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References:Marc Laidlaw emails

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This page mirrors email conversations made between fans and Marc Laidlaw. The legitimacy of these messages have been verified by OverWiki staff.

On the Xen/Combine relation

Yes, that's fairly accurate, and I'm pretty sure Doug was restating something I'd told him; I am not clarifying it, since it's the foundation on which the series continues. What we saw in HL 1 was the very end of a long struggle between the Combine and the last of the Nihilanth's race...although it's a bit different than the word "prompted" implies. The Nihilanth's "world" (if it could be said to have) was long since in the past as far as the Nihilanth was concerned; Xen was their final retreat, and they had their back to the wall, as it were, when the fissure appeared that let them spill into our dimension. Xen itself is sort of a dimensional transit bottleneck--an area of continual contention.
Source (archived)

On whether the Suppression Field affects other living beings than humans

It shouldn't.
Source  (February 10, 2014)

My thinking was that it was a highly specific inhibitor, but I must have waffled on whether it affected mammals other than humans...or maybe the Combine weren't as selective as they intended. Invasive Xen wildlife would definitely have an effect on native species! Sorry for being so inconsistent.
Source  (November 30, 2014)

On the Half-Life Saga Guide

I am familiar with the timeline you mention although i haven't looked at it since I first made my ill-advised comment to Gary McTaggart. There was some stuff in there that seemed accurate and some that was way off. As we've continued to develop the storyline, it's probably become less relevant, since we have changed our thinking about events earlier in the series. Anyway, I'm glad people enjoy doing and thinking about all this stuff. I doubt we will ever issue precise dates on a timeline of our own, because then we'd just end up contradicting ourselves. Thanks for writing!

On the titles of Half-Life 2 soundtrack

Hi, Kelly is no longer with Valve, but I was the one who named these so I can tell you a bit about those circumstances. Titles were never meant to match up with gameplay or any role they had in the game, and they were done long after the fact without reference to the game. I basically went for things that sounded evocative or had twists on meaning in the game. Kelly's tracks were sometimes named as best-guesses, but doesn't mean they would have ended up where he thought they would. If I recall correctly, the Headhumper track was for when you stuck your head up through a hatch in one of those shacks along the river during the airboat sequence and a headcrab leapt at you. It was comical. The Biozeminade reference was totally random--Biozeminade" was a reference to some fans trolling in Amazon reviews, saying they heard the game had Biozeminades in it. This was the closest I could go to fulfilling that wish.

On The Orange Box Prima Guide enemies' characteristics

I'm not sure who wrote that. Game guides are generally written in great haste and with varying amounts of input from the team. I'm not sure where that info comes from but it sounds improvised. I don't recall anyone on the team thinking of the creatures that way, but it's possible someone told that to the Prima writer off the cuff. The hunter definition especially seems wrong...but possibly Ted Backman did think of them as modified striders and I just never heard him say so.

In response to:

I have a few questions regarding the enemies in Half-Life 2: Episode Two. The Orange Box Prima Guide states that the Antlion Worker is a subgenus and genetic mutation of an Antlion (they "are rumored to have burrowed near the many toxic waste dumps scattered around the countryside"), Antlion Guardians are mutated Antlion Guards, and the Hunter is a modified Strider. Is all of this true? Have the Workers and Guardians appeared only on Earth some time after the Resonance Cascade? Is the Hunter closely related to the Strider?

User:Sandvich18  (December 27, 2014)

On the endings of Half-Life and Half-Life 2

As for the final boss, it would be incorrect to say "Xen is still the same," beause we made all that up at the last minute. We didn't know what kind of boss we would have until very late. There was some kind of giant living organism you travelled through early in the design, on paper, when I would ask level designers "Can we really do this?" And they always told me yes. As it turned out, a lot of things were impossible, I think they just didn't want to disappoint me.
Source  (April 30, 2015)

When there was a "belly of the beast" in the game, there was no Lambda Core and no design for Xen. Ocarina of Time finally did the interior of a monster about as well as I can imagine doing it at that time.

