In less than two weeks, the world will be playing one of 2011′s most eagerly anticipated games: Valve Software’s Portal 2.
It’s the sequel to one of the most critically acclaimed videogames of the past five years, and it’s been expanded: what was a two-hour micro-game has become a huge, epic tale of digital deceit, with new mechanics and even a full co-op campaign to boot.
At a recent press event, I played through the opening levels of Portal 2, then sat down with Valve writer Chet Faliszek to talk about what I saw.
BeefJack: After playing through a chunk of Portal 2 today, I’m left with a huge grin on my face. The game is hilarious. It strikes me that comedy seems to be an aspect that’s coming into Valve games more and more. What’s the thinking behind this direction?
Chet Faliszek: As me, Erik Wolpaw and Jay Pinkerton have been working [at Valve] more and more, it’s just what we like to do and it makes us laugh. In a lot of the games there’s an inherent humour in them, and we’re just embracing that.
For example, with Left 4 Dead when we first looked at it, it was a serious horror game. No it’s not! Dudes vomiting on you! It’s funny, you’re laughing, and so trying to do a serious story while you’re laughing seems weird, so we embrace that. Definitely with Team Fortress 2, early on, we embraced the idea of humour in there, and I think it works well as juxtaposition against the seriousness of the games.
BeefJack: It certainly works well there, where it would be hard to take the conflict between the Red and Blu teams seriously.
Chet Faliszek: Oh yeah, in the beginning of that project we tried a lot of different scenarios that would make sense, and… that was not pretty.
BeefJack: You and Erik Wolpaw used to run Old Man Murray, the legendary and hilarious games website. How much of Valve’s sense of humour relates back to this? Did it inform your games writing in any significant ways?
Chet Faliszek: Well, that’s mine and Erik’s core – and Jay Pinkerton, who did jadepinkerton.com, he was also the editor of Cracked and National Lampoon. So it’s just part of our nature to make jokes and to want to crack each other up.
BeefJack: Obviously one of the aims with Portal 2 has been to scale up the Portal concept into a longer, more expansive game. That’s something I can’t wait for, but Portal was often praised for its perfect duration. Do you think you will ever create another smaller sized game to perhaps experiment with a completely new idea?
Chet Faliszek: I mean, definitely. We’re always thinking of what we want to work at and what we want to do and then worry about the other stuff later. So, if there’s something that matched that small form then sure, we would do it.
BeefJack: Valve certainly has a very varied catalogue of games, from the co-op based Left 4 Dead, single-player experiences like Portal and Half-Life, and the team-based multiplayer of Team Fortress 2. Does mixing up games in this fashion help breed creativity?
Chet Faliszek: So, in Left 4 Dead we leant a lot about co-op and brought that over to Portal 2. Everyone is playing games online more and more and it’s not just to be competitive. For us, having that social aspect is really important. Then we have Counter Strike which is uber-hardcore and serious. Compare that to TF2 and there’s a lot of fun there.
BeefJack: With regards to the co-op campaign, how does it fit in the Portal universe?
Chet Faliszek: It has its own separate story, with its own characters, and takes place after the single-player game. GLaDOS has a little thing for you to do, and I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers! The story in co-op really has to step back a little bit because you need room for people to breathe and talk. They have their own story that’s competing against it, you know? They won’t go: “Remember when I was playing P-Body and you were Atlas and I pulled the light-bridge out from underneath you?” They’re going to say: “Hey, remember when I pulled the light-bridge out from underneath you, and you fell off into the goo?” There’s more of a personal story that comes from that.
BeefJack: What was the writing process for Portal 2? Did you begin right after Portal?
Chet Faliszek: A little later, actually. We all work on a lot of different projects at a lot of different times, so there was some mixing around with that. Portal 2, in earnest, began around the same time as Left 4 Dead 1. It’s a collaborative thing, so we started writing in a writers’ room, cracking each other up, and then went from there. A lot of that was some false starts and some playing around until we finally hit the vibe of what it was going to be. We went really, really strong then after that.
BeefJack: Aside from all the new features you’ve added, of course, you’ve also brought in the Independent Games Festival winners DigiPen for their work on Tag: The Power of Paint, and we’ve seen how the paint-like gels can change your character’s momentum in Portal 2. Is this one of the ways you are ensuring Portal 2 feels fresh?
Chet Faliszek: Honestly, we hired them not for Portal but for their own game, and they’ve been converting that over. They actually helped us with playtesting a ton on Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 and gave us feedback on them. It was during that process that we were looking for where their game fit. We were also doing design experiments and created the Blob Tech, which is the gooey look of it. Then we just wanted something more in Portal 2, another new element, and it kind of just naturally fit in. It wasn’t like: “We need to hire a new student group to do this!” We hired them because we loved what they did, and it went from there.
BeefJack: Why has Valve never made a game that isn’t exceptional?
Chet Faliszek: Playtesting. Playtesting, playtesting, playtesting. We bring people in from the outside, who have no knowledge of the game, and we test it. It’s the only way to know if a puzzle is hard or not. We can bring in our own people to test it, but you won’t really ever know until you have somebody fresh and cold, without any preconceived notions, and let them play it.
BeefJack: Thanks very much for your time.