Narbacular Drop • Page 3

John Walker corners Kim Swift about the game that spawned Portal.

Eurogamer: Did you think an invite was coming?

Kim Swift: Well, a few days later Garret decides to email him with the pretence of asking what we could do to make the game better - we were going to take the game to GDC the following year for Student Showcase. We thought maybe we could brush up the game a bit more before we submit it. We then get an invite to come and demo the game at Valve. So we of course jump at the opportunity, all the while thinking: "Wow, these guys are really nice to give us feedback on our game in person."

Eurogamer: It's the sort of thing they do.

Kim Swift: We go there and Robin greets us and sticks us in a conference room and lets us set up the game. We were thinking maybe, one or two people would show up to take a look. Slowly but surely, the room starts to really fill up with people. The couch of course fills up first. After the room gets pretty packed and Robin comes back, then walks in Gabe Newell. He immediately goes to the couch and people get up to clear a space for him. We decide I'd do the talking in the presentation while Jeep plays the game to demonstrate. After about 10-15 minutes through the presentation Gabe stops us and asks what we're planning on doing after graduation. I reply that we're looking for jobs, or something of that sort. Shortly after that we find ourselves in another conference room sitting across the table from Gabe. He then on the spot asks us if we'd want to be hired to re-create our student project using Source.

Eurogamer: You must have all stared at each other in shock for a bit.

Kim Swift: Well yeah, we were all just completely stunned. We thought we were just going in to get feedback on our game and a tour of Valve. We didn't really expect to walk out the door with a job.

Narb went on to become Portal, Eurogamer's Game of the Year in 2007.

Eurogamer: So Portal's a pretty different game than Narbacular Drop. How much of where it ended up going came from you guys as a team, and how much came from the influence of Valve?

Kim Swift: Well, we definitely learned quite a bit from Valve about their design process. The most valuable thing I and I'm pretty sure everyone else learned was to playtest and iterate. If a player doesn't know what to do, it's the game developer's fault, not the player. And obviously, we were happy to insert Portal into the Half-Life fiction. Everything else was all us though, we had a few mentors that we would refer to in order to get help, and of course Eric Wolpaw joined our team. But all of the blood, sweat and tears came out of us Narbacular Drop folk.

Eurogamer: Do you secretly call it "Narbacular Drop II"?

Kim Swift: Uh, no.

Eurogamer: You could maybe start doing that.

Kim Swift: That's a bit wordier than Portal. Not to mention, no one knows how to pronounce Narbacular. Nar-back-u-laar.

Eurogamer: I was right!

Kim Swift: You deserve a cookie.

Eurogamer: The level design in Portal is extraordinary. The level design in Narbacular... um, I don't want to be rude. It's not quite as good.

Kim Swift: Yes, well there's a big difference in having to create a game while you're going to school and having to actually pass other courses. And then having 8-10 hours a day to work on a game. And get paid for it.

Eurogamer: This line of questioning becomes complimentary eventually. The level design in Portal really is exemplary. How did you reach that height?

Kim Swift: Design-Test-Iterate, Design-Test-Iterate, Design-Test-Iterate. People really underestimate watching people test the game. It very quickly proves or disproves theories, it keeps everyone on the same page since everyone is watching the same thing happen, and it helps to keep people objective. In fact, quite a few of the levels came out of watching people playtest and observing particular behaviours.

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John Walker

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