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Narbacular Drop

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

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Kim Swift sprang to fame as the project lead on Valve's wonderful first-person puzzler, Portal. It was a game that managed to be brilliantly clever, incredibly funny, and yet accessible to a wider gaming audience. It's with this philosophy that Swift begins her new job heading up a team at Airtight Games. We took this chance to look back over the path that took her here, beginning with the game that inspired Portal, Narbacular Drop.

Kim Swift


EurogamerDo you feel old enough to be a part of Retro Sunday?
Kim Swift

Not particularly. Would you say I'm old enough?

EurogamerNo. I definitely would not. Because I'm significantly older than you, and thus would make myself feel incredibly old. Rather than out of manners. So let's go back. Way back. To before Narbacular Drop. How did you end up at MIT?
Kim Swift

You mean DIT right?

EurogamerWell, that would make more sense.
Kim Swift

DigiPen does not equal MIT. Notice the lack of the M in DigiPen.

EurogamerYes, I am bad with acronyms.
Kim Swift

Is this your own personal achilles heel?

EurogamerYes. It's the only way they'll eventually be able to kill me.
Kim Swift

Oh, then perhaps you shouldn't advertise that.

Ever wondered what a DigiPen project looks like? Here's Invasion Squad XIV.
EurogamerSo, hey, how did you end up at DIT?
Kim Swift

Well, I was in my Junior year of high school and I knew that I really wanted to make videogames. And completely had no clue how they were made or even where to start. I was talking to my Dad about possibly going into a Computer Science programme somewhere so I could maybe break into the games industry one day. He had heard about DigiPen from a coworker and suggested I apply there.

EurogamerAre they tough to get into?
Kim Swift

Well, for the RTIS program - Real Time Interactive Simulation, DigiPen's name for a CS degree with a specialisation in computer graphics - they require that you have a good foundation in math and sciences. The curriculum is definitely tough and extremely fast-paced. I took a couple of community college C++ courses in high school and what I learned in those two semesters were surpassed in about a couple weeks at DigiPen.

EurogamerImpressive. So were you already fiddling with game ideas at this point?
Kim Swift

Not particularly, I was mainly trying to keep my head above water really with all of the school work. I had a few ideas here and there though. Whenever our games team would start to figure out what we were going to do for our project, we would all pitch in various ideas. So I suppose that's something to clarify. At DigiPen, each year we have games class where you team up with a few other students in the class and the goal is by the end of two semesters is to have a game. Every year the requirements are different. First year was a text-based game. Then second year is 2D. Third year required networking and 3D. Fourth year was physics and 3D.

This image was pivotal in Valve's decision to hire the Narbacular Drop team.
EurogamerWhat did you make for a text game?
Kim Swift

Let's see, so I was on a team with a couple of the people that were on Portal, Jeep [Barnett] and Garret [Rickey]. And a few other folks. We made a game called Invasion Squad XIV. It was a turn-based strategy game.

EurogamerI always thought that was the best in the series. I hated Invasion Squad VIII.
Kim Swift

Yeah, well you didn't have the giant ion cannon in that one.

EurogamerExactly. So turn-based text. That must have made moving the units tricky. Or was this something Rogue-like?
Kim Swift

I did quite a bit of text-based artwork for the game, and I had to actually resurrect those skills for the credits sequence of Portal. Wow, that totally didn't answer your question...

EurogamerIt's okay, don't mind me.
Kim Swift

Basically you're in control of a space ship. So each turn you get to decide what you plan on doing in the space ship. The premise is that you've come in contact with Earth and you're trying to figure out what to do with it. So in a turn, you could send units down to explore a particular area, or maybe get the engineering team to build a weapon on the ship. The most fun outcome of the game is to just blow up things with an ion cannon.