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GDC Online: Valve Writers’ Candid Thoughts On Creative Process

At GDC Online in Austin on Tuesday, game writers with Valve Software took part in a roundtable question and answer session, covering the writing and overall creation of franchises including Team Fortress, Half Life, Dota and Left 4 Dead.

The following are highlights from the writers’ impromptu answers during the off-the-cuff session:

Challenges of the Silent Protagonist

Asked about Valve’s use of silent protagonists, such as Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Chell from Portal, studio writer Marc Laidlaw didn’t recommend the practice, just due to the related limitations and challenges the development team will inevitably run into.

“It always is great to limit yourself in design,” he said, as limitations push developers to solve problems creatively. But either way, now that some of Valve’s most popular protagonists are silent, there’s no turning back. “At this point we’re fully committed to it and taking it as far as it possibly could go,” he laughed.

Fellow Valve writer Erik Wolpaw explained a time in the development of Portal 2, when they were writing dialog between main character Chell and the antagonist Glados, [SPOILER] after Glados was turned into a potato. The plan was to have great movie cop buddy-style banter for the pair.

Of course, that’s difficult when one of the cop buddies doesn’t talk, and the team had to rework the writing. “It’s funny now, but at the time it was a real moment of panic because we had painted ourselves into a corner,” said Wolpaw.

All On The Table

Asked if the writers have deeper, expanded worlds of their creations living in their heads, Wolpaw replied, “I’m inherently super-duper lazy, so if I think of something it’s going in [the game],” he laughed. “There’s not a lot of stuff there that’s left on the table.” He added, “I try not to overthink it too, too much.”

Laidlaw said, “To me it’s kind of counterproductive to create a lot of stuff that’s not going to be in the game.”

On Team Fortress 2’s Writing

Wolpaw: “That whole game is us desperately trying to keep our jobs.”

Playtesting At Valve

Wolpaw said playtesting at Valve starts internally, earlier on in a game’s development, then the studio brings in a lot of people from the outside to give their input of a game. “We definitely do playtest. We’ll ask people after they play to recount the story to us and gauge their comprehension of their experience…”

“Comedy stuff is tougher [to evaluate] because it’s more subjective and it’s really hard to gauge peoples’ reaction,” he said. Wolpaw added that sometimes it’s a bit depressing, when people playtest a part in a game that’s supposed to be funny, and there’s little reaction. “Pretty much no one that played Portal 2 cracked a smile,” said Wolpaw, but testers still said the game was funny. “It’s hard to tell if a joke is failing or not.”

Sometimes it’s clear that an idea is failing with playtesters, and the studio has to correct the situation. “We fail all the time, we just don’t advertise it too much,” said Laidlaw.

The Writer’s Attachment To Characters

Asked if they feel an emotional attachment to the characters they create, the writers had varying answers. “It’s such a weird thing,” said Wolpaw, “it’s such an intense experience… and you live with them every day… So in a certain sense you’re attached to every single one.”

But Laidlaw, who’s also a science fiction novelist, said his experience is different when creating characters for games. “I haven’t really felt like that about my characters” he said. Instead, characters are more a result of a team collaboration, rather than a personal reaction that a novelist might convey in a book.

In Love With Your Work

Ted Kosmatka, who’s currently writing on Valve’s Dota 2, said that game writers need to be flexible to the needs of the entire development team. “If you’re a writer you can’t really fall too much in love with your own work… If you’re a game writer it’s such a collaborative process and you don’t really own any part of it, and the rug will get pulled out from under you… and sometimes it stays.”

What People Really Want

“You want to be creating things that people don’t know they want yet,” said Laidlaw. “…We always want to feel like we’re on the edge and challenging ourselves and growing all the time.”

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