Interview: Marc Laidlaw, writer of Half-Life and DOTA2
Marc Laidlaw is best known as the writer of Half-Life but he started his career as a fiction writer, with his first parodic novel ‘Dad’s Nuke’ published in 1986. He grew up in Laguna Beach, California, but eventually settled in San Francisco, where he worked as a legal secretary. He discovered games through Myst, which persuaded him that this was his calling. He worked first on a tie-in novel for a game called Gadget, before joining Valve in 1998 as a writer and level designer. He’s since written all the Half-Life games, as well as DOTA2.
You joined games because it was a pioneering field, and you felt you could achieve something here because you didn’t feel you were going to be one of the greats. From the outside, it looks like you achieved it with your very first game. Is your aim now to top that, or something else?
My greatest aim would be to top myself each time. Of course, it’s weird to try to do better on each outing when the previous outings are already the game industry equivalent of mulch. I spent a lot of years working on Dota, which cannot be usefully compared at all to Half-Life; but from my point of view, what I was doing was a condensed form of the writing for Half-Life: Trying to come up with polished dialog, concentrated characters. It’s a totally different task when you’re doing that without narrative context, outside the creation of a scene. And somewhere after the first few dozen characters, it was hard to find any real sense of challenge, so I shifted my focus to helping put together a team of others who could do this.
I really thrive on variety. One of the problems I’ve had in my career as a writer was that I never wanted to do the thing that publishers pretty much demand if they are going to package you: I never wanted to write the same book twice, or the same kind of book, or any kind of sequel. It’s a little different in the game industry, where sequels have a legitimacy they don’t have in books or movies—in that games are often improved by iteration over time, so that sequels stand a real chance of being better than their progenitors. I cringe when I see a sequel to a perfectly good movie, but I get excited by the prospect of a sequel to a favorite game. But I’ll only get myself in trouble talking too much about sequels.
Well, taking of sequels, you’ve called Portal “the game equivalent of a perfect short story” and Portal 2, the game-equiv perfect novel. Is there anything left to do?
Everything. Games that are the game equivalent of a perfect game? Seriously though, every game is its own unique beast. Those are specifically games where elements of storytelling are paramount: The character of GLaDOS, the history of Aperture, a varied and creative supporting cast. And on top of these, an elegant and innovative game mechanic. Everything fit together as neatly as one of the puzzles. Since I didn’t work on these games, I can regard them with great admiration. But there’s an infinite number of other things games might attempt and pull off with something like perfection. That’s the unending lure of game design.
It’s funny you ended up in writing, given that you had early access to computing during the punchcard era of the ’70s. Do you ever regret not taking that further? Entering as a programmer at that point you could have been Bill Gates by now. Or were you scared of being Steve Ballmer?
Well, I wish I were wired to write code the same way I’m wired to write stories. I beat my head against this wall from time to time, but the wall shows no signs of crumbling, and all I end up doing is feeling concussed. My goal is to get to the point where I can code as a hobby. I’d like enough competence and confidence to make my own roguelike, and just tinker with it for the rest of my life, the way another hobbyist might go out to the woodshop and make cabinets—both as a way of relaxing, of being challenged, and of having something to show for it. It’d be sort of like having toymaking as a hobby. Something simple, fun, and tangible that other people can play. Writing stories is a bit like this. Actually, I probably shouldn’t have more hobbies that require me to sit at a computer. I should actually just get into woodworking.
When I spoke to Chet and Eric for the Portal 2 launch, many moons ago, they implied you were going mad from writing a ton of DOTA 2 barks. How many lines did you guys have to write? Are you still working on it? Will it ever end?
Dota was just me for a while, and then Ted Kosmatka joined me and we split the duties, and then we found a very good and clever writer named Kris Katz laboring away in the obscurity of Steam Support. This is one of those “promoted from the mailroom” kind of stories that seems like a cliché, but let me name just one of the characters Kris has written: Timbersaw. Need I go on? The other guys saw the madness in my eyes and stayed far away. But there were some surprising things about doing this many characters. Obviously the first thing I had to do was come up with a template that would serve us for years, and once that was done then it was just a matter of using it over and over and over again. I thought it would quickly get repetitive and we would soon start repeating ourselves. But that has not been the case. I think because the heroes are characters, we’ve always found something fresh in them, and it has remained fun to write for them. Even though I’ve moved away from the project, I still go back from time to time in to contribute, and some of the characters remain fun to revisit.
I see you’ve also been writing an exceptionally beautiful comic for DOTA. Was that an easy transition? Does the fantasy of DOTA feel as much of a natural home as the SF of Half-Life?
Half-Life was never a comfortable place, that’s one of the things that made it work. Most of the designers were fantasy geeks much more than SF fans, and everyone would probably have felt more at home in some watered-down D&D derivative. But because we were all a bit out of place in the science fiction setting, I think that kept us honest. We didn’t resort immediately to clichés and genre tropes, the way you’d do if you’re trying to recreate your favorite fantasy adventures.