There was no end worked out to the early version, other than the player teleporting to an alien world. We had no idea what would happen when you got there. Note that this was the plan before I joined Valve...things were very sketchy. The "device" was probably just hand-waving, something to make it sound like everything had been planned out. There wasn't an ending until we were out of time and we had to build one. I think you're imagining us being more experienced back then, but nobody knew what they were doing. When we started HL2, one of the first things we thought was hat we'd better have a decent idea of the ending when we started building the game, and that's why you see the Citadel from the very beginning.

Source  (April 30, 2015)

I don't remember how we thought we were going to end it, other than wanting it to wrap back on itself and come full circle. The big weakness of Xen was that we barely set it up from the beginning, so when you got there, there was no sense of inevitability or of resolution/closure. It all felt arbitrary. It was less important to know how it was going to end than to know where it was going to end. That's probably why we created the Citadel in the first place--so that we could have an imposing landmark to show you as much as possible, even when you were running away from it. Beyond that, I don't recall.
Source  (May 1, 2015)

On the tone change of Half-Life 2

It was probably at its most dark when it was merely concept art and story fragments. There was never any decision to get less dark…but as we built the game, the look of things changed, and it became more about action and combat. Just part of the natural evolution of an idea. The AirExchange fell by the wayside as we started cutting down content to manageable size…in terms of gameplay, it would have been a bit like Nova Prospekpt, I imagine, except with fewer cells and more ducts…the theme of a prison fit right into the game without requiring a lot of outside explanation, while dramatizing how an AirExchange was supposed to work would have been pretty tough. It also went hand in hand with the idea of a huge portal siphoning off earth's oceans…something that eventually I came to realize we could not build. So rather than do these things halfway, we just backed off them and went with things with immediate impact. …that's how I remember it anyway, not a big decision so much as a series of tiny alterations and course corrections that eventually took us from an idea to a rather different implementation.
Source  (July 25, 2015)

On the Hazard Course

We didn't give it any thought. I suppose the security training course would be located somewhere near the HEV training course.
Source  (August 3, 2015)

On the Cremator head

It was just an in-joke. We all loved the Cremator and hated to lose him. When you're trying to populate a lab with junk and salvage, you salvage whatever you've got in the way of old models lying around. I guess it suggests that there are Cremators in the world somewhere, although it looks like they didn't work out too well when it came to subduing humanity.
Source  (August 26, 2015)

On the Xen Bugs

They're just another of the random species that found its way to Xen specifically for gameplay purposes!
Source  (September 11, 2015)

On the HECU radio chatter voice actor

Except for the Mike and Hal conversations, it's all Kelly. He did all the AI stuff. The “Get him/Nice hit/All right we got him” is also Kelly. But the following conversation on the way to the trash compactor is of course Mike and Hal. At one point I did similar AI voices on all the scientists, which was done as gibberish mumbling that Kelly then cut up and ran in reverse to make it more unintelligible…we didn't ship any of that, and it turned into the “ridiculous ties” sort of random comments, recorded by Hal.
Source  (October 15, 2015)

On the Black Mesa Announcement System's voice

Yeah it is some kind of vocoder, not a person.
Source  (December 26, 2015)

On whether the Gravity Gun uses Xen Crystals

I dont think so. The orange glow is similar to xenium though, isnt it? Zero Point Energy theory has nothing to do with Xen afaik.
Source  (January 1, 2016)

On his retirement

Hi [redacted], I hope this will explain why I cannot answer your questions. Feel free to share it with your group.


Is the rumor true?

Yes, it is true. I, Marc Laidlaw, have retired from Valve.

Was there really a rumor to that effect

Not to my knowledge. I just thought that in case there was one, I might as well start by confirming it. Most of my friends already know because I told them directly.

What do you mean you're retiring from Valve?

I am no longer a full or part time Valve employee, no longer involved in day to day decisions or operations, no longer a spokesman for the company, no longer privy to most types of confidential information, no longer working on Valve games in any capacity.

Why are you retiring?

