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'So, Here's Something Pretentious!' - Anecdotes and Thoughts from Erik Wolpaw's Portal 2 Discussion at the NYU Game Cent

One of Portal 2's head writers sits down for a chat with NYU students and journalists, and digs into the craziness behind Portal 2.

Erik Wolpaw doesn't read too much science fiction these days, so trying to find a modern sci-fi influence on Portal 2, the game he wrote alongside fellow Valve staffers Chet Faliszek and Jay Pinkerton, might prove difficult. In his past, he never worked in any depressingly bureaucratic jobs that might explain away the incredibly overwhelming banality that is so ingrained in the ethos of the game's zealously inept mega-corporation, Aperture Science. He doesn't really seem to think that Portal 2 necessarily transcends any known boundaries of gaming narrative--just that it tells the kind of story he wanted a game to tell.

    Erik Wolpaw
Erik Wolpaw
Over the course of his two-hour talk last night at New York University's Game Center, Wolpaw evaded just about every attempt by the talk's host, Game Center's Interim Director Frank Lantz, to perhaps pigeonhole his influences into tight, neat little references--apart from an acknowledged enjoyment of the works of Douglas Adams and Robert Sheckley--and seemed thoroughly uncomfortable with the notion of trying to dissect his game beyond the notion of it being an enjoyable entertainment. "Ultimately, I don't want to make games that are like modern art," he said at one point, "That only people who have studied modern art their whole lives, it only has meaning to them. Ideally, I'd like to make games that are entertaining for people."

Instead, much of the talk took on the tone of a kind of alternate commentary track for the game, with Wolpaw--who actually took time out of his vacation to give this talk to a room full of fans, NYU students, and the odd interloping journalist--quipping about various trials and tribulations of the game's production process, musing on his method for writing for games, and even dropping a few gems about some stuff that didn't quite make it into the final product. While there are a few mild spoilers peppered throughout this article, nothing is specific enough to inhibit any of the game's significant surprises.

On the Subject of Portals, and Why There Almost Weren't Any

It's been mentioned before around various corners of the Internet that Portal 2 almost didn't have any portals at all. Originally, the team spent the first six months of development time working on a clandestine new mechanic called "F-Stop." Wolpaw wouldn't elaborate on what F-Stop entailed (as he believes they may still use it someday down the road), but stated that early playtesting led to the removal of F-Stop and the return of the portal gun. Too many people were wondering what happened to GLaDOS, and why they couldn't shoot portals. "People didn't want a clean slate," said Wolpaw.
== TEASER ==

On the Story That Almost Was

With the development of F-Stop also came a fairly different script from what the final game ultimately turned out to be. "It took place in the 1950s," he said, "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." However, once the F-Stop mechanic was shelved, the story was rewritten to benefit the return of the portal mechanic. "After that we 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."

On the Game's Hotel Room Introduction

One of my absolute favorite portions of Portal 2 is actually its hysterical--and, apparently, fairly complicated--introductory scene. The scene features Chell waking up from a semi-lengthy slumber to a sort of " Jack Wagner in Disneyland" kind of computer voice and finding herself in a miserable-looking hotel room. Wolpaw says that this intro was actually born out of a bigger, kookier idea.

     The faux-hotel room, pre-destruction.
 The faux-hotel room, pre-destruction.
"We were going to do this thing where we were going to try and visualize what it was actually like to be in suspended animation," he said, "Like it's actually this real-time simulation of you pacing back and forth in this shitty hotel room. It was just going to be the worst thing ever." Evidently, the transition between the perceived hotel environment and the real world just wasn't quite working, so someone simply said, "Why don't we make it an actual hotel room?"

At that point, the host of the evening piped up that it reminded him of the intro to the movie Oldboy, which Wolpaw confessed to having never seen. "Oh good," he added jokingly, "I hope this is just going to be a long series of 'Where I plagiarized from.'"

On British Comedians (Namely, Stephen Merchant)

Stephen Merchant's performance as Wheatley in Portal 2 is something pretty special. Maybe it's a little weird that his voice lacks the kind of vocoding effects so prominent in GLaDOS's persona, but in retrospect, altering his distinctive voice might have spoiled the top-notch comedic timing and seemingly improvised riffing that made Merchant's work so memorable.

