The Portal 2 That Could Have Been

By John Walker on March 8th, 2012 at 10:53 pm.


Imagine a Portal 2 with no GLaDOS, Chell, nor portals. Set in the 1980s. With competitive multiplayer and quantum co-op. And multiple endings. At various points, those were all things that could have hapened, as revealed by Valve last night in San Francisco.

Why make a sequel to Portal is a good question. The short game wrapped up perfectly, was wrapped up in its own legend, and things felt done. But, revealed two of Valve’s lead writers, Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw, there were 150 people at Valve who hadn’t worked on a Portal game and wanted to. There was just a desire amongst their staff to have a go with the series, and so it was that work began.

Things started with a small team of 15, far short of the 70 that were on the project by the time it shipped, bashing ideas around and trying to work out what should be done next in this universe. And the ideas they reached were… peculiar.


Valve have talked a few times in the past about how Portal 2 almost didn’t feature portals at all. The game was also due not to feature Chell, nor GlaDOS. Which to hear sounds just completely insane. That’s partly because it is. But it’s interesting to realise how Valve reached that place.

They, Chet Faliszek pointed out, had lived with GlaDOS for years. While the player had spent a couple of hours in her company, the developers had heard her autotuned tones incessently for a huge portion of their lives. Forgetting to look outside of their own bubble, they’d transfered their own weariness onto the players, who of course wanted nothing more of the character that had so entertained them for such a short amount of time.

Chell was more complex. While playtesters instantly baulked at the absence of the evil robot, none cared at all that they werent Chell. One early build of the game had you wake up in front of a mirror, revealing a long-haired girl in a different coloured jumpsuit, clearly not the previous protagonist. Known internally as Mel, players were happy to be her… until a certain point. The moment they met GlaDOS. As the malevolent machine awakes and doesnt recognise the player, suddenly they were thrown out of the experience. And Chell was put back in.

As for the portals – the mysterious F-Stop system that replaced them, something Valve still aren’t talking about in case they use it elsewhere, was apparently great. Players said, “Yes, this is awesome. But it’s not Portal. Why are you calling it Portal?” And they realised that was probably a good point.


Even so, they built some prototype code of their reimagined game, which was shown to the crowd at yesterday’s event. Waking up on a beach, you see an idyllic situation, rolling seas, blue skies, and golden sand. Take a step and a framed glass screen flings up from the sand to block your path. Turn and the same happens, screens flying up all over, trapping you into a cage. Then the sea starts to drain away, revealing an empty concrete bowl around you, as the sky switches off, the palm trees start collapsing into the ground, and the stark reality of your imprisonment is revealed. It was pretty awesome. Perhaps not quite as awesome as the final game’s extraordinary scenerey-crashing sequence, but funny and impressive none the less.

This incarnation was also due to feature a cameo from GLaDOS. With Cave Johnson intended to be the main protagonist, in a game set in the 1980s, pre-Aperture’s destruction, a less evil GLaDOS was going to briefly feature adding “small print” to statements from Johnson, in the manner of US drug commercials where all side effects are read out. As Wolpaw put it, “like when they show you puppies while talking about rectal bleeding.”

Three months was spent working on this version of the game, before the feedback convinced them they had gone in completely the wrong direction. But it wasn’t the only dead end they found themselves walking down.

An early version of Wheatley was to only exist for the first portion of the game, to be killed the moment GLaDOS appeared, demonstrating her evil. And he wasn’t coming back. But what he was doing was falling down some stairs. This became an example of a developer falling in love with an idea and then almost destroying themselves trying to make it happen. It was important, they said, that the player could drop Wheatley, because it didn’t make sense to force them to carry him. But to make sure he wasn’t left behind they’d have to “gate” the player, ensuring Wheatley came with them by making the doors only open with his help. And as a bonus, they’d recorded dialogue for the player being able to drop Wheatley down these stairs, and they loved it.

As the sequences went through major changes, each new build still featured stairs just so they could keep the gag. And in fact, when you play the game, in which you’ll notice you can’t drop Wheatley, those stairs still exist. And why can’t you drop him? Because yet again they realised that no one other than them actually cared. If players didn’t know dropping him was an option, nor that doing so would offer a fun joke, they didn’t care at all. However, something that people probably would miss if only they’d known they could have it was Wheatley’s original way of appearing. In an early version, the not-so-bright orb had set up a series of intricate turret-based defenses, all focused on one door in front of him, meaning the player needed only portal in behind him to pick him up. And at this point, the dimbo was being voiced by one of Valve’s own team, temporarily before Stephen Merchant’s dialogue was recorded – something that Valve still receive requests to put back into the game for players to hear. They promised they never would.


