A Place in the West – An Interview with Ross and Michael.

26th May 2018

The range of creations based on the Half-Life series never ceases to amaze me. Of course, that’s probably true of many IP franchises but Half-Life is the only one I am interested in.

I can’t say I have always been a fan of comics and am a little embarrassed to say that the movie “Unbreakable” was the first time I had really thought about their societal impact and influence.

Even as a child, I never really bought comics, so it was with some trepidation that I started to read A Place in the West. I won’t lie – it took a while for me to become interested and I did find it tough going at times, but I will say that I enjoyed what I read, even if I didn’t agree with all the creative choices.

I actually printed all the chapters and read them like a tradition comic and I actually liked that more than reading them on-screen (call me old-fashioned if you want).

That said, I have absolutely no hesitation at all in recommending reading the comic. The first chapter is free but the following ones are much better and at a very fair price of 1.99 Euros.

Below is a brief interview I conducted with the creators of the comic and I would like to thank them for taking the time to reply to my questions.

All the images below are taken from the first chapter.

So, either before or after reading the interview, go visit the A Place in the West Steam page and get reading.

Let’s start at the beginning. Could you tell the readers a little about yourselves? Especially related to your gaming and artistic backgrounds.

Ross: I started off in the modding scene, working on the likes of Far Cry, Doom 3, and, eventually, Half-Life 2. Writing was always my passion, and I wanted to bring that together with my interest in video games. As the industry moved forward in new and interesting ways, I felt myself becoming increasingly redundant – the stories I wanted to tell weren’t necessarily the stories gaming was suited for (or, more likely, I just wasn’t smart enough to adapt!). So I gravitated towards comics, another great love of mine, and found myself very much at home there. My artistic background was fermented during my time at university, where I studied literature and philosophy and, later, film and literature at postgraduate level. But that was as far as I wanted to go in the academic world, so I returned to where I realised always wanted to be: comics.

Michael: Like Ross, I started off in modding – working on a project for System Shock 2 before moving onto Doom 3 (where we met) and then Half-Life 2. I tried to be a jack of all trades early on, primarily working in level design but doing some texture work as well, before finding that writing was what I really enjoyed. I didn’t really get into comics until I was an adult, but I’ve done what I can to make up for being so late to the party.

How did you “meet” each other?

Michael: I was working as a waitress in a cocktail ba- wait, no, that’s wrong. I was working on a modification for Doom 3 back in 2004, with the intent of bringing System Shock 2 (1999) over to the newer engine. After a Cease and Desist from EA, a couple of us started working on a script / design doc to shift the modification over to a more original IP. Ross joined up with us a couple of months after that and we worked together on that mod for a year or two before moving on to the world of Half-Life 2 modding. So, we’ve been shackled together for almost 15 years now.

Ross: Worst decision I ever made. I can chart my life’s miserable course from the moment of that meeting.

A Place in the West - an Interview with Ross and Michael.

Tell us about how the comic came to be.

Ross: We’d been working in the Source modding scene for quite some time trying to put a Half-Life game together, but we weren’t having any success with it. It took awhile for us to get our heads around what we were doing wrong, and by then it was clear that if we wanted to tell a story within the Half-Life universe, we were going to need to find another medium. We’d always wanted to write comics, and so we thought, well, why not a Half-Life comic? With years of failed mods trailing behind us, we had a huge well of story ideas to draw upon, and we put together a narrative from the best of it that we felt would be appropriate for the comic book medium. Thus, A Place in the West was born.

Michael: Yeah, a major problem for us was that we weren’t game designers. It took us a long time to try to come up with interesting set pieces and gameplay, but the ideas around story flowed so much more freely. It was pretty clear we were approaching things from the wrong angle.

How did you find the other people?

Michael: We put up some advertisements and began sorting through the massive influx of portfolios. Early on, we weren’t sure what we wanted, but we had a good idea of what we didn’t want, so as we looked through we tried to narrow it down and define it more. We wanted people whose own sense of style shone through. Even after finding people whose work we liked, we still did interviews with them and paid art tests to make sure they’d be a good fit for what we were going for. It was a combination of daunting, stressful, and exciting, but worth it – the team we have now is so wonderful, and all of them bring so much to the table.

A Place in the West - an Interview with Ross and Michael.

Can you take us through the process for creating a comic?

Ross: We start with the story. We figure out what story we want to tell, what our themes are, who our characters are, what their journey’s will be, and so on. What’s the point of the story, and why is it a comic and not, say, a novel? Once we’ve started breaking that down into an overarching narrative we’ll plot out the chapters and set to work on the scripts. Once the script’s wrapped – after many, many drafts – we hand it over to our artists for feedback and once we’re all at a point where we feel comfortable illustrating the thing, we get to work! We’ve got our penciller, Kristian, who first does sketches of the page layouts for the entire issue so we get a sense of how it flows, then he illustrates the pages and hands them over to our inker, Ivan, and then they go off to Ester for colouring.

