GameCon ’10 Ripport, Day Wun

By Alec Meer on August 18th, 2010 at 9:46 pm.

Dragging myself by the knuckles across Cologne’s pavements to reach my Portal 2 viewing, I reflected upon how much easier this would have been had I eaten at any point in the last four days. I had tried my best, plucking small kernels of tarry fluff from the thin carpet I had slept on. The bouncer/landlord who watched me at all times felt this was taking unfair advantage of the hotel’s facilities, and duly evicted me. I thought of calling Quintin, who had earlier talked of eating quail’s eggs by the dozen from plates made of narwhal horn. Could he spare just one egg? I thought of how he would sneer at my ragged clothes, my £3 haircut, my clear poverty. I was starving, but I could not possibly face his contempt. I dragged myself on, to Hall 7. I might not be able to eat, but I could at least see a new videogame from Valve.

My thoughts were soon distracted from my plight, though I snarled at unseen forces, either real or imagined, for presenting only a trailer.

What an absurdly good-looking game it was. It could have repeated Portal 1′s affecting sterility, but instead it’s gone for detail is all. Mysterious machinery forever hulks in the background, all brutalist silhouettes and unsettling sounds of pistons, while colour creeps stealthily all over the familiar white palette. Most notably, Aperture’s labs look alive: there’s always some motion, some extra detail in the test chambers that lend a totally different mood than Portal 1′s compelling isolation.

It’s a grand statement that Portal isn’t a small game anymore. The 10 minutes or so of (I think) mostly new footage shown at GamesCom suggested something detailed and meaty. This is, after all, Valve’s first full-size singleplayer game since Half-Life 2. It’s pretty clear they’re not treating that lightly. It’s in the mechanics as much as the look, with evident complexity to the possibilities. This isn’t really about portals. It’s about bastardising science in all manner of ridiculous ways. Hell, you’ve seen the video. You know what I mean.

The only major news from GamesCom’s Portal 2 showings (as despite my sweaty crawl across five vast conference halls to make my viewing on time, an already-public canned video was all that was on offer) is the casting of Stephen Merchant, aka the slightly more subdued and likeable Other One to Ricky Gervais’ monstrously ubiquitous smarm.

The dialogue was certainly funny, the incongruity of his regional English burr with all that cold machine slickness worked rather well… but it’s the first time in several years that I worried Valve might be losing track of how to be cool. Maybe Merchant is a bit fresher in the US, but in the UK he’s the guy who voices some irritating Barclaycard adverts. As a piece of stunt casting, I’m not convinced he isn’t to the game’s detriment. He’s too familiar. I’m not convinced it’s an ideal game for stunt casting in the first place either. But I’ll wait and see. Certainly, a blithering panicky robo-idiot is worthy contrast to GlaDOS’s faux-sweet omniscience. Again, it’s about striking a difference from the former sterility – this seems a cheerfully busy world.

Not much else to say as it’s all in the video, but my notes reveal I got quite excited during the repulsion gel bit. The globs of paint-like goo were startling in contrast to all those angles, startlingly vibrant and massive and almost organic – and another reason why people probably wouldn’t guess this game had anything to do with the Source engine if they didn’t already know it. Again: I honestly believe this is going to be a spectacular-looking game. I don’t know if Valve can draw the same audience as they could for a pure-action game, but they’ve certainly made something that people will sit up and take notice of.

That was that. Now I’m hungry. So very hungry.

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59 Comments »

  1. Surgeon says:

    If you’re hungry Alec, I can highly recommend some grösfurters.

  2. Zetetic says:

    The casting of Merchant certainly is both an odd and slightly worrying one. Hell, I’d rather have had Simon Pegg even if he is rather becoming something of Jim Broadbent in terms of being the go-to when the Yanks want a British comedy actor.

    • DJ Phantoon says:

      Yeah, we dunno who that guy is so it’s really not a problem here.

