In the Making: Portal
If you haven’t noticed already, Portal has been a monumental impact on the video game scene. Unless you live in a cave with no contact to the outside world, you’ve heard about Portal at least once in your lifetime. It’s not easy for the new generation of gaming to come out with something as unique and original as these developers did. While we can sit and awe over the success of it, it’s even more exciting to know its roots. Sit back and get inspired with this edition of In the Making: Portal.
Let’s get one thing straight. While Portal is holy in all spectrum of originality, we can’t skip the importance of its predecessor. Two years before Portal was released, another game was created called Narbacular Drop. This senior game project was developed by a few talented minds who attended DigiPen Institute of Technology. Narbacular Drop was on display at DigiPen’s annual career fair when it was first seen by Robin Walker, a developer at Valve. She was so impressed by it that she later contacted them and asked them to present their game to the company.
The students took up the offer and brought the game to Valve’s offices. Gabe Newell was equally amazed, commenting on the fact that the team had already done a significant amount of work on the game. Newell immediately offered the team permanent positions after the presentation. Newly hired at Valve, the team would have the opportunity to further develop it with the intention of releasing it later under the company’s name.
So the question now is: what was Narbacular Drop? The original plot wasn’t about a test subject locked away in a laboratory at all. In fact, the main character was a princess with the inability to jump. Like all princesses, she gets kidnapped by an evil force and becomes imprisoned inside Wally, an elemental being. The only way for her to escape is by using a device that makes portals. Sound familiar?
The newly hired DigiPen alumni and a few additional employees made up the Portal development team, which consisted of no more than 10 members. This newly crafted team set to work with Marc Laidlaw, the writer of another great series called Half-Life. Because they originally had minimal artistic avenues, they decided to tie it in with the Half-Life series. This would give them the chance to use the assets from that game instead of struggling to make new ones.
One of the earliest concepts was GLaDOS, whose sole purpose was narrating the player through a series of test chambers where they could use the portal gun. Dialogue that was written in the beginning stages of development were made out to be more humorous than not, leading to her creation through this style. Even though her character was meant to guide the player through the game, she was destined for bigger things. The developers wanted her to have a core role where her personality would change throughout different points in the player’s journey.
You can’t speak about GLaDOS without introducing the development process for the cake. Eric Wolpaw, writer for the Portal series, states that the team had sat down together to determine what philosopher or school of philosophy the game would be based on. After fifteen minutes of complete silence, someone brought up the idea that everyone liked cake. That concept became the “reward” for completing the game, but we all know how that ends. The elements for the cake were created by project lead Kim Swift who based it off a Black Forest cake she saw at Regent Bakery and Café in Redmond, Washington.
So how does one get the cake? According to GLaDOS, you must assume the party escort submission position. However, we come to find out in order to even survive in the laboratories; we need to confront the A.I. herself. The final battle, as stated by Swift, went through many stages of development. Early ideas include bouncing rockets back to her, being chased by lasers, and even being chased by the villain. Like all matters in the game, players likened more to the idea of a puzzle with a countdown timer.
As they were designed the finishing touches of the boss battle, the developers realized they missed one detail. In order to defeat GLaDOS, you needed to use incineration. They had forgotten to show the player how to do this exactly, so they came up with a plan. This was the birth (and death), of the Weighted Companion Cube. The plan was to use this in a level called Box Marathon where you’d have to ultimately incinerate it. Players that tested this level often forgot about carrying the box all the way through. Developers fixed this by continuously adding lines to the game and tweaked its design until players became attached to it.
Now all they needed was the hero for the story. Chell would be the replacement for the princess. Instead of being royalty, she was designed as a test subject in Aperture Laboratories. The developers used Alésia Glidewell, a model from a local modeling agency, for Chell’s face and body. Her personality wasn’t really taken into consideration, and Wolpaw even mentioned that it didn’t matter to them back then. She was used more for showing the player the story rather than making it herself. Chell also became a silent protagonist, much like Gordon Freeman in Half-Life.
It’s not just the game that makes an impact – it’s also the music. Composed by Mike Morasky and Kelly Bailey, the score was created to coincide with the environments. Without the use of lyrics, the ambient tones gave the player a sense of mystery and an eerie darkness looming over them. The credits song “Still Alive” was created by Jonathan Coulton. The voice actress for GLaDOS, Ellen McLain, was also a trained operatic soprano and sang the lyrics to the closing song.
After two years and four months of development, Portal was ready to be released. Valve wasn’t sure how well gamers would take it, so they decided to release it in a bundle. This bundle was called The Orange Box, and it also came with Half-Life 2, two additional episodes of Half-Life 2, and Team Fortress 2. This was all for experimentation purposes, because if it didn’t receive a good standing, there were extra titles to fall back on.
However, as fate would have it, Portal was a smashing success. I could list the many awards it has received, but I’ll give you one to let it sink in. In November 2012, Time magazine listed Portal as one of 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time. I’m not sure about you, but I can’t imagine that those DigiPen students would have ever thought their senior project was going to make it this big. Just goes to show you that you don’t have to be in the gaming industry to make a game – the industry will find you.