Notes from the Lambda Complex
October 3, 2016 12:30 PM   Subscribe

At the end of the process I ended up with a stack of 3.5” floppies, so I bought an external floppy drive to see if there was anything on them worth saving. Mostly they held back-ups of old manuscripts and story fragments from before I joined Valve, but on one disk I found several documents from the summer of 1998, late in Half-Life 1’s development, when I’d been working on the game for a year. - Novelist Marc Laidlaw unearths his notes from his time at the Lambda Complex, including an extensive piece on writing Half Life and afterthoughts on having shipped it.
posted by Artw (32 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
just as the sun was setting on Kirkland, Gabe Newell took a crowbar to a headcrab pinata

I'm not a gamer or crazed enough coder probably but sometimes I just kick myself for not pushing into that industry...
posted by sammyo at 12:39 PM on October 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Now kicking myself for not using the title "Anomalous Materials".
posted by Artw at 12:56 PM on October 3, 2016 [15 favorites]


I'm not a gamer or crazed enough coder probably but sometimes I just kick myself for not pushing into that industry...

I'm not sure the headcrab piñatas make up for getting much lower pay, on average, than other programmers of similar skill. Nor the crunch time. (Which thankfully the industry seems to be backing away from now, but it was a huge problem in the mid-oughts.)

The headcrab piñatas are neat, though.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:22 PM on October 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


Dig more, Marc. Maybe you can find Half-Life 3.
posted by Splunge at 1:31 PM on October 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


Yeah, if you're lucky you get to do cool projects, but you'll almost assuredly be working 70-hour weeks for bro-ey bro-down brotenders bro-ing their bro-eyness all over the broscape. To be fair, most Silicon Valley dev jobs sound that way to me though. Dream jobs are good for resumes and absolute shit for well-being.
posted by middleclasstool at 2:20 PM on October 3, 2016 [7 favorites]


(This is good, though.)
posted by middleclasstool at 2:21 PM on October 3, 2016


The G-Man is [REDACTED].
posted by Sebmojo at 2:24 PM on October 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


To be fair, most Silicon Valley dev jobs sound that way to me though.

Truth. But, if you're gonna have to put up with the bullshit either way, you might as well get paid better for it.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:28 PM on October 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Did we kill it?
posted by brundlefly at 3:04 PM on October 3, 2016


The Writing Half Life article is up at Polygon now.
posted by Artw at 3:15 PM on October 3, 2016


October 3, 2016 3:30 PM
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 3:29 PM on October 3, 2016 [12 favorites]


I was also a champion of avoiding third person cut-scenes and cinematics altogether.

Possibly Laidlaw's most important contribution to Half-Life and gaming in general.
posted by straight at 3:55 PM on October 3, 2016 [6 favorites]


Half Life doesn't really have much of a story, particularly if you compare it to the story of a good book or a good movie.

What Half Life did far better than any game that came before was create a convincing place, a place where scary, exciting, dangerous, cool stuff was happening and had happened.

One of Half-Life's key innovations that really plays to the strengths and limitations of video games is that Gordon Freemon isn't really a protagonist. Gordon / the player is one of hundreds of people caught up in a catastrophe and the various events related to that catastrophe. You mostly only see glimpses from a distance of these events and the characters driving them, and you make your way through the results and fallout of the events on unprecedentedly realistic and recognizable environments. All this gives you a very convincing sense that real stuff is happening in a real place, even if you can't completely tell what's going on.

It's the sort of experience video games can do better than any other medium, and I'm not sure that "story" is the right word for it. In fact I think it is usually worse the more developers try to push it to be more like what would be a good story in a movie or book.
posted by straight at 4:41 PM on October 3, 2016 [7 favorites]


I think he can maybe also take some credit for making halflife classy. That opening trainride, measured and chill. The understated chapter titles, with their elegant double meanings. The fonts.

It's easy enough to forget in todays indy hipster nirvana that the baseline for FPS when Halflife came out was something like Sin, bottom of the barrel culture-scrapings for hormone-addled teen boys.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:44 PM on October 3, 2016 [11 favorites]


Half-Life was a pioneer of "environmental storytelling," which simply means designing a place where something has happened and you can figure out by observation what happened. Half-Life's excellence in environmental storytelling is mostly about making the player feel clever and/or surprised to figure out what happened rather than about the thing that happened being itself an interesting story.
posted by straight at 4:48 PM on October 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


Yes, Sebmojo. At least among FPS games, subtlety was also one of Half-Life's significant innovations.
posted by straight at 4:50 PM on October 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


In fact I think it is usually worse the more developers try to push it to be more like what would be a good story in a movie or book.