But if I were to fight for the re-addition of a cut character, with would be the sphere known internally as the Morgan Freeman Sphere. At one point there were to be a whole series of different spheres with different personalities, punctuating chapters of the game, and one would be Morgan, an orb who had been left in a 20×20 inch area for decades, gradually growing wiser and wiser… about that 20×20 space. Speaking with the wise tones of the actor, he would impart his knowledge and wisdom to you, with deadpan sincerity, all focused on what he’d learned, only to be completely terrified by the rest of the laboratories around him. I want him.

A particular point of struggle was the game’s ending. They knew from the first game that it was important that the final challenge not be the most difficult of the game, but rather focus on story. But early versions were terrible, and it was getting dangerously late in production when they still had no idea how to end it. Flopsweat soaked meetings, Wolpaw explained, had the writing team failing to get anywhere with a finish that was good enough. One versio saw an incredibly anticlimactic finale, fighting the corrupted Wheatley, in which turning the machine off involved uttering the word “Yes”. Chell was to speak! Just one word, but a word that would end everything. “And it sucked,” said Wolpaw. But then, strangely enough, it was some goof endings that saved them.

Playtesting the first game had revealed that there were some players willing to die in the game’s false ending. As they descended toward the fire pit they accepted their fate, and were perfectly happy to let the game end there, before the final thrd’s dramatic escape seqence. Which inspired the team to put in opportunities like this into the sequel. A number of points where the game could just end if the player let it, even only minutes in. There would be a song for each, appropriate to the nature of the death, and frankly that sounds brilliant. And one of these planned endings was to have you be abandoned on the moon.

A scene was going to have a crack in the ceiling, through which the moon was visible. A player adventurous enough to try firing a portal that way woul find themselves transported into the vacuum and asphixiate, after which a song about how sad it was to die on the moon would play. And it was this that they finally realised was a big enough, and funny enough idea to put on the end.

The other element to see some major change was the co-op. Hilariously, Valve figured this would be a breeze to do, and left it quite late in the production to really focus on. And then realised it was a far bigger challenge. Originally GLaDOS was to have the two robots battling it out in an eternal series of tests, to sate her urges. But she was to realise that with no human observers, the results of all these tests were left in a quantum state. To combat this, she sent the robots off on missions to recover human artefacts, in an attempt to make them more human.

At one point they would return with a newspaper panel cartoon featuring a lazy cat and his owner, featuring a joke about lasagne. Drawn by Nedroid, it was a particularly cruel dig at Jim Davies’ Garfield, which none of the robots understood, leading GLaDOS to re-write it and add in some humour. Which is to say, to have all the characters be needlessly killed.


Also abandoned, but not until three months had been spent on it, was a competitive multiplayer mode. Wolpaw described it as, “a cross between Speedball 2 and Portal, except with none of the good parts of either.” It too was abandoned so the team could focus more on the co-op.

A strange phenomenon, the two writers revealed, is that whenever they talk about older versions of their games, a vocal group of players will demand access to them, certain they would have been better than whatever was released. But, explained Faliszek, oddly enough they tend to put the best versions of everything into the games they release. None of those older versions will ever be played, meaning the glimpses shown are the closest they’re ever going to let us get to them.

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65 Comments »

  1. Theon says:

    What I don’t get is why there is STILL NO PORTAL 2: DEATH MATCH-mod.
    The game HAS working portals in multiplayer, it HAS modding tools, and it has the entire Source-developer community. Why? WHY?
    Imagine CTF with portals and normal weaponry; As a normal player you can switch between the portal gun, pistols, machine guns, grenades, laser-guided rocket lawnchairs and whatnot, but when holding a flag you hands are otherwise occupied, and you’d have to rely on teammates to make portals for you an-
    Wait, no, I guess only 2-player would be possible; or at least only two portal gun users. But still, that could be heaps of fun.
    I honestly thought a prototype would be out only days after the launch of modding tools, but I still haven’t seen anything remotely like it. I haven’t seen ANY real Portal mods, in fact (only maps and campaigns). What is going on?

