Afterthought Overkill

[file dated 11/6-11/9/98]

Preface: This appears to be an expanded version of the “Day After Shipping” document, that was being written simultaneously. Ah, word processors, with your copypaste function making document provenance baffling. It incorporates big pieces of the other document, but is wrapped and shot through with a fair bit of new stuff. I think this was probably written to be presented at a CGDC Roadtrip—a smaller, local developer’s conference. I added “Anyway, as I was saying” sorts of things that made it sound more talky. But I don’t believe I ever got up and gave the talk. I recall I was on a panel about narrative in games, and might have spewed small chunks of it then, however.

Deep breath…


When I was about twelve years old, sometime around 1972, I wrote a few pages of a science fiction story about a futuristic form of entertainment. About all I remember is that it featured huge banks of lenses projecting holographic images into the middle of a round stage, and that the audience participated in the performance somehow. I recall making a big deal out of the futuristic-sounding words “three dimensional”—as if everything in 1972 were actually two dimensional, and we’d have to wait another 50 or 100 years for the third dimension to kick in. The story was supposed to be about this new entertainment industry, but since I don’t recall ever inventing any characters or conflicts or anything that might actually happen in the story, it didn’t get much beyond the planning stages.

But I find it interesting that in the 70’s, when I first really started grappling with all the possible ways of telling a story, the idea of immersive 3D entertainment was far more science fictional than the thoroughly mundane notion of riding rockets into space. Science fiction in the 70’s was all about mass media, and where it might be taking us—in some ways, a far scarier and riskier trip than any rocket ride.

Fast-forward, just over twenty-five years. Instead of a bank of glittering lenses, instead of a round central stage, there is one gleaming computer screen. Instead of an audience gathered in one place to watch the 3D performance, the audience is scattered all over the world, each of them with his own personal computer stage. Each one of them preparing to star in a drama that will be partially of his own making. They’ve finished the installation. They click their way through a set of menus using this weird futuristic device that no one in 1970 could ever have seen a need for—namely, a mouse—and suddenly it’s beginning. They’re barreling straight into the heart of the Black Mesa Research Facility, looking through the eyes of Gordon Freeman. They can’t yet feel or smell or taste what Gordon perceives; that’s a matter of degree and refinement and iteration—and perhaps a deadend that this industry will never want to explore. But in essence, the 3D future is now.

For me, I’ve come full circle, from that adolescent dream of an immersive artform, to the actual creation and even the marketing of that dream. Writing for Half-Life, and doing the other various odd-jobs that I did for the game, has been in many ways like living out a fantasy…an experience much richer and more rewarding, and also more demanding and challenging, than I could ever have envisioned. I think the future we’ve arrived at is much more interesting and full of possibility than we might have speculated thirty years ago.

Let me just get myself out of the way as soon as possible, since what everyone wants to hear about is Half-Life. I was loosely associated with the cyberpunks:  I have a story in Bruce Sterling’s MIRRORSHADES, which remains the seminal cyberpunk anthology. My first novel, DAD’S NUKE, was written somewhat in satiric reaction to the wired, gritty urban visions of NEUROMANCER and its cousins. But I was not a very cyber writer, and not a very punk one either. My other novels include horror and fantasy titles among the satiric sf. A few years ago, I had a brief journalistic career, doing a fair amount of writing for Wired—mainly reviews of computer games. This culminated when Wired sent me on several trips to id Software, where I posed as a journalist to to document the making of Quake. You might remember the faces of John Carmack, Adrian Carmack, and John Romero lit up by Christmas tree lights on the cover of Wired a couple years back. In my own defense, at least I didn’t take the picture.

The time I spent at id was a revelation to me. It was the first time I had ever seen a team of highly talented, extremely creative individuals at work on one project. I found it absolutely irresistable. I was also heartsick because there was obviously no place at id for a writer. I had found the thing I wanted to do more than anything in the world right at that moment, which was to create these fantastic 3D worlds with John Carmack’s miraculous technology—and there was no place for me in it.

I guess it was right about then that I started scheming. I would either have to find a niche in that world, or carve one for myself.

