Interview: Portal 2 project lead Joshua Weier and writer Erik Wolpaw

With Portal 2's release a few weeks away, Valve opted to pull back the curtain on on the game's single-player experience during a recent preview at PAX East 2011. Our coverage of that preview outlined some of the gags heard within the first ten minutes of gameplay, along with a smattering of story from later in the game (if you don't want to know a thing about the game, you may want to avoid reading it). With anticipation levels rising and extremely long lines forming to watch new footage at the event, Shacknews shuffled Portal 2 project lead Joshua Weier and writer Erik Wolpaw to a secret "information relation chamber" to discuss the corporate culture at Valve, the melding of storytellers and game makers, and making changes to anything in the era of the Internet. We also witness a fight and the Valve team considers stepping in. It was an eventful discussion. BOOM video 8508 Shacknews: I feel like Portal fanatics are used to the game being something very specific: a tightly condensed and well developed gameplay experience with a layer of genuinely funny moments. With Portal 2, since it isn't sharing the spotlight with a handful of other titles, it has been fleshed out as its own product. How conscious is the team that Valve is adding a lot more to a game that was pretty lauded for being a solid measurement of a great game? Joshua Weier: Yeah, well. The way we built Portal was really specific. I mean, we play tested it. We'd build a puzzle and figure out what we needed to do to train people. All the mechanics that we introduced basically set up the length of that game. So, when we went into Portal 2, the game kept getting bigger and bigger. But all the time, we kept that same exact process where we make sure you're trained up on everything and make sure that you're progressed and that you're having fun. That produced a much bigger game because there's so much more out there. Going into it from a pacing standpoint, we knew that we really had to make sure that if we were going to expand the game that it still had that real tight feeling the first game did. There's a lot more story pieces, scenes, and characters that let you take a break from the puzzles and keep you moving and have a lot of good motivation. All of those things are a big factor. Shacknews: One of the things I think Valve is great at is this mesh of gameplay and story. When you're creating Portal 2, do you consider the mechanics before the story? Is it a formation around that design? What is the creative process of that marriage between "game" and "story"? Joshua Weier: They kind of go together. I mean, we started out with a very small team just working on the mechanics and figuring out how to expand everything and how that was going to feel. Kind of alongside that, "Okay, here's what the story can be in in testing builds." Especially with a character like Wheatly, getting him in there and getting him tested out, making sure he was really bringing the game forward. So, it's really just an organic process. Erik Wolpaw: That's pretty much it. At Valve, unlike most game companies--although I don't know it for a fact, but I think it's the case--the writers are embedded with the game team. It's not this balkanized, sort of, "The writers are over here! The programmers are over there…" Shacknews: So, there is no line of tape across the office floor? Erik Wolpaw: No, no, no! Joshua Weier: As much as we've tried. Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, that's not to say we like each other! But we don't just write a script and throw it over the wall and hope everything works out well. We're there everyday. We're in the design meetings. So, the story develops alongside the gameplay. It's weird to say "organically" but it is. It's hard to put your finger on how to separate the two in terms of the process you use to arrive at the final game.

Repulsion Gel is one of the newest gameplay mechanics added to Portal 2.

Shacknews: Something like the Repulsion Gel for example. Is that something the you as a writer would come up with and say, "Hey, let's figure out how to get this in the game." How does something very specific like that come into play in a team environment from your side, Erik? Erik Wolpaw: Well, that one is actually kind of an interesting story. So, the original Portal mechanic was created by a group of students… Shacknews: The team behind Narbacular Drop (demo). Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, Narbacular Drop. The exact school, DigiPen, a group made a game called Tag: The Power of Paint (full game). And we saw it and we talked to them and Valve hired them. Kind of like Valve hired the Narbacular Drop guys. And there was kind of a process where they were kind of figuring out what to do with it, like whether they were going to go and make their own game. At some point it was like, "Oh! Holy crap. This totally works with Portal. This is a puzzle mechanic that complements the Portal mechanic." That's where that came from. From the writing perspective, all that really meant is that we incorporated it within the story. We came up with names for it. And some fiction, like what Aperture was doing with it. Definitely at no point are the writers like, "This is an awesome puzzle mechanic story idea! Make this work, designers!" It's something that goes the other way. We make sure it's a fun game mechanic and then go back the other way. Shacknews: The original game is this beloved title that people ended up gravitating toward as this new product included in a box with a number of other games from known franchises. For the sequel, a lot of changes appear to have been made: new mechanics, modes, characters. This is the era of the Internet, how conscious is Valve of the knee-jerk reaction to change? In terms of the cynicism toward change among the hardest of the hardcore. Does that affect design at all, in any stage? Erik Wolpaw: I would say no. We take the things we learned from Portal 1 and try to apply them to Portal 2 and then we try to make an awesome story and an awesome game. Because if you think about that sort of stuff, you literally will make yourself crazy and you'll also block yourself to the point where you're never about to move forward. You play test the game, you do the exact same thing you do with Portal 1… and there's a fight going on around us. (a number of energetic PAX East 2011 attendees yell and push each other, and demand to "take it outside.") Shacknews: This is all going to make the interview when I transcribe it. Erik Wolpaw: It might actually be more interesting to tell the story of the fight and how Josh and I weighted in… and then were taken out in stretchers. (we all laugh as the group shuffles past as security guards and their whistles intervene) Erik Wolpaw: Anyway! There are some things we do internally. There are things like, I kind of assumed people were probably sick of cake jokes, for instance. I was like, "Let's not do any more of those. Let's just banish that from the game entirely." We don't need to push that. Let's just do some new stuff. Tell a new story and not try and revive three year old memes. Shacknews: Which I've heard you talk about before. Erik Wolpaw: Yeah. Which is probably the best example of change. We're certainly aware that people have an investment in Portal 1, but you can't just make Portal 1 again. I mean, believe me, if we could have just made Portal 1 again… our lives would have been a lot simpler. At the end of the day, you make a good game and you put it out there in the world. I think fans of Portal 1 are going to be well served by this game. Joshua Weier: And not just that. I mean, when we're building the game we're bringing people in to test it. Generally we do that with for mechanics, but we were able to do that with the story and a lot of the humor too. Just to see what was working with people, so they got that same vibe from the game. That's really important. Make sure it was right. Erik Wolpaw: And the kind of the thing that--even though this is a bigger game--I thought one of the interesting things about Portal from a writing standpoint, was the game had a kind of intimate story. It's about this relationship you have with this, effectively, disembodied voice. Going into Portal 2, we didn't want to do--and I use this as an example and it's no slam on anybody--but like Pitch Black the movie was this small story and then they expanded it out for the sequel. And we realized, "Oh yeah! I didn't care about the politics of this world. I like this smaller story." So, even though we've expanded it out, it's still--kind of--this intimate story about this relationship between you and GLaDOS. We introduce some new characters, but we try to go deep with those characters. It's not just surface things. At the end of the day, again, it's a story about the evolving and complicated relationship between you and GLaDOS.

