Portal 2 interview and hands-on preview

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Interview Michael Leader 1 Mar 2011 - 13:23

Valve’s first-person puzzler Portal 2 is due out this year, and Michael had the chance to talk to writers Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw, and preview the game...

While we're all rather spoilt for choice when it comes to highly-anticipated games in 2011, with plenty of sequels and long-in-the-making blockbusters coming your way over the next 10 months, there’s one in particular that, for many, stands above the rest - and it’s only just around the corner.

For coming out in April is Portal 2, Valve’s follow-up to its surprise first-person puzzle hit of 2007. Initially bundled with the Orange Box anthology, Portal soon garnered plenty of attention, probably because it was - and still is - a superb, unique game. It was polished, full of surprises, and possessed two uncommon qualities for games of its type: brevity and wit.

Portal 2, coming years after the memes and in-jokes have gone stale, doesn’t have surprise on its side. And, indeed, Valve’s decision to open up the game to a more standalone length (at least six hours, plus a co-op campaign), moves it away from its short-and-sweet predecessor.

However, let’s remind ourselves: this is Valve! They’ve not yet made a less-than-great game. And after playing the opening 40 minutes of Portal 2 - essentially an introductory tutorial sequence - any potential worries have been cast aside.

The game opens with a mix of the new and the familiar. Chell, the silent protagonist from the first game, is back, and she is once again trapped in the recesses of the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre. This time, though, you wake in what looks like a plush hotel room, seemingly after untold years of hibernation, and are introduced to a new AI character called Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant).

He wishes to escape the facility, but he needs your help. Revealing your room to be one of many containment units in a cavernous warehouse, he disengages your cell, and breaks you out in an on-rails set-piece that recalls the train rides that open the first two Half-Life games, or the locked-perspective action sequences of the more recent Episodes.

Before long, you’re back in the test chambers, now overgrown with tropical foliage, looking for what Wheatley calls “a gun that makes holes”. As you search, you progress through levels reminiscent of those from the Portal, here decayed with age and sporting all kinds of rough edges in contrast to that game’s clean shimmer. The facility itself has been falling apart since Chell shut down GLaDOS, the AI that maintained smooth running, at the first game’s conclusion.

So here we see yet more graffiti scrawled on the walls, hinting at other escapees, and the ever-present AI has been replaced by a more genial, yet also more dryly humorous male voice, who talks of a post-apocalyptic future. At the start of the first momentum-based level, he offers the guidance, “If the laws of physics don’t apply in the future, God help you.”

Yes, the humour returns, with the opening peppered with killer lines, subtle details, and even one or two physical comedy routines. Also returning, unsurprisingly, is GLaDOS, who Wheatley unwittingly wakes as you tiptoe through her chamber.

Before the demo faded to excruciating black, we saw the old chemistry come back to the fore, with GLaDOS favouring simmering, catlike passive aggression over outright malice, purring, “you must really, really love to test”, as she throws you down the incineration chute, in order to retrieve the portal gun.

It’s hard to judge if Portal 2 will be a triumph from this short playthrough, but our interest cannot be more piqued. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the single player narrative, let alone seen anything of the new mechanics (including physics-based paint puzzles, cribbed from indie gem Tag: The Power Of Paint) or the co-operative multiplayer campaign. What we have seen, though, is sublimely executed, brimming with the humour and personality that made Portal stand out.

We can’t wait. Luckily, to quell our raging emotions, we had the chance to chat with writers Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek, who penned the first game’s story, and are veterans of Valve’s other series Left 4 Dead and Half-Life. They talked us through the basic concept behind opening up the Portal universe, told us about their favourite comedic videogames, and gave us tips on crafting a compelling narrative for the medium...

When a follow-up to Portal came on the production slate, what were some of the major goals, aims and issues that you had to deal with?

EW: Just from a writing standpoint, one of the problems was that we pretty much knew that GLaDOS was going to be in it, and she had this satisfying arc in Portal 1, so a lot of the challenge was thinking of where she could start in Portal 2. We didn’t want to reset her back to the beginning of Portal 1, and tell the same story, so she needed to start where she was at the end. So what story could we tell now, in this environment? That was a big challenge, which we eventually came up with a solution for.

And the idea of it being a full game, as opposed to the shorter length of the first one?

EW: That was only daunting until... We knew that we would have the full resources of Valve, so that we could expand on some of the ideas from Portal 1 that we couldn’t visualise. For instance, in Portal 1, the team that worked on it, we always had this idea in our had that the lab was being assembled dynamically, that it was this modular system. And we poked around at it, but just didn’t have the resources to make that happen.

