How Marc Laidlaw rewrote the rulebook with Half-Life

Marc Laidlaw, science fiction writer and long-time Valve employee, has left the videogames industry behind. After eighteen years of service, Laidlaw confirmed last week that he has called it quits, breaking free of the “œcollaborative chaos of game development“ to pursue a solo writing career. The significance of his departure speaks volumes to the work he contributed in his time. A science fiction writer who got into games “œserendipitously”, Laidlaw helped redefine the first-person shooter and set the benchmark for storytelling in the process. It began with a game that would kick-start his career and spark a dynasty: Half-Life.

Freeman, with obligatory crowbar. (Drawing: Phoebe Herring).

The One Free Man

The year Half-Life entered development in 1996, the quintessential videogame character was Duke Nukem, a Johnny Bravo style ladies‘ man with a crew cut and cigar permanently perched in his mouth. Duke was all talk, and Valve were about to create the very antithesis of that character. The team wanted to invent someone who would represent their audience, and a lab geek named Gordon Freeman was born.
A year later, Laidlaw joined the team to lend his writing expertise to the production. Valve had already decided on their principle character, but would Laidlaw be able to elevate Half-Life above the scores of other shooters on the market? Freeman was given a backstory (27, MIT graduate) and a face (bug-eyed glasses and questionable beard), but Laidlaw decided he didn’t need a voice. No, a voice would only distract the player. Instead, Freeman never uttered a word and the silent protagonist was born.

“Welcome to the Black Mesa Training Facility”

Before Half-Life, developers of first person shooters treated levels like convenient arenas in which to stage increasingly difficult fights. There was a cleverly placed exit somewhere, and waves of enemies to bypass before getting there.
Under Laidlaw’s influence, Half-Life did something different. The writer realised that to tell a story, he needed an interesting setting that felt real. There couldn’t be an obvious break between levels, or wildly different scenery from one area to the next. It all had to tie into the overarching fiction. Black Mesa was the result, an elaborate underground facility that stood for more than simple window dressing.[efstabs class=”yourcustomclass”]
[efstab title=”But what’s the story?” active=”active”]Following the orders of his superiors, scientist Gordon Freeman unwittingly opens a portal from the alien world Xen, allowing otherworldy inhabitants to teleport inside Black Mesa. Gordon is forced to don the Hazardous Environment Suit to repel the invaders, but before long, a military crew is dispatched to cover up the entire mess. [/efstab]

A slow opening

A lot of effort was expended by Laidlaw and his team to make Black Mesa feel believable. Take the way the game begins. Freeman is late for work and rides a tram through the sprawling innards of the New Mexico base. Here, you’re given the chance to grab a sight of labourers at work and the base’s machinery in full flow. The prologue is stuffed with foreshadowing of events to follow and Laidlaw’s storytelling imagination is in full force as the game shows off its setting in a slow, deliberate manner.

The birth of cinematic gaming

It seems like every game nowadays wants to be a film. Blame Half-Life. Valve’s game possess that rare cinematic quality that, back in 1998, had never been seen before. The developers orchestrated the action through artful set pieces and a great soundtrack. The irony is that Laidlaw probably wasn’t even trying to craft something cinematic – merely tell a good story. There are no cutscenes or “interactive QTEs”, conventions that are so often used today to make games resemble movies. Instead, Laidlaw borrows a page from the novelist’s playbook, preferring to show rather than tell, and creates an effective narrative that way.
Of course, the game’s inspirations are hiding in plain sight. There are obvious nods to Alien, lashings of Verhoeven and even an ode or two to Kubrick. But without trying to copy Hollywood, Laidlaw told a story in a convincing and cinematic way. The fact that many games since have failed to master this underscores Half-Life’s genius.

Questionable morality

It’s easy to assume that Gordon is the good guy – but what if he’s not? By the end of the game, you will have mowed down countless military operatives, killed hundreds of aliens and sent Black Mesa scientists to their deaths. Then again, perhaps that’s for the better, because Black Mesa is not what it seems. There are whispers of shady experiments deep in its depths and even nuclear weaponry being cooked up. Gordon is slap bang in the middle of this conspiracy but Laidlaw is never drawn on his morality. Gordon might be good or bad or somewhere in between, but it’s up to you to decide. Is he even the lab geek people say he is, or a shady operative working for a higher power?

A full remake, dubbed Black Mesa: Source, was released in 2012. It looks utterly gorgeous.


“I have recommended your services to my… employers”

LaidlawThat higher power is the G-Man, a ghastly skeletal face in a blue suit who follows your progress through Black Mesa from afar. Now and then, you’ll spot him watching from a far-flung window or ledge, but a second later, he’s gone.
The G-Man is the ultimate teaser, adding a layer of intrigue to the story. What is his role in the Black Mesa catastrophe? Is he even human? You’re never quite sure, and the game is frustratingly obtuse on the subject.

Rise and Shine

In lesser games, a character like the G-Man would make no sense, but in the world of Half-Life, no detail is too small. The G-Man returns in Half-Life 2, the 2004 sequel that demanded Laidlaw improvise a new setting that felt fresh while still doing Black Mesa justice. Half-Life 2 was proof that Half-Life was no fluke, and that Laidlaw was a master of world building.

City 17 in Half-Life 2 was the perfect follow-up to Black Mesa.

Twenty years on since Half-Life entered development, there’s no overlooking the impact it has had. In the years since, developers have been forced to slave over their stories, pacing and world-building. Quake would no longer cut it. We got Medal of Honor and Escape from Butcher Bay instead – marvelous games that told powerful stories, all thanks to Laidlaw.  
Videogames are collaborative works of art, but there’s no doubting the impact one individual had on one very special series. Marc Laidlaw tuned in to a frequency that was usually reserved for noise and dialed it down a notch, introducing a novelist’s subtlety to a medium that has always preferred excess. Marc preferred to show, not tell, and successfully created the first truly cinematic narrative in the process.
Eighteen years on, very few writers in the industry have been able to do the same.
Featured image drawn by Will Sliney.