Writing, however noble an activity, is a solitary one—especially the writing of fiction, where you sit in front of a typewriter or computer screen and feed on your own brain for as long as you can possibly stand it. I had collaborated on a few stories with friends, and those were great experiences. I had worked on a screenplay for a William Gibson novel, VIRTUAL LIGHT, and that was a group effort in the sense that armed resistance is a group effort. I’ll just reference all the cliches about Hollywood in a footnote. But what I realized when I got a look at id, was that after 20 plus years of working with myself, I was aching to work with other people—people whose artistic visions and abilities would give me a daily jolt of awe and inspiration.

Valve is precisely that place, and still is. It is less a job than an addiction. When I’m at work, I am engaged on almost every level, all the receptors are being stimulated. There is nothing more addictive than that. Every day at Valve I draw on the skills and intuitions I developed as a writer…and not only when I’m actually sitting down to work on a bit of dialog or some portion of a spec. It’s significant that an extremely tiny portion of my time is actually spent in the act of writing; and yet I continually draw on what I know about writing to solve the problems that come up in the process of developing a game.

Now, I like to be upfront about the fact that I don’t know very much about games. I missed most of the classics of this exceedingly young field, and unfortunately every time I go back to study one of them, I find myself in EMS/XMS, divide overflow hell. As an aside, this industry has a huge problem with long term memory, and is setting itself up for the industrial equivalent of Alzheimer’s, owing the fact that none of the classics are readily accessible to future audiences:  The damn things just won’t run on new machines. This makes it extremely difficult for someone like me to go back and try to study the field and see what’s been done to death already, and what should be avoided. When I was learning to write, I read everything I could get my hands on—and especially the moldy old crappy old stuff. It’s important to learn what NOT to waste time on. The ability to wade through piles of ugly, obsolete crap should be the birthright of every young game developer. Otherwise they will be forced to create it for themselves, and we will continually be starting over again.

Anyway, as I was saying, I missed most of the classic computer games. It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention, but in my formative years, there was no such thing as a computer game. My first encounter with a computer didn’t occur until I was 20, and that one filled a small building at the University of Oregon. Those who brag about building Quake maps with a text editor…how much prouder they’d be if they’d had to compose their maps on punchcards, using an input device that was a frightening hybrid of typewriter and jackhammer.

So I can easily list the games that have had an influence on me or taught me something about the possibilities of storytelling in this new form:  Myst showed me that books and movies had lost their exclusive domain over my imagination; it did what my favorite stories did—it cast a spell—and I knew I wanted to learn how to cast those spells myself. Ecstatica and Relentless taught me a bit about how one might embed narrative elements seamlessly in an action environment without compromising either…I saw no reason that what these games did in the third person could not be done in first person. Gadget was less a game than a new, even more immersive form of graphic novel, and the chances it took, the intelligence it represented, completely awed me. The id-family of games, including Quake and Doom, Hexen and Heretic, introduced me to the virtues of a highly addictive, frenetic style of gameplay that bypassed intellect completely and went straight for the throat. I have always liked entertainment that goes for the throat. So…this is not much—it’s nothing at all, compared to the number of games played since childhood by most of my cohorts at Valve. So most of what I know about developing games doesn’t really have much to do with games—and yet, certain things are universal. At least, in working on Half-Life, I found them to be so.

Working by yourself, writing on your own for a long long time, teaches you some really valuable things about the nature of the creative process. Because you’re working alone, you get to pay a lot of attention to every part of the process. It’s like hiking in the mountains all alone:  You think about every step you take, and everything you see, and it all sinks in a bit more deeply because there’s no one else there to distract you, no unrelated chatter. After writing a few novels, you start to recognize certain distinct milestones which invariably appear at certain points during any lengthy project. You learn a lot about intuition and inspiration. You learn a lot about trusting in things you can’t quite put into words. Most of the big projects I’ve worked on began with a lightning strike of inspiration, a strong vision that seemed seductively easy to accomplish; and yet invariably somewhere in the middle you lose sight of the final goal and the original vision. You see nothing but chaotic details that may never cohere into anything worthwhile. You lose hope; you lose all sense of perspective; and it is very easy at this point to give up. However, knowing that this middle stage is inevitable, and even a necessary part of the maturation process, you learn to just keep doing the work, to keep on until you get to what you think is the end, so that you can finally realize it’s not the end at all but simply the next place you have to start from.

