An Interview at PAX East with Writer Erik Wolpaw on Portal 2
- By: CM Boots-Faubert
- Posted 30th Mar 2011
As we queued up in the very long line that was clearly marked for Press to obtain our credentials, a variety of activities took place around us -- colleagues from the various media formats tended to seek each other out, you see -- and with lots of bloggers and strictly new media writers in the line chatting with each other, the air around us was filled with conversation.
Choosing to use this forced downtime to see to preparations for the first day of coverage instead of being social, we used the local WIFi network at the show to access the web via my iPhone and, digging out the colorful (and free) reporter's pads that I had obtained in some quantity back in January from the press room at CES in Vegas, added to the notes already recorded there in a tight and dense chicken scratch that only I could decipher.
Penny Arcade Expo East was not going to be one of those events covered at leisure, because with only three all-too-short days and far more to cover than any one journalist can manage on their own (which is why we brought a team of interns) organization was key -- so I turned to the section of the pad that I had set aside for Portal 2 and began reviewing my prepared notes.
My appointment for Portal 2 was with a writer named Erik Wolpaw -- a name that I recognized not just from the video games that he had worked on like Half-Life , but from his involvement with the now-defunct Old Man Murray video game commentary web site.
Old Man Murray -- or OOM as the cool kids used to call it -- was a site hosted under the umbrella of the UGO network, with Wolpaw -- along with the notorious games writer Chet Faliszek -- being half of the driving force behind the witty and often sardonically sarcastic commentary that the site was known for. It is important to note here that OOM made major contributions to both new media and the online gaming press back before there really was an online gaming press to speak of. He was also a major influence on me and is largely responsible for my habit of snarky evaluations of video games.
OOM approached the subject of game previews, reviews, and coverage from a direction that had previously not been widely followed -- insisting that new games should have substance, include original ideas, and add to the quality and evolution of games in their genre. Any game that relied too heavily upon the tricks and the traditions of their genre without innovating was fair game for OOM, whose unstated mission was to help guide gamers towards evaluating the value of a game.
When you consider that the average console video game can suck away blocks of time measured in the tens-of-hours and cost upwards of $50 or more, getting real value for your money and your time can only be a good thing -- and coming out at the other end of a game wishing you could somehow get those hours back is never a good feeling to have... In creating the segment for this sort of coverage, OOM delivered a unique value to the gaming community online that lives on at the thousand sites and publications that it influenced.
Erik Wolpaw -- The Man
Gabe Newell, the CEO of Valve Corporation, once referred to OOM as "the Velvet Underground of post-print journalism" while a long list of famous and important figures in the industry today credit the site -- and its targeted irreverent game commentary -- as being formative and significant influences on both game development and the path that gaming has followed. Since Erik Wolpaw was a major element in the success of OOM, it seems reasonable that such an evaluation of the site would naturally be an evaluation of the men who created it.
If you are gathering an impression that Wolpaw made significant contributions to gaming, gaming culture, its development, and its coverage in games media, well then I have succeeded in doing my job, because that is what I aimed to communicate.
If real life reflected the impact of accomplishments, Erik Wolpaw should be an eight-foot-tall hybrid of Conan the Barbarian, Albert Einstein, and George Carlin; he should glow when placed in a dark room, provide a constant stream of witty but on-target commentary, have a mini-me following him around to fend off the army of sexy gamer chicks who worship him, and drip ideas for new games like mortal men do drops of perspiration.
All that considered, you will understand then that when we met the quiet and unassuming gentleman who stood by the velvet ropes that were all that divided the maelstrom of humanity from the inner-sanctum of the Portal 2 exhibit space, we almost failed to recognize him. Truth be told, for a few seconds we actually looked over his shoulder to see if we could spot the iconic presence of Erik Wolpaw somewhere deeper in the realms of the Portal 2 booth before we were able to grok that it was he standing before us.
His accomplishments are an easy read: Winner of the Game Developers Choice Award for Best Writing for his story and dialogue contributions to the iconic cult classic Psychonauts, and writing credits that include the original Portal , Half-Life 2: Episode Two , Team Fortress 2 , and Left4Dead . If you dig all the way back to the beginning, his first official credits include a pair of games for the 8-bit Atari game console published in the home computer magazine Antic back in the early 1980's.
