredibly cool’. How can we make sure that happens to almost everyone?”

        link to

        I feel like most RPS readers know this already. Anyway, yes, things have changed in the last decade. Valve apparently now believe that single-player games, whether Hollywood-style or open-ended, are not their strong suit, for example.

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      Kitty says:

      Well, I think when people are talking about narratives in games they’re usually talking about direct storytelling more than emergent stories. But I think you hit the head on the nail there; people don’t it being obvious that there’s no real choice. Often it helps to mask the linearity somewhat through clever level design or similar – that was how Half-Life did it, for instance. Half-Life was a very linear game, but you don’t hear people complain about it so often because it wasn’t quite so hamfisted in its railroading, as far as I recall. Often, the illusion of choice is plenty enough to make it a more enjoyable experience from what I understand.

      • Kefren says:

        Yes, they did well at hiding the railroading. Possibly why I prefer HL1 to HL2 (along with the fact that the first game is a complete and satisfying story).

    • PseudoKnight says:

      While self-driven stories are great, they’re not narratives in the game. The “play” experienced with freedom is often greater, but if you want someone to tell you a story, linearity is generally superior. It controls pacing, among other things, that are key to providing an engaging story. It’s a significant challenge to do it with non-linear games, though I think some have pulled it off. They didn’t necessarily strengthen the narrative by being non-linear, though. However, it can strengthen the feeling of genuine discovery of things that add to the environmental story.

    • pepperfez says:

      Right, there’s some question-begging going on there. “Narrative” is being defined essentially as “developer-directed linear story” and then it’s presented as a discovery that it works best when it’s linear. Well, yeah, because you defined it that way!

  3. Neurotic says:

    Welp, 2016, and the backlash against Half Life is finally here. :P

    • Scripten says:

      Well, it is the cool thing to do. After all, we can more clearly see the lineage of gaming milestones. People who were there at the time, as the article said, likely understand the combination of elements that made HL what it was.

    • April March says:

      It’s been here all along! *waves cane*

  4. Monggerel says:

    Half-Life was the blueprint for a decade of singleplayer FPS games.

    Counter-Strike was the blueprint for gaming.


  5. Josh W says:

    Brilliant article yeah, I also found it interesting that they stripped the game apart and rebuilt it, which might seem like a recipe for Duke Nukem Forever-ing, but they used what they’d learned in that time about themselves, and how they worked, in order to try to make the second version of the game better.

    Not only does it make sense, it sounds like a great way to keep people invested in a project that needs a lot of reworking, even if you have to throw away things you love, you get to do it again better, in a context where people are respecting your skills.

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