At that point Mike and I will take another pass at the dialogue once the pages have been completed and then pull in our letterer, Javier, to transcribe those words to the page. Then we take another pass at the dialogue. And another. And then at some point we say, okay, this thing’s ready, let’s get it out there before we try to take another pass. And I always want to take another pass. Always.

A what point did you decide to go for a paid Steam release?

Ross: I think the decision to use Steam to distribute the first chapter – which is free – was more important than the transition from free-to-play to paid-DLC. Our readership expanded enormously, and we were able to do something with Steam that hadn’t necessarily been done before. Due to the enormous cost of producing these things we were very curious as to whether or not we’d have the option to charge a nominal fee for future instalments. At some point after 2016’s Steam Dev Days it was a talking point that emerged from our discussions with Valve, and by the time we came to release Chapter 2, a deal was in place for us to do just that.

A Place in the West - an Interview with Ross and Michael.

How were the negotiations with Valve?

Ross: They were a joy. It’s incredible to me how easy going they were, and how helpful they’ve been in letting us realise the comic as a commercial product.

Let me address an issue now. The Steam release doesn’t work for me and others I believe. How close to fixing that are you?

Michael: Oh goodness, please do send me some more information on that. It’s tough to diagnose every problem since our development team is, you know, just me, and I have a limited amount of devices at my disposal, but I am still trying to do what I can to make it work for everyone. Something we have done that should at least help in the meanwhile is we now PDFs of the comic issues with the application files on Steam. That way no one is required to use the application for reading, especially for those who want to read on their tablets or phones.

A Place in the West - an Interview with Ross and Michael.

What has been the response from the community? Have you gotten much negative feedback?

Ross: It has, thankfully, been mostly positive. At least, according to our store page! Some have embraced it as “more Half-Life” in light of the absence of Half-Life 3 / Episode 3 or whatever you want to call it, whilst there are those have taken to what it is: a new approach to Half-Life. Whilst we always try to stay true to the spirit of Half-Life, we haven’t always sought to imitate the tone of the games, and that’s something that’s rankled a few readers. Hopefully, once they have a better idea of where we’re going, they’ll get back on board. And of course, there are those who simply think it’s shit, and they’re probably right. We can’t tell anymore.

Michael: Yeah, as much as we’ve tried to stick to the themes, there are also people for whom we’ve strayed further away from what they see Half-Life being about. By focusing on a different time period, and different characters, they feel like the connection to Half-Life is more strained, and in some ways it is – we’re very much telling our own story. It’s not the continuing adventures of Gordon Freeman. There are people who very much want that, and it’s not our place to give it to them, we’re trying instead to build onto the world and explore another aspect of it. To me that’s what good fan fiction is.

Obviously, you can say how many have you sold, but can you say whether it is more or less than you hoped for?

Michael: I mean, honestly, being able to sell any of it has been a blessing. The reason we wanted to get into selling the comic was to mitigate the costs to us. I’ve spoken about this before, but we try to pay our artists at least somewhat competitively for their time and talents, and a single issue of the comic costs us more than $6,000 to produce. The idea behind going paid was not to make a profit, but to spread the cost around a bit so that we could speed up production and get the comic to people faster. It’s definitely made an impact so far, and we’re hoping that it’ll continue to grow.
Ross: It has indeed been a blessing for us, but it’s important to keep in mind that Steam is not a platform for distributing comic books (visual novels aside, which have their own in-built audience). We’re out on our own here, and we’ve had to make Steam work for us. The ability to charge a nominal cost for each chapter is one of the ways we’ve been able to stay afloat and continue producing content. We’ll always be immensely grateful for Valve for extending us that opportunity.

Let’s move onto the story itself. Obviously, no spoilers, but how much of the main story has been agreed upon?

Michael: I’d say most of it. We’re aligned on the broad strokes, and we know where the story is going and how it’s going to end. But it’s also true that we rarely write out scripts too much further ahead, like right now we’re producing Chapter 5 and writing Chapters 6 and 7, and we likely won’t finish the script for Chapter 7 or start 8 until we’re into producing Chapter 6. There are a lot of small details that come up during the actual writing process and we definitely still disagree on some of those. I’m sure Ross has a dozen weird things in his brain that I don’t even know about yet.
Ross: Yeah, pretty much all of it. We have extensive outlines for all of the remaining chapters, and there are skeletal scripts in place for each of them with the occasional rough scene blocked out. We’ve known from the beginning how it would end, and what we were trying to accomplish with our chosen themes. As we knew how best to explicate those themes the plot fell relatively neatly around it. But as Mike said, there are definitely details that come up – whether from chapter to chapter, or scene to scene – that we disagree upon and have to hash out (spoiler: I am belligerent and almost always win. And then it goes wrong, and it’s my fault). I guess what’s most interesting about this question is the length of time we’ve had to ruminate on our story and its characters. It’s literally the product of many years of work, and there’s likely still quite a few years ahead of us before all’s said and done (we’re producing Chapter 5 right now, and the whole thing totals 13 chapters….). So just owing to our own ostensible growth as people those ideas we had at the beginning evolve and reify in new ways, so that’s always being incorporated into the narrative…we know what story we’re telling, but it’s a very organic process.