In addition to all of the above, he is notorious among video game reviewers for creating what is now called "Wolpaw's Law" -- the first part of which states that when dealing with a bad game, even if the payoff or ending of a video game is good it is not enough to redeem everything that precedes it; secondly even upon viewing the ending the review for a game will still ultimately be the same even if you only complete 2/3rds of the game.
While it was initially only accepted by the editors at Gamespot, Wolpaw's Law has become an acceptable standard for not having to finish a game to its end in order to write or publish a review for it. It is now a widely accepted rule at games review publications and sites...
After making his own introductions -- we almost expected to be introduced by an assistant -- he parted the ropes and escorted us into the theater that had been constructed to cover three-quarters of the Portal 2 exhibit space, guiding me to the end of the far row where my power chair could fit without blocking the view or path for any of the other attendees who filed in after us.
Once the doors were closed, the video display screen that covered the whole front wall of the theater lit up, and Wolpaw began with introductions to the game he has spent the better part of the past few years bringing to life. On the screen we got our first look at the new and vastly expanded world in Portal 2, met some of the primary characters, and experienced his unique humor both on the screen and off as he walked us through the presentation. There was much laughter, and a lot of leaning forward in your seat as the hands-off demo got under way.
As the presentation concluded -- it was the final show of the day before the exhibit floor closed -- the enthusiastic and excited fans filed out, and Wolpaw walked us outside and along the outer wall, where the interview took place in what was really a quiet spot on the not too quiet exhibit floor.
Portal 2 Interview (1)
GU: What is the biggest difference between Portal and Portal 2?
EW: Wow you jump right in don't you? No question about it, the most obvious and stand-out difference is the environment in the game. There's three things -- you will see a lot of parts of Aperture that you did not see in Portal 1, there is a lot more interaction with other characters in two, more depth to the interaction because it is a major part of the story, and we did a lot with surface properties.
Portal 2 is a much bigger game than its predecessor. Portal 1 was made with a small team of about eight people, and nobody expected the tremendous response the game got but now we know better. After the first game's success we had as much as we needed over the three years it took to complete development; we didn't change the simplicity of the core mechanics but we did add more content and variety.
GU: Was the creation process significantly different this time around?
EW: Well, more people worked on Portal 2 than on Portal 1; and it is a funnier game. The voice talent and characters combined with the writing all came together to create this memorable comedic performance because a lot of it was not scripted. It was a very fluid process and in many respects it was different because of that.
Making Portal 2 was also a lot different than Portal 1 because we were not under as much constraint; we were not working on other products for the most part, and we had a clearly defined plan to maintain the tight integration between the story and gameplay. It was certainly more fun.
GU: Do you have a favorite character in Portal 2?
EW: They all have their strengths and weaknesses; GLaDOS plays a major role of course, and this time she's mad at you, and she's passive-aggressive but in a different way. You have not met all of the characters yet, and there is a lot I can't really tell you so... as far as telling you who is my favorite character? I am going to go with I can't pick any favorite character at this point because they are all very awesome!
GU: OK, how about this -- you are the writer, so what is your favorite line?
EW: Oh, sorry! I can't tell you that because it is a spoiler. Really.
GU: You mentioned earlier that the game is bigger, and had more depth?
EW: Yeah, Portal 2 single player is two-and-a-half times larger than Portal 1, not even taking the co-op side into the equation! It wasn't hard to make that happen either, because the new characters added a lot of opportunity to do new things and they add a variety to the game that is amazing, but we still wanted the game to play out in a normal way without feeling rushed.
We didn't want to change the simplicity of the core mechanic of the game, so you still have a portal gun and you can shoot portals; adding two extra portals seemed like a simple proposition, but it really changes the puzzles and play and it just makes the co-op side so much more. The co-op is pretty awesome -- when you get your hands on it you'll understand.
GU: Since you brought it up, let's talk about the co-op side for a bit.
EW: There wasn't a co-op element in the first game but that did not stop players from playing co-op, so it was pretty clear that we needed to have that in two; it presented a whole different set of problems -- but the goal to make co-op cooperative helped in guiding the decisions that were made.