So we knew this thing we had in our head in Portal 1, we would actually be able to do in Portal 2. We also knew that, once we had a handle on the new puzzle elements that we could put  in, we were less worried about the length, because we knew that using the same training arc as Portal 1, we’d expand the puzzle space by having all these new elements, which would naturally fall out to be a longer experience without padding.

In terms of a linear narrative, is it the longest game Valve has put out in a while?

EW: It’s weird. It’s hard to measure length in the two Left 4 Deads, because they’re designed to be replayable. It’s like apples and oranges. If you played through, linearly, the content just once, Portal 2 is going to be longer than Left 4 Dead was. But in a sense, with Left 4 Dead, if you played through it once you weren’t playing it right. But Portal 2, even though there’s a lot of surprising things in it, it’s going into the more Half-Life mould of telling a story.

Just from playing the opening, there’s a real Half-Life vibe, with the action set-pieces and the scale of it all.

EW: It’s the version of a train ride, I suppose. There’s a lot more packed into Portal 2 than there was in Portal 1. Portal 1 was puzzle, puzzle, puzzle, and GLaDOS talking. We didn’t want to do that again. We had all these great Valve artists and animators and musicians, and we wanted to utilise them.

You say the creative process started with GLaDOS, and where you wanted to take that character. When did the other, new characters come into it?

EW: That we pretty much knew from the beginning, knowing that it was going to be a longer game. It just gives us a lot more opportunity to introduce these new characters. The thing about Portal, for a video game, the story is kinda intimate, it was about this relationship between you and GLaDOS. And we wanted to keep that. We didn’t want it to be a cast of thousands, galaxy-spanning epic. It still needs to be a focused game where, at the end of the day, it’s about the relationship between you and GLaDOS.

And even though we’re introducing new characters, it’s also about your relationship with those characters. It’s not about you watching these four new characters arguing with each other. So we’re hoping that, even though it’s expanded in the scope of how the visuals are presented, we still want it to feel like this smaller story. You’re not saving the world, you’re in this situation, and you’re dealing with it.

GLaDOS became such an iconic character so quickly, and it was such a brilliant vocal performance from Ellen McLain. In Portal 2 you have Wheatley, who is voiced by Stephen Merchant. I guess, this must be the biggest ‘name’ or ‘voice’ Valve have had in their games so far?

EW: It depends. Chet and I didn’t quite realise how famous Stephen Merchant was in the UK. He’s kind of a cult figure in the US. But we’ve used a lot of characters actors in the past that were known.

CF: Well, Coach [from Left 4 Dead 2], Chad Coleman...

EW: ...from The Wire. Or even Robert Guillaume [Eli Vance in Half-Life 2]. Or Robert Culp [Dr. Breen in Half-Life 2]. I guess Stephen Merchant is the most famous at the time we made the game. Although I guess Robert Culp back in the day was way more famous than Stephen Merchant is now. It wasn’t specifically that we wanted Stephen Merchant for his fame.

We knew we wanted to do a comedic character that was going to need a credible comedic performance, it makes our lives easier to have someone who’s going to be able to deliver these lines very well. We wanted to try having a character that sounded very informal when they talk to you, which is something that we haven’t seen a lot of in games - that just sounds like they’re talking off the cuff.

The dialogue in Valve games is in general so strong, but that’s only part of the process.

EW: That’s a little bit. The actors definitely need to be invested to do a good job. And for a game that’s supposed be a comedy, the timing is very important, too. The writers at Valve also do the scripting to put the audio into the game, so that we don’t just throw it over the wall and hope that it gets hooked up right. A lot of that is us being able to see the entire process through from beginning to end.

Could you give me a little more detail about that? The role of the writer in videogames seems to be change from project to project, or developer to developer. How does that work out at Valve?

CF: Probably the biggest thing that we do is that the writers are a part of the team. They’re not hired from the outside. They don’t come in a write a script and throw it over, because you have to adapt. We throw out a load of stuff because the level might change, or it just doesn’t work, or we’re testing it, and we’re iterating on it.

It’s not like we have the finished script, and there you go. That script changes continuously. We’re embedded right there with the game, like any other part of the team.

EW: The same way that the level designers will change the layout of the puzzle, we’re just doing the same thing. Day in, day out, changing the lines, trying different things.

CF: Since we hook it up, we know when the characters can speak, what can set that off, what we could be reacting to or doing, so we write for that. The level designers are great, I think that John Guthrie’s a good example of somebody who makes places for us to perform inside of, and that really helps us.

If you were just sitting on the outside, and you didn’t know that... like with Left 4 Dead, we had a problem of thinking that you could set up a joke, without knowing what was going to happen in the future - and you don’t! You don’t know what the person’s going to do in the future. So you have to write this joke that turns really quick right there. It’s not like writing for another medium. It’s a game.

