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volume 1, issue 34

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Writing the Game

By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman



How did you wind up at Valve, anyway?

I was reviewing games for Wired. A patent lawyer I worked with in San Francisco, Charlie Kulas, had a brother named Mike Kulas who co-developed Descent with Matt Toschlog. (I was so uninformed about games that when Charlie sent me an email saying "Descentís 3d engine is the best Iíve seen," I thought he meant it was the "third" engine, and I wondered what the other two had looked like.) Charlie set me up with Descent, and I interviewed Mike and Matt and wrote a piece for Wired about how theyíd used the Internet to playtest their product. Wired started to think of me as their computer game writer. They came up with the idea of sending me to id to do an on-the-scene bit of reporting, to try and capture the corporate culture there. Instead, I eventually figured out that the truly interesting thing to write about was the process of making Quake. I spent over a year working on that article, and in the process got to know Michael Abrash and a few of the other guys at id. Mike Wilson kindly wangled me a job writing the book of id, which was the company history ("Manuscript Found in a Pool of Blood") that appeared (anonymously) in the id Anthology. It was written in the form of a Lovecraftian horror story, and John Romero liked it so much that he offered me a writer/level design job at Ion Storm, which I turned down due to my general dislike of Dallas. Michael Abrash, meanwhile, hinted at a few friends of his who were starting a game company in the Seattle area. Around that time, I was starting to build Quake levels, and I reviewed Worldcraft for Wired because it seemed like am amazingly fun thing to be able to build your own worlds. Worldcraftís creator, Ben Morris, was getting hired by Valve, and they contacted me as a professional journalist to write a recommendation letter to INS so that Ben could come down from Victoria and work in the U.S. I ended up talking to Gabe Newell about how interested I was in the potential of Quake-style games for storytelling, and I guess I must have set off a few silent alarms, because Gabe invited me up to meet Ben and generally just hang around with no specific purpose. The first time I visited Gabe came right out and said, "I just want to be clear, Iím not really sure why I asked you here." We were all just scoping each other out, Valve and I.

What was it about Valve that impressed you?

Well, it was really exciting to be thereóthe people were having fun, you could tell they were creating something really new and special. My first few minutes in the place I was having a conversation with Greg Coomer about Jorge Luis Borges, the Library of Babel, Shakespeare, Kafka, and Gadget. This was not a conversation I could imagine having at id, for instance. Gabe kept getting excited and describing things they were hoping to do in the game they had yet to dub Half-Life: Very cinematic, visceral, narrative things. And their technology blew me away. I saw colored lights, transparent glass, flocking birdsÖall kinds of odd things. It was like touring a mad scientistís lab, hoping that someone would ask me to stir a beaker. I was terribly depressed when they didnít offer me a job on the spot. Eventually, after a few months of long-distance assistance with storyline work, they did offer me a job. And I couldnít say no.

Now that youíve been in the industry for a little while, what do you think makes Valve different from other companies?

I havenít worked in other companies, so thatís really hard for me to say. Iíve only peeked at the way things worked at id and Synergy. Iíd have to say itís the combination of a bunch of uniquely talented individuals. Itís just something you canít bottle or easily formulate. I know that a lot of care goes into creating teams of people who work well with each otherówho inspire each other.

Iíve just got to knowÖwhat does a writer do on a daily basis at a gaming company, anyway?

That depends on what phase of production weíre in. Early in the design stage, we brainstorm a lot and I take most of the responsibility for writing stuff down; later I own a lot of the spec, which means updating it on a regular basis. Others at Valve are also very good at coming up with story elements, and organizing things in a highly dramatic way, so everything proceeds in a collaborative manner. But there are times when Iím writing a lot of dialog, or scripting out scenes, or rolling in feedback on stuff Iíve written. And there are other times when I play Team Fortress and just give thanks that I donít have to keep track of any patent filings.

Did you find it difficult to write for a video game?

A lot of what I contributed to Half-Life had very little to do with actual writing. It had a lot more to do with understanding the process of carrying out a creative project over a long period of time. I drew on my writing experience to tell others about the importance of rough drafts and revisionóboth of which have important parallels in game creation. We didnít get a good sense of what Half-Life would be until weíd roughed out the entire game. And we couldnít really get inventive and insanely inspired until we were well into the revision and refinement process, feeling confident that everything we were doing would play some important role in the gamerís experience.

I understand you used to have a sort ofÖloathing for Doom-style games. Why?

And what was it that brought you around?

My reaction against Doom-style games was based on ignorance. I hadnít played any of them. I might have confused them with actual violence; I had that knee-jerk thing going. When I finally started to play these games, I realized that what they were really about was a fantastical sense of mood and suspense, and the creation of new worlds. Immersion in new realities is one of the great attractions of fantastic literature, so it wasnít too hard to make the shift. For a time I thought that strange worlds alone were enough to hold my interest; so I started playing Hexen with monsters shut off. Not surprisingly, that turned out to be rather boring. I had to admit that monsters play an important part in building up the suspense factor, although I still think the threat of attack is a lot more dramatic, usually, than the battle itself. Itís more fun for me to think about what might be making a terrifying noise in a dark room, than to fight Ganondorf and fail for six nights in a row.