Have fun with friends and science in Portal 2.

Shacknews: Speaking to evolution, obviously the gameplay elements have evolved or have spawned into new ideas for Portal 2. However, when you're writing the script do you consider things like, "We already did this one character and one voice story in the past, we need to think of something else"? Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, you don't want the exact same story. Also, introducing new puzzle elements using the exact same design philosophy as Portal 1, we end up with a much longer game. You just know that you can't just have GLaDOS talking at the beginning of every chamber for, now what's an eight or nine hour experience. And that wouldn't be especially surprising, right? You have more time to tell a different story so it doesn't get stale. The pacing is super important to us, to maintain a pace where: you're going to see new stuff, there's going to be twists in the story, you're going to see some new characters, or have the relationships reconfigured in an interesting way. All those things. The pacing was definitely primary in our minds, which is a Valve thing anyway. The pacing, we take that pretty seriously. One rule that we kept during the play testing of Portal 1 was that people don't like to listen to the dialogue when they're solving the puzzles. We have all characters shut up during actual puzzle solving. Play testing universally showed us that people either tuned it out or more usually were actually annoyed if they were talking at that time. At the beginning or end [of puzzles] is fine, but in the middle of tests people just get frustrated because they are trying to think. Joshua Weier: Or you'd see people walking and stop and then wait… and them wait… and then wait. Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, so it's an imposition on them because all of a sudden you're making them switch gears. Like, "I'm in puzzle solving mode now, and now either you're telling me to ignore this or forget about what I'm doing. Or you're just stoping me." Shacknews: How important was it for Valve to take control of the PlayStation 3 version of Portal 2? Joshua Weier: It was a big deal. I don't think we were super happy with what we came out with for The Orange Box [on PS3]. We knew the fans wanted more. Doing that in house, really spending time with it and also adding Steam features to it was a really big difference, this time around. I mean, if you look at all the consoles and platforms it's on, things are indistinguishable between them all. The big thing that sets them apart is just Steam. Being able to get on your PS3 and play with your Steam buddies--and it doesn't even matter if they are on PC or Mac, you just connect with them and play and you don't even know where you're at. You can play on the platform you want. That was a really big deal for us. I think customers are really going to enjoy that. Just having that freedom to go wherever they want. focalbox Shacknews: It seems like the PS3 is the platform of choice, considering those features and the added PC version. Joshua Weier: Yeah, you have cross-play and that co-op is a big deal. Shacknews: And it comes with the PC version, as well. Joshua Weier: Correct. Shacknews: Last question for you, and it's going to be hard for me to word this so I don't sound like I'm taking shots at other companies. Valve is known for being skilled at integrating the story in its titles so it feels on par with the actual action. There's rarely a disconnect. Even a game like Portal, where the story element was an unexpected surprise, it seems like story is key. What does Valve do differently that some other developers are still trying to figure out? Erik Wolpaw: I don't know exactly how things work at other companies, but it's kind of like what we were talking about earlier. It's where the writers are seen as a permanent piece of the design team. They're just in there. So, story is always just being looked at as any other piece of it on a day-to-day basis. It may just be a corporate culture thing that we tend to like to play games that have an interesting story that's interwoven a little more organically with the gameplay. So, that's the type of games we end up making. Joshua Weier: I think it's in how we communicate too because a lot of the best parts of the game, the writers will sit down with the designers working on an area with an idea and by the time they were done the idea completely changed and transformed and the space was different and the writing is different. That kind of integration, I think, is so key to us because you can just brainstorm and sit down and you have all the right people there. You just do it. You're not driving from a design doc or a script that's handed down. It's, kind of, all changing on the fly, right on the floor. Erik Wolpaw: Always having to, a month later, trying to fit a part into some pre-existing piece that can't change or can't easily change. No. I mean for us, it's all very fluid. It definitely helps make a more cohesive experience when the game is finally done. Portal 2 launches on the PC, Mac, PS3, and Xbox 360 on April 19 in North America.