    • Skinlo says:

      Remember UK isn’t the primary audience. America and the rest of the world is, and they aren’t famous there. And tbh, if I wasn’t told who it was, I wouldn’t know.

    • Vandelay says:

      Has Simon Pegg ever done voice acting in a video game? As an open geek, I would have thought he got many offers.

      Stephen Merchant is a slightly odd choice, but not one I’m that worried about. The only slight problem I do have from the clip is it is very much Stephen Merchant’s voice. Would be good if he tried to play a slightly different character. I can see that persona working as a robot, but it does stand out quite a lot. Then again, he is certainly less Stephen Merchant in that clip then Ricky Gervais is Ricky Gervais in everything he does, so there are some small mercies.

    • Taillefer says:

      They could have used Eddie.

      “Red jam, fast! Blue jam, bounce! Yeeeah.”

    • perilisk says:

      Speaking as a Yank, I’ve never seen the original version of The Office, whereas I have a boxed set of Spaced episodes sitting by my DVR right now. For what that’s worth.

    • HybridHalo says:

      Simon Pegg voiced the sniper in Commandos: Strike Force, so yes he’s done voice acting for a game before.

      Evidence here

    • phuzz says:

      Given that I live in bristol, and so half the people I meet sound like Merchant, this might not be so exciting for me :(

      Also, Ep3 plz

    • Nallen says:

      @Vandelay That’s what I was thinking, will he be acting or just saying the lines in the style of him.

  3. konrad_ha says:

    If Valve can keep the high level of writing I think any talented actor could fit the roles in Portal II. I’m not worried at all.

  4. negativedge says:

    So there was nothing new here at all? Why even post, if that’s the case?

  5. LoopyDood says:

    Looks great. I wonder what repulsion gel tastes like…

  6. Duoae says:

    @ Alec:

    Did Valve at least “robotify” his voice this time? The last trailer we saw with his vocals was just his voice…. Definitely doesn’t fit with my experience and perception of A) What robot voices usually sound like in the Half Life universe and B) the underlying seriousness of the Half Life universe.

    In summary – I want Pulp Fiction crossed with Hal rather than 3 Pints of Lager and a Packet of crisps (or, if you prefer, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels)

    • stahlwerk says:

      No robotification of british voices can be heard at the moment. Also unheard: the britification of robot voices.

      (psst: the video is three posts down)

    • Duoae says:

      @Stahlwerk

      Ah, i see it’s the old footage and plus a bit new? It just sounds really wrong. Like some guy just talking over the game footage…. kinda like an unfunny MST3K.

  7. benjamin says:

    So far the only dialogue I’ve heard from the Merchant Ball has been unusually cringe worthy for Valve.

    The first full single player since half life 2? Well I never, times flies when your own valve time.

  8. Whelp says:

    There is no such thing as a “grösfurter”…

    • stahlwerk says:

      Well it is a convention, so maybe it’s a food product that’s still in the R&D pipeline and Quinns was offered an Early-Alpha-Wurst, so to speak.

  9. Dhatz says:

    WTF is all that complainin about? it’s a fucken personality sphere, how does it matter which british guy voices it other than the voice itself?

  10. Saul says:

    They should have cast Karl Pilkington.

  11. Wut says:

    I have no clue who Steve Merchant is. No clue. I’m an American.

    Guess I’ll enjoy the game more as a result?

  12. Choca says:

    Plenty of free food (and massages) to be had in the business center :o

  13. Kevbo says:

    Every country has good and bad voice actors. I’ll admit that America probably has some of the worst so we find most foreign VAs better than our average. However if a VA is bad then it doesn’t matter what country or language it is in. It really hurts the immersion and ability to take the story seriously imo.

    This does sound a little rough but I see how they are trying to counter balance glados with this ‘chap’ :)
    I agree I would also like some digitized sounds in his voice at least every once and awhile. I also hope they use ‘surround sound’ properly so it sounds like his voice is flying around as he does on the screen. While I could see this being a wrong step for Valve, I don’t think it will turn out horrible. Maybe just not as good as it could have been.

