The original Portal was never expected to be such a huge hit – but it was. A big hit. Bundled in with the fantastically good-value Orange Box by Valve, it become nothing short of a sensation, winning rave reviews from practically everyone who played it.
The premise was deceptively simple: you’re trapped in a futuristic testing zone called the Aperture Science facility, armed with a gun that opens two portals when fired. Using the portal gun you had to puzzle your way out of the facility, room by room, before defeating the AI computer system in charge the whole facility.
So as two of the game’s writers, Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw, were in town, we jumped at the chance to meet the pair of them to talk about it all. And, of course, play the game for half an hour or so. Our pre-emptive review of what we saw? Very, very good.
The game itself isn’t our until mid-April, but if you’re anywhere as excited about it as we are, you’ll probably want to check out our interview below, as well as the trailer which we’ve tacked on the end there. Because we're nice like that.
Chet Faliszek: Empire! A movie magazine doing games stuff, interesting… I think as gaming becomes more mainstream this is an example of it becoming a natural part of the entertainment landscape rather than some ugly cousin on the side of things, you know?
Erik Wolpaw: And I think as games get more sophisticated, and hit their artistic heights, they’ll become more mainstream too.
Chet: But it’s amazing how we go to get actors now – granted we’re not going and asking Bruce Willis or something… or maybe he’s in the game, who knows? – but we get some pretty big names now. Like in Left 4 Dead 2 we called up people who are on HBO shows, and a lot of quality character actors. They’re fine working on games, it’s not weird for them.
Chet: And Hugh Dillon (the voice of Nick from Left 4 Dead 2), he demanded to be on the game. He’s bald – he’s the Canadian Bruce Willis, basically. He had heard we were casting for it and we were thinking about going for someone else and he demanded that we listen to him.
Erik: Plus, he’s a legitimate hard man and would definitely kick or asses if we didn’t.
Chet: So that’s the thing, the actors themselves are coming from a generation where they understand games, so that helps as well.
So how did the Stephen Merchant thing happen?
Erik: Well, I’ll say one thing – Stephen Merchant does not come from a generation that is familiar with games…
Chet: But he is from a generation that likes to work for money. (Laughs) But actually, it wasn’t like we had to pay him more than anyone else or anything… So anyway, one of the other writers, alongside Chet and I, is a guy called Jay Pinkerton, and he had been listening to the podcasts that Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais do, and we had obviously watched The British Office and Stephen Merchant is often around in different things – you know, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, we’ve watched that hundreds of times and he has that one cameo in the first episode.
Chet: Plus, we’d liked Extras a lot – especially his part in Extras, so as we were in the position of casting new characters, and we’re such big fans of British comedy, we thought we’d get Steve Coogan or we’d get Richard Ayoade. Richard was someone we’d only been in contact with because Graham Linehan is such a big gamer and he’d liked Left 4 Dead, in fact.
Erik: Annoyingly, Ayoade isn’t that big a gamer, and there were scheduling conflicts… besides, now he’s a huge filmmaker and the toast of Sundance he wouldn’t have time for us anyway. Erik: But still, the thing is, when we were writing it we had this Stephen Merchant voice in our heads, and we weren’t really thinking we’d get Stephen Merchant only because we assumed he’d be so filthy rich from The Office. We’re not going to do a stunt cast where we’re going to pay him a million dollars for the PR value – you know, he’d get what we pay actors. But we got our casting agent to give him a call anyway, just to give it a shot, and we sent him a packet of materials, and he said he’d do it! Having said that, he did say he hadn’t played any games since college, so there was that… But he’s so into it, when you play the game. He seems very enthusiastic about the whole thing.
Erik: Yeah, sure, but that’s the thing! With professional actors we’ve found – especially guys who weren’t maybe always wealthy or whatever – that it’s a job, and they’re professionals, and that’s why they’ve got to where they are today, so when you pay for four sessions with Stephen Merchant, he gives you his very best. He was dedicated, so dedicated.
Was there much room for improvisation for him?
Erik: Well, you give him the script and there’s some improv, but he also has this awesome ability to take a written line and make it sound like it was improvised – which was kind of one of the things we were really interested in. Game characters tend to not sound like they’re really there with you, having these natural reactions to things. And GLaDOS doesn’t do that because of the way she’s designed, but we thought if we could get that from Stephen’s character and make a comedic role that sounded like he was in the moment, that would be great.
How does it feel to make the sequel to a game that’s become a critical darling?
Erik: It’s nice to be thought of that way, but it does make it difficult when you’re doing the follow-up, as you worry because people have a lot invested in it personally, and so that can go wrong pretty easily. Having said that, you just kind of approach it like you do any game, doing what we can to make this a really great experience.
Chet: Internally at Valve, everybody also has this love of the original game too, so as you’re working on it as a team, whatever neuroses anyone outside of the team has for the game, we’ve got it 100 times worse. You’ve got to satisfy those people before anybody else, and that pushes everybody to really keep everything you liked about Portal and deliver this new experience inside that. Nearly 300 people have now played it outside of the company, as part of play testing, and it’s not just gameplay we’re play testing, it’s the whole experience, and they’ve all signed off on it.
Chet: The Valve team itself jumps from loving it to hating it from day to day, because it’s a long project and you lose sight. But unless all our play testers are liars, we’re pretty confident it’s good because these guys are pretty clear in feedback. Plus, we use people who’ve played Portal 1, total newbies, the lot.
Erik: Stephen Merchant hasn’t played the game, so we don’t know if he likes it, to be fair…
Chet: I think he should be the GPS on your car or something. I could listen to him talk all the time. He’s kind of soothingly anxious… and I’m a little anxious too, so it all works out.
Part of the original’s appeal was definitely the dark, sardonic sense of humour. Are these quips stuff you came up with in the office?
Chet: Well, sure, we had writing sessions and we’re hired as writers, so we have to sit down and just write it out sometimes.
Erik: That said, you can just go onto the internet and find governmental pamphlets and the jokes are already there, in black in white. Not intentionally, of course, but that bureaucratic double speak is all there, you know? What new gaming mechanics can we look forward to in the game?
Chet: We don’t want to tell you too much, but there are the lasers. And… other stuff. Telling you the other mechanics would involve giving away huge spoilers, so we can’t tell you much more.
Erik: We wanted to maintain the same elegant mechanic from the first game – we didn’t want to complicate it terms of the controls, so whatever new stuff we introduced, it needed to be external to the portal device itself. Another gun would involve switching between the two things, and… well you wouldn’t want that. One of the most successful things about Portal was the elegance of the central mechanic.
And what was behind the decision to keep the same antagonist?
Erik: We did an experiment early on where you were still in Aperture science, but you had a different puzzle mechanic – so not the portal gun. We tried that, we had an idea, we mocked that up, and it was with a different antagonist – and immediately the feedback was: “Where’s my portal gun, where’s GLaDOS?” It was universal.
Chet: And then once we brought back GLaDOS, the question became: “What, why isn’t GLaDOS reacting to me?”
Erik: So with the same protagonist and antagonist, we needed to make sure that new players – people who haven’t played the first game – felt the same feeling of previous awareness, and I think Stephen Merchant really nailed that.
Were you expecting a copycat rush after the success of the first game?
Chet: We were hoping for one, to be honest, because we love puzzle games!
Erik: There have been some… The Ball, recently, and I saw another one that looked kind of Portal-ish. I think the problem with puzzle games like Portal is that it’s pretty difficult to manufacture a good story around it. We locked onto the “fun house of science” idea and ran with it, and, you know, we got there first, so good luck people!
And here's an introduction to Wheatley, Stephen Merchant's character...