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Interview: Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek, Valve

To the tune of: Jonathan Coulton – Re: Your Brains

This is an interview I did for IGN with the lead Valve writers (apart from Laidlaw), but was cut short. IGN has generously allowed me to put the full Q&A up here.

I’m going to focus on storytelling and dialogue if that’s okay, which means I guess Erik will be answering more of the questions.

Erik: Chet’s a writer too you know!
Chet: Better duck, as that phone’s going to be heading towards your head.


The primitive murals have developed a lot from the graffiti of the first game, and they’re an important element of the story-telling.
Erik: You go from Portal to Portal 2, the fidelity of the art direction now has the whole of Valve working on it. The idea is that it’s the same character drawing on the walls from Portal 1, we had an opportunity to make a more fuller developed version of his art style; this outsider art, primitive, one of the inspirations.

Is it really 99999 years since the last portal?
Erik: It’s not a literal number there, it’s kinda rolled over; whatever number it had there as it’s maximum it wasn’t there. It’s the same character. Again the scrawling on the walls so maybe they were made two months after Portal. The one thing from the triptych; we keep arguing about this, can it be a triptych if there’s six panels?
Chet: isn’t it tripe-tych?

Isn’t is sextych with six panels?
Erik: Sextech sounds bad. Septic doesn’t sound good either. The idea was that those retell the events of Portal; one idea there is that the ratman, we’ve never called him that in-game, observed what you did in Portal 1; he was at least alive at the time Portal 1 happened. You can do a little bit of storytelling there, and makes the environments more visually interesting; we had an artist who we kind of devoted to coming up with the Ratman’s style, Andrea, who was also the hand model for Left 4 Dead. We cut the finger from that off on her non-drawing hand.

You’ve also introduced a non-antagonistic character. Was Richard Ayoade your first choice for Wheatley? How does it feel to settle for Stephen Merchant?
Erik: Ha, they were both parallel choices.

I have to admit I was listening in to your previous Q&A (with Craig Pearson from PC Gamer).
Chet: Oh, so you have diet tips now as well?
Erik: Craig cut out crisps and chocolate and started jogging.

And that made his beard grow?
Erik: That adds weight.
Chet: Jogging and cutting out food doesn’t lose weight.

You’ve also got these displays that in the first game were highly informative and told you about what was coming up in the next level, but in this have become more surreal like the Animal King:
Erik: Oh, those! The idea being Aperture’s this absurd funhouse of science and they’ve planned that someday something’s going to blow up but for whatever reason they want people to keep testing so we’ll have messages to help you test even though there’s nobody around to deal with it.
Chet; One of the characters in Portal 2 is Aperture Science itself. There is a lot you’re going to learn about Aperture Science, you’ll see a lot of the behind the scenes stuff, that’s just a hint of what you’ll be exposed to; the idea of a science company that’s gone mad with science, where they put that first in front of everything else.

Of course what you wrote on the portal 1 website and the creator of the company’s initial forays into, what was it?
Erik… shower curtains. That may or may not reappear in the game.

You have five writers on Portal 2; who’s the one you’d get rid of?
Erik: Oh, Laidlaw, in a second. (Mark Laidlaw, lead writer on Half-Life and Half-Life 2).
Chet: Laidlaw, no doubt.
Erik: Unless you need an email sent.
Chet: He’s good at sending email.
Erik: But otherwise, out.
Chet: Mark and Ted maybe. Though they’re both working on DOTA too now, which is a pretty thankless task so god bless ’em.
Erik: 100 characters that all need 10,000 lines of dialogue. “I’m a bloodseeker, I’m seeking blood”. No, it’s pretty easy.
Chet: Laidlaw, clear out your desk now.
Erik: I’m a headcleaver, I’m going to cleave your head.
Chet: You know we kind of all move around on stuff.
Erik: To answer your question, Laidlaw. You wouldn’t even have to ask the writers, you ask anyone, ask the fans: Laidlaw.


And if it came down to just the two of you? The other three having been removed?
Erik: That’s tougher, we’ve known each other for a long time.
Chet: Let’s be clear; Jay’s going to die of natural causes. Jay, our third writer, this is a wake-up call. He smokes, he’s overweight and he’s going to drop dead very soon.
Erik: (laughs) He’s currently using his wife’s handicapped parking bay to park closer!
Chet: His wife’s got a busted hip and he’s like “Great! This is less walking for Jay now.”
Erik: It would be great if you could publish an article about how Jay should clean up his act. He quit smoking (for 15 minutes) ten times during the making of Portal 2 and sometimes making games is stressful…


That’s not really quitting, is it?
Chet: No, he’d quit! He’d say I’m done.
Erik: He was taking medicine. Every single sort of patch. He’d try to deny it when he started back on; but you know when someone’s smoking, they can’t hide it.
Chett: He’s so bad aobut the smoking, we’re in a meeting, we’re kinda just writing some lines, kinda jamming, and we’re like “where’s Jay”? He can’t wait, just leaves in the middle. We want him around; I wish it was Laidlaw who was overweight and smoking.
Chet: We could introduce them to Mark; ‘Mark, you tried these yet?”
Erik: I want you to please write in the article; Jay, Stop. Eat better. Get some exercise and stop smoking.
Chet: Actually, if one of the three things he changed, it’d probably be enough
Erik: We’re concerned about him. Mark, give or take, but Jay we want.

