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Valve On Portal 2: Spoiler Interview Part Two

And here's part two of our exclusive spoiler-packed interview with Portal 2 writers Chet Faliszek and Jay Pinkerton. (Here's part one.) Below we discuss how the game came to be so intricately detailed, what it was like working with Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons, and how much of Valve's decisions are driven by creativity, or money. We also discover their thoughts on the crossover with the Half-Life universe, how heartwarming Jay finds the community, and quite how offended Valve writers get if you suggest their game contains cutscenes.

RPS: Story still seems to be so incidental to the first-person genre. But clearly that’s not the case at Valve. In Portal 2 it almost seems to be more important than the puzzles.

Jay: That’s a little bit subjective, as for a lot of people it’s puzzle first. Let’s just say there’s a little something for everybody.

Chet: But we care about it. Some people make it clear that it’s just the background. It’s something we always toss around. How you tell the story in single player versus how you tell the story in co-op’s different. So how are you going to tell the story when there’s guns shooting off continuously, versus when you have quiet’s going to be different.

RPS: You even have cutscenes in this game.

Chet: There are?

Jay: At the very end. The very end elevator ride.

Chet: The rest of the stuff is in-game. Is it really a cutscene if you’re tied to the bench?

RPS: I’m not criticising!

Chet: I think you are.

Jay: This interview’s over.

RPS: Wait, come back! I’m just saying it shows the emphasis you guys want to put on story.

Chet: I was trying to explain this to somebody the other day who hadn’t gotten to see it. There’s a lot of experiences in the game. I don’t want to say the word “cutscene”, because I don’t think the original room ride is really a cutscene. It’s an experience that you’re part of, and you can choose some things in there. But you’re going along, there’s no getting out of the room.

Jay: For me there more just these pivot points during the game. And you do need times just to slow down, and let your brain rest for a bit. Through playtesting we’ve learned that after a set number of puzzles it’s a good time to have a little fun with the character. But the pivot points, these are the moments where things are about to take a one-eighty on you, you’re about to go into a new environment. You’ve beaten this one level, and here we go off to act 3 or whatever. For us they were never really cutscenes, like, “Okay, here’s your big moment to do a scene,” so much as they were, “Okay, here’s our chance to let people know they’ve progressed.”

RPS: The scale of detail really surprised me. The turret building factory, where you can run straight past or watch these robot arms building in intricate detail.

Jay: Well, Chet and I personally did it, and we say thank you.

Chet: It’s how dense the game is, that’s where it comes from. In fact, I was reading the Escapist this morning, and they picked up that someone had asked me if it was the best game we had made, and I agreed. For single player it’s the best game we ever made. (For multiplayer Left 4 Dead is still dear to me.) And reading the comments, as I forced myself to do, they’re like, “Oh, what an arrogant prick.” And I’m like, well, he asked me a question, and I answered. I didn’t propose it forward. But don’t you think we learn from our previous games and get better at it? So, I’m not comparing it to any other games out in the world (though it is better) compared to all our others it’s the best one we’ve done. Because we’ve gotten better at it! How is that a controversial statement, that we’ve gotten better at things we do a lot of? It is weird.

Jay: There are so many things in the background. I think it’s a testament to the fact of how much unbridled creativity people have on this project. And it’s not a feeling of cracking the whip, “Get this done by Tuesday!” In the final act, when Wheatley’s taken over, there’s so much going on. I’m still spotting new things when I play it. And you do get this lived in sense of the world. My hat’s off to all of them.

RPS: Rooms crashing into each other takes that detail to another scale.

Jay: And there’s never a, “Hey, you go do that so this crashes into that.” It’s just someone’s like, “Oh, Wheatley’s taking over now? Oh, I’m going to go try this!” And there’s that ethos at Valve where the passion goes through. If someone wants to contribute in that way, they will happily work on it for hours and hours, because they’re like, “This will be so cool when it’s in the game.”

Chet: It doesn’t take as long as you’d think. It would take a lot longer if somebody mapped it out, handed it to an animator, and said “Animate this.” But instead when you’ve got the animator say, “Oh, I’ve got this cool idea. I want to do this thing,” they tend to work a lot faster because it’s something they want to do. That makes a big difference.

RPS: So how was it working with Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons?

Jay: Stephen Merchant was an absolute delight to work with. We’d been a fan of his before he got on the project. We’ve worked with some very good actors before at Valve, but I think this is the first time we’ve worked with a genuine comedian. That was a real treat for us. We would come in with script, and to a degree he felt like a collaborator. He would take lines and make them his own.

RPS: Was there any improvisation?

Jay: A lot of it would be variations on a theme. So if Wheatley’s on the ground and wants to be picked up, and we gave him five lines, he’d come up with another ten. He was very good as a naturalistic actor. He really sunk his teeth into the heel-turn, if I can use a wrestling term. He would take these lines, and make it part of his performance. He wouldn’t change the joke – he innately understood the joke – you wouldn’t have to explain it to him, and he’d just be improving it on the fly. J.K. Simmons, he’s worked with the Coen brothers, with inveterately great actors. He was a true professional. Walked in, read his stuff, asked lots of questions about it. He hadn’t worked a lot in the game universe, but was just super-raring to go.

RPS: I was really impressed with his timing. Timing is often horribly fucked up in games, but here it was perfect.

