After we got hands-on with the opening scenes of Valve's puzzler sequel at the EA Showcase a few days ago, we sat down to have a bit of a chat with Valve scribe Chet Faliszek about keeping people's attention, teaching people how to laugh and the trials of portraying a story through wall scrawlings...until we made him cross and he threatened to steal our stuff...
Matt Gardner: The original Portal was released to huge critical acclaim as part of The Orange Box, what was the thinking going into Portal 2? How did you want to build on the successes of the first game?
Chet Faliszek: Well there were a whole bunch of ideas we had for Portal that, as a pretty small team, we weren’t able to necessarily deliver or execute on. So as we got the weight of Valve behind the full project, as we weren’t making ten games at once, there were a lot of things we always wanted to do that we finally got to explore. Like, the labs reconfiguring right in front of you. We wanted – with the puzzles – to increase the complexity, not necessarily at the expense of accessibility, but to really expand upon the world and the mechanics we created with the first game.
Matt Gardner: So how have you gone about maintaining the focus, the intensity, of the first game? How big a concern was keeping the player interested at all times, considering the expanded length this time around?
Chet Faliszek: Well, one of the big things for us at Valve is the process of play testing. We play test and we play test and we play test. We bring people in from the outside, who’ve never seen anything of the game, and they’ll vary – some will be hardcore gamers, others really not so much, and we’ll watch the way they play, how they react and ask them for feedback throughout the process.
So we look at the puzzles and how people go about solving them, but it’s also a good way of checking out pacing. I mean you’ll get sick of anything after a certain length of time (whispers) except for my wife (laughs) but everything else... So we look to shake things up and break up not just the action, but also make sure visual stimuli are varied , the same with audio, and the same with puzzle design.
Matt Gardner: Comparatively speaking, roughly how long would you say that Portal 2 is?
Chet Faliszek: Well we know that value is important, but it’s kind of pointless talking about things in terms of hours. Portal, for example, could be completed in a couple of hours or, maybe if you were pretty dumb, ten hours..who knew? Comparatively, the sequel’s around four times the size of the original game for singleplayer, around twice the length in co-op.
Matt Gardner: Would you mind elaborating on some of the differences between the two game modes for the benefit of our readers? The co-op’s set to be a completely different experience to the main story...
Chet Faliszek: Yeah, absolutely. The co-op has its own maps, its own story and playable characters – you play as the co-op bots P-body and Atlas, whom you’ll no doubt have seen in a few videos scattered around YouTube. It’s set after the end of Portal 2’s main story, so you’ll probably want to give that a spin first.
My wife used to sit and watch me play and point out helpful things and so when we got the test discs through we started playing though together and she absolutely loved it. She enjoyed it so much she started going on like 'When are the next discs coming through?' and I'd have to explain we'd need to wait for the final version. But seriously, playing co-op with a friend is so much fun, it's insane.
Matt Gardner: One of the great things about playing Portal on PC was that, as with so many of your games, the mod community got very much involved and it wasn’t long before we started seeing user made challenge rooms and maps etc. Will that be the same with Portal 2 and if so how soon after launch can fans hope to get hands-on with a tool set?
Chet Faliszek: Yep. We’ll be releasing the full SDK and an updated version of Hammer soon after the game launch, hopefully within the first month or so, but there’s been some changes we need to update.
Jon Lester: How will this content be dished out, say, on the PS3?
Chet Faliszek: Well the PS3 allows us to update the core game with far greater ease now, thanks to the integration of Steamworks on that platform. It’ll also allow us to do a fair bit of cross-platform stuff, we can keep them in sync. It won’t exactly be the same as the PC, you won’t be able to just download some of the content, we’ll need to package it up. But we’ll certainly be experimenting with ways of getting community content out on all of the platforms. It’ll be interesting though – the PS3 gives us some openings that the Xbox 360 doesn’t.
Matt Gardner: Will you be supporting the game post-release with your own DLC?
Chet Faliszek: We’ve announced we’re going to do it, but we’ll have more details after launch. Always, we’re all about trying to cram as much stuff into the retail version as is possible. So we’re still focused on just getting everything done, getting the game of to be manufactured, and then we can talk about DLC.
Matt Gardner: Portal was really quite a personal game of cat and mouse between you and GLaDOS. This time around, we’ve seen a few new faces – Wheatley, Cave Johnson – and obviously the return of GLaDOS. Are there more characters to come?
Chet Faliszek: Yeah, so we’ve recently announced Cave Johnson, owner of Aperture Science, and he’ll be voiced by J. K. Simmons. There are some more new faces coming too, but we’re not ready to divulge too much on that right now. It’s been important though, to bring a level of diversity into Portal 2.
Matt Gardner: That’s extended to the new mechanics too, what with the different gels or goos...?
