Half-Life, Portal scribes detail the Valve process

GDC Austin 2009: Marc Laidlaw and Erik Wolpaw go over developer's approach to storytelling and how they don't always know what they're doing.

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Who Was There: Valve writers Marc Laidlaw and Erik Wolpaw discussed the company's approach to writing for games, with Microsoft Game Studios' Tom Abernathy moderating the panel.

Valve's storytelling process may not always be the most straightforward of approaches...

What They Talked About: Just when references to Portal's "The cake is a lie" seemed to be going out of style, GDC Austin 2009 brought it all back home with the "Having Your Cake and Eating It, Too" panel, a conversation with the Valve scribes behind Portal and Half-Life.

Laidlaw said that when he joined the developer he had little expertise in gaming and not much to offer besides a process that he used in writing novels. Writing a novel is a solitary process conveying a solitary vision, Laidlaw explained, but writing for games is collaborative almost from the start of development.

He noted that in novels or games, there comes a point in every project when the vision gets lost in the middle of the process. But where novelists have no other choice but to push through that wall on their own, Laidlaw said it's easier for a development team with more moving parts to become paralyzed. When he joined Valve during development of Half-Life, Laidlaw said his biggest contribution was simply in assuring the team that the problem was both common and surmountable.

Wolpaw retraced his own history, talking about moving from Double Fine Productions to Valve. He described the process of writing Psychonauts as "grueling" and an experience that left him happy never to write in the gaming industry again. He was freelancing in Minnesota when Gabe Newell made him a job offer, which he accepted with the intention of hanging around just long enough to get his friend a job there.

Wolpaw changed his mind about ditching Valve when he had some personal medical issues to deal with. He said he told Newell he was quitting because of the problems, at which point the Valve boss told him to take his time and get better while Valve continued paying him. When he came back to work some six months later, Wolpaw said he came in a bit lost about what he was supposed to be doing.

"But that's part of the process," Wolpaw said. "People show up at Valve not always with a completely clear picture of what they want to do. But that's part of the philosophy at Valve. We've never lost money by hiring a good person. They will find something to do."

Laidlaw also found the corporate culture at Valve pretty unique, from hour-long meetings about monsters to the encouragement from on high to play games during work and familiarize himself with the medium. While Valve lets its creative people take some time to get adjusted to the company and figure out exactly what it is they're going to do, Laidlaw said that can be a problem for some people used to more structure.

He also drew attention to the unstructured culture of Valve allowing people to work on the things best suited to them, even if it's not strictly in a job description. For example, Laidlaw said it's common for writers working on a project to feel they can express the nature of the project better than marketing can.

But where that might be idle griping at another company, Left 4 Dead 2 writer Chet Faliszek found out that wasn't the case at Valve. After talking about the marketing of the upcoming shooter, Faliszek found himself pulled into the marketing effort, an obligation that kept him from coming to Austin for the panel discussion.

That's not the only unique thing about development at Valve. Laidlaw said the company split its developers up into different teams for a period of time and told them simply to work on dream projects. And while he said the company's accountants still grumble about the exercise since they can't point to ways in which it produced anything for the company, Laidlaw added that the projects are still referred to regularly by the employees, whether as learning tools for new hires or reminders of things that did and didn't work.

Abernathy specified environmental storytelling--embedding the narrative in the game rather than breaking for a cutscene every few minutes--as a hallmark of Valve games, and asked for the origin of the practice. Laidlaw explained how it emerged from a simple discussion between a programmer and a level designer about including a train in the game.

Once the train was in the game, Laidlaw said the writers started thinking about other ways to use it, such as having the player take the train into work as an opening scene in the game. The idea stuck, the game had its signature introductory sequence that blurred the line between gameplay and cutscene, and the team started to think about integrating the story like that throughout the game.

As Wolpaw bluntly observed, "If someone's having sex and it's great, and you say, 'Hey, can you stop for a minute and let me read you this short story,' they're not going to be happy."

And while the writers get a lot of credit for the story, Laidlaw said a lot of the magic comes from the level designers. When the writers had finished the dialogue and scripting for the lab malfunction that kicks off the action in the original Half-Life, Laidlaw thought it was a pretty dull scene. But the level designers' expertise and understanding of the space they were working with and how to get the most impact out of the player brought it to life.

Moving to Portal, Abernathy asked Wolpaw about the moment a few rooms in where gamers first discover a panel out of place within a rusty room and messages scrawled on the wall. The revelation that he'd been looking at a facade was "one of the most perfect moments of environmental storytelling I'd ever seen," Abernathy said.

Wolpaw said he didn't actually remember it, but it might have been chalked up to the writing process behind Portal.

"You're sort of fighting the environment, so we gave the environment a voice," Wolpaw said.