A Place in the West - an Interview with Ross and Michael.

Going back to the feedback aspect, is there a kind of beta testing with a select group of readers?

Michael: We’ve had a few Beta testers here and there, a few were just sort of interested in getting the comic early, but Cherry Wagner has been with us from the beginning and has been a lifesaver on more than a few occasions.
Ross: The beta testing is more a case of making sure the app’s running as it ought to be. For the comic itself, we’ll do read throughs of the scripts with friends and fellow writers and take into account their thoughts and feedback. It’s a really useful process.

Knowing what you do now, what would you do differently if you could start again?

Ross: Everything. And nothing. It’s all a learning process, right? We produced Chapter 1 so many years ago, and at a time when we knew very, very little (read: nothing) about writing a comic that it feels so separate and distant from the work we’re doing now. We hadn’t quite figured out the tone of the story, and our original plan to release six chapters, each an enormous length, backfired spectacularly in the drawn out slog that was Chapter 2: A Very Modern Major-General. So we split up the chapters into manageable issues each totally 30 pages each, and that really changed how we were able to approach the story. But as I said earlier, the protracted length of development means you’re always learning, and naturally ideas you took for granted x amount of years ago can change very dramatically. Really, there are just so many plot beats I’d like to go back and play with, but that is a luxury we do not have. We just hope the comic gets better with each subsequent chapter. When all’s said and done, it’ll probably prove to be a strange read – a nauseating upward curve in quality from the very bad to the merely passable. I should write my own quotes for the comic.
Michael: Yeah, it’s a sort of thing where, you know, you have to start somewhere. We could have rewritten Chapter 1 a few more times, but at the end of the day, there’s so much more you learn from actually producing a script, and seeing how it comes together on the page, and reading and rereading it after the fact. Just writing and refining scripts, even with the experience we have now (which granted isn’t super extensive or anything), it’s still not always easy to see when things won’t work. Chapter 1 was always going to kind of hit a wall with quality. In retrospect, we probably should have done some standalone, shorter things to cut our teeth first, but this was the story we really wanted to tell.

A Place in the West - an Interview with Ross and Michael.

What are your actual objectives for the comic? A fulltime job?

Ross: Well, I’d like to write comics for a living, sure, but I don’t know many writers who don’t have to work a second job just to pay the rent. Right now my focus is on completing A Place in the West and making it the best it can be. And…that is my full time job!
Michael: I’m not sure I’d want to transition away from my current career entirely that way, but I definitely have more comics that I’d like to write. The only objective now is, as Ross said, making it as good as possible.

How do you resolve disagreements between each other and other members of the team?

Michael: Thunderdome.
Ross: AND ALL THE CHILDREN SAY. In all seriousness, creative differences occur all the time. Mostly it’s between myself and Mike, but sometimes the artists have points of contention and we work quickly to resolve that. And it’s actually kinda easy, because we’re all coming from the same passionate place of wanting to make the comic the best it can possibly be. That’s the point of all those dialogues. It’s only when Mike won’t let me have my way that things get hairy.

A Place in the West - an Interview with Ross and Michael.

What’s the one aspect of the project you are most proud of?

Michael: Every single issue feels so much better than the one before it. Obviously practising at something directly correlates to the quality of it, but it feels very tangible. It’s one thing to compare what we have now to Chapter 1, written ~5 years ago and see improvement, but even now in producing Chapter 5, I can see how we’ve improved since Chapter 3, which we were working on only a year ago!
Ross: I’m proud of the fact that five years on, we’re still here with the privilege of being able to tell this story we’re so committed to. And most of all, I’m proud of our extraordinary team of artists, past and present, who have made A Place in the West more than I ever dreamed it could possibly be. So, if I may: Heath Heil, Rachel Deering, Kristian Rossi, Ester Salguero, Ivan Miranda, Chris Jolley, Javier Puga – here’s to the whole gang. You’re the best. Except for me.
Michael: Oh wow, you really one-upped me there. I’m glad you at least left yourself off.

Final question. What advice would you give to other people who want to create something connected to Half-Life that is not a mod?

Ross: Figure out what about the Half-Life universe makes you tick and go from there. Valve’s created an enormous sandbox to play with it, and there are so many unexplored avenues to delve into. We don’t need to see City 17 again. Go literally anywhere else and find a story to tell there. Create something new, original, and compelling, whilst staying true to the spirit and ethos of Half-Life.

Well, that’s it. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, it’s much appreciated. Final words?

Michael: Thanks very much for having us!
Ross: Thank you for the opportunity. And great work on Planet Phillip! It’s great to see the community still alive and kicking after all these years. Kudos.

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