Valve had another one of their awesome theatre-style booths at this year’s PAX East. Outside, they had demos of Portal 2 running and were giving out t-shirts; inside, they were giving fans insight into two new characters in the single-player part of the game and giving me more spoilers than I wanted to see. But as faithful journalists, News Editor Mike Gutierrez and I were determined to bring the information back home and deliver it to our readers. Afterwards, we were able to interview one of the game’s writers, Erik Wolpaw, who left me wishing April 19th was tomorrow.
The single-player campaign of Portal 2 hasn’t been getting a lot of attention. The co-op mode is new in Portal 2, so they’ve mostly been feeding us tiny pieces of that, like starving dogs being given chicken nuggets. But “That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of new and exciting stuff in the single player one as well, some of which we’re going to be showing you today,” Jake Pinkerton, another of the game’s writers, announced to the crowd. He gave us the rundown, telling us about how they’ve “got a lot of new gameplay elements, a lot of new puzzle elements in the single player game, we have a vastly bigger game, a lot of new environments you’ll be seeing for the first time.”
They also announced some new characters in addition to everyone’s favorite GLaDOS – Wheatley, voiced by U.K. actor Stephen Merchant, and Cave Johnson, CEO and Founder of Aperture Science, voiced by J.K. Simmons. Wheatley is an AI with a very quirky sense of humor, thanks in part to Merchant’s voice acting. One unique thing Pinkerton mentioned about Merchant was this:
“One of the things you’re going to notice in the clip we’re going to show you is that at some point, [Wheatley’s] going to ask you to say Apple, and we’re just going to pause and do nothing, and the reason for that is the type of actor he is, the comedic actor, he gets riffing on an idea, and he’s actually very clever, and we kind of do a lot of different takes of it. And we really enjoyed it and kind of fed off that energy. And so if you engage him at any time in the game, he will obviously engage back with you and the game will progress, but if you just stand there, he will talk, and talk, and talk, and talk. And it’s kind of a neat thing that at random moments throughout the game you can kind of just stand there and he will just prattle on, forever.”
Six Good Minutes…
The demo was the first six minutes of the game, and for me, it was difficult to sit there, knowing the game would be coming out so soon. It was a tease to not be able to jump right into the game after that. I preferred the part with Cave over the opening part with Wheatley. Your character is woken up and guided out of a dilapidated Aperture Science, with Wheatley’s humor guiding you all the way out. Cave, on the other hand, guides you through some actual puzzles, and his part actually made me laugh out loud. After talking about a control group and what happened to them, he pauses, then returns, and says:
“The lab boys just informed me that I should not have mentioned the control group. Those of you helping to test the propulsion gel today, follow the blue line on the floor. Those of you who volunteered to be injected with Praying Mantis DNA, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is, we’re postponing those tests indefinitely. The good news is, we’ve got a much better test for you! Fighting an army of mantis men. Pick up a rifle and follow the yellow line. You’ll know when the test starts.”
That was the end of the demo, after which we got to interview Erik Wolpaw, a writer on Portal and Portal 2. We started out by asking him about the different campaigns. “It was GLaDOS leading you through [the E3 trailer], but in this one, it’s Cave. Are these different campaigns? Can you talk about that?”
It turns out he couldn’t say much. “They’re just different,” he said. “So we kind of deliberately didn’t provide any context for the Cave part. You know, and the single player campaign’s two and a half to three times longer than Portal 1, and so a lot, a bunch of things happen, and so it’s kinda spoilerish to say how one thing occurs vs another. But all those things you saw do happen at some point in the game.”
Do the Co-Op!
We asked him what made them want to do co-op, adding in how, at PAX Prime, they said it was because the first game was so much fun to do with another person. “Yeah, people had fun playing with another person as sort of a backseat drive sort of situation, and it just made sense. I mean, A) because that’s how people seemed to already be playing it, and B) it seemed like a kind of new thing. I’m sure there probably is some cooperative puzzle game I don’t know of off the top of my head, but it’s not like a really crowded space, right? It’s something that people don’t get to do a lot, and it’s actually really satisfying and fun to do, so…”
He’s not kidding about that. “If there was ever an IP that supported it, I mean, Portal just works,” he added.
Our next question was one we’d been pondering for a while: would there be an entire co-op campaign? “Yeah, it’s a completely separate story, and sets of puzzles, and that is also two and half or three times as long as Portal 1,” he replied. “There’s a lot of new content in the game.”
We also asked about influences for Portal, adding, “are there any concepts you guys drew on to write the story for it?”
Wolpaw replied, “I’m trying to think, I mean not anything directly. I mean obviously Portal 1 kind of influenced it in the sense that we kind of had this GLaDOS arc in Portal 1 where she starts as this sort of institutional voice, and becomes, for lack of a better term, more human by the end, more human-sounding, more vindictive, and we didn’t want to just do that again. So she starts, in Portal 2, kind of where you left her in Portal 1, and then…it’s vague, but things happen. And from that point, your relationship gets complicated. But we wanted to kind of keep that sort of central to Portal 2’s story, [that] relationship between you and GLaDOS, because that was basically all there was to the story of Portal 1. But it was still, people reacted to that, because for a game, it was kind of, it’s weird to talk about it that way, it was sort of an intimate, small story, as games go. I mean you weren’t saving the world, it was just about this relationship you had with this AI. And so, like I said, we wanted to keep that central to Portal 2.”
Portal Teleports to Retail
We asked what it was like to take a game as short and compact as the first Portal and flesh it out into a full retail game, and how hard it was to develop an entire universe based on what they had already built. Wolpaw gave us a lot of insight into their process: “Well, in terms of the length, it actually wasn’t hard – well, obviously, everything’s work, but we have this design philosophy in Portal 1 which was, you know, we didn’t start saying ‘We’re going to make a four hour game.’ We started with this idea, here’s the Portal gun, we’re going to show you all the cool things it can do, with as little repetition as we possibly can. And that ended up being about a four hour experience. So, in Portal 2, once we had determined we were going to use all these new puzzle elements, they all combined together with the portal mechanic to create this sort of bigger puzzle space. And using the exact same design philosophy, we’re going to show you and train you about all the cool things these can do. That’s where, you know, we just ended up with two and half to three times longer of a game. So…I kinda lost the thread of the original question. But I think I addressed it somewhat.”
“No, it really seems like the first story, and everything you introduced in the first story, is so amenable to like, a giant expansion, like you guys have done,” I replied. “Yeah,” Erik said, “and we had a much bigger team, we had kind of like the full force of Valve’s personnel working on it, and you know, we wanted to tell another story, in Aperture, kind of continuing the story of you and GLaDOS, and there’s some other characters that are in there to complicate things, but you know, like I said, we did want to keep it kind of intimate. We didn’t want to turn it into this cast of thousands, galaxy-spanning sort of thing. So hopefully I think we did, I think we managed to bridge both worlds: making it bigger while also retaining this kind of smaller feel to it.”
Portal 2 will be available for the Mac, PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on April 19th. Cave Johnson reminded me at the end of the demo that I hadn’t pre-ordered the game yet, so I’ve got mine all ready to go. If you were a fan of the first Portal, this is one you won’t want to miss.