  14. Soobe says:

    I’ll just toss my hat into the “they need to robot-ize that voice and quick” camp.

    I’m a huge fan of the whole Pilkington podcast thing, but hearing his voice without any form of synthesizer is just plain wrong. I was half expecting the camera to swing around and we’d see his tall-ass-self standing there.

    Please fix!

  15. LoopyDood says:

    Don’t eat propulsion gel. I have a friend who did it once; died of infection after he perforated his large intestine trying to swallow a vitamin.

  16. Matt says:

    Speaking as an American, I thought the original placeholder Wheatley was much more of a character. The new one is very dry. Having never heard the actor, it’s still fresh; he just doesn’t have the same amount of personality.

  17. terry says:

    Yeah, I’m not sure the incongruity with the voice sits all that well with me. One of the things I liked most about Portal was GLADos’s laconic bitterness, it was like the voice I’d project onto Windows application error boxes, kinda scolding and disappointed in humanity. This guy sounds positively thrilled no matter what sort of dire peril he’s in.

  18. Malagate says:

    I like the contrast, I like the fact that the voice is NOT roboticised, I have no idea who the actor is, I am English and have never watched the office for more than 2 minutes.

    Why should a personality sphere’s voice be more robotic? GlaDos was only weird like that because it was a bit out of sorts, remember the voice change after the first one went into the furnace? Save the robotisation for when he gets corrupted or brokened, not for every day speech as he’s not a faulty sphere.

    • Duoae says:

      Why should a personality sphere’s voice be more robotic?

      It’s called differentiation, stereotyping and race-typing.

      In Valve’s universe to date, all robots have had synthesised voices or noises. Even in the real world there isn’t a synthesised voice that sounds actually human. So, one of the things we come to expect throughout being trained in life and in works of fiction is for those things to remain the same unless given a really good explanation.

      Just, for example, note the huge discord between Star Trek (TOS) Klingons and from that point forward. They’re almost like two separate species. Similarly, you wouldn’t expect a Ferengi to not adhere (when it suited him) to the rules of acquisition. It’s there “thing”.
      On the other side of the fiction fence, Lord of the Rings didn’t suddenly have warrior-like Hobbits casting spells or Dwarves (Dwarfs?) who could leap and prance like Elves.

      There’s a reason why, in popular fiction these sorts of events do not just occur as they break the immersion of the user and they also break the fiction of the universe. They confuse and upset the user and undermine previous groundwork laid down in establishing the ‘norms’ of the universe. Imagine if, for whatever reason, Gordon Freeman suddenly starts talking during the whole of Episode 3…. It’s completely incongruous in the context of the gaming series. Even the combine (who were sort of cyborg) had their humanity removed by having slightly synthesised voices.

    • TeeJay says:

      @ Duoae: “…one of the things we come to expect throughout being trained in life and in works of fiction…”

      These days most of the “machine talking” (albeit recorded rather than synthetic) people hear is sat navs with fairly natural voices. “Robotic” voices seem more “retro” although they are no worse for that – they do help create a certain kind of character and mood or indicate a certain mentality to contrast other characters against.

    • Duoae says:

      TeeJay –

      Putting aside the worrying notion that you think that SatNav voices are issued forth from those stygian speakers in a human manner…. SatNav recordings are just that: recordings. There’s a whole world of difference in intonation and other stuff that goes into making a person ‘real’. It’s why we’re still using those pesky actors for voice-over work and not some sort of natural algorithm that changes the pitch, length and intensity of a word to suit it’s meaning and conveyance of emotion within a sentence or larger story structure.

      Let me finish with something a recorded ‘female teleoperator’ once said to me:

      If that’s correct, press 1…. if it’s not, please press 2….. or press 3 to hear these options again.