    • MattM says:

      Perhaps it just wasn’t very fun. Not every cool idea produces interesting complex gameplay. There would also be some limits on seeing other players portals. Looking into your own portals cuts framerate in half. Lots of portals might be difficult to render.

      • Novotny says:

        It’s possibly a good idea, he just hasn’t shouted enough. More caps would probably make his point.

        • Bhazor says:

          Wahhh!
          New comment system!

          Why is it different? I don’t understannd!

          • Acorino says:

            Ooooooohhh…..now let’s see how far these comments can be nested…

          • Mistabashi says:

            I DON’T LIKE CHANGE!

            (This appears to be the limit for nested comments)

          • Petethegoat says:

            I hate change!!

            (seriously though this seems uglier and less readable than the old system. :< )

          • Bhazor says:

            Your mom’s like the new comment system uglier and less readable. Still fun to thumb through though.

          • Petethegoat says:

            Actually it might not be so bad after all. WE’LL SEE.

          • adonf says:

            Change is bad! (Why make the comments hard to read by making the font smaller than in the main post?)

          • Chris D says:

            I don’t think it’s the font size so much as it is the line length in the initial posts are too long by comparison. I can read the later ones alright but feel like I’m having to strain to read the first ones. Any chance of having them cut short a bit?

      • Ruffian says:

        nvm. someone else said what I was gonna say :(

    • skorpeyon says:

      “Imagine CTF with portals and normal weaponry”

      Okay… *shoots a portal at my own flag’s base, runs to the other base, shoots a second portal, grabs, the flag, jumps through, captures it in 2 seconds, runs back through, grabs the enemy flag again, runs back through, captures it again, wash, rinse, repeat ’till the capture limit is reached*

      THAT is why it doesn’t exist. It’s not a good idea.

      • speedwaystar says:

        imagine if, like in any CTF game worth its salt, the flag carrier automatically drops the flag if he or she goes through a teleport, or enters a safe zone, or turns invisible etc.

        • skorpeyon says:

          Okay, so instead you shoot a portal at each end and the only run back-and-forth is from their base to yours. You capture their flag and run through your portal back to their base. It still doesn’t make any real sense. Unless the portals are destroyable in which case, like someone else said, it already exists. It’s called UT.

      • Lemming says:

        I think you are underestimating what it would do if say, rather than killing anyone, you all had a portal gun and every time you fired a portal at someone else’s, it would replace their portal with yours – No other weaponry, so no couldn’t kill anyone directly (unless you portaled them off a ledge or into some lava or something), just frantic mayhem of trying to get some where in a straight line without appearing somewhere else.

        I think that would be hilarious, and your example of how it could be beaten just wouldn’t work unless you were bloody quick.

    • jwebbed says:

      Team Fortress 3: NEW CLASS – PORTAL…ER

    • MadTinkerer says:

      There was a Portal-using Deathmatch-style mod, which is driving me crazy because I forget what it was actually called, which came out before Portal. It didn’t use the actual Portal-the-game physics because it wasn’t out yet, but used an approximation of what the programmer on the team could figure out.

      It was abandoned shortly after Portal came out and isn’t even compatible with current versions of Source anymore, but you can still find clips of their playtests floating around YouTube.

      Really: The most fun you can have combining Portals and HL2 is in the single-player, not the multi-player.

    • ANeM says:

      Because contrary to what you believe, there are no modding tools for Portal, Portal 2, L4D or L4D2. The “authoring tools” Valve has released are for mapping and modeling only.

      The rest of the “Mod tools” are just Source SDK2007, which lacks the code necessary for utilizing Portal tech or AI director tech. The closest you can come to actually modding the core game mechanics (as would be required to make a legitimate deathmatch game out of Portal) is coding the whole thing as a metamod style dll hack.

    • mckertis says:

      “Imagine CTF with portals and normal weaponry”

      I dont have to imagine. Unreal had that back in ’98. It was okay, nothing special.

  2. Kaira- says:

    “The game was also due not to feature Chell, nor GlaDOS. Which to hear sounds just completely insane”

    Well, the “no Chell”-part doesn’t sound insane at all. Or didn’t, until Valve retconned the ending of the first one.

    Also, for those interested in those Nedroid-comics, here’s one of them.

    • Vinraith says:

      Yeah, no Chell would actually have been for the best. That story was done, and there was really nothing about the new one that required Chell to be the protagonist (which created a lot of needless plot inconsistencies, really). Nothing against Chell, but her story was over, best to have left it that way.

