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.


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...
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.

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