There are many reasons, most of them personal. An outwardly obvious reason is that I'm old, or anyway oldish. My nickname when I first started at Valve in 1997 was "Old Man Laidlaw." The little baby level designer who gave me that nickname is older now than I was then Imagine how much older I am! I had the unbelievable luck to fall in with the kids at Valve when they could have just dismissed me as an old fogey who didn't know shit about videogames. The only Zelda I'd ever heard of was F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife. They taught me everything. I had a good run but lately I have been feeling a need for a break from the collaborative chaos of game production, and a return to more self-directed writing projects.

What does this mean for Half-Life?

I don't and can't entirely know. Half-Life is fully owned by Valve. It came into existence before my arrival. Where Valve may choose to take it in the future is not in my hands. I have been a grateful co-creator, but my time of working on the series is behind me. Since I no longer speak for Valve, it would be inappropriate for me to answer questions or speculate openly on the fate of the franchise. I can speak about games I worked on in the past, to the extent this is public knowledge, but I have talked about those subjects endlessly over the years and I don't think there's much to add.

Will you have any kind of continuing relationship with Valve?

Valve has been my second home, and home to a great many of my dreams and ambitions, for over 18 years. I will always have a connection to the company, the many friends I made there, the games I worked on, and especially the characters I helped create. My friends know they can consult me if questions come up that I can help them answer. I hope that for at least a few years, if I come to the door, people will still recognize me and let me in without calling security. I won't blame them if they hide the silverware, however. I can be trusted with company secrets, but not with spoons. Never with spoons.

What are you going to do now?

That is unclear. I will almost certainly get back to writing more stories of my own; that's simply my default setting. Working on games has been an amazing education, a vocation, an entire career I never expected to have. I found a calling that didn't even exist when I was a sprout. But it feels like the time is right to return to my roots an see where that takes me. It might well take me back into games by other routes, but currently that's not part of the plan. I'll be exploring for a while.

Are you willing to do interviews or engage in further correspondence about all this?

Not at this time. For now, I am going to let this written statement stand as my complete comment on the matter. If it seems like there is something important I neglected to mention, or some world shattering new event that demands to be trumpeted, such as the arrival of a new grey hair, then I suppose I might update it. Those who write asking for further clarification or expanded explanations will probably jus receive another copy of this message. I appreciate all the interest and enthusiasm from Half-Life fans over the years; I loved working on the games and engaging with the community, but I can no longer be considered a potential source of new information. And please don't bombard Valve with questions either. There is nothing anyone there can tell you about my personal decision to retire.

How do we know this email is not a fake?

Assuming the entire universe ist not itself a hoax, this uncertainty arises mainly thanks to a small, specialized cottage industry of trolls who have been employed turning out fake emails in my name, in which I say things about Valve that I would never say. What you are reading is he genuine article, a hand-picked assortment of words selected and arranged in a particular, convoluted order for one specific purpose: to demonstrate that I and nobody else have our could have written this email. I expect that after enough identical versions of this message have been shared in the Steam forums, on Reddit, or wherever else games congregate, people will come to accept its authenticity, especially when I don't contradict them. So if you were planning to write to me directly asking whether it's real, please accept one of these preemptive replies: (a) Yes, it's real. (b) Nope, it's not a fake. (c) Nope, it's real. (d) Yes, it's not a fake.

How do we know if your explanation of how we know this email is not a fake, is not a fake?

Did trolls create this universe, or are they merely its creatures?
Thank you for playing along.
Source  (January 8, 2016)

On the gas mask Citizen and Zombie models

I don't think we ever got as far as putting headcrabs on a gas mask but I wouldn't swear to it... I don't think people were happy with the gas mask citizen model and it wasn't around long. We were doing facial technology, which made faceless citizens seem like a poor choice that wouldn't advance our tech at all. Those were just the regular old zombies of the day, the models continued to be reworked until we ended up with the lithe, svelte versions that shipped.
Source  (March 31, 2016)

