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Visions Of A Portal 2… That Never Was

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There’s a few things that make me sad. Like… not being able to go to GDC 2012 and consequently not being able to attend Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw’s live post-mortem of Portal 2. But there are some things that make me happy, like when I remember that it’s all gonna find its way online. But then I remember I’m sort of… supposed to push it out there as well – and that makes me go right back to sad mode.

Visions Of A Portal 2… That Never Was

To reiterate, senior Valve writers Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek delivered a lengthy talk at GDC 2012, titled “Making A Sequel To A Game That Doesn’t Need One”, where they detailed and chronicled Valve’s efforts to produce a sequel to Portal – including the aborted concepts and ideas that ended up in the unmarked desert grave we like to call “the cutting room floor”.

As many of you may know, in early-to-mid 2008, Portal 2 was a whole different beast. It was to be a prequel, taking place in the 1980s in a vastly different Enrichment Center. It told the story of a long-dead Cave Johnson (one of Valve’s favorites to voice Cave was William Sanderson of True Blood, who even auditioned for the part) who had gotten his consciousness plugged into a computer. Towards the end, he would realize the mistake he had made, and become the game’s primary antagonist, leading a machine revolution against the Enrichment Center. There would be no GLaDOS (she would only make a mere cameo), no portal gun, and few of Portal’s trademark elements would be returning. The puzzle gameplay was to be based on a secret game paradigm-mechanic concocted by Joshua Weier, codenamed “F-STOP”, the exact details of which remain completely unknown.

The protagonist was to be another female test subject – the blue-jumpsuit-wearing Mel. The game was to start off with a unique intro (using some placeholder TF2 content), featuring a much more relaxing Relaxation Vault:

Later on, Cave would not be the only supporting character/Aperture caretaker you were to deal with. You would encounter a small robot named Betty, who would wheel into the test chambers and unleash a series of legalese disclaimers, similar to prescription drug commercials. This is Betty’s old placeholder model, created from a HL2 lamp and the Portal 1 Morality Sphere:

But, of course, tester feedback revealed that while this version of Portal 2 was terrific, it just didn’t feel like a Portal game. So, everything was scrapped, the F-STOP mechanic was put in cold storage, and the team went right back to the drawing board.

In 2009, Portal 2 as we know it began to solidify. The team had the rough setting down, the portal device was back, and GLaDOS had returned. But you would still play as Mel (in fact one early rendition of the game’s intro had you waking up and looking in a mirror to find Mel staring right at you) – after all, until it was retconned in March 2010, Portal 1’s ending pretty much made it clear that Chell had escaped the Center. This proved problematic when players encountered and re-awakened GLaDOS, who, obviously, did not recognize the player as the one who had killed her. Testers were distressed – and thus, Chell was re-introduced.

But there was more. Originally, Wheatley (then named Pendleton) was to die, crushed by GLaDOS shortly after her reawakening. You’d then meet six other Personality Spheres which would become central to the plot. One of these was a wise old sphere, a cross between Yoda and Morgan Freeman… but his wisdom only extended to the 20-by-20 foot space he had been sitting in for “a few centuries”. And while he knows every crack on every tile in the entire room, if you carry him 21 feet out of there, he discovers the outside world, and is absolutely blown away. He essentially became useless, but later on in the game he’d get his bearings back. Another personality sphere was to fortify an entire area of the Enrichment Center, blocking your way – but unfortunately for him, his defenses only pointed one way, and you could easily flank him and befriend him, if forcefully.

There would be four other spheres, and all of these would interact with you and GLaDOS at different points within the game – she would grow jealous of your frequent interactions with them. There were to be sections where you’d have two of these spheres with you at the same time – and one idea Valve toyed with was allowing you to choose which two personality spheres would accompany you for the final battle with GLaDOS, similar to Mass Effect’s squadmate selection. But aside from eye color, all these spheres looked exactly the same, and the player never got to bond with them in any meaningful way. So Valve began thinking of bringing Wheatley back, and making him a more central figure in the game’s narrative. However, the spheres eventually made their way back towards the end of the game, when the player encounters the corrupt core trio; the so-called “Fact”, “Adventure”, and “Space” spheres.

But there was more. Inspired by the way many saw the point in Portal 1 where GLaDOS tries to kill you as a false, but possible conclusion to the story, the writers began thinking of other fake endings and crazy ways to die they could sprinkle throughout Portal 2. Two minutes in the game, there was a point where dying would trigger the first fake ending, which would even feature a song sang by writers Erik Wolpaw and Jay Pinkerton, recapping the thrilling events that had transpired in the past… 120 seconds. Another one of these would have taken place later in the game, when the moon was visible through a crack in a ceiling. Shooting a portal to the moon and then one on a nearby wall would suck you right in, stranding you on the lunar surface, and as you slowly asphyxiated, a sad song about how it sucks to die on the moon would play.

Despite the inherent brilliance and pure originality in these ideas (as well as serving as a great call-back to the days of adventure gaming, where every false step meant another premature, and sometimes hilarious conclusion to the story), Valve cut all of this out, because they would have taken too much work for relatively little value. Which, to be perfectly frank, shouldn’t be the way anyone goes about developing a video game. Ever. I mean, come on! These would have been so great, and so ingenious!

Meanwhile, providing a legitimate conclusion to the game’s story was starting to be a bit of a challenge. Valve experimented with the idea of having Chell be required to respond to an automated voice command that would take Wheatley’s control over the Enrichment Center away by saying one single word: “yes”.

