Interview: Portal

October 7, 2006

Valve Software has always had a keen interest in bridging the gap between the mod community and the larger world of game development. One could even argue that they first legitimized the practice by taking the Half-Life mod Counter-Strike into the retail space, a first for a fan-created mod. Further mod incorporations like Day of Defeat cemented Valve’s reputation as a company willing to pull directly from the community with a frequency unheard of elsewhere in the industry.

Valve’s latest acquisition seems to the be the team behind Narbacular Drop, an Independent Games Festival entry that came courtesy the DigiPen Institute of Technology, located right in Valve’s backyard. From that background comes the eagerly anticipated Portal, shipping alongside Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2 early next year. Today we had a chance to sit down with the Portal team’s Dave Kircher and talk a little bit about this unique action-puzzle game they’re developing.

First of all, how does it feel to go pretty much straight from the classrooms at DigiPen to the offices of Valve? Did you ever in a million years imagine this is how it would turn out when you were filling out your application forms?

We all set our sights fairly high before we went to DigiPen, it’s a school that requires determination. I had actually set my sights specifically on getting a job at Valve, but I never actually believed it could happen right out of the gate.

Being here is really as awesome as you can imagine. They’ve given us access to great people and resources, shown us how they make their games, and then turned us loose to put it together by ourselves. It’s a great feeling of complete design freedom that most of us feared we’d
lose when we were ramping up to leave school and get jobs.

According to Doug Lombardi’s Game Informer interview, you guys hadn’t even finished your Narbacular Drop presentation when Gabe Newell stopped the presentation and offered the entire group jobs on the spot. Give us the first sentence to pop in your head when you heard that.

It’s not even really quantifiable as a sentence. It’s more closely represented as dumbfoundedness. We spent a good half-hour outside the building asking each other, “What just happened?”

Does this, unfortunately, mean your withdrawal from the IGF? There’s
always the weekends, you know…

For the time being it does. But the IGF is really about creative freedom, and everyone in the team already has an outlet for that with Portal. We rarely receive any sort of solid requirements from anyone that could be considered a boss figure.

On to Portal: Was the decision to set the game inside the Half-Life universe a conscious goal all along, or was it more of “We’ve got to set it somewhere, and we can make it fit in the HL story, so why not?”

We haven’t really revealed too much about the story yet. But what I can say is that you play a new character in the Half-Life universe and the connection to that universe is revealed during the game.

How hard is it to develop puzzles for a game that makes use of such bizarre and irrational tools? When you can go from any surface to any other surface, fly through the air sideways and upside-down, how do you design puzzles that will still make sense? At what point do you stop and say “You know what, no one is ever gonna figure this out”?

We worked for nearly a year on Narbacular Drop, so as a team we had a firm grasp on how to make interesting levels. But it has been a real challenge to present the levels in such a way that the entire gamut of players from newbie to haxx0r can follow what’s going on. The game makes use of spatial thinking that people never encounter in their daily life, so it’s a real tossup how quickly someone can assimilate the gameplay elements. Thankfully Valve has shown us a trick or two about how to work out the kinks through constant playtesting and providing us the freedom to iterate on our designs until we’re succeeding with players of all skills.

You’ve got Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw, formerly of Old Man Murray fame, writing the narrative for Portal. First of all, isn’t having a narrative for a puzzle game sort of unusual, and secondly, how will Portal best put their dry, irreverent wit to work?

The game has puzzle elements, but it’s not truly in the puzzle genre. We tend to think of games as being closer to experiences than computer applications. Chet and Erik’s work breathes life into the experience making everything seem just a bit more real. That and it gives our players a good chuckle every now and then.

Is the Apertue Science website actually germane to the game, or is it just a neat piece of viral marketing? What’s the point of it all- the video feed, the birthday cake, the whole bit?

The robots have taken me. Please send help.

Will Portal be moddable? There’s a kind of recursive justice in a mod team’s game becoming moddable itself, but does the technology lend itself to the practice?

Most definitely. We want to get the community into Portal gameplay design as easily as possible. There are so many gameplay ideas to explore with Portal technology – we’re dying to see what other designers will do with this.

Modding aside, how do you see the Portal technology being used in other applications? A theoretical first-person shooter utilizing a grander scale of the Portal tech could really be something- hallways that go on forever, an entire match in freefall, even perhaps M.C. Escher’s House of Stairs made into a CTF map?

There are too many possibilities to even mention here. We’re breaking Euclidean space, which adds a brand new tool to the toolbox of every existing idea out there.

Finally, what’s next for the Portal team? After Portal is done and shipped, where do you see your team moving to within Valve?

We’ll be exploring Portal gameplay for the foreseeable; either integrating the technology towards traditional FPS gameplay or branching off in a whole new direction is yet to be determined. Where we focus our attention will rely heavily on how the community responds to Portal.