On the "Psyche" level

That map is a carryover from when I was experimenting with trying to do surreal/subliminal visual experiments, and I made the texture myself by pasting something from a scientific text. It was outside the scope of actual game story development so it wasn't intended to be taken also wasn't intended to be seen outside of Valve, but Gabe liked the short "Psyche" map and wanted to use it in promos, so we added the ending to make it fit the announcement. But the concept I was playing with at the time was that you were in some kind of induced coma, and had figured out how to break out of it. I wanted to do a lot of that sort of thing in the HL series but it never really worked out...surrealism in a video game just seems as arbitrary as anything else. Ultimately, I didn't think we should suggest that Gordon was located in a physical kind of stasis at all, but between games was suspended in some kind of unreal psychic realm...accessible only to the G-Man (and the vortigaunts). I regret not having changed that texture to something that was actual nonsense, instead of something that looked like a clue. Otherwise, that little Psyche map/trailer is one of my favorite things I made.
Source  (July 11, 2016)

On whether Valve would release early game files

As far as a reason why they would or wouldn't release them, I can't really even speculate. It's not like there is some authority saying to release or not release stuff. But generally, back when I worked there, especially in the earlier days, when there was a lot of concern about quality control and things not shipping unless they were highly polished--a kind of constipation that if anything was aggravated by the theft. The company itself has no vested interest in releasing content outside of its regular shipping cycles; maybe some individuals do. Even when Valve was heavily involved in supporting Half-Life 1 mods, there was plenty of original content that the company did not release to the mod community. To find art this old would be work, for somebody who knew where to look for it. It would involve reinstalling and reconfiguring our old content control system...I think it was VSS. I don't know if anyone cares to go to that trouble.

My hope is that someday Valve will hire a professional records archivist to go through all the old stuff, exhume it, organize it, set it up for students, researchers, academics, or even the merely curious. But corporations have different motivations than you or I when it comes to their intellectual property. There is tons of amazing concept art done for movies, but the artists themselves are unable to distribute it without permission of studios, who have no real use for it, but still would rather squat on it. Early Disney archives are certainly full of amazing stuff that Disney controls tightly and only lets a fraction out under extremely controlled circumstances.

For that matter, if someone who loved my books wanted to see an old draft of one, I would certainly deny the request, because the work is embarrassing and I don't like to leave tracks. But I still intend to leave my records to a collection for people to look at old manuscripts and stuff if they want to someday. (And no, I didn't bring any Valve stuff with me. I left it all there. Everything I created when I worked there belongs to them.)

It's a complicated and sometimes troubling issue, especially if you have invested a bunch of energy in wanting to tinker with property that belongs to someone else. At some point, you might be better off inventing your own worlds, and then you don't have to depend on anyone else for access or permission to play in them. In the end, that's what I've chosen to do.

Source  (June 30, 2016)

On the black, leather suit

There was a period where we just explored a number of very different possibilities for the whole feel of the sequel. One of those was extremely dark. Brothers Quay, Jacobs Ladder, Warsaw ghetto, Dark City...lots of imagery of torture and evil. It was purely exploratory, there was never any commitment to it. About all we retained from that period was the idea of a resistance that busted Gordon out of the hands of an oppressive force. I think the idea was that he was enlisted as some kind of agent, and this was their was almost a strait jacket. The HEV suit was gone, but we still needed some kind of suit to provide UI, and a more sinister kind of AI suit voice. But keep in mind that you're looking back at this period with some assumptions we hadn't made at the time. Half-Life wasn't a big hit at that time; it was quite a while before it became a bestseller, and we didn't think people expected anything in particular of us, so we could change as much as we wanted. The orange suit and crowbar were not especially iconic. We could have taken a step away from them fairly easily at that point without thinking that we were diluting the essence of Freeman. But we didn't stick with this approach for very long. Probably Gabe told us we were crazy!
Source  (September 17, 2015)

