When Gabe Newell asked Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw of Old Man Murray fame to come work at Valve, they of course answered the call - the developer was about to ship Half-Life 2.
Now, six-and-a-half years later, the writing duo have an impressive credits list under their belt: Half-Life 2: Episode 1, 2, The Orange Box, Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2 and, come April, Portal 2.
Here the childhood friends talk in-depth about the creation of their latest offering. How did Portal 2 come to be? What's changed? How does it all tie into Half-Life? And what's next? Read on to find out.
Eurogamer: Portal was such a beautiful surprise, almost perfect in a self-contained way. Why do a sequel at all?
Erik Wolpaw: We weren't banking on Portal 2 being the game that saves the company. We sat down and we were like, 'What can we do that will make this interesting?'
Chet Faliszek: Part of it is so many people love not this GLaDOS or not this Chell, but the Aperture Science world.
Erik Wolpaw: We felt Aperture Science was a rich environment to go back to. Because Portal was so short, people still wanted to do more with the Portal gun.
Initially we were thinking about what puzzle elements could we add to the game that would expand the puzzle space and give us some new things to do with the portals. We knew we didn't want to change the central mechanic.
We liked the elegance of, you have a portal gun that shoots two portals. We didn't want to add a new gun that, you have to switch weapons now, or add a bullet time button or something.
There was a period of exploration where it was like, well what other puzzle elements, what things can work with the portals but not replace the central mechanic? We came up with a list of stuff that seemed to be really fun and then combinatorially interesting once they were all working together.
At no point when we were working on Portal were we like, we're going to make a four hour game, so how do we get to four hours? It was, we're going to show you all the neat things you can do with this Portal gun, and we're going to try not repeat ourselves too much, and let's see how long that ends up being.
Once we had all these new puzzle elements that combined in these interesting ways, using the exact same design philosophy of, let's show you the neat things this can do, it ended up being about two-and-a-half times as long as Portal 1, just naturally, with no padding.
We thought about what we could do story wise, and we came up with a whole bunch of ideas and tried some stuff out.
Eurogamer: Anything that didn't make the cut?
Erik Wolpaw: Plenty of stuff.
Chet Faliszek: But a lot of stuff gets melded into things we do ship, too.
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah. Sometimes we'll take an idea and end up shipping it somewhere else.
Chet Faliszek: We start play testing really early on, so we can see what fails or doesn't fail. Sometimes things just need a little nudging, or it's things that annoy us.
Remember the pulse beams from Portal 1? Changing those into lasers was such a win, because they're a lot easier to use, you can see them, they're always on, and you don't have a frustrating wait for the ball to travel across the screen.
Erik Wolpaw: Lasers do the exact same thing, except they're much clearer. You get instantaneous feedback and for people that are still wrapping their heads around portals, you see the laser is going in here and it's coming out here. It's much clearer to people.
We write a crap load of dialogue and some of it just doesn't end up in.
Eurogamer: 13,000 lines?
Erik Wolpaw: We probably did write 13,000 lines of dialogue.
Chet Faliszek: They move puzzles around. They change a puzzle. They collapse a puzzle. Or it's just not working, or the pacing needs to get changed.
Erik Wolpaw: Pacing was big in our minds. At four hours you could support that story structure where GLaDOS talks and talks and talks. She has her little psychotic break about two-thirds of the way through, and then you get that part of the game.
We thought that exact structure was going to be boring for us to write and potentially not exciting for people to play. There's no surprise there any more.
Eurogamer: Because we've done it.
Erik Wolpaw: You've done it. Also, GLaDOS ends at a different point in Portal 1 personally than where she is at the beginning, so we didn't want to travel that same arc. From a writing perspective that was one of the biggest first challenges: what's our arc going to be in this game?
We still wanted it to be this intimate story about your relationship with GLaDOS. So she starts the game where she left off in terms of her state of mind in Portal 1. It's kind of vague, but things happen. Before the game's over, a lot of things happen.
Eurogamer: Chell has been in stasis for a long time, right?
Erik Wolpaw: A long time. We don't say how long, but a long time. And GLaDOS herself has been, in a sense, in stasis because she's effectively been switched off. So the two of you are waking up, not quite simultaneously, because there's a little ramp up before GLaDOS wakes.
It takes about half an hour before GLaDOS wakes back up. You're half-an-hour ahead of her. She wakes up and you're just standing there again, apparently gloating over what you've just done.
Chet Faliszek: The team is so much bigger, so we have a lot of people who can do a lot of other things for us. Was there a dedicated animator for Portal?
