With the multi-platform release of Portal 2 about a month away, it seems strange that this unique first-person take on a puzzle game has spawned such a ridiculously popular franchise. Portal is assuredly a breadwinner for Valve, not just in terms of sales but also the abundance of “The Cake Is a Lie” shirts, plush companion cubes, and everything else a geek could want. Given the immense fanbase, hopes are high for the sequel, and the pressure is on Valve to create a game worthy of the name Portal 2.
We recently got a chance to see the first six minutes of Portal 2 in action, and they were perhaps the funniest six minutes of game footage ever witnessed. The strength of the game’s writing, especially its humor, has always been one of the game’s greatest assets. It was an honor to speak with the very friendly Erik Wolpaw, one of the writers on both Portal and Portal 2. He was happy to talk about the upcoming release and the efforts that went into making this eagerly anticipated sequel.
GameZone: How did you even get started on Portal 2 after the success of the original?
Erik Wolpaw: We started with a small team on Portal 2 just to kind of plan it out. It was about the same size as the Portal 1 team, about nine of us, maybe as many as twelve. We kind of sat down to try and figure out what Portal 2 would be. And that involved coming up with all the new puzzle elements and also trying to figure out, “Okay, well, what’s the general story arc gonna be?” before we start drilling down the moment by moment action that’s gonna take you from the beginning to the end.
GZ: Because Portal 1 actually had a bit of a cliffhanger, and I know you guys went back in and actually fleshed out an ending. And this was knowing what you were doing for Portal 2?
EW: Yeah, when we put that in it was actually part of the announcement for Portal 2. That was the purpose of that, to get Chell back into the facility.
GZ: Now what are we going to see in Portal 2? Are we going to see any of the returning characters? Glados?
EW: Glados is back for sure. Chell is back, the player character. No cake. There won’t be any cake in Portal 2. No, we decided to retire it. The joke did its duty, and now it’s going to relax in retirement.
GZ: Is this serious? No cake?
EW: No, no cake.
GZ: You’ve gotten through this and want to try something new?
EW: We figured everyone had their fun with it and maybe it wouldn’t be such a great idea to force a three-year-old meme down everyone’s throat.
GZ: Oh my god, I agree with you wholeheartedly.
EW: I’m glad!
GZ: My biggest worry was that I was going to have to hear “The Cake Is a Lie” for another three years.
EW: No, you will not hear that. I think there is one part in the game where there may be a picture of a cake? But tiny, tiny. I think if you look away at that point, you won’t see it.
GZ: Well, that’s good to hear. Now this game in terms of mechanics, it looks like you’re adding a lot of new elements. There’s … what is it? Frictionless goo?
EW: We call that the propulsion gel, which is this paint-like substance that you can redirect and paint surfaces, which lets you move faster on them and kind of rocket out of portals. There’s also this repulsion gel, which is this blue paint that causes you to bounce, and if you paint other objects they go crazy and start bouncing around.
GZ: Now in terms of the story, it looks like you guys have some great characters this time around. What’s the orb’s name again?
EW: That’s Wheatley. What you saw was the first six minutes of the game, where you get introduced to Wheatley. He wakes you back up and the two of you … You destroyed Aperture Science in Portal 1, and it’s been kind of like a laptop that’s been unplugged, in hibernation mode. It’s slowly running out of power. A bunch of time has passed. It’s got its last fifteen minutes of juice left and Wheatley’s like, “Oh, maybe now’s the time to make my escape,” but he needs somebody to help him. So he wakes you out of cryosleep, and the two of you embark on this kind of adventure.
GZ: Now there’s going to be some people who haven’t played the original Portal. Can they start with Portal 2 and get right into the action?
EW: Absolutely. Portal 1, luckily, from a writing standpoint had a fairly simple story to sum up. Which was you were a test subject, you did some tests, you escaped, you angered the AI that was running the place, and then you killed her. Wheatley is a character that kind of gets you up to speed a bit, again with that simple kind of story and hopefully in an entertaining way so that new players understand that Glados is not your friend. And also, we spent a lot of time looking at Portal 1 because Portal 1 gameplay-wise was this gradual training. We looked at it and thought, “Okay, how can we compress that a little bit so that new players can get through that training quicker?” And that involved some compression but also moving certain elements later, so that new players are going to get trained on a new puzzle element while old players are getting trained on this new element but also on some aspect of the portal gun itself. The beginning of the game catches you up to speed, and you’ll see a bunch of new stuff, so returning players won’t be bored by it. It’s actually kind of neat to see some of those very early puzzles as they exist now in the post “you having destroyed Aperture” world. The initial training arc is about half an hour or something.
GZ: Now the original Portal, in terms of scope, was about how many hours?
EW: Well, the number keeps going down!
GZ: You can speed run it! [laughs]
EW: That one guy actually did it in about ten minutes, which is incredible. Our steam stats show that the average player took about four hours to get through it, so the single player component of Portal 2 is about two and a half times the length of Portal 1. But there’s also a co-op ca campaign, which is a separate story, completely separate set of puzzles, and that’s also about two and a half times long as Portal 1.
GZ: Wow, so there’s gonna be a lot to get through.
EW: There’s a lot of content, yeah.
GZ: Well, that’s great. And do you guys have a release date you know of?
EW: I do know it! It’s April 19th, on PC, PS3, Xbox and Mac.
GZ: So you can get it for anything you want.
From watching the riotous footage and talking with Erik Wolpaw, it’s obvious that this game is in good hands. Any fears about the game not living up the original’s standards were quickly dashed. Chances are Portal 2 will surpass the original in almost every way–offering more puzzles, more challenges, a hilarious narrative, and perhaps (thankfully) no cake. Pick it up April 19th on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC or Mac.