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At a Gamasutra-attended presentation at NYU, Valve writer Erik Wolpaw went behind the scenes of the Portal franchise, and explained how the studio tells a story using the environment.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

May 6, 2011

4 Min Read

Students, media and fans packed a Gamasutra-attended presentation room at NYU's Game Center on May 6 to hear Valve Software writer Erik Wolpaw discuss the ideas, influences and process behind Portal 2, as he played through the game's opening areas alongside questions from an enthusiastic Frank Lantz. Valve faced the challenge of following up a game that became iconic nearly overnight, so widely beloved by fans that many felt a sequel wasn't even necessary. But the difficulty there is even more complex, because Portal 2 had to balance the steep mandate of pleasing existing fans with the goal of being welcoming to new players. "If you made a list of constraints going in, one is we didn't just want to design it for people who had played Portal 1," Wolpaw pointed out. "We wanted to kind of broaden the audience and make it a fun game for people who hadn't played it. Even the first portal placement has a purpose -- you can see yourself in the portal and it kind of helps you understand what portals are." Early iterations of the game, in fact, didn't have portals at all. In Geoff Keighley's recent documentary app for iPad "The Final Hours of Portal 2," it was revealed Valve built a mechanic called F-Stop instead -- "which we may still use," Wolpaw suggested in his talk. "It was pretty promising," he said. "We actually spent six months making Portal 2 -- which took place in the 1950s, GLaDOS wasn't in it, Chell wasn't in it, it was Cave Johnson and the story of him getting put into a computer and realizing he was making a huge mistake." But anyone who saw it immediately missed their portal gun, and wondered where the beloved passive-aggressive villainess GLaDOS had gone. "People didn't want a clean slate," said Wolpaw. "After that we pretty quickly [decided] we were going to do this farther in the future, bring Chell back, and have everything be decrepit in a way that lets you see the results of what you did in Portal 1." GLaDOS isn't introduced immediately in Portal 2, but rather the environmental narrative leads the player to reunite with her. The first Portal game's narratives were almost entirely environmental, and the second one relies heavily on that technique too. Storytelling in that fashion is almost an automatic consequence of a fairly logical approach to level design: Players don't like looking at the same environments repeatedly, and artists get fatigued from making them. But creating variety, thinking of the kind of spaces that would be interesting to play in, necessitates thoughtful storytelling to explain and connect those spaces and their details. (As an interesting side note, the birds that can be heard chirping in Portal 2's opening areas were recorded by Valve's human resources head on her trip to Peru.) Valve's known for continual playtesting at the earliest possible juncture in development, a process that was especially important for a game like Portal 2 that are rooted in environmental puzzles. And the team received feedback from players who were well-acquainted with games as well as those who are less so -- one interesting takeaway being that non-gamers generally were extremely attentive to environmental details, while people accustomed to games often breeze past them, accustomed to the inherent language of game design and trusting that the designer will make necessary information obvious. That's why Portal 2's worlds are detail-rich, with funny signs, icons or pictures often acting as background set-dressing. In Wolpaw's view, using the environment to tell the story is a primary goal: "Doing cutscenes is like admitting defeat," he says. "I play a million games with cutscenes and I have a great time with them; actually, we ended up doing a cutscene at the end of Portal 2 mainly just because... it wasn't going to look good if we did it live, and we wanted to make it look really good." Fans have been so drawn into the Portal series' story and its characters -- many of whom are largely cubes and robots -- that naturally, audience members asked Wolpaw about possibly continuing the Portal story. "I personally like things that just end, and it seems like there's a ending" he says of the series' story. "Not that there aren't a lot of questions, but it feels like if [Portal 2's conclusion] were to be the end, it's a satisfying ending," he says. Nonetheless, although he stated clearly that "this is not an announcement of more Portal," one can "never say never" to the possibility of further games, even if they don't star Chell -- it might be a little bit much to put her through those same paces yet again, he implies. "If we were ever to do another Portal, I would like for Chell to kind of... she's been through a lot. Let her have her day," he says.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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