Specifically, here’s what I did on Half-Life.

When I arrived at Valve in July of 1997, the game was “almost finished,” as befit something that was supposed to go on sale for Christmas. I was supposed to put in a couple weeks of work putting finishing touches on the Half-Life story, and then I would get right to work on a far more detailed storyline for Valve’s second game, which was completely unrelated to Half-Life and something in a very different mode. I loved what I had seen of Half-Life, but I mainly expected to work on that second game, where we sat around talking about Borges and Tesla and Escher. Gradually, Half-Life took over my life, and I’m glad it did so.

Half-Life in the summer of 1997 bore only superficial resemblance to the Half-Life that just went gold. It had a storyline involving an accident at a decommissioned missile base, a dimensional portal experiment, lots of smart alien and human enemies, and a bonus trip to another world. There was a storyline in the spec, but it was not terribly evident in the maps that had actually been built. I was reminded of a shared world anthology. These are a popular form of short story collection, where some one or couple of people get together and come up with a basic background, such as Thieves World, and then a dozen writers are asked to write stories sharing that background.  There may be overlapping characters and some slight reference to events in other stories, but overall each story is a distinct and separate performance by an individual writer, and they had only the loosest association with one another. That was how Half-Life struck me when I first saw it. There was an experimental portal device, several silos, some train tunnels, and nuclear reactor, and miles of corridors and airducts. I thought there must be some grand scheme that united all these interesting fragments, and it took me about three months to realize that maybe, just possibly, there…wasn’t. Every level designer was telling a different story. Half-Life was a shared world anthology, when what we really wanted was a coherent, unified novel.

It took me several months just to figure out what I was doing at Valve—and how I could possibly contribute. Our maps were a confusing collection of things named c1a1c, c2a3b, c3a2; so it was difficult for me to follow even simple conversations. “I was just looking at c2a4a and I saw that you had a piece of c1a2c next to something that belongs in c2a1a.”  By the time I had just started to figure out the connections between all the levels, and was wondering how to pull the loose Half-Life story together into something fairly taut, Valve reached a general consensus that the entire game as it stood was in need of severe reworking. At Thanksgiving, just when we should have been in the stores, we decided to tear the existing game down to its elements and more or less start over again.

This is the point where I began to find my writerly instincts coming in handy. I am extremely comfortable with the process of selection that comes about during revision. As a member of the so-called Half-Life Cabal, we started working our way through the entire game, figuring out what worked, what was new and interesting, and what probably would never work as we had hoped. When we were down to a few basic elements that seemed to work, we started fleshing them in with new material. It was in some ways an extremely painful process—both because we knew that the game was going to slip far longer than anyone liked, and because it meant that a great deal of work was going to be lost and probably never seen again. As a writer, passing judgment on my own work, it’s hard enough to decide that pages and pages of text probably don’t serve the story and ought to be cut; but at least I have only myself to answer to. But cutting someone else’s work is never fun.

I have been very lucky in my writing career to have had not one but several excellent editors. At Omni Magazine, at St. Martins Press, my editors were not shy about telling me when something I’d written didn’t work. But they didn’t stop there. They seemed to understand what I was trying to communicate, rather than what I had succeeded in communicating. When they gave comments or criticism, it was always aimed at getting me closer to satisfying my own goals, rather than their editorial agendas. I really tried to do this in working with the level designers. We had specific goals for the game, things we expected Half-Life to deliver, but apart from that I understand that level designers have their own unique talents and interests. And wherever possible, the game benefitted from trying to match the designer’s strengths and artistic goals with the needs of the game. Once we moved beyond redesigning the game on paper, and the level designers got to work revising their levels or creating new maps, we commenced a process of working very closely with the designers. I tried to think back to my editors, and how they always encouraged me to do what I did best—and to discover new strengths which they sensed, but which I perhaps didn’t always know I had. This was my philosophy in working with the level designers.

