These days, it's all talk of wide vistas and Strider-busters, but not long ago we were more than content with sitting in a burnt-out car and being thrown into a monstrosity of sci-fi by a happy robot dog. With this in mind, we camped in Valve's garden for a while until David Speyrer (one of Valve's head engineers, left), and Marc Laidlaw (Valve's creative mind, right) ran out with a cricket bat shouting obscenities at us. Thankfully, when they saw it was us they calmed down, came into our tent for a little while and spoke of all things episodic. Otherwise it could have been a mite nasty.
Laidlaw: Because these games take place in real-time, it doesn't matter how big the back-story is. You have to ask yourself: 'Just how much can we tell about this thing in a one-minute scene?' We have a lot of story, but we can't ever come right out and tell you. You get a little glimpse of it when you're playing the game and hopefully that plays on and on in your mind - figuring out what the connections are between all these different things, and as time goes by the story unfolds and some of those things you speculated about will be confirmed. The pace of development means that we have to do these things in a slow fashion in terms of unrolling the entire story - but in terms of the timing of the story itself, it's all taking place in a matter of hours. It's one of those things that's wired into the foundation of the game.
FASTEN YOUR SEATBELT
Speyrer: Someone will throw out a crazy idea and we'll go, 'That's crazy...' Then someone else says: 'You know, I think we might be able to do that'.
Laidlaw: So developers might come up with an idea like 'Let's pick up the van and throw the van across!' You respond by saying: 'Well, I don't have anything better than that. I can't top it!' Then it turns into a secret thing: 'We're going to try and get this in, because if I tried to describe it to you, you'd say it was absolutely insane.' Then they'll go off and quietly build the pieces for it.
Laidlaw: Stalkers have been around for a long time. They were one of the earliest creatures put into HL2, and we tried them in a bunch of gameplay environments. Initially, they were something that crouched down in the dark and followed you from behind; you'd turn around and see them there. We had all kinds of gameplay, but it turned out to be devoid of fun. We used them in puzzles where they could cut through sheet metal with their beams, stuff like that. It was all really scripted and stagey, so we ended up aiming for more of an emotional quality with them, to make them more of a story element.
THE NAMING OF THE ZOMBINE
Laidlaw: We always have this issue in our games - we come up with a name for a creature, but then have to tell the gamer. I mean, how do you expose it through the characters? The team of level designers and developers are constantly dealing with this, and they had the idea that Alyx should go through the whole name-coining process we go through when we come up with a bad name for something - like a bad pun. That was just a cool incident: the team who were working on it wrote the scene. Myself and the writing team then came into it and got the pacing and the lines just right, and it ended up being the episode's most memorable part for a lot of people.