EW: I don’t have any examples, but there are games where they hire a contract writer, and they do a script. And I can’t even imagine how that would work. It would be tough. It’s probably easier if you have a game where it’s structured gameplay-cutscene-gameplay-cutscene, because you can have the writer write the cutscene, and then you could fill in the game in between.

But we try and integrate them a little more tidily. I think it’s more rewarding for players, and it’s definitely more rewarding if you’re a writer, because you’re actually writing for the medium, rather than trying to marry two different things.

That’s something that was quite innovative about Half-Life, with its seamless first-person perspective. Yet it seems that, even years later, using cutscenes is still the dominant style.

EW: I play games that have cutscenes. Double Fine games (Psychonauts, Brutal Legend).

CF: Saints Row 2!

EW: But having said that, just as a writer, it’s more daunting in some ways to say “oh, you know that game you like? We’re going to stop it now, to tell you a story”. It had better be friggin’ good. So in some ways we benefit. The pressure’s a little bit off, because the game’s still going. You’re still in the experience. We’re not stopping it.

One joke that stuck out for me is right at the beginning of the game, where you meet Wheatley, and he’s trying to get you to talk, and ‘Press A to say “Apple”’ comes on the screen. However, when you press the button, you jump. That’s quite a comment on Valve’s history of silent protagonists, isn’t it?

EW: Well, we’re making a meta-joke about training that goes on in games, but if it was just a meta-joke, we wouldn’t have left it in. You have been asleep for a while, so for all you know, at that point in the game maybe you are a bit fuzzy. So it served both purposes. It reinforces his idea that maybe you’re brain damaged. And also we tried to do these things that were classic comedy, like when he falls off the rail and he’s like “catch me!”.

If you tried to pull it off in a movie at this point, it would be kind of “eh, really? They’re doing this?” But in a game, when you’re participating in it, it rehabilitates it a little bit, because you haven’t participated in that piece of physical comedy before. So we do that a few times in the game.

So when it comes to you guys writing a game, how much does the level design come into it? When you plan out the over-arching narrative, leave some of the specifics open for the designers to suggest their own ideas?

EW: It’s more organic than that. Portal lends itself a little bit more to that, where they were coming up with a bunch of puzzles, and figuring out how the elements worked in a vacuum, because we do know that we have the over-arching structure of this science facility, where the puzzles are broken up into test chambers.

And then we’re coming up with the general gist. But at some point early on, they need to know if they need art for this type of thing, or if they need art here, and we’ve all got to agree that this is generally the path that is going to be taken through the game. And then you have the broad-strokes outline of what’s going to happen, so you know where things fit, and you keep drilling down on all the details.

You’ve mentioned Double Fine’s games and Saints Row 2. What other games do you look at for good comedy? It seems to be such a rare quality in the gaming landscape.

EW: Part of the problem with comedy in games is it’s even harder to pull off because you can’t rely on the tricks you can use in TV and film. A lot of comedy is crackerjack editing, which you don’t get in games. But it’s also just the fact that drama, when it fails, kinda falls to a baseline that is maybe okay, or if it falls far enough, it just becomes campy comedy.

Whereas, when comedy fails, it craters hard. It’s not anything. There’s nothing enjoyable that you can take away from it. So it’s just tougher. I don’t blame anyone for not attempting comedy, because again, if you don’t do it right, it’s going to be unwatchable. I like the Saints Row games a lot. Saints Row 2. Partly because they embrace the absurdity of the open world thing.

CF: GTA IV had a wacky world, but you were being super-serious in the wacky world.

EW: Tonally, there’s something weird there. You can’t argue with their success, but I kind of like it when a game can embrace the gamey-ness a little bit, because you’re fighting against these conventions that games need to have. So I guess in that sense, you benefit a little in comedy. In Aperture, there are puzzles. It’s this absurd place.

And instead of fighting against certain conventions, you just embrace it. We find a fictional reason for it. And then Tim [Schafer]’s games work because he’s a genuinely, genuinely talented comedic writer. So when he stops a game to do a cutscene, I’m perfectly happy to go along with it.

CF: Games can be unintentionally funny...

EW: God Hand is one of my favourite games, and that was funny - I think intentionally. I don’t think that was serious drama, even in Japan...

Sometimes the drama in Japanese games can be so overwrought, or simply lost in translation, that it becomes funny...

EW: Well, God Hand was just absurd. I guess I like absurd games. Thank god there’s the mitigating factor of the whole team. If I was by myself, I’d make God Hand, and we’d be out of business in a week.

Gentlemen, thank you for your time!

Portal 2 is released April 22nd for Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Mac.

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