Life After Valve: An Interview with Marc Laidlaw
The writer of Half-Life gave me an exclusive interview about writing and the gaming industry.
Marc Laidlaw worked at Valve between January 1997 and January 2016, the year he retired from the company. He has written successful games like Half-Life 1 and 2, Dota 2 and Portal, novels like Dad’s Nuke, The 37th Mandala and Underneath the Oversea, and a series of short stories.
Which novel or short story do you feel was the hardest one to write and why?
Marc Laidlaw: The one that was the most work was NEON LOTUS. I did a lot of research, read many books about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, tacked up maps to show the characters’ journeys, and I remember that process not coming easily to me nor being one I particularly enjoyed. By the time I’d finished the book I said I’d never do that again, but try to write books that came more directly out of my own experience. I wrote that book in the ’80s, and twenty years later I had the chance to visit Tibet, at which point I discovered how much I got wrong…to the point I cannot look at NEON LOTUS without embarrassment. When I was given the chance to write a new story set in Tibet, I was able to draw on my recent experience, and the resulting story “Leng” was much more satisfying and truer to reality than anything in the novel.
How would you describe your writing process for shorts and novels? Do you have a daily routine?
ML: No, I barely write at all these days. The last novel I wrote, UNDERNEATH THE OVERSEA, we were trapped in our neighborhood on the North Shore of Kauai for 14 months, and it was such a hassle to get in and out of the area (thanks to roadblocks while the highway was being repaired after devastating landslides) that I settled down to write a novel I had begun just before the disaster. I rented a room in a neighbor’s house just down the road, not having any private space to work at home, and would bike down there daily. My routine was to goof around and distract myself until I realized I was wasting my time, and then force myself to write some new pages on the novel. I wrote that over the summer of 2018. There was nothing else going on. I’d bodysurf in the morning, write in the afternoon, on a good day.
Do you think people are reading less novels and short stories these days? What future do you see for the editorial market?
ML: I don’t see that. In my circle, people are reading a lot. But they’re also playing games and watching movies and…working very hard. Short stories are easy to find online, but I’m not sure how many readers the online magazines have. It seems to be a thriving field at the moment.
Which writers were your main influences?
ML: The ones I read too early to be aware of things like influences…they get under your skin when you are impressionable. Poe was probably the one that affected me most as a child, because my father read those stories to us at bedtime! My mother read us passages from whatever she was reading, which happened to be Tolkien and Ray Bradbury. Some of my favorite fantasy novels when I started reading on my own were Jane Langton’s DIAMOND IN THE WINDOW series, which are set in Concord, Massachusetts, and are very dreamlike. As I got older and more determined to be a writer, I gravitated toward weird fiction and science fiction and read all the usual stuff that you could find at the time — lots of Lovecraft, of course. But New Wave science fiction was happening in the early to mid Seventies and those writers were working right that moment, which was thrilling.
What title would you recommend for a reader that wants to get to know your work?
ML: I would go on Amazon and checked the samples that are there to be read, and see if anything grabs you. Everyone has different taste in prose, and sometimes if something strikes you just right, you know that’s the book for you. That’s usually how I decide what to read. Even if someone recommends a book to me, I have to get a whiff of the prose to know if I’m going to want to spend time with it.
What are the next projects you are working on? What can we expect from your next work?
ML: Not really writing anything new at the moment, since I was unable to sell my last book and grew discouraged. Mostly I am enjoying doing music, especially electronic music, it makes me feel creative and unconstrained and I’ve got no expectations of “success.” It’s a great hobby. Writing has also turned into a hobby rather than a career…but it’s not nearly as much fun at the moment. As far as the books go, I am working with a professional audiobook production company to do a high quality reading of UNDERNEATH THE OVERSEA, which lends itself well to reading aloud. I’m hoping that will reach a new audience of people who prefer audiobooks to reading. That should be out in March 2022.
