Interviews

Looking Back... Half-Life 2

Valve's Doug Lombardi and Marc Laidlaw spill the beans on how the best FPS ever got whipped into shape

Valve Software's Half-Life 2, for 99.9 percent of those who played it, proved a phenomenal first-person shooter experience and the best title to grace the genre since FPS granddaddy Castle Wolfenstein first put it on the map. But how exactly was what turned out to be an awesome end product that dropped into the eager clutches of trigger-happy punters put together at the developer's HQ? Valve's marketing director Doug Lombardi and writer/game designer Marc Laidlaw explain...

MAKING A SEQUEL
Lombardi: The first Half-Life was made available in November 1998. Immediately after the game was sent to replication, folks here took a break to recoup from crunch time and spend some time with their families. Once everyone was back from all that, the decision was made to pursue Half-Life 2. It was agreed that Valve would self-fund the project and time would not be a constraint. The only benchmark set for the team was quality: make the greatest game experience you can imagine in the Half-Life universe.

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WRITING
Laidlaw: One of the key story elements that hung on technology was the extent to which we believed we'd be able to develop strong, well-rounded characters and put them in dynamic, dramatic scenes. For a long time, the character and animation systems were very rough, and those of us closest to the story had to live with a strong level of trust that the technology would eventually get to the point where we could actually implement the scenes we were sketching out.

Writing for a Half-Life-style game is an ongoing collaborative effort that starts in the earliest phases of project development and doesn't really end until the game is finished. The writing of dialogue ends once all the English language voice-acting has been recorded and the script sent off to localisers; but even then, there are many little decisions regarding how the game unfolds which each affect the way a player perceives the story. However, the writing is no more (or less) important than any other element of the game, which is one obvious way in which it differs from a book, where the writing is everything.

STORY
Lombardi: We had a glimpse of the larger threat when we were working on Half-Life 1. In other words, we knew that once you cleared out the Nihilanth (end-of-game boss), you were going to discover something worse beyond it. We knew that some immense threat had chased the Nihilanth and its creatures out of their own world and into Xen, from which location they were all too glad to seize the opportunity to continue on to Earth with suppression through the citadels. But the exact nature of the threat was left to be solved in Half-Life 2.

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THE HALF-LIFE 2 UNIVERSE
Laidlaw: It's a classic science-fiction technique to build your world with details, any one of which could be made into a story or a book in its own right. There's something skimpy and cheap about trying to extract full-scale entertainment from every single little detail, rather than just liberally scattering them about. Some writers will take one idea and spread it very, very thin; others will take that one and five others like it and stuff them ten to a page for hundreds of pages. Guess which kind I prefer? We're trying not to be stingy, but to strike sparks and suggest more stories than can possibly be told. In a game especially, some of our fans love looking for clues that help them piece together a sense of the world, others want to get on with the shooting. We try to satisfy both camps; perhaps this is impossible, but we do try.

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