Behind The Scenes Of The Portal Proposal

Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris goes behind the scenes with the developers and future groom behind the Portal 2 marriage proposal mod that has swept the web this week.
Stephanie Harbeson - Stephy to her friends and loved ones - wasn't what you would call a core gamer. Sure, she played her share of casual games and would always offer to play co-op when her boyfriend Gary Hudston got something new, but no title ever really captured her - until she tried Portal 2. Suddenly, after five years of watching Gary play, she was playing with him - taking charge, in fact, and telling him where to go. For the first time, the pair had a game they both truly enjoyed. By now, you've almost certainly seen where that led - Hudston commissioned a romantic and well-designed mod of Valve's hit game to propose to Stephy. And it was, to use the well-trod pun, a huge success. (Want to play it yourself? Head here. ) What's impressive about this story isn't just the innovative way Hudston proposed, but the incredibly quick turnaround time in which the project was created - and how two members of the Portal 2 community, who he had never met before (and has yet to meet face to face), worked together to help him deliver a personalized mod that was not only polished, but on time. Here's how it happened. Hudston had always promised Stephy that his proposal would be geeky and unique. Upon seeing how much she enjoyed Portal 2, he says, "it was obvious what I had to do." His first step was to contact Valve. When he didn't get a response, he shifted gears and reached out directly to Ellen McLain, the voice behind GLaDOS. She loved the idea and looped in Erik Wolpaw, who said he'd try to find some studio time for McLain to record the dialogue. A month later, Wolpaw told him an opening had been found - but Hudston had less than a day to get a script to them. He stayed up until 4am in a hotel lobby in London (where he happened to be at the time), putting together words that rang true with GLaDOS, but still made it quite clear that he was proposing. Securing the dialogue was only step one, though. He still needed a game to go with it. On July 19, he turned to the ThinkingWithPortals forums. "I come here today looking for some urgent help," he wrote. "I need to find a talented and creative Portal 2 mapper who will be able to help me with a very, very important personal project that needs to be completed before the 21st of August." There was some skepticism, but within eight hours Doug "topHATTwaffle" Hoogland, an 18 year old level designer, and Rachel "Miss Stabby" van der Meer, a 23 year old Dutch student and animator, were on board. "The reason I did this was because he said he had some custom GLaDOS dialogue in the want ad," says Hoogland. "I thought it would be a good way to get my name out there some more. But when I found out what the project was really about I loved the idea and knew that it would be awesome when it was done." Both Hoogland and van der Meer had some experience in Portal 2 mods. Hoogland is in the midst of working on a mod called Portal 2: Lab Rat that's due next year, while van der Meer has released a few maps, the most famous of which is AngryBombs. The challenge was the timeframe. The project had to be completed in time for Stephy's 21st birthday - and that gave them just over four weeks. And making things more difficult were finding times they could brainstorm, given their different locales and the need for secrecy. "The biggest challenge was communication," says van der Meer. "Me, Gary and Doug all lived in different time zones, so often we had to do late night meetings over steam to discuss about every aspect of the chamber. Often things had to be tweaked afterwards or simplified to make it more accessible to the casual play style of [Stephy]. For example, in the second level where you use prism blocks to make a heart, there were originally nine cubes involved. Because of the length and complexity, that got cut down to five cubes. "This required a massive overhaul in the design and shape of the test chamber. Eventually though it turned out even better than it originally was." Hoogland adds that the tight timetable was worrisome as well. "With each level taking about 60 hours of work, and more time spent on writing scripts and animations it was hard to squeeze it in whilst working 55+ hours a week," he says. "The total make time was around the 200 hour mark." (van der Meer estimates her total hours on the project clocked in at around 120.) To date, neither Hoogland nor van der Meer has heard from anyone at Valve about their work on the project, but both plan to pursue careers in the video game industry. Hoogland is already a level designer at Dark Artz Entertainment. Van der Meer is about to start a four-year program focusing on game design and architecture in the Netherlands. "After that, I might try my luck at some of the big game developers out there (Valve would be nice)," she says "If that doesn't work out, I would think about starting my own indie developer studio to make my own games." As for Gary and Stephy, they're busy planning a wedding - though they've given themselves a little more breathing room. The ceremony's set for Feb. 29, 2012.

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