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Vol. 2, Issue 9
January 24, 2000

Tell me a Story

An article by Russell "RadPipe" Lauzon



  pleasant female voice speaks in your ear: “Good morning, and welcome to the Black Mesa transit system. This automated train is provided for the security and convenience of the Black Mesa Research Facility personnel..”

The train takes you through a twisted maze of tunnels, deep underground. As a First Person Gamer, you see things you’ve never seen before. A mysterious melody is felt more than heard as you descend deeper into the labyrinth that is Black Mesa’s Headquarters. Large multi-legged spiders move materials from one location to another. Security guards walk along skinny platforms and knock against nondescript doors. Scientists move about performing complex experiments that the average layman couldn’t possibly comprehend. This is a place you’ve never been before.

This is the game that is Half-Life. Awarded “Game of the Year” by over 40 publications, its revolutionary single-player game brought the FPS world to a new level of awareness. Half-Life proved to gamers everywhere that you don’t have to sacrifice story for action. Indeed, the story of Gordon Freeman and the experiment gone wrong at the Black Mesa Research Facility is as immersive as it gets.

In this article we’ll take a look at story development in several top-notch games, and talk to the industry giants behind them: Marc Laidlaw of Valve Software (Half-Life), Justin Chin of Infinite Machine (Jedi Knight while with LucasArts), and Tim Schafer, formerly of LucasArts (Grim Fandango).


My first question centered around the initial stages of game concept, where the inspiration and ideas come from that start the creation process. Key to my thinking were two things: First, who’s involved with the creation, and second; whether they constantly have to remind themselves they’re making a game and therefore have constraints.

Marc Laidlaw: Well, most of the design work at Valve starts off as a team effort -- that’s the most significant initial difference in the way I approach the story for a game. I don’t continually remind myself that I’m working on a game and not a book or a movie, though-the constraints come into play soon enough. First, it’s nice to try to think of all the things you’d really like to do, and work out a story that will allow you to do them. It’s inhibiting to imagine a great dramatic moment and then start worrying about if the framerate will allow it. We go from whiteboard scrawls to outlines to fully detailed specs with dialog and scene descriptions.

Tim Schafer: Honestly, I sit down with an empty notebook and just free-associate. It's a writing technique I learned in this seventh grade English class I took. You pick up your pen and you just write, and the only rule is you can't stop writing, even if you're writing gibberish. So most of what I write sounds like this: "The game, the game, the game, must think about the game, and not about my transmission leak. Must figure out the bad guy's name today. Man, this coffee tastes bad. Maybe the bad guy's name is CoffeeHead. Java man. Bean grinder. Toaster head. Krupps. Braun. I'm getting a headache. There's a chip in my mug. The bad guy's name is Chip. Chip Mocha. No, that doesn't sound evil enough..." And I don't think I try to worry about forcing the story into a game, but maybe I do that subconsciously because I know what works in a game by experience.

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Credits: Illustration © 2000 Durrenberger David (dines). This article is © 2000 Russell Lauzon. All other content is © 2000 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited. So don't do it, or we'll make you cry, sissy.