Portal 2: The Genre-Defining Video Game Starring Stephen Merchant

What started as student project and an X-Box extra has now spawned an infuriating, migraine-inducing, laugh-out loud funny and hugely rewarding sequel that will certainly get you thinking...
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What started as student project and an X-Box extra has now spawned an infuriating, migraine-inducing, laugh-out loud funny and hugely rewarding sequel that will certainly get you thinking...

When it first appeared on the Xbox in 2007 as an added extra to The Orange Box, a package which bundled together the three episodes of Half-Life 2, a puzzle game called Portal came as something of a surprise. The origins of the game were some distance from the more common multi-million dollar escapades of the big studios. Developer Valve had employed a group of students to craft the title from the ashes of Narbacular Drop, a puzzle game they’d submitted as part their assessment at a design school based in Seattle, the DigiPen Institute of Technology.

”The gameplay for Portal came from thinking in an extremely constrained space,” explains Jeep Barnett, one of those original students who subsequently made the transition to Valve, and has worked as a designer and programmer there ever since. “At DigiPen we had a tiny team, with little experience, and limited time to make our final project. Being backed into a corner forced us to think about what we could do under those constraints that would still be impressive. We knew that we couldn’t compete with commercial games by their own standards, so we did something completely different.”

“Portal taught players how to think about space in a completely new way, but left them wanting more ways to apply their skills. From our perspective, we still had plenty of ideas that we wanted to try and we started prototyping ideas for the sequel just after the first game was released.”

The result is Portal 2, released earlier this month and in equal parts infuriating and migraine inducing, yet simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and, ultimately, hugely rewarding. “We were able to make portals fresh again by creating new mechanics that interact with them while maintaining a similar skill progression over the longer experience,” says Jeep. “With Portal we didn’t know if there were players interested in this sort of game but, by riding on the shoulders of Half-Life and Team Fortress, it gave us a chance to run that experiment on Valve’s existing fans. Its success went well past our expectations as it started reaching players who hadn’t normally been interested in our games. With this title we were much more aware of who our players are and what their expectations are relative to other franchises. We could hook players with a more explicit story and characters to hold their attention throughout. All of this was much more ambitious than the original, but was manageable with a larger team.”

The humour comes from the involvement of Stephen Merchant. The comedian provides the voice of Wheatley, an occasionally helpful, consistently unhinged robot, who jabbers through the game with a distinctive west country burr

“Because it’s much longer, each game mechanic has some breathing room to be explored before its combined with other elements. Excursion funnels and hard light bridges allow the player to essentially convert their portals into a new tool that interacts with objects on an infinite line. This is great for catching, blocking, pushing, and pulling things in ways that weren’t possible with just the portals. The gels can change the player’s innate movement capabilities on any surface and give them new ways to control their momentum in combination with portals. That way players would always have a mental tool box of ways that they can use each element while still needing to discover a few new tricks in each chamber.”

The humour comes from the involvement of Stephen Merchant. The comedian provides the voice of Wheatley, an occasionally helpful, consistently unhinged robot, who jabbers through the game with a distinctive west country burr. “Much of the dialogue was written with Stephen Merchant in mind,” admits Jeep. “We asked him on a long shot and he surprised us by accepting the role. He did some adlibbing to make it sound more natural during the reads and riffed on the extended lines for when Wheatley rambles. The writers sit with the rest of the team, so they can very easily recruit animators and level designers to implement dialogue that’s tight with the gameplay. They’re also able to help find narrative solutions to problems with keeping the player engaged or drawing their attention.”

The greatest coup however takes the form of the Cooperative Testing Initiative, a story that features bi-pedal (b)robots Atlas and P-Body. “We wanted to create puzzles that were about tight communication between the two players,” explains Jeep, “and that used new portal tricks that are only possible using two sets of portals. These puzzles end up being more complex, but there’s also two brains working out the solutions. We found that as players talked through their own ideas, they would often spark new ideas in the other player that lead to the solution. So it was important that we gave them communication tools such as the context ping, and interesting landmarks and events to open up their lines of communication.”

With the co-op mode offering more mind-mangling spaces to navigate, we’re going to need all the help we can get.

Portal 2 is available now.

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