    • Xocrates says:

      Well, like the article, and the actual in-game commentary states, the only reason Chell was kept was because it was weird that GlaDOS did not recognize the player. So while keeping her doesn’t make much sense from a plot perspective, I personally find it a good design decision and the correct option.

      And let’s face it, Chell is a plank of wood, it’s more or less irrelevant.

    • westyfield says:

      Here‘s the other Nedroid/Dorfeldt comic. Also Nedroid is great and you should all totally read it right now.
      Edit: look, here is my favourite, which I found just for you!

    • skorpeyon says:

      The “Oh, it’s YOU” from GlaDOS is why Chell was brought back, and I find it very much worthwhile. I don’t think the game would have been as much fun without the history between the player and GlaDOS.

      • David_VI says:

        What are these plot inconsistances due to bringing Chell back?

        • skorpeyon says:

          The original version of Portal ended with you “dying”, only an update to the game shortly before Portal 2 came out modified it so that you were drug away, thus creating a weird inconsistency where it seems like you died at the end of the first game, but are suddenly just waking up at the beginning of the second, yet it’s many years in the future, etc. It makes the game feel awfully strange if you didn’t ever see the revised ending to Portal.

          • wengart says:

            That doesn’t seem that inconsistent. It isn’t even clear that the Chell died. She could just have easily have passed out.

          • Lemming says:

            No, the original ended with you escaping. The retcon ended with your unconcious body being dragged back into the facility.

          • dsi1 says:

            Hold on, Chell only passed out at the end, death was never confirmed and her future was speculated on until the day the Portal 2 ARG patch came out. (Then the speculation changed)

  3. ResonanceCascade says:

    See, I like Portal 2 a lot, but I want to play the crazy Cave Johnson game that was set in the 80′s and used the F-Stop.

    • speedwaystar says:

      as someone who liked Portal 2 but really did feel it was more of the same, I’d really like to play the game Chet and Erik first envisioned. because I trust them, and I don’t trust the marketing layer which obviously interposed itself and said “must… reuse popular villain. must… reuse popular (?) protagonist. must… reuse popular gameplay. must… etc”

      • cunningmunki says:

        I agree. I loved Portal 2, but it was just a longer, more developed version of the first. I’d love to see something different, but still using the same premise of solving puzzles in an Aperture lab.

        Maybe now that everyone knows, and loves, Cave Johnson, the next Portal sequel/spin-off will be this 1980s F-Stop game, featuring Johnson and a new test-subject (Chell’s parent?).

  4. TheLaquidara says:

    The voice for the Nedroid/Dorfieldt joke was actually recorded, you can listen to it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57lVjxOTr-M

  5. ZIGS says:

    I just want to play everything mentioned in this article

  6. LionsPhil says:

    And why can’t you drop him? Because yet again they realised that no one other than them actually cared.

    They “realised” wrong. I ages trying to find a way to discard the damn sphere.

    Also trying to see if you can actually catch him, but IIRC as much as you spam ‘E’ he’ll just roll gently off Chell’s empty head until he hits the ground, at which point he actually becomes interactive.

    And what’s wrong with showing off production dead-ends? Film DVDs include them as an extra all the time. It’s not unprecedented for games, either: see LAMEDUKE.

    • regault says:

      I honestly hated Wheatley long before he became the villain. Every time he showed up meant the end of a puzzle portion I wanted to play and back to an obnoxious Half-life 2 railroaded sequence.

      Portal 2 should have been a sequel like “Oh no! More Lemmings!” was a sequel. Instead it felt like an 8 hour tutorial for a game I’d already played. Only the co-op was worthwhile, and that required another player.

      • Bhazor says:

        The one sceneof his I really liked was the takeover scene. Simply gorgeous use of music and lighting and probably the best writing in the whole.
        Sucks they had to do it in a cutscene mind.
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IZtxHFAk_A

        He was much more interesting as a villain as a side kick he was just something that made the non interactive sequences longer.

      • gou says:

        for me, wheatly ruined portal 2 simply because he sounded human, all the other personality cores have robot-like voice filtering.
        I expect it was a because of some ill-conceived notion that americans would have enough trouble with the accent already with out more distortion.

        • Bhazor says:

          It wasn’t the lack of distortion. It was the fact he was deliberately funny.

