RPS Interview: Valve's Chet Faliszek
Meeting at a Left 4 Dead preview event in a goth club in Munich, your RPS correspondent sat down with Valve's Chet “The Other Half Of Old Man Murray” Faliszek to discuss the games he has been working on (Episode One and Two, Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead) and the state of Valve's gaming world generally. Both men had been awake since 5am and had been drinking “big boy beer” from the German alehouse.
RPS: I'm going to ask terrible questions because I'm totally braindead.
Faliszek: I'm going to give incoherent answers, so that might work out. I woke up at five this morning because of the time difference, now I'm AWAKE, I have to run around the block or something so I can fall asleep. You'll have to edit this up to make us both look smart.
RPS: Sure, okay. That's all I do, really.
Beyond the jump: Alyx's profanity, more brand new Left 4 Dead screenshots, and some other stuff.
RPS:Anyway, the intro we just had [of Left 4 Dead] had you pegged as “project lead”, so is that “a” project lead, or have you taken over from Michael Booth?
Faliszek: Writer. I'm helping out. We're so bad at titles. We were using that term here because explaining some complicated relationship for the purposes of this trip makes no sense. I mean, I've been with the same woman for fifteen years and I can't call her my “girlfriend” because it's a little more than that. Just like Valve and Turtle Rock, you know. We couldn't explain the relationship so we had to get married. [Turtle Rock founder] Michael Booth is still project lead, but he's just had kids so he has a lot to do right now. We told him to give up on his family, because I think we all know that's not important...
RPS: How is that marriage working out, since you guys are Seattle and Turtle Rock are in Orange County?
Faliszek: It's like living in the future. We have all this video-conferencing equipment, so we can talk and see each other, we can move cameras around and stuff. It's a weird thing. And a whole bunch of us go down there to do stuff at Turtle Rock, which is really hard. We have to hang out on the beach in our t-shirts... it's tough.
RPS: Mass migration from Seattle to that Valve studio in the sun?
Faliszek: No, Seattle summers are too beautiful. Maybe in the winter.
RPS: So anyway, what did you do so far at Valve, leading up to Left 4 Dead?
Faliszek: Well I basically started on Episode One working on the Alyx AI and speech. We took her from being kind of bitchy to being nice, because guys just don't respond well to being yelled at. I kept doing that for Episode Two. Then me and Erik [Wolpaw] started writing Team Fortress 2 and Erik went on to this game called Portal. That was okay. Not that great writing, but it was fun... Yeah, at Valve we just end up doing so many different things at that it's kind of hard to explain. That's why I get a different title here, because I kept marshalling people to work on it, or get help with something. When there was no one working on Left 4 Dead at Valve, and it was all going on at Turtle Rock I was in there helping communication, asking the questions we needed to ask and so on.
RPS: An organisational role, rather than writing...
Faliszek: There's a load of stuff going on with a game like Left 4 Dead, like the conversion to 360 and so on. We have Certain Affinity handling that, but we need to work with them to get everything in place the way we and Turtle Rock wanted it. Certain Affinity are a bunch of guys from Bungie that we hired exactly for that. They're making sure we're not just making the Xbox controller working with the game and leaving it at that.
RPS: Do you think gamers really “get” Left 4 Dead? The survivor stuff is pretty straightforward, but there's this whole asymmetric FPS thing going on... it's different.
Faliszek: When we describe it people say “yeah, we get the zombie game idea”, and then they actually play it and they say “oh, now we understand”. It's hard to translate that fact. It's a game where you know where your team-mates are and you know what they're doing, and you always have to be aware of them. More than any other game it has that thing where you have to work with the other players. When gamers get that they click and have the “oh wow” moment. That's what it's about: four guys trying to survive together. It's not about the zombie thing, or the horror, it's about these four characters.
RPS: It's not like a survival horror experience, though. It's more intense, less scary.
Faliszek: Yeah, I liken it to the final moments of Counter-Strike. It's that bit where you're the last one or two guys on the team and everyone is watching. If you screw up then everyone knows. In Team Fortress you can have a bad day and no one will really notice. You can be off somewhere spamming rockets and no one cares. But in Left 4 Dead you're always on stage. You throw a grenade into the middle of everyone and they're going to know it. That's the intensity of thing.
