PAX East 2011 – ‘Portal 2′ solo and an interview with Erik Wolpaw
I wanted to start this with a description of the footage we watched as part of our Portal 2 presentation. I’d go with the description if only because we weren’t supposed to record anything once we got in there (as far as I know), and I wasn’t about to incur Valve’s wrath. (I did deign to take the photo you see of the logo, mostly because I didn’t think that Valve would have a problem with that. We know what it looks like already.)
But then I found out that other people dared to record it. Oh. So, here’s their video. It is exactly what we saw. (Remember to keep going past the video, though — there’s an interview down there, people!)
However, I get it if you’re not the video-watching type. I really, really do. Especially when the video in question is, like, ten minutes long. So I guess that description does end up coming into play after all.
“There is a framed painting on the wall. Please go stand in front of it. This is art. You will hear a buzzer. When you hear the buzzer, stare at the art.” [Buzzer, followed by the ticking of a clock.] “You should now feel mentally invigorated.”
Even in these small moments, Portal 2’s humor is apparent. Even the simplest things made us laugh, and that’s a good indicator that the spirit is still there, if you haven’t been convinced by the veritable avalanche of video that Valve has been releasing over the past few months. Granted, most of that relates more to the co-op play.
What we saw at PAX East was the first-ever public glimpse of the single-player storyline. (I refuse to call it a “campaign” because this isn’t your typical FPS.) So, first, we got some new Wheatley action (he’s voiced by Stephen Merchant, as you may have heard). This portion seemed to be from the very beginning, since some on-screen tips, accompanied by aural cues, were teaching you how to play. “Go look at the art” is actually a hidden way to say “here’s how to move,” just in case you’ve never picked up a controller or gamed on a computer in your life.
There are a few tricks hidden in there, though. During a conversation with Wheatley, he asks if you understand what he’s saying, and you have the option to “say yes,” which has, funnily enough, been mapped to the spacebar. Of course, if you know anything about your typical keyboard layout — yeah, that’s jumping.
“Uh, okay, what you’re doing there is jumping.” Again, giggles all around. But then he asks you to say “apple” instead. And you don’t. And Wheatley keeps going on. “Come on. A-double-P-L-E.” He keeps trying to coax what would be another jump out of you, and that just has me wondering a little bit now — how much of the dialogue am I going to miss just by following directions? I appreciate the effort to flesh it out a little bit, but I’m so worried that I won’t get to see every second of the game I’ve been looking forward to for months just because I have this pesky need to follow directions. It bugs me a bit, but it’s not like I won’t play this game twenty times, so I should probably get over it.
What we also saw (and what you saw in the second half of the video, if you watched it) was the debut of J.K. Simmons (AKA Juno’s dad or J. Jonah Jameson) as Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Science. What pitch-perfect casting that turned out to be!
We didn’t really see anything new in the gameplay mechanics department, unfortunately — that stuff has actually been covered fairly well in the videos released up to this point. The video we saw dealt mostly with propulsion and repulsion gels, the first of which speeds you up, with the second causing you to bounce (with a nice “springy” quality, to boot). And just think — at least you’re not part of the control group. They just got blue paint.
After a nice little reminder to “Have fun at PAX…wait, buy my game! …Okay, now have fun,” we were released into the wild. Well, sort of. We actually got to take one of Portal’s writers, Erik Wolpaw, with us. He wanted a little time in a quieter, cooler area, anyway, so it was nice all around. (Full disclosure: I did totally fangirl at him. Sorry, Erik. I’m still learning how not to get completely dorky around people I admire.) That meant that I finally got to ask him a few questions.
Granted, most of them were completely off-the-cuff, since I hadn’t really prepared to talk to him (I really, seriously did not know that talking to people like this was an option — remember, this is my first big con, after all), but hopefully you can get a little bit of neat information out of it!
I’d noticed a little shift in format — and maybe you noticed it in the video — in that they seem to be moving to a “chapter” system.
“Oh yeah, we’re debuting our chapter system,” Wolpaw said. “Kind of like Half-Life…so it’s broken up into chunks.” The testchamber system will still be around, though, so don’t worry! “We didn’t want to screw up the testchamber thing, but because it’s a longer game, we needed to be much more concerned about the pacing of it. So, you see things, you take experiential breaks, but there’s still the canonical testchambers and other things that are…well, sort of spoilerish.”
Speaking of things that are “spoilerish,” I also tried to head in that direction to inquire a little more into Cave Johnson’s…well, entire existence in this game (is he a robot? A recording? WHAT?), but, of course, I was pretty much shut down.
“We deliberately didn’t give you a lot of context [in the demo],” he told us. “You’ll find out when you play, and then you’ll say, ‘Oh, thank God Erik didn’t answer my question and ruin this experience for me.’ Thank me now, because I won’t be around when you’re playing.” (I did.)
It’s like he knows me. I do enjoy a bit of a surprise, after all.
We moved on to other characters. Well, not specifically.