    Merchant's character,
Merchant's character, "Wheatley"
As it happens, Merchant wasn't the first actor the team went after. Wolpaw had originally envisioned Wheatley as a slightly "more hectoring and annoying" character, and for that personality, he hoped to tap Garth Marenghi's Darkplace and The IT Crowd actor Richard Ayoade. IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan actually happened to be a fairly big Left 4 Dead fan, and had even sent the team letters in the past. So Wolpaw just asked if "his friend Richard" would want to be in their game. Regrettably, he was unavailable, due to his work on the Sundance darling indie comedy, Submarine, which he directed. Wolpaw assumes Ayoade doesn't regret the decision too heavily.

Wolpaw became familiar with Merchant through the BBC series Extras, and the actor became a factor during the game's writing process. "We'd been writing writing writing, and we'd been listening to this Stephen Merchant podcast. And, for lack of a voice, we kinda started writing in Stephen Merchant's voice."

Though the team didn't originally think he'd do it--they assumed he was probably "too rich," what with him owning 50% of The Office and its many different iterations--Merchant quickly signed on. Wolpaw was nothing if not effervescent about his work on the game. "He has this just awesome ability make things that are written down sound off-the-cuff," Wolpaw said, "I'm really really happy with the way this turned out, in the sense that it's a very natural-sounding performance, and it's just something that I hadn't seen a lot in games."

On Writing Dialogue for Games and Necessary Programming Experience

The subject of the Valve writing team's process came up at multiple points during the course of the night. Apart from an off-handed comment on their writer's room format being loosely based on a book that detailed the environment crafted by The Simpsons writers during the show's heyday, as well as something Wolpaw saw in a Deadwood DVD extra about that show's writing process, mostly Wolpaw spoke about how knowing a little bit of coding can only do any aspiring game writer some good.

He specifically mentioned that early on in the development process, he and co-writer Chet Faliszek would actually do all of the dialogue set-up work themselves. "Chet and I did this on Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress and I also did it on Psychonauts, which is we write all the dialogue, we record it, we cut it ourselves and we wire it into the game so that the timing's right." This process, he says, helps immensely with making sure the lines have the exact impact they hope for.

On Chell, and Her Utter Lack of Dialogue

Chell has always been of the silent protagonist ilk, which Wolpaw admits is often "a thing," but not exclusively "a Valve thing." When asked why Chell remains mute throughout both titles, Wolpaw cited it as being in service of the game's comedy.

    The silent protagonist.
The silent protagonist.
"There's this thing with comedy, there's sort of two different patterns. One is, you're the straight man in a world gone mad, and the other one is you're a crazy person in a sort of straight world. Portal is definitely the world gone mad straight man, and the straight man is you. And again, because you have to write in the margins in a game, time is at a premium, so the fact that there's already this established thing where you have a silent protagonist, that saves us a lot of time. You may want to know Chell's backstory, you may want to hear her say things, but I guarantee, if she had to say her straight man lines at the expense of half of the other dialogue, it would suck."

While that might be of little solace to those who still want a little more out of Chell's character, Wolpaw feels the game is far more about your relationship to the world than Chell's. "I don't think people are super invested in the character of Chell... obviously because we haven't given her much character. But they're invested in the relationship they have as the player."

Just in case you were wondering, though, Chell isn't really a mute. "We always assumed she could talk," said Wolpaw, "She just chooses not to, what with the robots all being dicks. Why give them the satisfaction?"

On GLaDOS, and Her Torrents of Insults

One audience question brought up GLaDOS and her at least passing resemblance to someone's verbally abusive mother. Wolpaw more or less confessed that some of GLaDOS's particular brand of chiding does come from a personal place. "I was a fat kid my whole life and I had this passive-aggressive grandmother who was always needling me about it. That's kind of where that came from."
    So many fat jokes...
So many fat jokes...

