When Valve started brainstorming about concepts for the game, one of the first ones brought up was a book Newell had read by Steven King called The Mist. "[The book] talks about this 'thing' that happens at the Arrowhead secret military base," recalls Harrington, "and this mist comes out like a big fog bank." Behind the bank is a slew of monsters who ravage a city and trap all these people in a grocery store.
Thankfully, the grocery store idea was dropped, but the parameters of King's story intrigued the team. "We thought it would be fun to do a scary action game," explains Harrington.
"Valve set out to do a class B game and not a class A game," says Abrash. "The model for starting a company, and the one I think Gabe and Mike followed - Carmack would tell you this in a second - is to just ship something." As Abrash explains, if a company sets out to do a killer game, it gets stuck "behind the curve" and ends up being too late with the product, which generally turns out to be a B game (or worse) anyway.
"For a long time," explains Newell, "3D action games seemed to keep treading down the same path - an increasing focus on a narrow definition of gameplay and a focus on the rendering [graphics] instead of the gameplay." Valve was intent on bringing something new to the game environment apart from snappy graphics. Not everyone thought it was a good idea.
"We'd occasionally get people who would say things like: 'Stories? Who needs them? I just want a rocket launcher that fires faster,'" says Newell. "It's pretty scary to be spending a big chunk of your own money and be going in a direction that's different than the norm." It's a sad commentary on the game industry that Valve was "different than the norm" just because it wanted to develop a cohesive story to accompany the game's action elements.
With that idea in mind, last summer, Valve commissioned novelist Marc Laidlaw, whose award-winning novels include Kalifornia and the 37th Mandala, to help flesh out the plot and characters. "We didn't want the story to rely on one character coming and telling you the whole tale at one point and that was it," explains Laidlaw. "We wanted to gradually ease the player into the story and provide little clues along the way."
Of course, all this was still on paper at this point. "We weren't even sure it was technically possible to make the characters talk," says Laidlaw. That's when Valve's software engineers came into play - the people who would lift the world of Half-Life from paper to digital reality.