“There will be more personality spheres in the game,” Wolpaw said. “Wheatley’s a big one, obviously, but you haven’t seen or heard every voice in the game.” Ellen McLain is back as GLaDOS, though. You’ve probably seen that by now.
“She’s not happy, obviously,” Wolpaw said. “She wakes up and not a lot of time has passed for her, since she was essentially switched off or dead, and you killed her, and then as soon as she wakes up, there you are, standing there with a slack-jawed expression on your face. She’s not happy.”
When it comes to his feelings, however, Wolpaw is happy — happy the game’s done. (I’m a counselor-in-training, so I had to stick the “But how does it make you feel?” question in there somehow.) The game, by the way, has been finished for a little while.
“It’s actually kind of crazy,” Wolpaw said. “It’s been done…I mean, done-done…for three and a half or four weeks, which is a fairly long amount of time for it to be done. The consoles kind of force that, since you have to go through cert[ification], but this is still done pretty early. It’s weird, because it feels like we’ve been done for a long time, but it also feels like it’s out already. It’s going to be a really odd thing four weeks from now. It’ll feel like this distant thing in the past that we worked on.” So, right now we’re in the third trimester of the game’s existence, if you want to make it a little more biological. That delivery is best done when it’s not a chestburster à la Alien.
I did get a chance to get a little niggling detail out of the way. I’d been wondering for a few weeks whether or not I’d be able to play my PS3 and Steam copies of the game at the same time. Don’t worry about why, it’s just for science. Answer? A definitive no. You’ll be linking your PSN and Steam accounts to get the PC/Mac copy of the game, so don’t go thinking you’ll be able to split the cost with a friend, because you won’t. Unless you’re very patient.
I’ll go ahead and admit my main reason for wondering: I want to play co-op with my husband, and I’m not so into splitscreening. Wolpaw did seem to think that the splitscreen would be the best way to go about it, though. I’m more worried about frustration in smaller spaces.
“I don’t know, the puzzles for co-op are pretty deliberately paced. You get plenty of time to think it through,” he said. “It’s not twitchy action, there’s no time pressure. It’s definitely a good game for couples.”
I did bring up something that surprised me, and it’s something Valve had little to no control over — The game is rated E10+, compared to the original’s Teen rating.
“It’s a funny thing,” Wolpaw said. “We’re not writing this for kids, even though it’s fine for kids. There’s no swearing or anything, and it’s nonviolent. Those seem to be the two things that get you into ratings trouble. But you think of games for adults, and this would be a good one.”
“In Portal, and we didn’t even notice it because we were using the Half-Life engine, when you get shot, it leaves bloodspatters on the walls,” he said. “We noticed it late. We said ‘Oh, let’s get that out of there,’ but it was too late and that was too low-level a thing to try to tear out. We might have messed something else up if we tried and not been able to ship. But we took that out immediately here, which actually affected the rating, I think.”
That wasn’t the only replacement.
“Remember those little plasma balls?” he asked. Oh, we did. “Well, those were kind of a pain in the *ss. We realized that by the time we were shipping. They were trying to teach you that things go through portals, but they would fly around and you’d have to wait until they were done. In Portal 2, lasers serve the same sort of purpose, but you get instantaneous feedback. Lasers are basically better in every way. They replace the plasma balls.” A change that many will appreciate, including myself.
“The game uses the same philosophies as the original,” Wolpaw said. “We’re gonna teach you the philosophies of using the portal gun. You’re never going to be at a point where all of a sudden you’re not going to be prepared for something.”
“Also, in Portal 1, we sort of noticed after we shipped it that one or two puzzles…people would figure out how to solve it, but it was fairly twitch-heavy to actually execute that solution,” he noted. “We could actually see on Steam that those were two parts of the game where if people were going to quit before the end, that’s where they would quit.” Oh, the benefits of getting to run data like that.
“It’s not fun for the vast majority of our players to have trouble executing a solution,” Wolpaw said. “The pleasure is in the ‘a-ha’ moment. Once you’ve discovered the solution to a puzzle, we don’t want the controller to act as a barrier to the execution of that solution. We kind of took that to heart in Portal 2, and from a design perspective, we tried to add puzzles that were not so execution-heavy, but also make the physics a little bit more forgiving. If you clip the edge of a portal, that’s okay, we give you the benefit of the doubt and funnel you through the portal. Hopefully there’s no real ‘gotcha’ puzzles, execution-wise.”
Thankfully, a future will exist for Portal 2 outside the initial release, so, once you’re done, you’ll have some DLC to look forward to. “There’s no details about it yet, except that it is happening,” Wolpaw said.
Hey, that’s enough for me. I am a self-confessed Portal fanatic and a Valve fan in general. Getting to see this new glimpse of gameplay was quite a treat, and talking to Erik was really just the cherry on top. I already knew what I was going to be playing in a couple of weeks, but it was great to have a little bit of insight on the process. Portal and its commentary taught me more about game design than anything I’ve ever seen before, so I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.