Personality constructs; Wheatley is killed off quite quickly; GladOS is already dead; Chell is brain damaged. You obviously hate everybody, but who do you hate most? Women, Ais, the British… or someone else?
Erik: Laidlaw.
Chet: A British woman would be the ultimate enemy.
Erik: You haven’t played the whole game yet. They’ve all got their flaws and bad things happen to them. It’s an open question; “is the character you play brain-damaged?” Pretty clearly you’re solving some puzzles; Wheatley’s kind of obsessed with it, but then you have woken from a long sleep, so you might be briefly disorientated.
Chet: there’s a whole bunch of more characters coming down the way as well.

And are they all another bunch of stereotypes you want to kill?
Chet: (laughs) yeah, yeah. I mean Merchant isn’t necessarily a stereotype because he is truly British rather than “Oi, Guv!” We did at least cast a real British person as opposed to Team Fortress where we were like “Can you do an Australian accent? Eh… close enough! Let’s record these lines.”




Log interviewing Chet & Erik



Looking at GladOs’ speech; in the first one she was kind of authoritarian and dictatorial; not nastily-intentioned, she just didn’t care. In this one, she’s using the language of negotation and diplomacy to cloak absolute viciousness and murderous intent.
Erik: Well, you did kill her at the end of Portal; GladOS goes from this impersonal institutional voice in Portal 1, to at the end, she’s become much more human and she’s negotiating with you, but also hostile at points, and much more human-sounding. We didn’t want to just do the same arc again, as we figured no-one was gonna buy that.

You’re lucky in that you’ve worked on games that work on every level; story, looks, mechanics, sounds…
Erik; I haven’t worked on a game yet that I don’t like, but there are people who work for other companies who make games that they’re not necessarily proud of but they still need to go talk about it. I’m very lucky to have worked at Double Fine and then here.

Yeah, Psychonauts had one tiny flaw, the platforming, but beyond that it was perfect.
Chet: Ah, yes; Meat Circus.

(Chet is pulled away to film him dancing with Lady Gaga or Log or someone.  He returns later, looking traumatised.)

How you use the music to tell the story; falling water, sound effects, chirping monkeys, and so forth.

Erik: Mike Morasky is the sound director; Dave Pfeizer from the sound team from Dead Space. They’re a lot denser, more layered than they were in Portal. This is because we’ve got 9 people working on it, the entire team and the full force of Valve. It’s a full-scale valve production. Mike has done this procedural music stuff, so that some of the puzzle elements each create tones, and as you’re moving them around they generate tones in relation to each other. It’s subtle; you start noticing it, these things are all making sound and as you move them around they create all these different tones. Then he does all the music as well; he comes from a film scoring background; so that’s the traditional “we’re placing music to heighten the emotion, to help you feel what’s going on”. What’s interesting is there are scenes where we write them, where we know what’s going to happen, these are pivotal moments later in the game, you play test them and they’re kinda working and people don’t entirely explain what’s going on. Next thing is you layer in the animation, and it starts to become more comprhensible to people, and then the music comes in and (Clicks fingers) things really click. Y’ know, people can understand it on an intellectual level .The difference mace by Mike when he underscores the rhythm and different emotional beats of this scene with the proper music, no-one doesn’t understand it. It helped people who’d played it a hundred times, but also helped first-time players, so that they understand it first time. It’s not rocket science, people do it in movies all the time, but it just has this effect to help people understand. They’re not cut-scenes hese are sort of linear, but you do have some sort of agency in the scene, but there’s key transition points where the music will change.


So not like LucasArts iMuse them?
Erik: We’ve shown these excursion funnels, which are these kind of slow-moving tractor beams and you can redirect them. When you’re in it, there’s very soothing calming music that’s very different from the music outside – but when you jump out, he does something procedurally that smoothly transitions into whatever the music is outside. I still go in, load up a level, and jump in and out of the excursion funnels, because it’s entertaining from a sound perspectiv.e

The birds, our HR director went on vacation to Peru and recorded the birds for Dave, so those are authentic Peruvian birds. Those birds technically shouldn’t be where Apeture science is – maybe that’s one of the horrors of the Combine, they’ve introduced non-indigenous birdlife.

The Demo Suite

The difference between the single-player and multi-player scripting, has to move the humour away from dialogue and towards slapstick; is that fair?
Erik:Yes, it’s a lot more physical; something we learned from L4D. We couldn’t be heavy-handed, we need to shut up more. GladOS needs to get in and out, and there’s a skeletal motivation and jokes, but really you’re talking to your partner. IT’s a game about constant communication and we didn’t want to get in the way of that. It’s like “hey, we’re going to do some comedy now so shut up, stop having a fun time!” Even though we knew that from L4D, we still wrote a bunch of gags for co-op that we eventually cut. It was good material, but we were thinking still in the single-player space; co-op people are a different mind-set, they want to talk about what they just did and screw around.