On his level design work

Hi Matthew, I'm afraid I don't have anything else. I can't remember the last time I used a level editor but it was probably during the development of HL2. We had so many good level designers that there wasn't much point in tinkering myself, plus I got frustrated by the fact that my map entities broke with each new build of the engine, and I was worn down by having to recompile them. There was one map, I don't recall the name exactly-something involving a whistler. I thought it would have been in the same directories with ickypop. It started with you walking through subway tunnels hearing someone whistling in the distance, and then manhacks break out and attack, and eventually you're supposed to make your way over a drop with stalkers shooting laser beams at you. Another one that broke so often that I stopped updating it. Best thing about it was that Chia Chin Lee did some custom sounds for it, which means it must have been pretty early in HL2 development. (Chia Chin and I had a lot of fun goofing around with sound effects. Fun fact: He recorded me doing the suffocated/tortured human cries for burning headcrab zombies...Kelly later reversed the sounds and did other processing not them, but our original idea was to make them audibly begging for help.)

But apart from the horrible, horrible Chapel Shoggoth map, there's nothing else of mine out there. I did a death match map around HL1 time called cloisters, but I don't think that ever sneaked out. And early on I did a DM map called Alchemy, which was all one texture, for which I endured a lot of teasing... I don't think these survive in any form. They might be on an old floppy somewhere, but if so, it's one I can no longer access.

Source  (March 7, 2016)

On Gina as an alternate playable character in Half-Life

No, that never materialized in the least...I don't think we ever called that character Gina either, by the way, I think that was a Gearbox interpolation. Gabe had a radical new idea like that every 15 minutes, especially when it was way too late to implement. Remember how he said that moss would grow in realtime?

Keep in mind originally we planned the game with cutscenes, along with the in-game scripted sequences; we thought for sure we would cut away to dynamic views of cool stuff happening. I vaguely recall we thought we were going to see the capture sequence as if we were watching through a security cam. But around that time, we realized that we didn't have a decent model for the character, that we'd have to do a version with a labcoat and a version with an HEV suit...all kinds of complications that meant we'd need a bunch more time to do cutscenes. At that point we realized that we might as well commit 100% to no cutscenes, and see if we could figure out how to do the whole game without them. This was really late in the process. Once we gave up on cinematics, we found our real strength in doing it all in first person. So, tradeoffs often lead to this sort of discovery...

Source  (September 1, 2016)

On military forces on Xen

Looks to me like that's supposed to be the desert area in Black Mesa, but skybox limitations prevented it. A lot of this stuff verges on hallucination though so I don't think we worried about people ever taking it literally. There was zero thought put into justification, especially in the exhausted last-minute rush when this was made. The Xen in our control line is interesting though, I had forgotten about that. We intended you to think scientists had been in there and poked around, but obviously couldn't get very least until the Nihilanth was killed. Killing the N is the only thing you've done in Xen, so it has to have been that which shifted the balance of control.
Source  (October 4, 2016)

On Arbeit Laboratories

There is no meaning to was just temp signage an artist created, nothing that was story directed. People are misled by reading meaning into spare broken parts. Only the finished game is of any import.

It occurs to me I am misremembering Arbeit actually...maybe I am wrong about its origin, but my original point still stands. Insignificant, to the point I have no memory of it.

Source  (March 2011)

On the Borealis maps being used in Team Fortress 2

Yeah it looks like they used some Borealis interiors that were around at the time. Badly lit ones!

That pipe!

Source  (November 14, 2014)

On the Borealis

Plans for Borealis when we were planning HL2 were totally different from the Borealis we were thinking about by Ep2. I don't remember anything about the version you are asking about. I don't think we had even come up with the Combine yet. Too long ago for me to remember since we junked all of it and started over. Sorry.

It was described as a research vessel because that is what kind of ship it is. NOAA's Polar Star is an arctic research ship. Doesn't mean they were doing any particular research on it.