RPS: And the infected thing is a weird experience – you're just attacking the survivors, constantly. Hunting them...
Faliszek: The infected role is so different. It's like playing the spy in TF2. It takes a while to get a hang of, but once you're into it there's so much going on. It takes a certain mindset.
RPS: The sociopathic one...
Faliszek: Yeah, it's a little personality test. “Do you like to ruin other people's good times?”
RPS: But it's not like a griefing thing.
Faliszek: Well, it's the griefer's vent. If you're giving people a hard time as the infected then you're doing it right.
RPS: Yeah, that's tough to describe to people. I've been saying that it's something like the co-op sections of the original Aliens Versus Predator – that whole bunker defence thing – except people get to be buffed up aliens.
Faliszek: A lot of teamplay stuff comes up at Valve and Aliens is a good reference point for what is exciting about group combat. We don't have a little girl, but they mostly come out at night, mostly.
RPS: There's no daylight map, is there?
Faliszek: No, you're travelling at night to avoid the infected. They're still humans, so the idea is that they don't see well in the dark.
RPS: So what has happened in the year since I last played Left 4 Dead?
Faliszek: Oh, nothing.
RPS: Okay. That wraps it up.
Faliszek: Ha, well there's our whole crazy process of playtesting, bringing in outside testers, iterating again and again. It takes it down a load of paths that don't pan out. And then there's some other stuff we want to do in terms of develop UI and achievements. I mean, with Valve we don't tend to set a date and then try and make that date, we set a goal for the kind of game we want to make and then work towards that. We know roughly what we want the end product to be, we hit that, and keep experimenting. So over the year there's been a number of iterations, loads of art, and plenty of experimentation.
RPS: Does working on a bunch of games at the same time mean that you get distracted as a team? Does the Valve collective attention end up getting hooked on one game and slowing the development of another?
Faliszek: Here I'm lucky enough just to be on Left 4 Dead until it ships, but for the Orange Box we were all doing a lot of stuff, and it got a little hard. It was a different experience, you didn't get bored. I mean writers like you know this: you think of one thing, then jump to something else. And we got to do that in making games, we had multiple threads to work on. It's really exciting, everyone should try it.
RPS: We hear a lot about how much Valve playtest internally, but with all that going on are you getting much time to play stuff that isn't a Valve game?
Faliszek: Oh yeah! Oh yeah. Check my Steam stats. I'm loving Call of Duty 4, did you play that?
RPS: Yeah, it's strong.
Faliszek: The Call Of Duty games always seem to mess it up in the first couple of hours, but Four has got me hooked. It's throwing all this new stuff at me and the end is big over-the-top cinematic showdown. It's awesome. That is what I want from a game. I'm going to start playing Stalker too, but I've not formed an opinion on that.
RPS: I won't talk about Stalker, lest I rant. Broken and so good.
Faliszek: Yeah, there's so much this year. Crysis is another one I'm playing. But I'm still on Civ4 most of the time. Oh and Peggle. We're all on Peggle, right? All that matters is that Peggle Nights is coming out! Who has the inside information on that?
RPS: We've totally failed to get any more information about that really, although there's some stuff in a Q&A we just did, which I haven't read yet.
Faliszek: If you ever want to get information from people it's best to write a letter starting, “Don't you know who I am?” I find that works.
RPS: Yes, pro-tip there for our readers. Anyway, how are you guys feeling about the changes ahead for TF2?
Faliszek: Awesome! Robin Walker is a gaming God, according to PC Gamer [US] anyway. These guys play a lot and they know what they're doing. I mean you see this stuff and react to it, but... did you ever see that painting guy, Bob Ross?
Faliszek: Well it's like that. He's painting and puts this huge black splat in and you're all, “Oh, you've totally ruined it now,” but then suddenly it's a painting of a duck. It's the same with TF2. The changes end up making sense, even if you don't get it right away. I have total faith.
RPS: How do you feel about Portal not getting nominated for the Writer's Guild Award things?
Faliszek: You have to be a member of the guild to get involved in this stuff, really. Erik Wolpaw wrote Portal, but we're not usually specific like that. We don't come out with the credits, but I think we had to in that case. He's to blame. But it doesn't matter.
RPS: Do you not want to be recognised?