One example of that was near the end of the game, where the sinister artificial intelligence GLaDOS tells players to ride a lift into a burning fire. Wolpaw said during play-testing that they found some gamers simply behaving like sheep, riding the platform to their deaths and then complaining about an unsatisfying end to the game. One way around that was to put more clues in the environment that there was more to the world than the facade, and ways to escape that fate.

Even with Valve's distinctive writing process, not everything goes perfectly. In talking about the character of Alyx from Half-Life 2, Wolpaw and Laidlaw both pointed out missteps made in the episodic add-ons to the game. Laidlaw said the character was a bit pushy in Half-Life 2: Episode One, prodding people to complete the next task too frequently, while Wolpaw brought up moments in Episode Two where she enthusiastically congratulates the player for mundane tasks like opening a door.

Quote: "We can't quite see where we're going, but we know there's something exciting there."--Laidlaw, on the writing process at Valve.

Takeaway: Valve is an unusual company. The studio trusts its employees and gives them plenty of leeway to do what they need for the greater good of the game. That approach has paid off so far not only with an exceptional team of writers, but with an entire studio that contributes to the storytelling process, from level designers to animators to programmers.

Discussion

99 comments
memitojeremy
memitojeremy

It would be nice it they actually made episodes. So that I can play a new episode every week 28 weeks a year like the TV shows. I like on-line play, but on-line play is more like a sport, and a storyline is more like a movie. I am always waiting for the next Half-life. And the integration of Portal's weapon/tool into a FPS.

LtReviews
LtReviews

Great to see valve has great writers at work, and acknowledges it is an important part of the game; CAPCOM, please take note of Valve, or higher better translaters- i'm not sure exactly what the problem is...

hurricaner
hurricaner

Valve makes great games but i was surprised to learn that the design process is really chaotic Still i love there games and i am currently waiting on Episode 3 and hopefully Portal 2

Dr_Notes
Dr_Notes

this is why i love valve.

arcsquad12
arcsquad12

say waht you will about Steam, but it is still the best Security System in gaming today. It is pretty much a bypass for other games DRM problems. Once a game is on an account, it is tethered to it. After that, Installation is just a click away.

califone
califone

Sounds like a great place to work.

Gamer4Iife
Gamer4Iife

*Yawn*, who cares? Episode 3, kthxbai. :P

JakeYourself
JakeYourself

it's funny looking at a company like valve that really gives their employees the space they need to be happy and enjoy what they do, and comparing it to the nazis at activision, that "want to take all the fun out of game making." Keep it up Valve, you guys are solid gold in my book.

thenephariouson
thenephariouson

I would love to see the release of Episode 3, complete with Half Lfe 'Death Match' as i loved it on PC, but was a little suprised that they left it out of the 'Orange Box'. Which ever way you cut it, when VALVe finally announce ANY infomation about Ep3 theres no doubt that it will be greeted by rapturous applause and lots of "at long last" comments (me included). I have also heard 'rumours' that they may include the Aperature (Portal gun) somewhere into the story line of Ep3, now that would be totaly amazing within itself.

cjasko94
cjasko94

To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of Valve...but the Half Life series just kicks as.s

shii666
shii666

Well, I am certainly saving the money that I was going to spend on Activision's next shooter for these guys' next shooter, they aren't dictators.

Phaselinear
Phaselinear

Half life series was very cooool. Very new, somewhat ahead of it's time.

Justinian103
Justinian103

Valve is amazing in everything they do. They are one of the few strong, standing tall totally INDEPENDENT studios left in the industry. They release AAA games and the production ethics of the company shines through in that.

santinegrete
santinegrete

@PodXCOM: You probably say that because you played Orange box in a PS3. Or just a troll: who else would enter and comment in a notice about a dev that hates?

brendanhunt1
brendanhunt1

i like valve, i dont like the fat guy though

TheClown24
TheClown24

the greatest games company ever, if anyone doubts that then they deserve to die

jaredcrazy3232
jaredcrazy3232

why would valve sell out? they are raking in the cash with steam to fund new projects.... they have become a publisher of sorts.

Qirexian
Qirexian

Brilliance is by nature chaotic. You can't measure it and you can't fit it into cubicles. The Valve people know it and they succeed by letting brilliance flourish.

Balaji1212
Balaji1212

Great Philosophy towards work Valve.

Oni
Oni

If Valve ever sells out to the likes of EA, I will be very sad.

Excedra
Excedra

Valve Rules!!!!!!!!!!! shutup PodXCOM!

Gooshnads
Gooshnads

I love how its so unorthodox... it's a brilliant way for brilliant minds to work Sometimes organizing everything is bad for creativity =P

CapsFan001
CapsFan001

This is definitely my dream job for if my music goes to the crapper.

Noutyboi
Noutyboi

heh... it's coming, believe me.