          Glados worked because she was a normal AI who had slowly turned insane in a very clinical environment. It worked from the juxtaposition. In Portal 2 everyone was wearing clown shoes and there was no straight man.

          It was funny but to me it just lost something when Aperture had an advert about “What to do if the world is ruled by a tiger king”.

          • Screwie says:

            “It wasn’t the lack of distortion. It was the fact he was deliberately funny.

            Glados worked because she was a normal AI who had slowly turned insane in a very clinical environment. It worked from the juxtaposition. In Portal 2 everyone was wearing clown shoes and there was no straight man.”

            Yes, this was one of the biggest problems I had with the game. The tone is completely different from Portal 1, and the setting lost its black-humour and potency when it was revealed that all of Aperture was run like some TF2-styled farce.

            (TF2 is fine and dandy for TF2, of course. Not complaining about that game.)

        • Acorino says:

          I think I saw a video where Wolpaw stated that the idea with the more or less distorted AI voices was that the more human the voice sounds the more stupid the AI is. And since Wheatley sounded wholly human he of course was intended to be pretty stupid. The opposite is true for Glados.

          • Screwie says:

            I feel like if that is true they should have mentioned it somewhere in-game. Maybe it was a piece of dialogue that ended up on the cutting floor or something.

            It’s a fine idea but the tiny sample size of AI characters in Portal 2 doesn’t imply that kind of trend, but that Wheatley’s voice was a conspicuous exception to a rule.

  7. Marshall Stele says:

    Wait wait. Did I read that right? NEDROID was going to be in Portal 2? Beartato Nedroid? Party cat Nedroid?

  8. Author X says:

    I think these are all pretty cool ideas in their own way, but I don’t think it’s a matter of being, “certain they would have been better than whatever was released”, just wanting to play those old modes as well. There’s a lot of people who like to watch deleted scenes as well, even if the scenes were deleted because they were brilliant on their own but ruined the pacing, or if they were just dreadful and make the viewers say, “Yes, yes I can see why this is cut.”

    That said, I can understand why the devs don’t want to release those prototypes either. I’m sure there’s an enormous about of work to bring a concept from the “find out if it’s fun or works at all” stage to the “suitable to be released to the public” stage, and if they released un-fun prototypes, they would either have to give people low-quality work that doesn’t live up to the standards they’ve set for themselves, or waste a whole lot of time and effort polishing what they already know is a turd.

  9. Runs With Foxes says:

    Sounds like the original plan was for a lot more choice and player freedom, but they abandoned that so they could tell a few jokes.

    • Xocrates says:

      Did you read the same post I did? About the only point in the entire article where it’s even hinted at more player freedom is when they say you could drop Wheatley, the whole point of which was one of the jokes you seem to be balking at.

    • Author X says:

      Sounds to me like the original plan was to let you drop Wheatley but force you to go back and get him every twenty feet if you did, but they abandoned that because it wasn’t worth telling a few jokes.

  10. thedavehooker says:

    I am the only one who read “Portal 2 – The Final Hours” and knew all this already?

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      Yeah, they covered it pretty comprehensively in there. Good stuff. I hope that guy does another one for the next major Valve game.

  11. Snuffy the Evil says:

    The loss of the stairs gag was the worst thing to happen to Portal 2.

  12. The Dark One says:

    Is that last screenshot from their presentation, or from that mod they made for owners of that Razer Hydra thing?

  13. zeroskill says:

    Good read, although I know all of this already from the Final Hours. Btw I love the new comment system!

  14. UnravThreads says:

    “This incarnation was also due to feature a cameo from GLaDOS. With Cave Johnson intended to be the main protagonist, in a game set in the 1980s, pre-Aperture’s destruction, a less evil GLaDOS was going to briefly feature adding “small print” to statements from Johnson, in the manner of US drug commercials where all side effects are read out. As Wolpaw put it, “like when they show you puppies while talking about rectal bleeding.””

    Considering this comes after the discussion of Chell, shouldn’t that be antagonist instead?

  15. mentor07825 says:

    Kinda hoping that there would be a sentient cake.

  16. lordfrikk says:

    If they released it as a video documenting some of these dead ends and sold it, I think they would’ve made quite a bit of extra cash. Not for the cash, but because both sides would get something out of it. Definitely would LOVE to see a spin-off with more Cave Johnson and pre-digitized GLaDOS. Hell, yeah.

    Also, the original Wheatley’s voice – I want it! :D

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