[Continuing Gamasutra's 'best of GDC' show follow-up, we go in-depth with Valve's Kim Swift and Erik Wolpaw at the Portal postmorterm, examining the âiterative processâ behind integrating story and gameplay in the 2007 Game Developers Choice Game Of The Year.]
Despite holding a session in a room full of clearly die-hard Portal
fans, Wolpaw and Swift opened by warning for âspoilersâ and expected the audience to query: âWhy should we care about Portal
Introducing why, Swift said, âWe had a really small team, about 10 people,â and for those who wondered why they should care about how the team chose to integrate narrative and design, Swift opined that âBy itself the story wouldnât make much of a novel (donât get me wrong, the dialogue is pretty fun), and on its own the gameplay would be fun, but kind of dry. But the tight integration of out story and gameplay resonated with people.â
Wolpaw introduced the âcrackpot theoryâ which led to this integration: The feeling that games tell two stories: the âstory-storyâ and the âgameplay-story.â
âIf you lower the delta (the closer you bring them together)," he said, "it makes the game more satisfying.â
As an example of a game with a high story delta (a game in which the âstory-storyâ and the âgameplay-storyâ donât intergrate) Wolpaw gave the example of Clive Barkerâs Undying
. âAs Iâm in a room full of developers it would be a super dick move if I run down a lot of you, but this is a good shooter and regardless of what you think about his style (thatâs one super scary pair of pants) heâs a good writer,â Wolpaw quipped.
He therefore gave the example of a game where the player is constantly under threat from attack by enemies, but features many cut-scenes where the protagonist calmly chats with other characters without ever âgrabbing them and screaming âget out of the house! There are monsters everywhere!'â
âs narrative design goals were to have a âstory-storyâ that never intruded on, or contradicted, the âgameplay story.â And to do that, less is more: âwe were ruthless about trimming the fat.â
âPlaytesting is probably the most important thing we did on Portal
,â Swift continued. âSit down and watch people play your game. Donât just have them send you reports: Itâs not going to be as valuable. You can find out what youâre players actually want by watching them. Adjust gameplay to what players look like they need, and adjust story to enhance what players are already feeling.â
âAt the end of a playtest weâd ask players to tell us the story back,â said Wolpaw. âIf they couldnât tell us, that was a real sign that they werenât paying attention. â
Playtest Early and Often
Swift revealed they began testing the first room from the moment they started at Valve. For example, the first room initially featured a âshimmery force fieldâ and players didnât understand what it was -- so they changed it to glass. Throughout the game they proceeded to make the world cleaner and simpler to help teach the players what they need to know.
The âcolorâ came from the dialogue, and Wolpaw had some advice for those in the room writing a funny game: âGod help you. Itâs unpleasant.â
âTough guy dialogue is just about as macho the 50th time you hear it,â Wolpaw explained. âFunny dialogue is funny once -- maybe. A few years ago I worked on a game called Psychonauts
. At Double Fine everyone sits in one big room and for the two and a half years I was there I had to sit there in the middle of this pit hearing my supposedly funny dialogue blaring out of monitors and being greeted with stony silence. It was torture -- for me. So if youâre writing a funny game, be prepared to sit in a dark cold despair during development.â
He did, however, ask the audience to not despair, as long as they trust their instincts and âremember the initial reactionsâ the pain could be alleviated.
âEvolve the narrative out of gameplay,â Wolpaw advised. âWrite to enhance what playtesters are feeling -- keep the story âwetâ and donât get too attached to anything.â
âGameplay too,â Swift continued, recounting the story of the âbox marathonâ level. Initially a level where it was easy to destroy the box, they changed it to a level where it was impossible to destroy, and featured more gameplay events which featured the box (to help the player to remember to keep it.)
They tried to remind players by making sure they could always see the button at the end of the level which would require the box, and tried to put hints into the environment, but when all else failed...
âIâd been reading these declassified government interrogation manuals, and one of the things that they talked about was that isolation leads people to become attached to inanimate objects, and maybe is GLaDOS needled you a bit you would become attached to the box,â said Wolpaw, explicitly describing the creation of the âweighted companion cube.â
Gamers might be surprised, but Wolpaw revealed that the end of the level was, initially, that the player just had to leave it behind. However, âforcing the player to incinerate the box was a great satisfying ending.â
As at the time they were also struggling with developing the final boss battle and discovered that not only was this satisfying to the story, it was also an excellent way to train the player for the final boss battle, allowing the mechanic to later work as revenge.
The Boss Of It All
The boss monster for a puzzle game: Isnât it obviously a complex puzzle?
âThe first puzzle that we tried was James Bond lasers,â Swift revealed. âThe lasers were extremely boring to dodge and really difficult to aim, and it was really hard to tell if you were hit. So we abandoned this idea and decided to use rockets.â
The second idea that they had was âPortal Kombat,â a high intensity rocket battle with GLaDOS in a room full of turrets.
âThe high intensity gameplay sucked,â jumped in Wolpaw, âit sucked so much that Iâm not going to let Kim talk. No one paid attention to what GLaDOS was saying. There were some hard core shooters who got some fun out of it but it alienated the people who were enjoying the puzzles.â
The final attempt that they tried was a chase sequence, chasing GLaDOS along a corridor.
âThe pacing was just horrible,â Wolpaw lamented, âPlayers didnât know where they were going and theyâd wander around lost âŚ and once they actually got to the corridor we wanted to spring a trick on you, so we had all these pistons spring out of the walls, and it failed in every way thatâs possible. Bad pacing and players didnât really know what was going on.â
So, as Swift explained, by this point all they had learned was a complex boss battle was only going to slow the player down, confuse them, and lead to bad pacing.
âItâs funny now,â Wolpaw deadpanned, âbut we were screwed, because Episode 2
was winding up. In the end, our old friend playtesting helped us. There was one piece of feedback that helped us that there was one part of the game that the players found very satisfying, and that was the fire pit. They were consistently telling us that this was not only dramatic and exciting and it was a really tough puzzle.â
âThat made absolutely no sense," he added, "When it comes right down it it, thatâs about the easiest puzzle in the entire game.â
Swift: âWe had to work out what made this puzzle climactic? There was time pressure, and a high visual impact.â
Wolpaw continued, âIt was a dramatic high point, because for the first time GLaDOS is pretty obviously trying to kill you, and itâs first time you can actually control your environment to really escape her.â
So for the final battle with GLaDOS, they âjust added a timer counting down until a neutotoxin killed you.â
âPutting a timer meant I only had to write 6 minutes of dialogue, compared to all of our previous final puzzles, which had required me to write an infinity of dialogue,â Wolpaw joked.
Describing the development process that led to Jonathan Coulton's internet song sensation Still Alive, Swift said âWe wanted players to leave the game genuinely happy and with a smile on their face,â with Erik expanding that they âwe wrote down a list of what would make people happy, and a song kind of floated to the top.â
âWhen all is said and done a lot of this came down to our constraints,â Swift admitted. âWe couldnât create a massive FMV ending of doom.â
Wolpaw countered that âWithout constraints Portal
would not have been as good as it tunred out to be.â
âHave faith in your writing and in your team (theyâre really the best asset you have),â Swift concluded, âand playtest, playtest, playtest.â