Having amused an older generation of gamers with his writing on seminal games humour site Old Man Murray, Chet Faliszek has moved onto games development. He's already changed Alyx's personality and brought japes to Team Fortress 2. Now he's making some bolder moves with Left 4 Dead. We spoke to him just days before the project wrapped up.
So how long has Left 4 Dead taken?
Faliszek: Oh, about three years. Turtle Rock had made Condition Zero and they wanted to start a new IP. They pitched a couple of things to us - one of those was Left 4 Dead. We thought, like everyone else who plays it for the first time, "Oh, wow". Me and Erik [Wolpaw] were at lunch with Gabe the next day and just babbled about it. Next morning we got an email from Gabe saying to Michael Booth [lead at Turtle Rock at the time] "These guys can be the writers on the game." and that was it.
Was that all it took to pitch the game?
Faliszek: They'd shown some stuff to us before this. And the idea for this one stuck - since we already had a good relationship, it wasn't hard to get behind them.
When did you realise this was going to be the next Valve game?
Faliszek: We realised that last winter. We had people coming off other projects and they started to move onto looking at aspects of Left 4 Dead. I think the team started off at about nine people and grew from there. Turtle Rock had a really good sense of how we like to do things and they'd taken it pretty far in that direction by the time we started to work on it properly. When you've got nine guys, what you can do is limited compared to what you can do if you have another 50 people.
When we unleashed all of Valve on the project there's so much you can do. You could have said two years ago "this is shippable, it works" but there's so much later shaping of the game and detail and polish that has to go in.
The changes from then to now are very evident. Do those all get mapped out at the start, or is it evolving over time?
Faliszek: Well this stuff gets talked about constantly, yet it never happens right away. The artists will be busy elsewhere or there just aren't enough cycles to do it yet. So you plan, but it's a long time before you see it in a build. Like the first time you see the load-screen movie posters - that was a moment when we realised what we'd planned was totally cool.
What was with the changes in the characters part of the way through the project?
Faliszek: Well, partly it came about because we completely changed the facial animation. We moved it to the model we'd developed for TF2, where we'd done new faces that are more expressive - the animation is a little different there.
We also addressed visibility issues, and worked hard to distinguish the characters from Infected. So it was a combination of technical and artistic changes.
How did the character creation process work for TF2?
Faliszek: When we do characters we tend to come up with a bunch of backstories for the characters among the writers and then we'll engage in this collaborative process with the artists. We end up with a load of backup stuff and we don't tend to get married to ideas.
Erik was saying that you guys were pretty pleased with the dialogue and contextual chatter for those characters. How did that develop?
Faliszek: Once we'd done the initial character creation pass we knew who these characters were and what they were likely to say. As we played and watched playtesters go through particular situations, we took note of what we said, or what people said and decided that we should make the characters say that. They also help with navigation, or commenting on things in the world in a helpful way. Little bits of character and backstory emerge too.