Somewhere along the line, I was asked to take on the role of lead for the level team. This was really an ideal place from which to watch the story taking shape. The designers were so busy, nose to grindscreen, that they rarely had time to give much in-depth consideration to what the other designers were up to. It became my job to look at everyone’s work on a daily basis, and make sure that people were moving in synch, that an area at one end of the game did not conflict with an area at the other end. The designers were constantly inventing details that amazed me, things that weren’t in the spec but which just seemed right for the story—things which seemed to magically click with something a designer down the hall had just invented independently. I had experienced this kind of spontaneous invention enough times on my own, in the process of writing a story, to know that finally we were on the right track. We were still buried in fragments, in midstream, but I felt that we would soon have our first draft…our rough mockup of the entire game. That was a crucial milestone for me, because I knew that once we got to that point, we would be able to really see what we were trying to do. We would be able to decide much more pragmatically what elements belonged in the game, and which things just did not fit. This was something I knew from writing novels, and in fact it worked out much as I had expected.

Once we had finished up the first pass on the entire game, we found it possible to sit down and tighten up specific areas—cutting complete sections, adding new ones. As well, the process of adding scripted sequences and setting up dramatic gameplay, suddenly became much easier. Designers were able to work on their level with increased confidence that the work they were doing would actually end up in the game, and be an important part of the story. Needless to say it had been extremely disheartening for some when their levels were cut. Now, instead of cutting, we were able to get into the mode of improving and elaborating on existing material.

In a novel, it’s a common technique to pick up one isolated image and try to work variations on it elsewhere in the story—it creates a thread of meaning and metaphor which is so much richer than if you leave only the one instance. This kind of polishing usually happens most effectively in the rewrite stage. I was really gratified to see the same things happening in Half-Life. One of the cleverer constructions in Xen, our alien dimension, is a series of puckered orifices which swallow you and spit you high into the sky for a lethal fall. These were picked up by one of the other designers and worked back into the terrestrial levels, immediately giving the impression that the earthly plane is being infested by the alien one. This was further elaborated on when a third designer did active earthly versions which fling you one or two stories high. So the puckers went from being a localized trap to become an important element of gameplay for a significant part of the game. This kind of borrowing and scattering of imagery is to me one of the most effective things that happened spontaneously in the creation of Half-Life. It happened opportunistically, because it made sense at the moment, but it enriched the game a great deal.

So, as writer, was I responsible for this level of invention?  No. Did I encourage it because it made sense for the structure of the game overall?  Hell yes. In fact, staying on top of the constant inventiveness of the level designers was a fulltime job. Because they were in there working on the details of the game on a daily basis, this meant the story itself shifted in minor ways from day to day. Actually, the story shifted in major ways more often than I can recall. Several times we had Valve-wide meetings where I would tell the entire story of the game as we understood it from beginning to end, so that everyone would be on the same page as we went forward. But invariable, as soon as those meetings were over, I’d find the story changing again. We’d discard the ending, we’d eliminate a central element, we’d cast everything in a new light. It became impossible to keep everyone continually apprised of how the story worked itself out. Again, I was used to this kind of behavior; it more or less describes the writing of every novel I’ve worked on…but leading a team of people through this state of perpetual reorganization was unnerving. I think most of the designers were so busy worrying about the details that they didn’t have time to think about the big picture, and counted on a few of us to keep the grand scheme in mind.

There were quite a few grand schemes which were tried out and discarded in the course of settling on the game we ended up with. Before I arrived at Valve, there was a fair amount of talk about how there would be no bottlenecks—how you would be able to run from one end of the game to the other and all the way back again. This was to have been a feature, and certainly it would have been a very easy one to implement. But I failed, and still fail to see how this could have made the game any better. All drama, all narrative, relies on pacing and rhythm; horror is especially dependent on getting things set up just right for the audience, so that you can spring your little traps at opportune moments. By choosing to let the player run in any direction at any moment, we would have been choosing to let our story go right out the window. Half-Life begins on the morning of one particular day, it continues through that day, through the next night, and far into the following day, before breaking on into a place where time ceases to have any real meaning. Say it were possible to turn back at the end of the second day and run all the way back to the point where you had started two days ago. First of all, you would miss the climactic moment we’d set up for the end of day two. You would arrive (many many hours later) at the place where everything had begun. There would be some monsters there, some moss might have grown on a wall, but not much in the way of drama would await you. We really wanted players to have a structured narrative experience, and time and trial have basically proven that the most satisfying narratives are linear. I was a huge champion of keeping our story linear. I don’t think I would have known how to deal with a nonlinear narrative the first time out. It’s extremely hard to handle well in fiction, where the tools are far more flexible.