Chet Faliszek: Right. We’ve shown the raw mechanics, but not necessarily how they all intertwine. We haven’t shown all of the gels just yet. There’ll be videos of some of the advanced puzzles people look at on YouTube and they’ll be like ‘Man, there’s no way I’d be able to do that’, but by the time they actually get there, they’ve been trained, they know how to do it.
A lot of what Portal is, what it encompasses, is giving you these puzzles that seem overwhelming, but making you feel smart because you’ve come to understand the mechanics and are able to solve them.
Jon Lester: You’ve mentioned player ‘training’ a bit there, how will that work in the game, will it be broadly similar to the wall diagrams in the first game?
Chet Faliszek: Well you guys played the beginning today. The idea there was kind of like ‘Portal 101’, but we tried to make it interesting too for those who had played through the first game. So it’s really quite a compressed training part and then immediately afterwards, in the next level for example, we start bringing in the new features like lasers, then the Aerial Faith Plates and we walk you through them to begin with and then give you a load of scenarios to play with before bringing in another element.
Matt Gardner: One of the things that for me really stood out in the first game, perhaps because I didn’t really expect it at the time, was the humour. Portal makes a lot of humour-oriented top ten lists, and with good reason. Already playing through the demo, with Wheatley in particular, it’s clear that the humour’s there from the start. How important is humour to the world of Portal and is it something that just sort of came to the surface naturally when you were writing?
Chet Faliszek: Well, the beginning to the first game was fairly robotic, there were little bits and pieces of humour here and there that then increased the further you went into the game. We knew we couldn’t just follow the same template again, so we wanted to start it with the over-the-top Wheatley, who’s just in your face and very funny and freaking out. We wanted to establish right from the start that things were a little bit chaotic, but that this is a funny game.
There are still those moments from Portal, those quiet moments where you’re alone and GLaDOS is just needling you, but it is what it is. Often in order to get your audience to laugh, you have to tell them that it’s ok to laugh, so that’s really what we’re trying to do at the start.
Matt Gardner: Speaking of humour, will there be another Coulton masterpiece over the end credits this time around?
Chet Faliszek: Jonathan Coulton does have an end song. We announced The National and everyone thought they’d have the end song, but their input actually fits more in with Rat Man’s story and the comic.
Jon Lester: Can we expect a lot more of the Rat Man-style easter eggs and secrets? How challenging was it to try and tell a story through pictures and wall scrawlings?
Chet Faliszek: Yeah, we’ve put a lot of that stuff in, and co-op’s got a lot of that stuff in, and if you’re looking for it and pay attention to detail you’ll see some stuff that foreshadows future events. But people play the game in different ways, some blast through the game and pay no attention to it, for others, they spend hours poring over it.
One of the interesting things that came out of play testing was seeing how people who really didn’t ever play games played the game. So you know the little whiteboard at the start of each room that has the little elements of what’s in the map? Gamers blow right past that, but others go right up to it and study it. It was quite satisfying to see that work so well, to see people using the hints and tips that arose naturally through the game to help them work out the best way through a room.
Jon Lester: The engine still looks great, it’s clear that you’ve been tweaking away at it. But how much more life do you think Source has left in it?
Chet Faliszek: Well we keep tweaking and updating it every time we release a game. So Source for Half-Life 2 is certainly not the same as the engine for this. We just keep adapting it.
Jon Lester: Is that the modus operandi for future titles then...?
Chet Faliszek: well we have DOTA 2 coming out on PC so we’re going to be opening up the beta on that soon. Other than that we’re not talking about anything else yet, very soon, but not just yet.
There is the Left 4 Dead DLC coming out and we’re working with a community mapper, to finish it with input from the community and then put it up on Xbox 360 as well.
Matt Gardner: There’s been a fair amount of quotable material from various corners of the industry, Epic and Ubisoft to name a couple within the last couple of weeks, suggesting that maybe it’s time we made the step up, that we need a new generation of consoles to progress now. Do you think that step needs to happen soon?
Chet Faliszek: You know, I’ve always felt that there’s a certain point in a console’s life cycle where people hit the sweet spot and get really good at making games for that console, but that quite often we make the jump too early. I’d say we should stick on these for a little while. There are some really, really good games coming out so I’m all for playing those for a while at least.
Jon Lester: So...how’s Half-Life 2: Episode 3 coming along?
Chet Faliszek: Man, really? Really? You guys are wearing suit jackets...I thought you looked smart enough not ask that question. (Sighs) But now...now I’m going to have to punch you. (Points at Jon’s iPad) Now I’m going to have take that. Which one is it?
Jon Lester: Oh it’s only an iPad 1...you probably don’t want it...
Chet Faliszek: Nah I’m ok. You’re safe.
Huge thanks to Chet for talking to us. Portal 2 will be out on PC, PS3 and X360 on April 21stth. We can’t wait.
We also haven't seen Jon since Wednesday.