How do you keep Half-Life characters "real" while all the technological whiz-bangs and G-Man mysteries are flying around them?
Laidlaw: We try to draw strong relationships between the characters; making each one part of a believable network of family and friends (and rivals) makes it easier for players to relate to them. Characters in weaker science-fiction stories often seem flimsy because they're solitary heroic figures without parents, siblings or ordinary relationships. Character-driven drama depends on social context, status transactions, how they relate to other people in their world. We also assume our characters have spent their whole life in this world - especially Alyx, who grew up surrounded by headcrabs and Vortigaunts. The crazy sci-fi details are just ordinary obstacles to them - still full of potential threats and surprises, as in our own world, but with a grim internal logic.
Ask any game developer to name a major inspiration and they'll say "Star Wars." Is this a blessing or a curse?
Laidlaw: For me it's a curse. I hate Star Wars and don't have to feign a blank look when other members of the team say things like "Hoth" or "Jar Jar the Hut." It's never in my mind as something to emulate. The first movie was a huge let-down once the opening spaceships had flown past. Compared to the stuff I was reading in 1977, the works that defined science-fiction for me (the New Wave writers who'd strode forth from New Worlds and Dangerous Visions), everything in Star Wars was old space helmet. But there's no question it dragged some of the most lurid pulp sci-fi clichés into the mainstream and purveyors of pop entertainment have been wallowing in it ever since. Forbidden Planet, a much purer purveyor of pulp magic, is my Star Wars.