Which is a mistake the HL2 Episodes ultimately made, I think, which might partly explain why it's been so long without an Episode 3 or Half-Life 3. Perhaps somebody noticed they were strayed from what made HL1 great, got too invested in Freeman specifically, arguably crawled up their own asses a bit. So they decided to pull back until they could capture the spark again. Seems like something Valve would do.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:25 PM on October 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


TBH I think they pulled back to the point where it's never happening and now their focus is permanently shifted away from singleplayer.
posted by Artw at 5:46 PM on October 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


Perhaps somebody noticed they were strayed from what made HL1 great, got too invested in Freeman specifically, arguably crawled up their own asses a bit.

I never played HL1. HL2 was extraordinary, but it was a little weird that everywhere I went, embattled strangers (and aliens) were treating me like a rock star. The game even provided me with a fawning yet chaste ultimate Cool Girl girlfriend in Alyx Vance, and eventually a kick-ass muscle car. Don't get me wrong, it's one of my favorite games, but the intelligence and breadth of the world was sometimes undermined by the apparent gamer-wish-fulfillment-pandering factor. (Then again, it's a first person shooter where you don't even have a gun for the first three chapters. How awesome is that.)
posted by ejs at 6:40 PM on October 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


"REDACTED"?!
posted by rmd1023 at 6:55 PM on October 3, 2016


What Half Life did far better than any game that came before was create a convincing place, a place where scary, exciting, dangerous, cool stuff was happening and had happened.
I hate to nitpick, but not "far better", just "better".

Duke Nukem 3D, years earlier, beat them to "convincing place" - it may have been the first 3D (okay, 2.5D) shooter where, instead of being able to accurately describe every level as "a maze of vaguely sci-fi/fantasy corridors and rooms", it made more sense to describe a level as "a movie theater", or "a sushi restaurant".

Unreal managed that too, and added "scary, exciting, dangerous, cool stuff was happening and had happened", several months before Half Life came out. It was the first game I recall playing where the atmosphere was excellent enough that they could put you through an entire level and a half with no enemies to fight, and that was okay.

IMHO, what made Half Life stick in the culture was two things:

1. It had everything, and no other game at the time did. You could play Unreal, which had a fantastic single player game and a lousy multiplayer. You could play Quake 2, which had a lousy single player game and a fantastic multiplayer. Or you could play Half Life, which had a single player game nearly as good as Unreal plus a multiplayer game nearly as good as Quake 2. It's a lot easier to be a fan of a brand when it has nothing to apologize for.

2. Half Life 2. Also evolutionary, not revolutionary, but possibly the best first person shooter in history when it was released, followed by episodes that kept it in mindshare for years and years afterward.
posted by roystgnr at 7:26 PM on October 3, 2016


TBH I think they pulled back to the point where it's never happening and now their focus is permanently shifted away from singleplayer.


I guess, although I can't think of a single thing they could to that would establish their Vive headset better than a VR only Half Life 3. It's still a sort of perfect application for VR and that brand of environmental storytelling in general, and I remain a little surprised they haven't done it yet.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 9:12 PM on October 3, 2016


I would press the point that Half-Life did a "far better" job of creating a convincing place than Duke Nukem 3D or Unreal, largely because of that opening tram ride. It establishes Black Mesa as a single, coherent location. When you start the game, you have a sense of how deep underground you are and how far you have to go to reach the surface. Duke & Unreal did a few things to give some feel of continuity from one level to the next, but they still felt very much like discrete levels with no sense of overall scale.