Jay: And that’s it. When you’re working especially with comedy scripts, and I’m not naming names, but I have worked with actors in the past where you’re sitting there going through fifty takes, and they’ve yet to figure out the joke. When you’re working with pros like Simmons and Merchant, where they read it, they get it, and they’re trying their ass off to make it funny for you, it was a real great experience.

Chet: Also, with the timing, it helps that me, Jay and Erik hook up the audio. So we put it in the game. We’re not just throwing it over the fence, and hoping somebody else gets the timing of the jokes. A lot of the time it’s literally a half-second beat makes something funny or not funny.

Jay: I can’t tell you how much time we spent, all three of us, huddled over a computer, shaving off a fourth of a second, a third of a second. We record it, we cut it, we put it in the game, and then we program it in and make sure it’s at the point where we’re happy with it.

Chet: Also you get out of the office.

Jay: Oh, and Nolan North, who’s done a million games. I think he’s worked on all of them. He was a lot of fun to work with because he has such a good vocabulary for gaming. In the same way that with Stephen Merchant you don’t have to explain comedy to him, you don’t have to explain games to Nolan North. He innately understands when he reads a script.

RPS: You pushed Ellen McLain way further. She’s your most frequent collaborator.

Jay: She’s Valve’s muse, I guess.

RPS: She gets a lot more range.

Jay: Ellen lives here in Seattle, and that afforded us the time to work with her a lot. We could just go down there week to week and throw stuff in. What you’re seeing there is the fact that we were able to experiment so much. We were allowed to get adventurous. Ellen embodies the character at this point, loves the character, and loves the franchise, and it shows.

RPS: People often paint this idyllic vision of Valve, that you guys do all these things, these extra projects, teaming up with indies, and so on. But surely at some point there’s someone checking your figures? These decisions, say working with PopCap to produce the Valve-themed Peggle, is it really just a creative thing is or there someone pushing the marketing?

Chet: Seriously, there’s like four or five people who would be the bean counters, and that’s even lumping Gabe into that, and Gabe’s probably the most wanton spending guy there is. We’re comfortable enough.

Jay: Comfortable enough to experiment. And to enjoy the experiments.

Chet: And you’re allowed to say, “I wanna go try this thing, or do this thing”, or, “Hey I know this guy, let’s do this thing with them.” It’s always encouraged. The Peggle stuff was literally, Eric Tams, who works here, worked on the original Peggle. We’re friends with him, let’s do something more, let’s keep having fun. If we’re having fun doing it, then the community’s probably having fun consuming it, and if they’re having fun they’re going to stick around. It’s kind of simple that way. If we were tight to the bone, starving, and had no money, we’d still try to be doing this stuff, but maybe there’d be somebody looking more closely at it. But there’s still this idea that just doing all these things, and letting people run with things they’re passionate about, in the end will work out.

RPS: But at the moment all this stuff is coming through others. PopCap released the Peggle, the indies are releasing the Portal stuff. Is there a desire in Valve to start putting out your own micro-projects?

Chet: We do design experiments that we incorporate into our bigger games. That keeps people fresh. We’re talking about doing another round of letting people experiment, doing what they’re interested in doing, and then from that we’ll see what comes from it. A lot of that made it into Portal, a lot of that made it into Left 4 Dead. The experimentation keeps it fresh.

RPS: Talking of Left 4 Dead, I’m so keen to start spreading the rumour that GLaDOS created the corpses in L4D. That line in the game, where she says she’s going to start reanimating corpses.

Jay: You conspiracy theorist.

Chet: There’s enough Half-Life concerns and tie-ins.

RPS: But don’t you think it’s interesting, that desire, that Stephen King-style idea that at a certain point all these worlds come together, people love that. It adds a weird tangibility to your fiction. You can see why people chase it.

Chet: Yeah, that’s always a cool thing. But equally handcuffing yourself to provide that isn’t necessarily an intelligent choice.

RPS: But at the same time, people are so desperate for, say, portal guns in Episode 3. People are craving for the crossovers. Is it not tempting to meet those cravings?

Jay: I think it’s more fun to see the creativity of the fanbase. If you go onto deviantART or something like that, the character that they’ve turned Chell into… As we said earlier, Chell is an avatar, but what they’ve turned her into and reflected onto her – that’s one of the most heartwarming things to see?

Chet: It’s heartwarming?

Jay: Well, not heartwarming. What’s the word that’s less silly?

Chet: But, “heartwarming”?

Jay: Encouraging? Inspiring?

RPS: “Jay wipes a tear from the corner of his eye.”

Jay: Come up with a really manly word for me.

RPS: “Fucking awesome.”

Jay: Imagine Clint Eastwood saying it in a gravelly voice. But keeping it open-ended, letting people connect the dots themselves, it much more rewarding than just spelling it out.

RPS: And there’s still a lot of ambiguity left by the end of Portal 2.

Jay: Yeah, it’s nice to imply this science arms race between Black Mesa and Aperture.

Chet: The Black Mesa guys are all serious and stuff, and they think they’re awesome, but who fucked up the whole world? Black Mesa!

Jay: Tonally they’re very different. I think it works better. A wink-nudge link. Rather than tearing down the wall and seeing how these two universes collide. I’m not sure if the results would be… would it be the great taste of peanut butter and chocolate, or would it be the taste of peanut butter and chowder? I don’t know.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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