Erik Wolpaw: As far as I know there were no animations in Portal 1.
Chet Faliszek: Now we have all these people we can do all these cool things. In the first 30 minutes we have the container ride in, which is this really cool scene. We have GLaDOS waking up, which is this really cool scene.
With the pacing we were worried about fatigue. We were worried about, oh my God, there's just going to be more puzzles. We have these experiences you interact through or go through that help break that up and add to the game.
When you see GLaDOS getting up, all of a sudden you see this embodiment of this voice. Even at the end of Portal 1, I knew she was in there but she wasn't looking at me, yelling at me. Whereas in Portal 2 there's this definite moment when she comes alive where she's looking at you and letting you know.
Erik Wolpaw: It's not because we didn't want to do that in Portal 1. It's just we didn't have anybody to do it. We always had this idea that the labs were being assembled dynamically, and we took some stabs at trying to show you that.
It ended up it was going to be way too much work for a small team to deliver. Now we had the resources to realise that idea, so the environment reconfigures in real-time.
In Portal 1 there was one big transition point. You could call the boss battle maybe a second transition point in the game. For pacing we wanted the story to hit a few different beats. We did that, well, in ways that are spoilerish, but there are a few more characters in the game now.
Eurogamer: You have a robotic helper now.
Chet Faliszek: There's that, but even in single-player there is a whole bunch more characters, a whole bunch more locations you go to.
Erik Wolpaw: You explore a bunch of different parts of Aperture.
Eurogamer: You never leave it though, right?
Erik Wolpaw: Well, maybe not. It would be spoilerish either way...
Eurogamer: We never hear Chell talk, or see much of her. What kind of person is she? Does that matter?
Erik Wolpaw: Personally it doesn't make that much difference. Portal was this intimate relationship you had with GLaDOS, and what we found to a person with playtesters who played the first game, a lot of them didn't even know the character's name was Chell because we never mentioned it. Maybe it was written on her jumpsuit and it was in the file names.
Players didn't care what GLaDOS' relationship was to Chell. They felt like they had this relationship with GLaDOS, and they wanted GLaDOS to recognise them, which is one of the reasons we never have GLaDOS actually say Chell's name.
No one ever says GLaDOS' name either. We've turned that into a thing with the game. Nobody ever mentions anyone's name in the game.
Chet Faliszek: It's to such a point people imprint themselves onto the character Chell. We had a playtester in who played all the way through the single-player version of Portal 2, and then went to play co-op, and during one point of co-op realised the bots have sexes. Immediately you look at it and go, one's a female and one's a male.
The guy got really mad he got stuck with the female. I asked him, you know, in single-player, you've been playing for 12 hours as a female. He goes, no I wasn't. It didn't bother me, but now it bothers me.
Erik Wolpaw: In the beginning, when we were first designing it, and even for the first couple of iterations, the idea was Chell had her story, she got out, let's just let her be. She's out in the wild doing her thing, let's just have a different test subject. Who cares?
But because of that, when GLaDOS woke up, she didn't recognise the player. That's when we first realised, people didn't care about Chell. They weren't like, where's Chell?
At no point in the first 30 minutes were they like, oh, this is a totally different character. It didn't bother them. What bothered them was when GLaDOS woke up and didn't recognise them as the person who done these things to her.
Eurogamer: So that's why you play as Chell once again?
Erik Wolpaw: Yes. Technically, we could have had some other character who had done something. But it's the continuation of the player's experience.
I don't think all games need to do this. It's just the way it is, the silent protagonist.
Chet Faliszek: Gordon Freeman was that in HL2. People jacked themselves into it. Chell's the female version of that.
Erik Wolpaw: In Half-Life we hand wave over whether Gordon is actually silent or whether he's participating in these conversations in a way. It would be kinda odd for a dude just to not ever say anything.
Chet Faliszek: You'd be a jackass.
Erik Wolpaw: In Portal 2 though we play that up. We do some things with the silence that are hopefully interesting. I always had this feeling of Chell is a character who's just pissed off the entire time and having to do this, and just not giving them the pleasure of saying anything. She probably can talk.
Eurogamer: There's crossover between the Portal and Half-Life universes, isn't there?
Erik Wolpaw: They both take place in the same universe, although we think of Portal as taking place in Aperture Science, which is this absurd bubble buried in the ground where anything goes, to a certain extent.
Internally we think of it it, if it's the X-Files, Half-Life is the meta, ongoing story and Portal games are the self-contained, funny, absurd episodes.
Chet Faliszek: The Jim Rose Circus Show.
Erik Wolpaw: Or the one with the genie with the three wishes.