I was also a champion of avoiding third person cut-scenes and cinematics altogether. I came into Valve with a deep-seated prejudice against cinematics. My feeling was that if we were going to do a first person game, we should stay first person the entire time, so as to never break the narrative spell for the player. Ironically, I soon began to bend from this rigid stance, especially when I saw how difficult it was to create scripted experiences for the player that they absolutely must not miss. I became a reluctant advocate of the camera; and in fact our developers implemented an absolutely beautiful camera system which made me want to do a third person camera kind of game. But the more we worked with our scripted sequences, the more we discovered we could do without a camera. Once we saw how well the opening disaster worked from first person, we realized that we would not be using the camera at all, anywhere. I was all too happy to go back to my original prejudice. For Half-Life, the third-person camera would have been a cop-out, and I am very glad we managed to avoid it.

Actually, another reason we avoided it was because we really had no good place to introduce it. If we were to use the camera at all, we should have used it in the very opening scene, when Gordon Freeman boards the personnel train. You’d let the player have a look at the player they were inhabiting, and then you’d zoom down into his eyes and lock into first person. The problem was, our only Gordon Freeman model was wearing a hazard suit, and he didn’t actually put that on until the game was well underway. We could have cut to our camera when he stepped out of the changing pod, fully dressed, but that would have been a really undramatic way of introducing him. Ultimately, we just never found a very good or necessary place to introduce the camera, and we kept pushing it back farther and farther until it was out of the game.

This introduced an interesting challenge. How could we create a real character for our game, when you never saw the guy and he never uttered so much as one word?  Well, we let the player answer that question for himself. You start the game knowing very little about the character you play; but apparently everyone around you knows who you are. Between the player’s ignorance and the NPCs’ knowledge of Gordon Freeman, something very interesting happens. Players create their own version of Gordon Freeman—one they can completely identify with. There is literally nothing to jar you out of Gordon, once you’re in the game. He never says anything stupid that you would never say in a million years. He never does anything you wouldn’t do—since you control all his actions. He becomes a hollow receptacle into which every player can pour himself. In a sense, he’s an everyman.

This makes traditional character development a bit problematic. We create an experience for the player as Gordon—one that has a beginning, a middle and an end. We provide a lot of clues for the player to ignore or pick up on as they choose. From this, they can put together a picture of what is “really” going on in the world of the game. And by the end of the story, they will have played some unique version of Half-Life which is meaningful to them in a different way than it is to anyone else. Some people want Gordon to speak; they want to run through lists of possible questions and converse with the NPCs. I think if we had provided a voice for Gordon, and lots of conversational gambits, they would have had a very different experience…and not necessarily a better one. I’m very happy with the choice we made to let people create their own protagonist.

It has been extremely satisfying to note the reactions of players to the story itself. Before beginning work on Half-Life, I heard a lot of comments to the effect that a first person shooter didn’t need a story—that the players didn’t want one, and that anything more complicated than a bunch of moving targets and some buttons to push would be lost on them. The reaction from hardcore gamers has been exactly the opposite. If anything, what people seem to want is more story—story that is integrated into the action, story that matters. It’s something that you’re often taught in writing prose, but you should never condescend or write down to your supposed audience. There has been a lot of condescension toward gamers, I believe—both from those looking at the field as outsiders, and from those who are actually creating games. The former is understandable, the latter unforgivable. Computer games currently occupy a niche of poor reputation previously held by pulp fiction and comic books:  A form of mass entertainment whose appeal is supposedly lowbrow and unsophisticated, presuming an audience that wouldn’t recognize quality if it were available. It would be impossible to list all the excellent, unforgettable stories that were originally published as pulp. There is not much we can do to change the fact that games may be regarded as lowbrow entertainment by the so-called mainstream, but we can make sure we don’t fall into this trap of thinking about ourselves. When writing for computer games, you should abide by the same principles and virtues that distinguish and elevate any kind of traditional entertainment. The great thing about working in such a new medium is that tradition is not a limiting factor but simply a springboard into creating new kinds of experiences which our audience has never had before.