What would you tell young writers that are looking to work with short stories and novels?
ML: I don’t have any advice for writers. Just write and keep at it. If there’s anything you’d rather do, do that. But if there’s nothing you’d rather do, then you’re not going to stop anyway, so you won’t really need advice, you will figure it out on your own.
2. Valve and The Game Industry
What have you been up to since you retired from Valve?
Marc Laidlaw: Not much. I lived on Kauai for a few years, swam a lot. Now I’m back in Los Angeles, sticking fairly close to my increasingly elderly parents, doing stuff with them. My new adventures in music have led to some new friends and possibilities for creative collaboration so I’m excited to see where that goes. I make occasional stabs at writing screenplays, since I am in LA, but I’m not sure my heart is into it. I only do it if I have ideas or opportunities that are more fun than making music.
How do you feel looking back and seeing your games?
ML: I was very fortunate to be involved in starting the HL series, to be in that particular place and time in the industry, and to work with the people who made those games. It all feels like a long time ago now. Our kids were little when I started and now they are off with their own careers and families. When I first retired, I missed working on games…but I was also nostalgic for my first few years in the industry, not so much the last few. At first I felt like I had a lot to contribute, could create and discover things every day, but toward the end I felt increasingly irrelevant. It was time to move on and follow my own interests again. I think my ability to contribute meaningfully to games peaked at the time I was doing that — when first person shooters were the cutting edge of the industry and synced up perfectly with my interests in narrative viewpoint and linear storytelling. I’m grateful to have had that time. I was incredibly lucky to have found my way there when games had never been a thing on my radar.
Do you still play video games? If yes, what games are you currently playing?
ML: Sure, I’ve got a PS5 and a Switch, so I’ve basically given up entirely on PC gaming. My favorite games of the last few years have been the Yakuza series, although I’ve put a few hundred hours into the latest Monster Hunter iterations. I have barely touched the PS5, which I only got recently. I tried the latest Metroid Dread but found it frustratingly difficult, so I’ve been enjoying the fact that the addictive Grindstone is now on Switch. Mostly I’ve been watching lots of movies and TV series, but every now and then a game will take over my life for a few weeks.
Have you played Half-Life Alyx? If so, what are your thoughts on the game?
ML: I haven’t played it, mainly because I am completely out of the PC gaming habit and I would need to buy a PC to play it, in addition to the Index. I had an Index, a gift from Valve, but I ended up giving it to my son in law because on Kauai at the time, especially as the pandemic started, there was no way to buy a PC that could handle the game. As time goes on, I am less and less likely to play Alyx, but that’s fine. I hear it’s great and the main thing is that Valve has found a way to move forward with the series and fans seem to love it.
Would you have liked to have worked in any other games that were made? Which ones?
ML: I always wished I could have worked on Thief. I enjoyed their take on fantasy — it was a nice mix of traditional elements and completely original stuff, with great characters and fantastic writing.
Is there a chance of you coming back from retirement from the gaming industry?
ML: Never say never, right? I wish I’d never said “retirement” in the first place, since what I really needed to do was move on from Valve, not just come to a full stop. I imagined I would be writing novels again, but the publishing industry had moved on and I felt out of touch when I tried coming back to it. I can’t imagine returning to games for that matter, but if it were the right project…who knows? I often hear about writers being asked to work on big new projects, creating worlds from scratch with a team, and I’m a little bit envious…but at the same time, I’m wary. The teams I was fortunate to work with at Valve spoiled me. It’s not guaranteed that I’d be a good fit for anywhere else. And it’s not like Miyazaki was going to ask me to help out with Elden Ring when he could get George R.R. Martin!
I’ve talked to some friends about helping out on smaller things, but so far nothing has worked out. The Triple A game space exhausts me just thinking about it. I might help another friend by doing a few bits of music for his indy game…I did some voice acting for his last one. I don’t think I’ll do much in this space, but it’s all fun to do on the side.