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volume 1, issue 34

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Writing the Game

By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman

 

arc Laidlaw is definitely a rarity in the gaming industry. He's a novelist (a published science fiction author with several books under his belt) who decided to jump ship and work on games full time. Anyone who's played Half-Life will probably tell you that his presence is felt, as the game's storytelling is second to none. But he wasn't always a fan of games. In fact, he went on record once as saying that he despised Doom, and thought it was horribly violent. Quite surprising, considering where he is today. I tracked down Laidlaw with a few questions about his past, present, and future.

As many people may, or may not know, you were a science fiction novelist prior to arriving at Valve. What was your first published work?

My first published novel was Dad’s Nuke, a satiric S.F. novel which was published in 1985 or thereabouts. It was set in a suburban fortress community where people had little nuclear reactors in their garages, powering their home appliances, and started with an escalating arms race between next door neighbors. It featured a lot of parody of virtual reality technology—including things like typing gloves and plug-in vacations. It was a suburban parody of the urban cyberpunk visions. I made my first professional sale in 1978, when I was 18. It was a collaboration with Greg Benford which appeared in the third issue of Omni Magazine. I sold half a dozen stories to Omni over the years—mainly in the ‘80s.

Alright…two words: Freestyle Cyberpunk. Explanation please? :)

The label cyberpunk chafed on me and a lot of my friends, including Rudy Rucker and Richard Kadrey and Pat Murphy...the San Francisco science fiction scene in the mid-80s. It was nice to be included in the cyberpunk anthology, Mirrorshades, but the term seemed very limiting compared to the stuff that most of the so-called cyberpunks were writing. Freestyle was concocted as an unserious antidote to all the "movements" that were jostling around in the mid 80’s. We derived our battlecry from an ad in Surfer magazine, and our main notion was that we should write like ourselves, only moreso. All our imagery revolved around surfing. I created four issues of freestyle magazine, which I hand-lettered and assembled with lots of rubber-cement (this was in the days before desktop publishing was a word, or two of them). All that remains of the original issues is a manila envelope full of loose doodle scraps with old rubber cement boogers on the backs of them.

Am I correct in saying that your novels were influenced by Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft?

I think you nailed the two biggies. Dick’s is about the only science fiction I can read with real pleasure these days. Reading PKD is a reality-altering experience. People who think that The Matrix contains one single original idea should probably not try to read a Phil Dick novel. Their heads would explode. And Lovecraft…you either love him or hate him. If you encounter him when you’re an impressionable 13 year old wanting to write horror, you never ever quite escape his influence.

Almost all of your books are out of print…any chance of their coming back out anytime soon?

The 37th Mandala, my latest novel, should be out in paperback from Leisure Books pretty soon. That’ll be the first of my books to see paper since 1987, when Bantam published a Tibetan futurist adventure called Neon Lotus. The others occasionally turn up in remainder bins at Barnes & Noble for a buck or so: That would be Kalifornia and The Orchid Eater. People might find this helpful: Barnes & Nobel's Out of Print Search.

 

There's a common misperception that the movie Kalifornia is based on your novel. Do you want to clear up the rumors about this?

I started writing and outlining my novel in 1987; all anyone knew about it for quite a while was the title. It was published in the early ‘90s. Shortly before it was published, my agent started seeing mentions of a movie entitled "Kalifornia" in Hollywood industry magazines. Since you cannot copyright a title, there wasn’t much I could have done to stop them from using it (apart from trademarking my title and calling it something like Marc Laidlaw’s KALIFORNIA ™). Years later, I discovered in a roundabout way that people at the studio assumed the movie they were making was based on my novel—not that they’d read it, apparently. My Kalifornia was not about a serial killer. It was a futuristic black comedy about a "wired" family that is continually "live" and broadcasting its life to a global audience. (It’s a bit like "The Truman Show," but not as much as another (unpublished) book of mine, Mock-Up, which is about a guy who lives in a futuristic TV show but doesn’t realize it, and the audience is all betting on if and when he will realize it and wake up. And a bit, I guess, like EDTV. Which are all derivative of any number of Philip K. Dick novels.) (There he goes again with the PKD!) However, The Orchid Eater, which was published after Kalifornia, possibly benefited from the success of the movie, since we were able to put "by the Author of Kalifornia" on the cover—and that one actually was a psychothriller about a serial killer.

Do you miss your days as a novelist?

