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The story behind Half-Life

Half-Life writer on the relationship between sci-fi, gaming and a certain scientist shooter

Having written sci-fi and horror novels such as Dad's Nuke, The Orchid Eater and The 37th Mandala, Marc Laidlaw joined Valve in 1997 during the development of the original Half-Life. He's a charming chap, and given the opportunity to speak on his specialist subject he does so perceptively and at great length...

How is it that you've wound up working in the sci-fi medium instead of, say, writing political thrillers or tales of romance?

Marc Laidlaw: I've always wanted to be a writer of the fantastic. My mum read to me from The Martian Chronicles and The Lord Of The Rings; my dad sent me off to sleep with Poe's The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart. I was more interested in writing horror than science fiction; when I tried to imagine anything with an SF setting, I pictured boring spaceships with linoleum corridors (which is to say, Star Trek).

But in the late '70s and early '80s the market for horror was swamped to overflowing with Stephen King imitators (ignoring the fact that Stephen King was more than able to fill a swamp all on his own). The late James Turner, then editor of Arkham House, advised me that if I took some of that horror sensibility and applied it to SF, I'd be likelier to come up with something original.

This gave me a more personal angle on writing science fiction. My favourite sort of SF is satirical, dystopian fiction, fairly bleak - a classic mode of SF, but only marginally saleable."

How do you keep Half-Life characters 'real' while all the technological whizz-bangs and G-Man mysteries are flying around them?

Laidlaw: We try to draw strong relationships between the characters; making each one part of a believable network of family and friends (and rivals) makes it easier for players to relate to them. Characters in weaker science-fiction stories often seem flimsy because they're solitary heroic figures without parents, siblings or ordinary relationships.

Character-driven drama depends on social context, status transactions, how they relate to other people in their world. We also assume our characters have spent their whole life in this world - especially Alyx, who grew up surrounded by headcrabs and Vortigaunts. The crazy SF details are just ordinary obstacles to them - still full of potential threats and surprises, as in our own world, but with a grim internal logic."

Ask any game developer to name a major inspiration and they'll say "Star Wars". Is this a blessing or a curse?

Laidlaw: For me it's a curse. I hate Star Wars and don't have to feign a blank look when other members of the team say things like 'Hoth' or 'Jar Jar the Hut'. It's never in my mind as something to emulate. The first movie was a huge let-down once the opening spaceships had flown past.

Compared to the stuff I was reading in 1977, the works that defined science fiction for me (the New Wave writers who'd strode forth from New Worlds and Dangerous Visions), everything in Star Wars was old space helmet.

But there's no question it dragged some of the most lurid pulp SF clichés into the mainstream and purveyors of pop entertainment have been wallowing in it ever since. Forbidden Planet, a much purer purveyor of pulp magic, is my Star Wars.

So, Half-Life aside, what games have you played that have really put some meat onto the bones of sci-fi gaming?

Laidlaw: SF in games tends to turn on imagery of armour-plated oafs and shiny warships. The dark satiric or dystopian futures I prefer have been few and far between, and don't necessarily give rise to games that I care to spend the requisite 40-60 hours beating.

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