Neeoth
Neeoth

I am really suprised that the quote "Ep 3 is a lie" returned no results on a google search! So, hereby I say; Ep 3 is a lie. This final installment of an episodic game is so far over due that it can no longer be called an episode. My guess is that it will be out in 2012 or so, as a tech demo on the PS4/Xbox 720 (or whatever), so they can finetune the Source 2 before they release HL3. I am willing to put money on it...

thenephariouson
thenephariouson

VALVe are and have always been my favourite dev' (UBI' a very close second), the amount of TLC they pour into their projects is unparallelled and is also very apparent. Ultimately it would seem that their staff are treated with the same respect and given the same amount of TLC like that of a prize winning race horse, which in turn ensures that they give their best efforts each and every time. Its just a shame the same thing can't be said of other devs. They are also more than accutely aware that 'You dont bite the hand that feeds you', which again can't be said of other devs.

writer
writer

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Valen_Ca
Valen_Ca

Heres to hoping Valve doesn't sell out to EA like was rumoured a while back.

shafrox
shafrox

Wish i could work for these guys..

spOOoOOn
spOOoOOn

Man... Valve is the last true untainted bastion of uncompromising game quality. If you read this, I LOVE YOU GUYS!

finaleve
finaleve

This is one reason why I love Valve. If anyone ever noticed in the credits, they mainly just list the names and never specify their jobs. Everyone on the crew has a hand in something and it becomes a team effort and no one has to do one specific job. There's a lot of love in each game, and it shows.

morbid_man_guy
morbid_man_guy

I think valve is one of the rare companies out there that blatantly encourage their staff to put their hearts into the game. Some of my friends are game designers, and according to them nearly 100% of the time their job is just that, a job. It's not something they're willing to pour their heart and soul into because the company they work for is just out to get the money. Of course valve is out to get money too (they're a company) but their internal philosophy of wanting the developers to do what they love and love what they do I think is what sets valve apart, and is a large contributor to the depth of enjoyment experience by the gamers that play valve games. IMHO

NPX190
NPX190

I hope the "they don't always know what they're doing" in the GameSpot title posted here, does not refer to our current waiting time on Episode Three. I understand what they are doing on Episode Three so its the first Valve game to incorporate sign language by an npc. Since Valve keeps pulling it off in the gaming industry, we already know Valve will make the last part of the HL2 series a grand finale, right? @Vunacar, where did you get that info? No way Valve would be bought out, considering their sales on STEAM.

green_dominator
green_dominator

I kinda wish Episode 3 was done but I know valve..... They are making this something to remember, All their games are memorable, this article gives good insight into a company that is......honestly a good group of people :)

The_Free-Man
The_Free-Man

im glad valve is taking their time with ep 3 and did not release any information. I do not want it to be rushed or overhyped

Scottins
Scottins

Valve is an absolutly amazing company. They don't just make a game then move on to the next one. They udpate, add, and fix their games because those games are what their company is and they won't make anything but the best.

blacksaibot
blacksaibot

wow that bored me. again, I don't appreciate this being tagged as Ep3 "news"

Ice_man_1985
Ice_man_1985

best 2 logos i ever seen, valve and starbreeze

CANOFOWNAGE
CANOFOWNAGE

@WTFitsPauL Even if Valve updated TF2 on the consoles to the version of the pc it wouldnt be near as good. TF2 works much better with a 32 player limit. I have both pc and 360 versions btw.

brian_13un
brian_13un

Keep it up...... I think of it when will Half-Life 3 be announced ^_^ just kidding

Duke_51
Duke_51

@akdiuuuryttt The episodes are obviously not Half Life 3, that's why it says HALF LIFE 2 in big bold letters in all the titles...

WTFitsPauL
WTFitsPauL

Dear Valve, 1) Port All Your Games unto the PS3 & x360 2) Update Team Fortress 2 for the PS3 & x360 3) All your games must be Multiplatform

IXIWhistIXI
IXIWhistIXI

Valve games shouldn't be on any console for any other reason than free money from console gamers who are all to willing to spend much more than they need to for games. Valve makes fast paced fps games...I seriously cannot imagine how people play portal on anything other than the pc. Valve games just aren't the same on the 360. L4d is boring and dull, it plays nothing like the pc version where you're quickly snapping your view around to shoot and to make sure nothing is behind you. If you're complaining about valve games not on the ps3 perhaps you should consider buying a gaming PC. If you had the money for a ps3 (unless you JUST bought one) you should have the money for a decent to nice gaming PC. If you don't, you should re think what you're purchasing and not spend money so freely so you can avoid debt. For around 1k you can get a pc that will run circles around the consoles, and do all the great things PCs do. You will also get a lot more games with free updates, great steam deals, amazing modding tools for many games, and overall more game support via updates.

rock_solid
rock_solid

I once emailed Gabe and suggested Valve make a RTS