I don’t miss the lifestyle that accompanied being a novelist, which can be described as: Work all day as a bored and frustrated administrative assistant or word processor or legal secretary, then come home and try to summon some creativity with the last dregs of my energy, late at night. I miss writing novels, and I’m planning to do more of them. But I think I’d rather be happy all day and not write novels than suffer all day and hope I can funnel my misery into a book.

Had you played many games before arriving at Valve?

No, I came to games very late—they didn’t exist when I was in my formative years. The first thing I played was Myst, then Return to Zork, and then I got very excited by the field and started reviewing games for Wired, taking the approach that games were an exciting new form of entertainment and storytelling. I thought they should be held up to the same kind of critical thinking that people bring to literature and film. So I played a whole slew of things in a short period of time. Descent, Relentless, Ecstatica, and eventually I got around to Heretic, Hexen and Doom. I played a whole lot of crappy things, too—a lot of "interactive movies" with video scenes that had me screaming for a fast-forward button. The day I went to Wired and said I’d like to review games, they filled a large Hefty trash bag with CD-ROMS. I think there was maybe one thing in the whole bag worth playing, and which would actually run without a patch.

One of your novels, The Third Force: A Novel of Gadget, is actually based on a CD-ROM title. How did that come about?

After I played Myst, I saw an ad for this game called Gadget in a game magazine. The screenshots took my breath away—the whole thing had a weird Phil Dick/David Lynch feel that attracted me. Obviously, it was only an ad, but there was something about the game that seemed striking and original. I found out that Wired had already reviewed it, so I gave up trying to get a free copy. Not long after that, by sheer coincidence, my agent called to ask if I’d heard of this thing called Gadget. He knew I was very interested (all of a sudden) in games. The William Morris Agency actually, at that time, had an entire department devoted to multimedia and games, because they thought this was going to be a big thing for them. (Ironically, I believe there is now one solitary person in the entire William Morris organization that specializes in games.) WMA represented Synergy, the Japanese company that had created Gadget. An editor at Simon & Schuster had played the game and didn’t want it to end; he managed to talk S&S into publishing a novel set in the Gadget universe. In the end, I was hired to write that book. It was a dream come true. Gadget perfectly coincided with the way I saw the universe—it was the kind of vision I wished I had concocted myself. I ended up flying to Tokyo to work with the Gadget team. They wanted a book that would add to the storyline, and not merely rehash what was in the game. I thought over the story for a few months, and then sat down and wrote the thing fairly quickly, using lots of little tricks I’d learned from writers like Philip K. Dick. Although it was a work for hire, it was very much the kind of thing I’d have wanted to write in the first place. It was written to appeal to obsessive fans of Gadget, however, which rather limited its potential audience. Gadget basically disappeared from the face of the earth, and I doubt Simon & Schuster are going to be doing many more tie-in books for cult CD-ROM games. But it was fun while it lasted. Last I heard, the Gadget team was working with David Lynch on his computer game. They were made for each other.

Was it strange to write within the confines of another person’s universe?

I felt that the Gadget team and I occupied the confines of precisely the same universe. We were all dreaming the same dream. That was the strange thing.

Were you a fan of the old Infocom text adventures? You’ve confessed to playing Return to Zork for long stretches of time…was that your first exposure to Zork?

I didn’t discover the Infocom text adventures until sometime last year, when my old p60 precluded me from actually playing any of the current round of games. I started diving into the past, playing Doom (all the way through for the first time, yes) and Shadowcaster and text adventures…whatever my system could handle. It was interesting how thrilling I found the text adventures. The dated graphics in Doom taught me a similar thing. You experience stories with your mind, not exclusively with your eyes and ears: the senses are simply the gates that allow the story into your mind. It didn’t matter to me that there were no graphics in Zork, and that the textures in Doom were pixelly, because in both cases the games propelled me to places beyond the screen. I really enjoy going back and playing old games to see what remains fun about them.

Your byline in Wired 2.08 says, "Marc Laidlaw is the author of the Orchid Eater. He lives in San Francisco, working at a job too tedious to relate." Care to explain? :)

Well, that was my lawfirm job. I was a legal secretary for years and years, and then became a patent secretary around the time I started seriously plotting my escape into game design. I just always took jobs that would make me the most money with my limited skill set: Namely, typing. It really was too tedious to relate.

 

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Credits: Illustration © 1999 Michael Krahulik. This interview is © 1999 Jason Bergman & Marc Laidlaw. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it...or we'll write you out of the script.