Dota is much scarier in that regard, because you’re always right on the edge of the most generic crap; you’ve got to be very careful not to step in it. The biggest constraint on Dota’s world is that we didn’t originate it: It came from a crazy creative community, with a lot of impulses at work, a lot of emulation of favorite movies, books and games; a lot of wish fulfillment; and absolutely no consideration of consistency, origins, the sort of things you’d start with if you were building a world from scratch. So…this keeps you on your toes.
The comic came from an attempt to find a center for all this stuff. As an excuse to do pure narrative, it’s the most fun I’ve had at Valve. Teamed up with the brilliant Jim Murray, a few hours of work for me turned into months of labor for him.
But I’ve been writing comics since I was a kid; I wrote a few that were published in Creepy and Vampirella when I was in college, and wrote and drew some single page strips for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction some years ago. I’m pretty comfortable in this form. On one level, I’m a frustrated cartoonist. Which is any easier thing to be than a successful one. It is a lot of work—hard work. Having worked alongside Jim and Mike Oeming, I can tell you it is a lot of really hard work.
So, in our once-narrow circles you’re best known as the writer of Half-Life, but you started your career as a fiction writer ten years before with Dad’s Nuke. Do you ever regret that transition?
No way! I’d always be a writer whatever else I’m doing, but the writing has always been sporadic, and never seemed like it would get to the point where I could make a living at it. This meant I’d always be doing something as a day job. I envied my few writer friends (such as Rudy Rucker) who had careers in fields they were passionate about, but my jobs tended to be soulless clerical work. So when I discovered that I could work on games, this was when I finally felt I had found my path. I started off being able to apply the techniques I’d developed as a writer, but that was only the beginning.
It’s easy to feel, as a writer, that every story has been told—or at least that you’ve told every story you had to tell. But it’s inconceivable that we will ever hit this limit with games. The form is too protean. There are so many kinds of games. Something unique crops up almost every day. The stories being told through games tend to be very samey, as stories, but even that is changing…and honestly I’m not preoccupied with the story aspect of games. I don’t play games for the story. I like to work on games where I can tinker with storytelling techniques, but even that is not for the sake of pushing storytelling into games. It’s for the sake of developing new narrative tricks, regardless of the form…the same things that interest me when I’m telling a story for print.
What motivates you to write? What made writing the thing that you wanted to do? I know you met Ray Bradbury as a child – did he pass on the Holy Ghost when tousling your hair, or something more?
This goes back too far for me to nail down precisely. I was always a writer. It’s been my identity as far back as I can remember. I was writing stories, doing comics, plays, movies, from a young age. It’s just the way I’m wired—maybe it has something to do with my relationship to language, a love of words and even letters, the feeling I get as sentences flow from a pen, short-circuiting my conscious mind and magically appearing on paper…that sort of thing.
I started approaching it as a profession when I was about ten. I was vaguely aware there were these people called writers who created the books I loved. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest. I remember I sent them an article called “The Trials and Tribulations of a Twelve Year Old Writer” when I hadn’t even written much of anything yet, apart from that article. Writer’s Digest taught me all the formats I needed to know to start submitting stories to professional magazines, and I got right to work. I wrote and wrote and sent stuff in, got the usual batch of fifty or so rejection slips, and finally started selling stories in fanzines, and made my first couple of professional sales (to Omni Magazine, and to Ramsey Campbell) in my senior year of high school. So I got all the early years of struggle out of the way early.
Of course, at this age I had absolutely nothing original to write about. So the stories were absolute shit. I think the only stuff I did then that was any good was just where I found a kind of original voice and stuck with that. The satirical stuff tended to work better than the overwrought dramatic attempts.
There are four interesting authors that you’ve listed as influences in the past: John Brunner, Philip K Dick, John Sladek and Lord Dunsany. To me, with Stand on Zanzibar Brunner inadvertently showed that sufficiently prescient science fiction can become redundant. When I read it years ago, I was thrilled with his vision of the future; but now it seems like a period piece, because much of it has happened. Does that worry you about the worlds you create, that their impact will diminish? Is that just a threat to SF? And does the alt-history / steampunk model dodge that?
I kind of took the opposite approach at one point—I deliberately wrote stuff that felt topical, stuff that would self-destruct with the passage of time. Because it seemed pointless to try writing things that would live through the ages. Things that survive are random. Countless millions of masterpieces of early art are lost forever, but we’ll find a bone needle, a flint spearhead. In the future, plastic caps from aspirin bottles will outlast the works of whoever wins the Nobel Prize for literature. William Gibson wrote somewhere about the pleasure of poorly aged science fiction; you can take aesthetic pleasure from that in the same way that an old barn, with its weathered, peeled paint is more interesting to look at than a freshly painted prefab barn.