My thinking about game design is constantly in a state of creative tension between tradition and experimentation. When I think of our main character, Gordon Freeman, as a kind of conduit for the player’s self-invented identity, I can’t think of a literary or cinematic equivalent. That right there excites me immeasureably. How often does a writer get to work with tools that are completely untried?  The early history of literary and cinema is already written. For any writer who wants to know what it feels like to pioneer—this is the place to be.

Now I’ve been describing a job that involves a lot of thinking about story and structure, but very little actual writing. I think that’s fairly important. The writing I did was done in snatches, when needed, and often to satisfy the demands of a particular scene that we had invented on the fly. I don’t believe a freelance or contract writer would have been much use on Half-Life. Writing the story is not something that was all done up front and never revisited, and being tied to a fixed story with no writer on-site would have been crippling to the project. This leads me to believe that certain kinds of writers probably are a better fit for game companies than others.

First, you probably want someone who is interested in absolutely every aspect of game design. I think a lot of writers fall into this category:  Interested in everything. Being curious and interested and perhaps even knowledgeable about all sorts of things is at least as important as what you know about games. Curiosity is just a basic starting point for any enterprise. Even though I never played a computer game until I was in my 30’s, I am intensely curious about everything that goes into creating game. I love the point where art and technology intersect, and nowhere is this point of fusion so alive and easier to access than in game design. This is living, breathing science fiction. It’s the frontier. It’s the thing I caught a whiff of there in id’s offices, which started me on the invisible trail that led me here today.

There are a million and one things to do in building a game, and only a tiny percentage of them involve putting one word after another. It helps if you’re willing to wear the managerial hat for a while, if called upon to do so. It helps if you have worked in other businesses, so that you will understand something about how people ought to treat each other in a professional workplace, and will know in advance some of the pitfalls of office politics which are the same whether you work in a game company or a utility company. It also helps to have had some absolutely terrible, soul-numbing jobs, so that you will never take for granted your job in a field that thrives on innovation and creativity.  It helps if you know enough about level design to do some rough mock-up work to test out ideas before inflicting them on the real level designers. I did some of that. I also helped do some really minor editing of wave files when we had a thousand lines of dialog to process and two days in which to do it.

Everyone designing a game really, really, really needs to understand the limitations and advantages of their technology, and that’s something no freelance writer sitting at home a hundred miles away from the developers can readily come to terms with. I proposed hundreds of story ideas that would never have worked in Half-Life. Because I was able to see at first hand on a daily basis what worked, I stopped proposing certain things, and started thinking in terms of expanding upon proven features. There is nothing like having a level designer laugh in your face to convince you that there must be another way of doing something.

This mass of hard-won, odd little insights was probably the most valuable thing I brought with me to Valve from my writing background. It is also probably the hardest thing for a game company interested in hiring a writer to evaluate in a prospective employee. It is very, very easy to represent yourself as a professional writer; but it is not very easy to tell exactly what this means. Professional does not necessarily mean good. And a good writer may not necessarily be a good fit at a game company. Some writers absolutely need the solitude of their profession, and would feel terrifically compromised to be part of a team. I assume this kind of writer is never going to seek work at a game company. The way it worked between me and Valve was that they squinted sidelong at me for awhile and I repeatedly made eyes at them while trying not to appear too desperate. In evaluating a writer, you should always read what they have written.

Valve’s owners endured the clumsy Quake maps I submitted, but mainly they read my books and were able to judge my abilities based on the record. I would add that whoever judges the writer should be someone who actually reads a lot and can tell the good stuff from crap. If you’ve got one person at your company who reads and reads and reads, loves reading as much or even more than they love games, that is the person who should evaluate the writing of the prospective writer—even if they’re not the person who will make the hiring decision. It takes a reader to judge a writer.