Faliszek: Do I want to be in the union? No. I like unions, but I don't want to be in the writer's union. Erik and I have always played games and always cared about them. I've been caring about games “professionally” for ten years or more. We get it. We know what you can do with it. We know what's cool about it. You talk to a lot of people, like Hollywood people, and they just don't understand what you can do with games. They don't have the right mentality. Their stories aren't like that. You tell them you're going to tell a story about being trapped in a test chamber, and they don't think you can do that in a game... Not getting recognition? Who cares! We want to win an award for drinking Mountain Dew. We drink a whole lot. That needs recognition.
RPS: Do you have your own fridge? Like a personal refrigerator?
Faliszek: I moved upstairs, nearer the fridge. Fridge access is easy.
RPS: I ask because Epic have their own refrigerators, under their desks. Cliffy B drinks a lot of cold bottled water.
Faliszek: Oh God, going to the fridge is keeping me alive. I can't do without that journey.
RPS: Hmm. Anyway, should games and movies never work together?
Faliszek: We've never had a Valve property turned into a movie. I think that's important. We've all seen what has happened – what Uwe Boll did in destroying anything we ever liked about Alone In The Dark or whatever. But there shouldn't be a disconnect between games and writing. Look at Team Fortress, you might not think that a game like that needs writing to set it up, but you put all that in and people love the characters, and suddenly they want to see them in the shorts, they want to see them in other things. It's an organic growth – way better than some idiot running off and making a big budget movie that trashes the original idea.
RPS: The Team Fortress 2 shorts are still coming?
Faliszek: Sure, and we'll do something like that for Left 4 Dead. We have a bunch of guys working on it. We're hooked on it. They're too funny. Speaking as someone who doesn't actually have to do that work, I'd say that they're totally hilarious. Yeah, I'm sure the team don't think so. It's a long slog to get the funny.
[At this point I manage to turn off my Dictaphone without realising it and lose ten minutes of chat. The subjects covered included the fact that PC Gamer US and PC Gamer UK never actually got round to playing their grudge match of Team Fortress 2 [although they later did, with PC Gamer UK losing], and the fact that the guys who play World In Conflict in the Valve office are too scary for the likes of Faliszek to dare dabble in the game. We also further discussed games that Faliszek has been playing, including Company Of Heroes. Faliszek noted that Company Of Heroes had the most awesome array of profanity of any games in modern times, of which he was somewhat jealous. There was no swearing in Team Fortress 2 on release, although they had considered it for months beforehand... I went on to talk about cruelty in games, the Something Awful Goons, Second Life, and Eve Online. I warn Faliszek never to be tempted by excited-sounding Eve editorial, and explain the horrors of my ongoing three year obsession with the game. Eventually I realise my mistake and the recording resumes with Chet saying something about cock-fighting.]
Faliszek: ...and then we watched our first video of cock-fighting, and it was so utterly repulsive. Just cruel and repulsive. Oh man!
RPS: It's kind of weird that “mature themes in games” is still such an issue, after years and years of debate and media nonsense. You'd have thought people who have got past that now, like we dropped the whole video-nasty debate in the 1980s.
Faliszek: Yeah, but mature in videogames isn't the adult thing, it's the kid thing, right? It's the smut. The mature ratings often get given out to games because the games are smutty or just doing something stupid. It's not like games are coming out with themes that “the kids can't handle”, most of the time they're just being adolescent. Of course the whole Fox News thing is pretty weird...
RPS: The US seems to have an extra hang up about both verbal profanity and sex that is lost on Europeans. Swearing particularly, I think, gets an easier ride in the UK, although maybe not sex.
Faliszek: Okay, but there's gratuitous use of swearing and there's swearing that makes sense in the right context. Like in Left4Dead, there's a tonne of swearing – when the old guy is ripping off some grumpy old line you're okay with it. You go, “Okay, that suits the situation.”
RPS: I was too busy killing zombies to notice any swearing.
Faliszek: It's there. We do a lot of swearing. Even Alyx swears.
RPS: Alyx does not swear!
Faliszek: Sure she does. I can't tell you where.
RPS: Does she really swear?