My novels that I wrote in the ‘80s and ‘90s are completely out of print and forgotten at this point, and if they were reissued, I fear they would seem embarrassingly dated; so I do have that example always in front of me when I work on new things. I don’t have to look very far to see how little impact most things I do have had. Games have this built-in obsolescence which you have to embrace. So much of it is out of one’s control. I try to do what engages me in that moment and not worry about whether there will eventually be a custodial infrastructure to revive and retain all the games I’ve ever worked on. I find all this stuff perversely satisfying. Even the fact that you can’t really play the original Half-Life anymore—it’s impossible to see it as it looked to the first players. Our way of seeing has changed. Textures of the ‘90s look totally different to us now. That’s cool!
Like Brunner, you had the luck to be reading Philip K. Dick as he was writing. Do we miss his innovative voice these days or did he say everything he needed to? What did you draw from him?
Phil Dick was quite an idiosyncratic presence when I first became aware of him. I mean, all the science fiction writers were these outrageous characters. They wrote about each other in a way where they were mythologizing one another. Asimov would write about Ellison, Ellison would write about himself. You could go to conventions and meet them. But I never met PKD. That said, the field is still full of characters—or those who will seem as if they were characters 30 years from now. Look at the more public personalities in the game industry…it’s a way more colorful and controversial than most of passed for controversy in the SF scene. I don’t know that we lack for innovative voices, though. Dick’s dilemma was that he was basically unknown, barely scraped together a living even writing multiple novels a year. There are other writers in the exact same position right now, doing remarkable work for which they may or may not ever be appreciated. The problem is, how do you find them?
Sladek is known for his sly satire. Do you try to insert that into your work?
Oh, I love Sladek. In high school we had to take sides in some arbitrary debate, and I remember I got up and read big chunks from “Snowshoes of the Gods”—his parody of Van Daniken and the Ancient Astronauts crap. (Yes, mocking Von Daniken has been a favored pastime since the early ‘70s.) I loved all his parodies. He wrote a great parody of PKD called “Solar Shoe Salesman.” I was going to say I’d love to write one solid piece of satire as good as the least of his books, but then I realized that Dad’s Nuke was probably as close as I’ll get. Sladek’s influence was still pretty strong on me back then.
The fantasy author Lord Dunsany is a very different author from the rest – He’s original, sure, but boy is he long-winded. What was your attraction to him?
Not sure where you get your Dunsany information…I read a lot of his stuff but I wouldn’t cite him as an influence or someone I particularly love. He’s got an important place in fantasy literature but I find his style a bit hard to approach. It was a big influence of Lovecraft and especially the Dreamland stories, and HPL’s Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath is one of my all time favorite novels, so that’s probably the biggest impact of Dunsany. But strangely…I just finished a draft of a longish story and one of my friends read it and mentioned that it reminded him of Dunsany. So maybe there’s more influence than I realized.
You’ve been writing short fantasy stories about the bard Gorlen for over 15 years now. What’s the story behind that? Will you ever issue a collection, so we actually get to read them?
I’ve been writing them a lot longer than that, it’s just that the early ones didn’t survive to see the light. In high school I wrote a fantasy novel called Mistress of Shadows, which was about this wandering bard character Gorlen who interrupts a ritual meant to turn back a tide of darkness that has gone from eating the stars to devouring the world… and since he messed up the ceremony, he now has to take care of it personally. So the priests chop a finger off and replace it with the stone finger of a gargoyle; and every time he turns from his quest, the stone spreads to claim more of his body. By the time he grudgingly saves the world, his whole hand is stone. The novel was his origin story, but at some point in my early 20s I threw it away, destroyed all the different versions. And then in my 30s I started thinking about the guy again, wondering what he was up to, where he’d be at if he were my age. So I picked up his story and started writing new chapters. It’s very episodic.
The original book was very much an imitation of my idol, Jack Vance, and especially his devious thief character, Cugel the Clever. So that influence is still very much evident in the stories. What Gorlen did for a while was simply track down the gargoyle, trying to get his finger back; and eventually he and the goyle named Spar teamed up to find the priest who worked the magic on the two of them. There are almost enough stories for a collection. I hope to do one eventually.
But books are slow. I’m not much one for self-publishing, and actual publishers are not interested. Most people know me for Half-Life, and this doesn’t translate to book sales. My fiction doesn’t have a following of the size that makes publishers eager to put out collections.
Similarly, your books are mostly out of print, which means new ones go for strangely large sums on Amazon. Have you ever thought of reissuing them?
If you’re spending more than a few pennies, you’re paying too much! I’ve bought copies occasionally so that I could get them scanned and OCR’d, which involves destroying them. I generally pay more for shipping than for the books themselves. I scanned them in a half-hearted first step to turning them into eBooks, but everything after the scan job is a lot of work, and generally I’d just rather write something new…or play a game.
Marc Laidlaw, thank you so much.