That side of the game is focused around the campaign, and it is about progressing together. Because failure means restarting that level we had to create a system that promoted not just team play but a fluid and natural team play -- in one theyd play it with their wives, or boyfriend/girlfriend and you don't want cooperative play to end up in a divorce right?
The ping tool is a major element in co-op play, but it is not just about moving forward, it is about playing together; when you want to get your partners attention you can wave at them -- when you want to celebrate a success, you can hug them!
GU: We suspect that the cooperative side is certain to be the most popular part of the game, especially when you get to the puzzles that are really hard -- because having help on the hard ones can only make them easier, and if Portal 2 is anything like the original, there are going to be some really hard puzzles you will need help with, right?
EW: Well no -- I mean yes, but no. If you watch the preview videos you hear people say that it looks harder than Portal 1; I have heard more than a few gamers say that they worry that they will not be able to do it.
The thing is that we designed two with the same philosophy that we used for one -- in the process of playing through the game we train you up to handle everything you will face. You will not arrive at a level that you are not already equipped with the knowledge or the skills to actually complete it. That was a really important part of the design process, and something that we really focused upon.
In the co-op campaign there will be puzzles that you need to do together -- but that is the whole point of playing in a cooperative mode right? On the single-player side just like in co-op you will never find yourself facing a challenge that you have not already been shown how to solve.
GU: In Portal 1 there were a couple levels where you simply had to get outside help to get through them the first time you faced them -- they were bona fide brain-stumblers... We will not be seeing that here then?
EW: We're going to train you, it is that simple. At no point are we going to ask you do something that we haven't prepared you to do. You mentioned the two spots in Portal 1 that you had trouble with, well, one of the things we learned after releasing Portal 1 was that there were those two puzzles that required some twitchy ninja skills to actually solve, and a lot of players had trouble with them.
One of the real pleasures of Portal is what I call the "aha moment" when you have that flash of insight and you solve the challenge you are facing. Everything we do up to that point is designed to take you to that point.
We understand that you have to be able to use the solution and solve the puzzle, but if you end up struggling with the controller for twenty minutes trying to figure out how to make the moves that will make that happen, chances are that (you) will just end up frustrated and angry.
When players quit the game and walked away from it in Portal 1 it was almost always at one of those two puzzles, and we understood the problem. We don't repeat that in Portal 2.
GU: There was some confusion about motion-controllers being supported by Portal 2 on the PS3 but not on the Xbox 360?
EW: There was a mis-translation on a German website that made it sound like there was Move support in two but there is not. You use the standard controllers for play.
GU: Can we talk about the Achievements / Trophies in Portal 2 for a bit?
EW: Absolutely. In fact I wish you would, I am always interested in learning about game Achievements!
GU: Err. No, I meant can you talk about the Achievements and Trophies in Portal 2?
EW: Oh! There are Achievements and Trophies in Portal 2.
GU: Yes, but what are they? Tell us about them!
EW: See I could do that, but then I would just be spoiling the game for you.
When you play the game you will find out about the Achievements, but I really want to emphasize that you should not go online to look up and read the Achievement lists or their descriptions, because that will spoil the game for you!
Seriously, just go in fresh, you will naturally unlock them for the things you do and accomplish in the game, and you will feel so much better about them that way!
GU: Right, but is there anything you can tell us about the Achievements that you think we should know? Now. Before we play the game?
EW: Ah. (Sigh). A lot of the co-op Achievements are execution-based, I can tell you that...
GU: Will Portal 2 support player modding?
EW: There is as much support for modding in two as there was in one, so yes.
GU: Let's talk about DLC -- you can tell us about the DLC mate, we promise not to tell anyone. Really!
EW: There is DLC planned, but we're not ready to talk about that yet. There will be an official announcement about the DLC after the game ships.
GU: Can you tell us how much DLC there will be?
EW: Yeah, no. More than one? There will be DLC, and some of it will be related to the story. But as for how much and even when it will release, we're not ready to talk about that yet.
GU: OK. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today, and thanks for sharing so much information -- there is really only one question left on my list that has not been asked yet: what is it that you want to hear gamers say when you walk up to them out of the blue and say 'Portal 2!'?
EW: Best first-person comedy puzzle adventure game ever!
(1) The interview includes the PAX East 2011 session as well as material from an earlier phone interview.