Eurogamer: The monster episodes.
Chet Faliszek: The ones that were good.
Erik Wolpaw: I didn't want to say that but yeah, the good ones.
Eurogamer: So Portal's better than Half-Life?
Chet Faliszek: Aperture Science is better than Black Mesa. Black Mesa blew up the world.
Erik Wolpaw: We will say Black Mesa, they're a bunch of snooty toots, who think they're so great, and then they destroyed the world.
Chet Faliszek: Way to go.
Erik Wolpaw: We definitely think of it as snobs versus slobs, and Black Mesa is the snobs and Aperture is the slobs, the loveable goofballs.
Eurogamer: The game is out in April. It must be finished.
Chet Faliszek: It is. It's gone off to certification. We sent it to Microsoft and Sony. They're evaluating it and everything's going well. We're set.
Eurogamer: How did you feel when you sent the game off?
Chet Faliszek: This was a weird one, because it was so smooth. It was a little anti-climactic, in a way.
Erik Wolpaw: There wasn't the panic at the end. In the old days, with Half-Life 2 when it was PC only, they'd be working on it until the night of release. Now you have to have it done. The certification process is long and you have to allow some time for changes after that.
There is a sadness. It's not a depression about the product, but we've all been working together really intensely. In our room where we've been working for two years on Portal, seeing people they've moved on to go do other things.
Everybody at Valve, your desk is on wheels. You move where you're needed. So people have wheeled their desks out and the room feels empty now.
We'll start up another project. There is also a sense of relief because it's over.
Chet Faliszek: People are really proud of it. At the end we played ourselves a bunch, and there a sense of accomplishment, of this is good, it's really good. When Gabe says he considers it the best game Valve ever produced, there's a reason for that.
Eurogamer: That must fill you will a great sense of pride. It's not like you have average quality games to beat to have Gabe say that.
Chet Faliszek: If you looked at Half-Life 2 to The Orange Box, which had such great stuff, and Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 to this, we keep getting better at doing it and delivering a fun experience.
Erik Wolpaw: Valve definitely gets better delivering things - I know Portal 2 slipped - but generally on time. Valve still has this reputation of being a company that takes a long time to make games. We've shipped how many games in six years? A lot.
Eurogamer: You know why Valve has this reputation don't you? Because it's been so long since the last Half-Life game.
Chet Faliszek: What game?
Erik Wolpaw: Well, Portal takes place in the Half-Life universe, and also, we don't know what you're talking about.
Eurogamer: Do you get sick and tired of being asked about Half-Life?
Chet Faliszek: Never been asked it. You're the first one.
Erik Wolpaw: We'll have a think about it and then get back to you.
Chet Faliszek: Rudest interview ever. I'm out of here.
Erik Wolpaw: Actually, I'm just going to shoot a mail. Hey, somebody mentioned Half-Life. What is the deal with that thing? We're going to find out what's happening.
More on Portal 2
Eurogamer: Does Portal 2 leave the story open for a third game?
Erik Wolpaw: It would be spoilerish to bring it in.
Eurogamer: Does the universe have scope for another Portal?
Chet Faliszek: Aperture Science can keep going on and on and on.
Erik Wolpaw: Aperture Science is as big as we want to make it. I will tell you the earth does not get vaporised at the end of Portal, so it's still possible...
Chet Faliszek: At least not all of it.
Erik Wolpaw: A big chunk of it does. The structure of Aperture as this fun house of science certainly supports more things.
Eurogamer: Is Portal post-apocalyptic? Is Chell the last human on earth?
Erik Wolpaw: Apocalypse has multiple meanings.
Chet Faliszek: None of which we'll define today.
Erik Wolpaw: I will define one, which is you blew up Aperture so in terms of the micro-climate of Aperture Science, it was an apocalyptic event. Everything got destroyed within Aperture. That's the sense we talk about it in.
Portal 1, I can state it clearly now, took place place just after the Combine invasion, which was in a sense an apocalyptic event. Half-Life is an apocalyptic game. Apocalypse doesn't necessarily mean last human on earth, though.
Eurogamer: This one's set quite a long time after the first game, though.
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, a long time after the first game, without getting specific about how long.
Chet Faliszek: They could have repopulated the entire earth at this point and it's under a 7-Eleven.
Erik Wolpaw: We don't know.
Chet Faliszek: What's the movie where they hide in a bomb shelter underneath the city?
Erik Wolpaw: But there was no apocalypse and he comes up and everything's fine? Blast from the Past.
Chet Faliszek: It was actually a good movie.
Erik Wolpaw: Maybe that's what happens.