“I love these things, but I also know that there’s something weird, and kind of bizarre, and strange about them -- like, there’s something really dumb about them. [...] We love them, and, kind of, hate them at the same time.”
Symbolic suspended animation: Wolpaw began by playing through the opening of Portal 2. The game begins in what appears to be a small hotel room; after a brief interaction with a (non-GLaDOS) computerized voice, you go back to sleep -- or rather, re-enter suspended animation. Valve originally thought of providing a gameplay sequence representing the state itself: “Aperture makes this [relaxation chamber] that’s supposed to store you forever, but it’s actually this, just, real-time simulation of you pacing back and forth in a shitty hotel room. It was just going to be the worst thing ever.” The segment didn’t work out, so the developers merely stuck Chell in a container that was literally a hotel room.
The Portal sequel that might have been: For the first six months of its development, Portal 2 didn’t even have portals in it. Valve had devised a different puzzle mechanic, dubbed “F-Stop,” that was “pretty promising.” (Wolpaw wouldn’t go into any detail on F-Stop, since the studio may use it in a future game.) Not only was the game’s core mechanic different, but it had a separate story altogether. The F-Stop version of Portal 2 “took place in the ’50s -- GLaDOS wasn’t in it, Chell wasn’t in it. It was [Aperture Science founder] Cave Johnson, and it was the story of him getting put into a computer and then realizing he’s made a huge mistake.”
If Aperture Science is decrepit, why are the elevators in better shape?: There was “no story reason” for the “cooler-looking” elevators in Portal 2 -- they’re just a product of a bigger team, said Wolpaw.
The “Valve Cabal”: The folks at Valve succeed in spite of, or perhaps because of, their unorthodox studio organization. Rather, there isn’t a typical organizational arrangement at all. “It’s this weird, sort of, flat management structure; kinda communal; there’s no real hierarchy,” Wolpaw began. When asked to discuss it, he spoke haltingly, saying he was stammering because “I’ve tried to explain to my wife how it works, and I haven’t been able to, and she doesn’t believe that it should work.”
Cutscenes are a cop-out, in most cases: Valve is renowned for making games that rarely, if ever, take you out of the first-person perspective. “We have this feeling, I think, internally -- I don’t know that we say it that much -- that doing the cutscenes is kinda like admitting defeat,” said Wolpaw. He quickly acknowledged that he plays and enjoys “a million games” that have cutscenes, such as Red Dead Redemption, Saints Row (“great”), and God Hand (“best game ever”). Portal 2 itself ends with a cutscene, but only because “it wasn’t going to look as good if we did it live, and it was going to require a level load.” Sometimes, said Wolpaw, it’s okay to sacrifice the narrative in the interest of “[making] it look really good.”
Choose Your Own Adventure books -- in a game: Wolpaw may not enjoy adventure games, but he does think that Choose Your Own Adventure books are “cool.” After mentioning the “like, five thousand books in [The Elder Scrolls IV] Oblivion,” he bestowed his “big idea” upon us: “What if they were Choose Your Own Adventure books? Like, you’d open it, and it was a Choose Your Own Adventure book? And it’d be fun -- it’d be, like, a fun 15-minute break from adventuring.” That might just get me to play an Elder Scrolls game.
In addition, it just saves time if Chell doesn’t speak, and it also serves the comedic timing better, according to Wolpaw. “I think you may want to know her backstory; you may want to hear her say things; but I guarantee, if she had to say her straight-man lines at the expense of half of the other dialogue, it would suck. And Jay and I would be miserable, and everybody’d be miserable.” Finally, Wolpaw doesn’t believe that people are particularly invested in Chell’s character, because she doesn’t have much of a personality. Instead, “We always assume she could talk and she simply just chooses not to, because the robots are all being dicks, and why give them the satisfaction of saying anything to them?”
A missed opportunity: Someone asked if Valve had cut anything particularly good from Portal 2, and after racking his brain, Wolpaw recalled that they had come up with a “Morgan Freeman, kind of, sphere,” but ended up not using it. No, seriously. “Like, you find him in this little ten-by-ten room, and he’s, like, the wisest guy about this ten-by-ten space. Doesn’t know anything about anything [else] -- is just blown away by the shit that’s five feet outside the ten-by-ten space -- but has a lot of advice that all, kind of, relates to things that were in the ten-by-ten space.” I wish I’d thought to ask if they had actually gotten Freeman to lend his voice to the sphere.
Again, if you’re interested in hearing more about this stuff, a video of the full session is available online.
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