Source  (February 4, 2017)

On the arctic base

It was never the starting point, just a test of how you'd make a place. Never had any gameplay associated, more of a mood piece, like a concept sketch. Randy Lundeen would do a lot of rough maps trying to pin down ideas.
Source  (February 9, 2017)

On Xen Crystals being named Xenium

Yes. Got the name from the similar crystals that are in the Gadget tie-in novel, The Third Force, which I wrote before joining Valve.
Source  (February 18, 2017)

On Half-Life: Blue Shift's ending

When the Gearbox games were being made, we hadn't really started to distinguish Barney or the scientists as separate characters with distinct histories, so the adventures of Barney Calhoun in that game are in an indeterminate state. In HL1, all Barneys were one HL2, there was only one Barney. So I figure that's one possible story of one possible Barney and how he escaped...and the same goes for the science team. However those scientist characters are Gearbox characters and don't figure in any of my thinking about the game, except in a very general way (i.e., some of the science team survived). I don't know about HL Decay, that was done with very little reference to Valve and I've never played anything past the very opening (I couldn't find a co-op partner when it came out). None of this was planned in the early days... we really had no idea it was going to turn out to be a big deal.

On Barney's name

The evolution of the name is that in HL1, we called all the security guards Barney. They're all different but...the same guy. It was down to texture and model limitations of the time we shipped. He was called Barney because in early development he looked like Barney Fife... I suspect Chuck Jones, the artist, actually based him on Don Knotts. (He got a bit less crazy looking before we shipped.) When Gearbox started doing Blue Shift, which would follow the adventures of one individual, they wanted a name for the character, so I came up with Calhoun. By the time we got to HL2, we were able to treat more of our main characters as individuals, and I thought it was amusing to stick with the name Barney Calhoun for the particular security guard who survived Black Mesa. I try not to think about it too hard. I didn't have any idea what they were making in Blue Shift and didn't play it until it was done. The game put you in the shoes of one of those many Barneys at Black who managed to escape. Were they ALL named Barney Calhoun? I don't know, but it's the sort of nonsense question that arises when you try to retrofit logic on something that initially made no sense. I try not to think back that far. I don't know Blue-Shift well enough to know if it conflicts with anything in HL2--I enjoyed it when I played it, but it didn't influence decisions in HL2. But it also doesn't particularly bother me to think maybe it was the story of how the Barney in HL2 escaped Black Mesa.

Another bit of trivia, which I sometimes point out...his name was originally spelled Colqhoun, after Robert Carlyle's character in Ravenous, which I had just watched when Gearbox asked for a last name for the character.


On early Half-Life 2 settings

Not much to it, Jonathan. Early in development, there was just a list of possible settings, including American ones. I remember we had written "Washington, D.C." and one of the level designers said, "Ugh, I lived in D.C., I would never want to build or play that level." That's probably when the idea of setting it in the US went out the window. Once you've got some settings that give rise to gameplay, then you try to pull together something resembling a plot. This is a good example of how the story can (and, in a game, should) depend on many other factors.
No, it was always set on Earth with aliens coming here as invaders, but there were a few different alien civilizations that had taken over areas. It never made any sense. That would have come later, we hoped.

On the Gravity Gun using Xenium

I dont think so. The orange glow is similar to Xenium though, isnt it? Zero Point Energy theory has nothing to do with Xen afaik.

On Gus

I wasn't aware his name was Gus, that's how little backstory he has.
Source  (December 26, 2011)

On the types of Alien Aircrafts and the trash compactor scene

The mantas are different species from the same family.

I didn't work on Decay and don't know what's in it, so I wouldn't be surprised by inconsistencies. They told me they were planning to do a different perpsective on the trash compactor and I thought that sounded cool so I told them to go for it. That's all I know. As for why the villians didn't simply kill the hero? Ha ha! The game would have ended right then if they had. It was just a gag to set up another little time-pressure situation. It would cerainly have made more sense to kill him and then put him in the compactor if they were trying to hide the body... But that'd have been no fun for players! ML

Source  (October 8, 2014)

On Barney's appearance in Episode Two

I'm not sure, but when this was first pointed out, I think I concluded that a level designer had randomly triggered one of Barney's congratulatory lines among citizen lines in the garage shop area after you conclude the final strider battle. If that's the one you're talking about, then it accident. Personally, once I heard about it, I pictured him hiding inside one of those crates in the area.
Source  (January 7, 2013)

See also