Originally, though, GLaDOS was apparently written to be a good bit meaner than she ended up being in the final product. "We definitely took some stuff out that was hated [by playtesters]. We got a lot of feedback on the initial GlaDOS arc, after you wake her up, that she was just too vicious and mean and people were kind of getting ground down by how awful she was being to you. Even Ellen [McLain] in the studio, she was kind of nervous about reading some of the stuff. She was just like, 'Wow, that's harsh.'"

Sadly, Wolpaw wouldn't bust out with any specific lines, so we'll just have to imagine what horrible things she might have potentially hurled at us. I personally envision something involving lady beards.

On Playtesting, and Non-Gamers' Need to Read

Valve has always taken a "playtest early, and playtest often" stance with its products. As Wolpaw put it, doing so prevented people from getting too ridiculously attached to any one specific idea. If something keeps failing over and over again right in front of you, that idea becomes fairly difficult to defend without displaying a great deal of personal hubris.

     People actually read this stuff?
 People actually read this stuff?
One of the more interesting anecdotes that came out of the playtest process came largely from people who self-identified as not being much into games. Specifically, they would often take long, pained looks at each of the large signs that precedes each of the game's testing chambers, looking for instruction on how to play the level. This would be in direct contrast to how those who did play games on a regular basis would often just go straight to work. In Wolpaw's opinion, "People who play games have this intuitive sense that the designer is going to make it so you don't have to read this sign. That they'll leave the breadcrumb trail in there and I can ignore the sign as anything but flavor text."

On Jokes That Didn't Make the Cut

When asked about any especially memorable material that perhaps didn't find its way into the final game, Wolpaw did come up with one nifty little gem. You may recall some of the spheres that appear at the game's conclusion, including the ridiculous Fact Sphere and Rick the Adventure Sphere (who Wolpaw says can actually affect a slightly different outcome in the game's finale, provided you sit through Rick's entire dialogue spiel), and originally there was another one. The " Morgan Freeman Sphere."

    Like this, but spherical.
Like this, but spherical.
Recalling Freeman's character in The Shawshank Redemption, Wolpaw grinned as he described the bizarre concept. "There was this Morgan Freeman sphere, you find him in this little 10x10 room, and he was the wisest guy about this 10x10 space. He doesn't know anything about anything, he's blown away by the shit that's five feet outside his space, but has a lot of advice that all kind of relates to things that were in the 10x10 space."

"So he was gonna be pretty good," he added somberly. "I guess we can't use him now."

On Portal 2 as an Adventure Game

Throughout the evening, the host often attempted to chip away at Wolpaw's barrier toward pretension and over-self-analysis, often to no avail. But during one, brief moment, Wolpaw was willing to let his guard down and make a comparative statement regarding Portal 2's relevance to a bygone genre and how it could help make it better.

    The future of adventure gaming?
The future of adventure gaming?
"So here's something pretentious!" he exclaimed, launching into a good-natured tirade on old school adventure games. "There are things I do like about adventure games. I used to play them, I liked the writing, they tend to be very funny, but the puzzles were never very good, and there was a huge disconnect… just mechanically I was never a huge fan. I used to like to tell [Tim] Schafer that all the time when I was working there [at Double Fine Productions], about all the crappy games he made."

In Wolpaw's mind, "Portal is kind of an adventure game! You're not shooting people in the face, it requires some thinking--but the puzzles are very logical--and it's got a storyline through it." And as for anyone currently thinking about delving into the adventure genre? "I think if you were looking to make adventure games, and you wanted to reach a bigger audience, [you could do] something along this line."

On Crafting an Ending that Allows for a Future

All too often these days we find ourselves inadvertently trapped within proposed trilogies that may or may not actually ever be seen through to their conclusion. Cliffhanger endings are just too-frequently the norm. This is something Wolpaw wanted to avoid with Portal 2's conclusion, which he feels is "satisfying," were the story not to pick up again in a future sequel.

Were the series to pick back up, however, he feels there are "enough questions" leftover to create a solid starting point. And as for Chell's role in any possible sequel? Wolpaw seemed reluctant to again put her through the kind of torment she's endured over the last couple of games. "She's been through a lot," he said, "Let her have her day."
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