The game would then fade to black, and in the words of Chet Faliszek himself, “boy, did it suck”. Meetings discussing any possible endings were starting to get really tense, but eventually, the team had a Eureka moment (just as we have our Eureka moments when trying to solve the game’s puzzles) where they realized that the scrapped “moon” fake ending would make for a great climax – and so, the entire sequence was resurrected and rebuilt as Portal 2’s endgame.

But the troubles didn’t end with the singleplayer. The co-op component of the game originally had a completely different narrative – as she does in the final game, GLaDOS would realize that without either a human observer or a human subject within the testing, the experiments became meaningless and their results enter a state of quantum uncertainty, similar to the Schrodinger’s cat paradox. Unlike the final game, where GLaDOS instead seeks out human test subjects in an ancient testing annex the Aperture staff had re-purposed just before GLaDOS began her takeover – here, she would try to make the robots themselves more human by sending them in the bowels of the Enrichment Center to recover human artifacts – trinkets that had belonged to Aperture’s staff shortly before their demise at GLaDOS’ hands.

One such artifact was to be a brief comic strip that would parody the beloved Garfield – starring a cat named “Dorfeldt” (took me about 20 minutes to write that, by the way). Unfortunately, in a plot point that parallels the way the lack of human interaction in testing makes testing meaningless, neither GLaDOS nor the robots can figure out what’s funny about the strip:

So GLaDOS creates an “improved” version of the comic strip:

Yeah, it’s definitely funnier than the original. However, the entire artifact plotline was scrapped due to one big reason: the story of a co-op mode needs to be written with a co-op experience in mind – your best writing material might be interrupted when one of the co-op players farts with the microphone open, or finds something better to talk about. While it’s a sweeping generalization that doesn’t apply to everybody, it is at least somewhat correct in principle. So Valve simplified the story and distributed it in bite-sized chunks (although the idea of the robots progressively becoming more human remains in the final game, through the gestures you unlock as you progress in the co-op courses). And thus, Dorfeldt was killed off. Forever.

A competitive versus multiplayer mode was also in the works. In fact, Valve spent over three months developing it before they realized it wasn’t worth it. They described it as a combination of Portal and Speedball, but “no fun, way too chaotic”, and “with neither of the good parts of either of those games”. This is what it looked like:

Looks like poo, if you ask me.

Erik also said that DLC #2 for Portal 2 (which is to include a brand new toolkit for creating, distributing and downloading custom levels for Portal 2) will be coming out pretty soon, according to Rock Paper Shotgun. We have no reason to doubt him, especially since the DLC’s beta actually got leaked last month

Near the end of the talk, Chet and Erik opened up to questions from the floor. One of these asked if we’d ever see a Portal 3 of sorts. In the words of Game Informer:

Wolpaw and Faliszek didn’t say anything, and responded with some brief, nervous-sounding mutters.

Interesting. We’re obviously not going to see a Portal 3 before a HL3, but it does seem as if there are some rough and early plans for a new Portal going around the office. Which is great! I just hope that this time, Valve will choose to move their focus away from a simple game that everybody will finish and understand – this was their intention with Portal 2, and this is why many were disappointed by it. Still, I’m pretty optimistic about Portal’s future, and it’s not just because there’s no way a new game could possibly disappoint me even more.

But I digress. It’s great to see Valve talking openly about their cut material. Hopefully we get to see the full demos for ourselves – perhaps Chet and Erik could do a full video commentary of all this cut material, a bit like the classic Evolution of Halo commentary.

Credit to the various publications that covered the presentation in-depth: RPS; The Verge; GamasutraEurogamer; Game Informer; and Shacknews.

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15 Comments

  1. This is the whole GDC Post Mortem of Portal 2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLqk4aqpXlQ

  2. Awesome! But… TOO MUCH INFORMATION!!

  3. MY GOD. About a week ago, I was thinking about the intro that didn’t make it to the actual game (heard about it in some previews before it was released) and wished Valve actually released their stuff even it didn’t make it to the game, because, come on, it’s way interesting! AND TA-DA HERE IT IS! 😀

  4. I would hardly say “obviously” they won’t release portal 3 before half life 3. Portal AND Portal 2 have both been released since episode 2 (inclusive, since Ep 2 and Portal essentially shipped together). I honestly wouldn’t be surprised (though I would be incredibly disappointed) if half life 3 came out after another portal installment.

    • Portal was released at the same time as EP2, so I don’t think we can count that. Beyond that, just because it happened once doesn’t mean it’ll happen again. At this point, it’s pretty silly to think that Valve is seriously going to throw everything they have at us, exhausting every idea and every franchise… before they release a new Half-Life.

  5. The thing about Valve is that they will not relaese their game until they know that it’s as good as it can possibly be. And it’s worth the wait if you ask me.

  6. Nice! sm

  7. This is very interesting, but I might be a bit spoiled or impatient, because I was hoping Valve would come to GDC for something more exciHL3ting.

    Well, maybe not HL3, but some new tech or something else new.

  8. I wish it was released…

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Loved the post! Thanks for sharing

  10. I like all this stuff, and hope it gets included in The Final Hours of Portal 2. I wonder if something like this would have happened for Half-Life 2 if not for the leak.

  11. Great Stuff!

    I really like it when Valve are open about this kind of stuff.

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