Faliszek: Yeah, I mean we actually had her say something much worse, but it just didn't fit. She's cool because she's this character you write stuff for and instantly know who she is and what's appropriate. When we're doing the voices we sit there with the script and think, “Oh I hope these guys can hold the song!” But then you actually listen and the characters end up not quite being who you think they're going to be. We rewrote Half-Life and Left 4 Dead characters on the fly, depending on the voice actor. The old guy [in Left 4 Dead] was so perfect, he does radio theatre, he just nailed that first time and we were writing lines there in studio for him to say. Others had to change a little bit as we worked on it, like Zoe. At Valve all the writers are there for the voice recording sessions. Any animators who want to come along and Bill Van Buren, who directs the voice acting, all sit in and go over it all. You come in with an idea of how you want it to be, but then you hear the voice acting and realise that one person can really do something well, and change it accordingly. With Left 4 Dead we recorded so much audio, we just went crazy because it was so good.
RPS: Do you think audio now is finding its feet within games? I mean, sound guys suddenly have near unlimited resources...
Faliszek: Yeah, you see it in things like career actors coming in to record voices for games. These guys really get it, and I think even the studios are starting to get the idea that having programmer number three doing the voice of your space marine doesn't work. There's only so far you can go without paying attention to this stuff and spending time on it.
RPS: Would you say Valve spends a lot of time on audio?
Faliszek: Well when we come back from the recording studio we have this ungodly amount of audio. With nine characters in Team Fortress 2 and around three hours of audio for each guy, well that's 27 hours of audio. We set it up so that someone owns each character and they listen through the audio and pick out the stuff that's best for that character. We try to do it straight after the session so you still have a good grasp on it. Then we plough through it and hope that the person who is working on it knows where it should fit.
RPS: And that's just the voices, there's so much other material there with whirrs and clicks and explosions.
Faliszek: Sure, and we have a bunch of sound guys working to make that stuff for Left 4 Dead.
RPS: Talking of sound guys, is there some kind of Wilhelm Scream for game audio? Shotgun noise number 3?
Faliszek: The classic. Well actually the sound guys are like anyone else – they want to be creative. And gamers notice that – they'll instantly be all, “Oh my God those footsteps are from Counter-Strike!” So people make a lot of different footsteps these days. We're not using the '90s footsteps any more, no siree Bob! The sound guys want to push things, they don't want to copy and paste. Kelly Thorton is doing the footsteps for Left 4 Dead, and he did those for Counter-Strike, and for Team Fortress 2, and he's not doing the same footsteps. We don't pay him to just copy the files into the next game, although we did use old footsteps when we first showed the game. They were Counter-Strike footsteps, I think.
RPS: Footsteps seem to come up a lot in game audio discussion. I interviewed Thief audio guy Eric Brosius a while back and “footsteps as audio cues” was a hot topic.
Falisek: It's always a hot topic. We'll do a press release about Valve's footsteps next week.
RPS: Do the Left 4 Dead zombies get disturbed by noises, say a loud footstep?
Faliszek: They have different states. The wandering infected have different states – they're still partly human, so they're going to get tired and sit down. They're not going to be quite so ready to attack, but then there are others moving around without looking for you deliberately. Then there's the boss infected, and they're actively seeking you out, either as players or AI. They have no humanity left and all they want is to punish the survivors for their humanity. The wandering infected are a little more passive, because they're still partly human.
RPS: So you've been profiling the psychologies of your various zombies?
Faliszek: Mike Booth wanders around thinking Zombie thoughts. He's quite often, “MoooooaAARRGH.”
RPS: And yet no brain eating.
Faliszek: They don't actually eat your brains.
RPS: Is that Valve's general position on zombies? No brain eating?
Faliszek: Oh no, I mean it's just our zombies that don't eat brains. The Romero movie zombies certainly do. Revenge Of The Dead, that's the brain-eating film. Punk rock brain eating movie.
RPS: I missed that one. My zombie knowledge is poor.
Faliszek: I've seen them all.
RPS: My zombie film experience is pretty lame. I'm right there with Evil Dead, or Body Snatchers, but classic zombie...
Faliszek: Geez. I don't know if I should be talking to you about that. I feel like we should have given you zombie tasks to select the right Rock, Paper, Shotgun guy for the job.
RPS: John would win, he's strong on the shambling.
Faliszek: Shambling skills are cool to have.
RPS: And with that, let's shamble to the bar.
Faliszek: More beer. And don't forget to tell your readers how pretty I am.