Having played games where you had little, if any interaction with your environment were you excited by the possibilities that were suddenly possible with Half-Life?

I think thereís a fine line for designers to be aware of. Here are two worst cases: (1) Nothing in the environment is interactive. (2) Everything in the environment is interactive. The thing is to figure out which details are worth interacting with, which things will lead to interesting possibilities for gameplay, and then arrange them in ways that donít seem contrived. It was frustrating in Myst to click on everything in sight. It would be equally (or even more) frustrating to have to open every drawer in every desk in Half-Life, hoping to find a key or a piece of paper that is going to make a different in Gordon Freemanís life.

Are you pleased with the reaction to the storytelling in Half-Life?

Very pleased. I think a lot of people felt that the 3D shooter didnít need a storylineóthat it would be wasted on the kind of people who play such things. But everyone I know likes stories. I couldnít imagine that gamers wouldnít like having a story if it deepened their involvement in the game instead of booting them out of it. Games currently receive the kind of condescension and societal disapproval previously reserved for pulp science fiction and comic books; not surprisingly, my sympathies have always naturally lain with S.F. and comix. Society as a whole underestimates and misapprehends our intentions and ambitions. I guess thatís the habitual alien/outsider/geek in me speaking. I think I just walked all over your question.

Since Half-Life was the first game youíd worked on, how do you think it came out in the end?

Everyone here is amazed and gratified by how well we did with our first game. Remember, it wasnít just the first game I worked on, it was the first game most of us had worked onóand in many cases, the first commercial product of any kind. Of course, what the audience sees is this nice, unified, finished product. I am happy they donít see all the near-misses and skin-of-your-teeth-eleventh-hour-disaster-aversions that still haunt me when I think about Half-Life. Behind the scenes at the magic show: does the magician ever experience the same sense of awe as the audience? Every now and then I will play a bit of the game to remind myself why people love it. As time goes by, I am better able to appreciate it for all the things it does right, instead of obsessing on the little errors that drove me nuts when we were so close to shipping that we couldnít go back and fix things anymore.

Was there anything you wish you could have changed?

A dozen little things, as cited above, none of which would have changed the overall experience for most players. Because much of the design process was seat-of-your-pants, there were a few story threads we didnít introduce early enough, and others we didnít follow through on. That crystal sample in the opening, for instance, should have been clearly echoed in the Nihilanthís chamberóand even down inside its gaping cranium. That was the plan. But we ran out of time to make the clear visual association. Time was our enemy.

Did you work on Team Fortress Classic at all?

I playtested it a lot.

Are you currently working on Team Fortress 2?

Itís our only announced product at this time, and I am keeping busy.

Are you playing any non-Valve games these days? Any games youíre looking forward to seeing in the near future?

Since shipping Half-Life, Iíve been happy to read a lot of books and watch some videos. I played Zelda64 start to finish, and had a very uneven experience: I loved most of the little mini-missions (find the chickens, run with this mushroom), I loved the whole sprawling world and the characters in it; but I disliked the repetitive reward structure, which ended up making exploration feel like drudgery. And I had a miserable time fighting most of the bosses. Iím going to play some Playstation titles next (especially Metal Gear Solid). Iím really dying to play Deus Ex. Oh, and whatever you do, donít follow this link:


Not if you value your productivity, that is.

Where do you think the game industry is headed? Do you think the concept of a game-writer is going to be the norm in a few years?

Well, we saw a rush of people in that direction a couple years ago, when a lot of Hollywood talent seemed to be moving into games (William Morris painted "Multimedia Department" on a door), and then it puttered out (William Morris got out the paint thinner and scrubbed that door really hard). I remember that Psychic Detective was supposed to be a case of make-it or break-it for the so-called interactive movie, and that model was clearly broken. It had good writing, but it was boring to play. I donít think Hollywood really "got" games. I believe many game designers understand the importance of good writing to their products, but they donít necessarily know how to find good writers who also care to understand good game design. Perhaps there arenít that many of us yet. There will certainly be more in time. I think interesting things happen when good writers get involved not just in scripting dialog, but in all aspects of game design. At the same time, writing/storytelling is just one element in a complex mix. Itís not inherently more important than any other factor, but I think that in the future the quality of storytelling will start to be something that gamers think about critically, just as they currently notice if the weapon balance is all wrong or the puzzles donít make sense. When I was a kid, game design was not a possible option for me; it wasnít even a blip on anybodyís radar. I wanted to be a writer, so I read books. These days, conceivably, thereís some freakish teenaged Laidlaw equivalent playing Half-Life and deciding that he or she wants to do this kind of thing; and that kid is going to grow up to make amazing games (or whatever the eggheaded people of the future might call their weird futuristic form of entertinament). Thatís where the next generation of game writers is likely to come from. And Iíd recommend that they skip their third viewing of The Matrix and go check out some Philip K. Dick instead.


- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman is the editor-in-chief here at loonygames. He's tired, dangit.


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.