Comedy in that non-verbal in that situation, it’s universalisable and it doesn’t need translating.
Erik: Yeah; you’re competing with the two of us having an experience and integrating that into the conversation; that’s the real story in co-op, the other thing is for motivation.

Does the co-op story tie into the main story?
Erik: Yes

Is that something you’re able to talk about?
Erik: No; we can say that the co-op story happens after the singleplayer story. Having said that, you don’t need to necessarily need to play them in that order. But you know that apeture science isn’t going to get blown off the face of the earth by the end of Portal 2.

There’s an amazing density of information in there; music, design, murals. So much writing!
Erik: Jay and I, Chet was working on other stuff, but came in later. Because of Valve’s editing process, we throw out a lot of stuff, so the story kind of evolves as the gameplay evolves. Apart from, occasionally having to take a break for a couple of days to write a Team Fortress update or comic or something, we were pretty much dedicated to Portal.

Doing one project for period of time might feel stale
Erik:We do other stuff. Writing comes in a little bit late. We do another big pass when the game really starts coming together; there’s a sense in the beginning that it’s all still very loose, we’re not going to ship this, but then time’s ticking down and well this is the real stuff, and this better be good. The pressure comes at the end in the non-experimental phase.

Is there anyone in overall charge of the story; design or story led
Erik: It’s back and forth, we don’t have a strict wall between design and writing. We’re all together in the same room, designers and writers. The entire team looks at it, we propose a story structure that seems to fit, and make changes as we go along. At the point of individual lines, we’re not running that by the whole team, other than the fact we might wire it up and get some feedback.

You’ve thrown a lot of stuff away.
Erik: Especially, with GladOs dialogue. With Merchant, we had four four hour sessions and we temp-recorded some of that stuff, and threw it away. We have 16 hours of merchant reading lines, and obviously there isn’t 16 hours of him reading lines in the game. You pause at certain points, and he’ll rattle on a certain points. The jump he’ll keep going, or in the container. GladOs, Ellen MaClaine, is local, though she’s not a fulltime employee. If we want to try something during the production we can get her in once a week. Wheatley could be who he was; GladOS, she needs to be there through the game, start somewhere and end somewhere, so we would try stuff and see what works – lots of back and forth on that.

The other buddy-bots – personality spheres – do you pick the actor after you’ve picked the character?
Erik: Without giving away what’s a personality and what’s not, there are other characters you meet and they had their own challenges with different actors. Sometimes, we wrote the character and had a voice in our head but wasn’t as clear cut as Merchant, so we hire a voice actor, not Billy Wise, but a Billy Wise sort of person who does a lot of voices, and we go in the studio and try a bunch of different stuff, and see what we like. There was another character in the game, who we did have a voice in mind, sort of Stephen Merchant, and can we get this guy, and we did, which was awesome.

Can’t wait to find out.
Yeah, you’ll find out soon. It’s strange, movies don’t do this; you know everything as soon as possible.

The radios; the update that introduced that was to show off Portal 2. Classical music and jazz.
That was a neat thing for pretty hardcore people. There is a little bit of that in the game, not as much as in the update. It broke the fiction, it was a meta thing to announce Portal 2, it was something we layered on. We might want to update that in Portal 1 and take it back out. You can’t make that the central component of the game as everyone’s just going to give up. It’s a nice Easter Egg. There are several layers of Easter Eggs in Portal, spoilers we can’t talk about, that people will talk about.

I don’t see enough of myself; I enjoyed seeing Chell going through the portals, which was the coolest moment at the start of the first game.
That’s why we kept in in for Portal 2. It’s tough in a first person game when you really see the action, somersaulting through portals or whatever. You get a lot of that in co-op. One of the reasons the co-op bots are so highly animated is that you get to linger on your partner. We didn’t have Chell in the co-op because a) she’s in the single-player game and b) there’s the threat of death and in co-op we need this mechanic where you can die and be reborn again and again. If we didn’t explain it, it would be a bit grisly with Chell coming back to life again and again, and undermine the single-player. Teh bots just made sense for co-op, as you can just rebuild or replace them.

Mirrors in the game; not included. Why is that? Too confusing design-wise (mirrors and portals?)
We actually had something which I can’t fully describe as it’s a spoiler, but it did go to third person at one point, mainly for effect; universally the playtesters didn’t get it and felt dirty. We tried putting it on screens, so you saw yourself, but it was just jarring. You will have more opportunities to observe yourself. We actually had a mirror in the container where you wake up, the hotel room, as Chell, but there were various technical reasons we couldn’t keep it in. That container ride is weird, a physics experiment; you’re in a blank place on the map that has the geometry that’s all projected on the geometry that’s being destructed. There’s a commentary note, when you get to play the game with the guy who set that up, Gray Horsefield, WETA, KK and LOTR; it’s all smoke and mirrors that ironically didn’t allow for actual mirrors.

Portal 2 is out in, what April? Shit, go to a proper site for that kinda shizzle.

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