The Orange Box Dissected - with Valve

Feature: Part two - Portal

Who would have believed that a 3D puzzle game voiced by a psychopathic female AI would become one of the games of 2007? Designer Kim Swift gives Jamie Sefton the hole truth... (This the second part of a feature on Orange Box. You can read part one, which focuses on Half-Life 2: Episode Two, here).

The games world has gone bat shit over Portal. By the time you read this, there will be around 23,456 more blogs about the Weighted Companion Cube and over 1.2 million references on forums about "cake", beating the previous record set by "the knights who say 'Ni'" by 67 per cent.


Despite Valve's sci-fi spatial puzzler clocking in at less than three hours, Portal has become a phenomenon, built on a fantastic game idea, a teasing Half-Life universe setting, memorable characters, and the funniest writing and best-performed dialogue this side of Psychonauts.

"I think the main reason people like the game is that it's just got a great personality," says designer Kim Swift. "When you hand people a lot of story, it makes people lazy, it's all there for you, and you don't have to discover anything: you're basically creating apathy. Sometimes it's best to be a little bit vague with your story, and people can have all sorts of fun filling in the gaps that you've left for them."

Portal began life as Narbacular Drop, a portal-based game created by Kim and a group of friends at the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington. Through that experience, the team learned a lot about what makes an interesting and enjoyable title.

"One of the reasons we kept Portal as simple as Narbacular Drop, is that we found out that the more complications you add to a game, the more you're increasing the chances that you're going to do something stupid. We'd be trying to do a lot of different stuff, rather than focusing on one concept. We found that having a simple game design allows you to spend your time polishing that idea."

Valve saw Narbacular Drop and were immediately impressed by the Portal concept, snapping up the talented graduates and teaming them up with the Half-Life crew in the hope of creating something unique to add to Gordon Freeman's universe. "We're all big HL fans, so why not! We met up with Marc Laidlaw, the lead writer on the HL games, and just made sure that everything fitted in OK. We talked to the other Episode teams, to see how we can get the games to fit together - so in Episode Two, there's a mention of the Aperture Science facility."


The star of Portal is GLaDOS, the mixed-up psychopathic female AI boss of the testing facility - but how did the idea of this quirky, robot enemy happen?
"We eventually had a game that was fun and interesting to play, but was just very dry," continues Kim. "So we talked to Eric Wolpaw, who does our writing, and he was able to bring a lot of personality to the table.

"We tried a few different timings of when she should start to go batty, and we basically came up with that particular evolution of her personality. You know you've succeeded when someone completes a puzzle, smiles, then completely stops what they're doing to listen to GLaDOS talk, laugh, then get into the elevator."
Another major... er... personality in Portal is the Weighted Companion Cube, but apparently the cuddly cuboid never had any voice of its own.

"We tossed the idea around a little bit, but nah. There's something amusing about imbuing this completely inanimate object with a personality that isn't there, but everyone is impressing upon it these qualities - that it's your best friend, it's wonderful."

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