    • TeeJay says:

      @ Duoae:

      My satnav sounds more like a person than a Darlek or talking tin-can and it doesn’t make HL2 Combine-style bleeps and buzzes.

      Producing a desired sound via a sound clip, a synthetic wavetable or even an mechanical-acoustic device are just different means of ‘execution’.

      Actors are almost always far cheaper and better devices for producing the desired end result but a technically gifted professor of linguistics and phonetics with a suitably high-tech machine could use a combination a vast library of pre-recorded sound clips and various filters and processing to produce a desired end result, even if his own voice was non-existent and there were no actors available.

      For example there are some ‘dead languages’ where the last few native speakers have died, but where linguistists have made a certain amount of archive recordings. One day they might try and ‘reconstruct’ these languages using a combination of texts, sound clips, their knowledge of various ‘rules’, inflections, tones, accents etc. via sound-processing and formulae and by extrapolation from related language families. In this case there wouldn’t be any actors with a ‘working knowledge’ of what the language sounds like. The academic might try and use his own voice to execute this process or try and ‘train-up’ and direct suitable people to produce the required sounds. However, in the future they may well develop soundbanks, processing software and some ‘rules’ that can be used together to recreate what they think the language would have sounded like (rather like they use dinosaur skeletons and bio-engineering calculations to model how they think dinosaurs walked around).

  19. Azazel says:

    Is Stunt Casting like Extreme Fishing?

  20. Quote Unquote says:

    @Duoae:

    In fact, the plural of Dwarf should be Dwarrows (or Dwerrows): see The Lord of the Rings Appendix F. Also see the dictionary Tolkien again because his philologistic ramblings are just that awesome.

    Also, based on your arguments here, it seems logical to me that Wheatley is, in fact, human to a large degree rather than mechanically originated. Which should totally be true. And your mission in Portal 2 is to discover his humanity and lead him back to it, and your main danger in the game (aside from everything trying to kill you) is having your own brain sliced out and welded into a little personality core.

    Isn’t Valve awesome?

    • Duoae says:

      Er… Well, since we don’t know what makes up the personality cores or anything that’s reaching a bit far isn’t it?

      Besides, the previous personality cores (on Glados herself) also had synthesised voices. I never said anything otherwise so i’m not sure where ‘based on your arguments here, it seems logical to me that Wheatly is, in fact, human to a large degree rather than mechanically originated”….. in fact, it seems most illogical given what we do know :)

  21. LintMan says:

    They should have gotten the computer voice guy from Defense Grid for this. I like that guy.

  22. bildo says:

    In America, a British voice, is a British voice, is a British voice. I foresee few people caring about how common his voice is compared to the Brits. I’m sure most people will find it perfectly fine, in the land where a vague interest in a product makes pockets burst at the seams.

    • TeeJay says:

      It is kind of funny that at one point the highest paid British actress was Jane Leeves who played Daphne in “Frasier”.

      Her character was apparently from a ‘traditional fishing family’ (!) in Manchester but she spoke with some *wierd* hybrid Northern accent (a Lancashire-US-cross?) – not her real accent, she grew up in Sussex.

      Five of her eight brothers appeared on the show – one was played by an Australian actor (Anthony La Paglia) with a fake Cockney accent, another by Robbie Coltrane (Scottish) using a Brummy accent, another was Richard E Grant (Swaziland).

      Also ironically the father (Martin Crane) was played by John Mahony who was born in Blackpool (Lancashire) and worked in Manchester as a young man before emigrating to America.

  23. bbot says:

    Speaking as an American, I have no idea who Stephen Merchant is. His voice is vaguely familiar, but probably only because you seem to think he’s a big name. Let me look him up on imdb…

    Ah, he was in Hot Fuzz. He’s also in the British version of The Office, which I’ve never seen, mostly because I don’t watch any television, from any country.

    Hmm. He does ads in your country, you say? I guess that’s unfortunate, for you.

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