Half-Life also had various glimpses of human beings running around doing and saying things, sometimes interacting with Gordon, sometimes completely ignoring him, that was an important part of that verisimilitude. And Half-Life introduced the trick of having the soldiers talk about what they were doing and what they thought Gordon was doing, which created a surprisingly convincing illusion of intelligence even though their actual AI wasn't really much better than enemies in other games.
posted by straight at 9:25 PM on October 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


the intelligence and breadth of the world was sometimes undermined by the apparent gamer-wish-fulfillment-pandering factor

I think that's one of the consequences of revising everything around repeated player testing. For instance here's a few bits quotes from the Orange Box developer commentary about the design of Alyx's character:
To convey a sense of urgency, we originally designed Alyx to nag the player pretty frequently. She’d say things like ‘Hurry up!’ and ‘Keep moving!’ Whether or not this created a sense of urgency is debatable. But after about three minutes of this, the one thing it definitely did was make the player hate Alyx. This was one of the observations that eventually led us to switch Alyx from generally leading players to almost always following. Through playtesting we discovered that players much preferred to set the pace themselves and that they especially disliked virtually any hint of bossiness from Alyx.

If you don’t like Alyx, you’re not going to have much fun with Episode 1. So Alyx being likeable was one of our most crucial design goals. Little moments like the Zombine joke are designed to make Alyx more endearing. Since we like to multitask, it also had the practical purpose of introducing a new monster. The success of the scene relied on a combination of dialog, voice acting, and animation. Surprisingly, lighting was really important too. Under red light, Alyx's self-deprecating groan looked more like she was sneering at the player for not getting the joke. Changing the lighting to blue and then adjusting the direction of the light so that it changed the shadows on her face fixed the problem.
posted by straight at 9:41 PM on October 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


An abandoned wheelchair at the end of a pier (HL2, along Highway 17?) really established in my mind what environmental storytelling is about, and I still recall coming across it all these years later.
posted by Harald74 at 11:57 PM on October 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


Half-Life also had various glimpses of human beings running around doing and saying things, sometimes interacting with Gordon, sometimes completely ignoring him, that was an important part of that verisimilitude.
This is much harder to argue with. NPCs in Duke Nukem 3D were just dirty jokes; active NPCs in Unreal only worked insofar as the primitive AI was concealed by the language barrier.

I'd still give Unreal partial credit for the use of the "Universal Translator" to tell deceased NPCs' stories. That trope got beaten to death in many later games, but at the time it was still an original way to tell a much more detailed story than you could convey with just scripted action.
posted by roystgnr at 6:15 AM on October 4, 2016


"REDACTED"?!

[REDACTED]

An abandoned wheelchair at the end of a pier (HL2, along Highway 17?) really established in my mind what environmental storytelling is about, and I still recall coming across it all these years later.

For me it was the bit where you're wetfooting your way down a toxic waste canal on your bayou water skimmer, and you've just had this awesome sequence where you've chased off the evil insectocopter that's been dogging you, with cool James Bond music and dangerous driving manoeuvers and you see a little side canal, which you can whiz past, or not.

If you head down there you find it's a dry culdesac, with some jerry built construction, windmill, wind chimes, guard tower etc. Loot! you think and hop out, at which point you're bushwhacked by like 19 headcrabs, just pouring over the wall.

After they're done you climb a ladder and there's a dead couple up on a raised platform, with a mattress, some plates, boxes. And you're sitting there and the windchimes are bonging and the windmill is creaking around and you see the headcrab missiles which killed these people and it's very peaceful and a little bit awful and ALL OF A SUDDEN you're really sad, and angry, and full of a desire to beat the ultimate baddies who did this to your planet (but with the eerie harmonic that, actually, it was you right at the beginning pushing that cart in the test chamber).

Reinvigorated, you return to the fray.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:14 PM on October 4, 2016 [5 favorites]


Man, I wish I could play in the water skimmer for more than 10-15 minutes at a time without getting serious motion sickness (well, simulator-sickness) that messes up my brain for hours. The car is a bit better, but only on plain road not bumpy speeding. Often, when I replay HL2, I'll just go up to that airboat section and then jump to lambda east. (well, sometimes I just go straight to We Don't Go to Ravenholm because I fucking love Ravenholm)
posted by rmd1023 at 2:51 PM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Ravenholm is the best.

I feel like Valve missed an opportunity to do a Blue Shift-style spinoff about Father Grigori.
posted by tobascodagama at 4:57 PM on October 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think Valve's response to the idea of making a whole game set in Ravenholm ended up being Left4Dead.
posted by straight at 10:23 AM on October 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think Valve's response to the idea of making a whole game set in Ravenholm ended up being Left4Dead.


huh




huh
posted by Sebmojo at 3:57 PM on October 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


[AMAZING MONSTER BEHAVIOR]

I guess that's the nice part about being the writer working with the devs.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 4:14 PM on October 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


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