Portal 2: Interview With Valve Writer Erik Wolpaw

Portal 2 Interview Erik Wolpaw Half-LIfe 3

Game Rant recently had the opportunity to meet with Valve writer Erik Wolpaw, who is one of three writers (the others being Chet Faliszek and Jay Pinkerton) responsible for the clever dialogue found in Portal 2. During our interview, we asked questions related to the most recent Portal 2 footage released at PAX East, the casting process for the new characters, Portal 2's place in the Half-Life universe, and whether Portal 2 would tie in to Half-Life 3.

Game Rant: How many hours is the main game in Portal 2?

Erik Wolpaw: I know times vary. Everybody's like "I solved Portal 1," - the number keeps going down - "in like 22 minutes." Than there is literally that one guy who solved it in 10 minutes apparently. There's a video on YouTube. It is insane. That guy, he wrung a lot of the enjoyment out of Portal. It was like his first time through doing the 10-minute run. According to Steam, the average player played [Portal] for about 4 hours. The single-player campaign [for Portal 2] is about 2 ½ times the size of Portal 1 and then there is a co-op track, which is a separate story, separate puzzles, and that is also about 2 ½ times the size of Portal 1.


GR: At E3, Gabe Newell has said that the PlayStation 3 would be the definitive version of Portal 2...

EW: I think that the exact quote was that it was the definitive console version. The PC is always going to have the benefits that the PC has, which is, you can run on a range of hardware, where the PS3 is one piece of hardware and the [same for] Xbox 360. You can do different resolutions and stuff like that on the PC. I think what Gabe meant by the definitive console version is simply that... the content is the same across every Mac, PC, Xbox 360, and PS3. The game doesn't look any better, it doesn't sound any better. It's the exact same game, but there's this sort of ancillary component which is Steam is on the PS3. One of the big benefits is that your can play co-op across platforms so any combination of Mac, PC, and PS3 can play together.

GR: So obviously Xbox 360 will not be capable of cross-platform co-op?

EW: Not at, no, not, no (laughter). No Steam on Xbox 360.

GR: About how many hours of writing is actually in the game?

EW: That's tough. Sounds like I'm weaseling my way out of this question but I have no idea. There's a lot. Because the writers are sort of embedded with the game team, it's not like we write a script and record it and throw it over the wall and hope it all works out well in the end. So we end up recording a lot more than we end up using. I know we have probably 30 hours of GlaDOS recorded, not that it's in the game. There's a lot of dialog and Wheatley gets this opportunity where, if Wheatley is around, and there's sort of a decision point where he's waiting for you to do something, Stephen Merchant will babble on for seven minutes if you give him a chance.

GR: What other Valve games have you written for?

EW: Since I've been there [Valve], I've worked on every game we've released as a writer, so Episode 1, Episode 2, Team Fortress, Portal, the two Left for Dead games. The writers all kind of tend to work as a group. Although one writer will tend to be embedded. In this case, three of us ended up being embedded with Portal 2 just because it was a big game. But during that time, we had to kind of take breaks to do work for Left for Dead 1 and 2. Chet [Faliszek] was heavily involved and so were some of the other writers. There's always the ongoing [work]... someone has to write the blog posts, someone has to do the Team Fortress updates, and write the comics and everything else like that. We did a 160-page Left for Dead comic that was in there somewhere along the lines.

GR: What was the process for casting the new characters, Wheatley the Personality Sphere and Aperture Science founder and CEO Cave Johnson?

EW: One of the other writers, Jay Pinkerton, and I had been listening to the Stephen Merchant podcast a lot and we knew we wanted to get a British comic. We're both big British comedy fans. We weren't sure who we'd end up with. We had kind of a Stephen Merchant voice in our head, partly because Wheatley, we knew from the beginning was going to be this semi-flustered sort of guy. And it finally came time to cast it and we were like, we'll just have our guy contact his agent. We kind of thought - not that it was beneath Stephen Merchant - [that] because he was co-creator of The Office that he'd be filthy rich and there would be no particular reason for him to need this work. But we contacted his agent, we sent him a package describing the character, talking about Portal, and they came back and said “yeah, sure.”

GR: Same thing with J.K Simmons?

EW: Yeah, same thing with J.K. Simmons. Well, we didn't have J.K Simmons in our head [for Cave Johnson] initially. In fact at one point two and a half years ago, we had a casting shoot that got leaked where Cave was this sort of southern guy but for various reasons we sort of abandoned that. But it was a similar situation where we were at the point where we knew we had the lines written and we knew [Johnson] was going to be more of a mid-western sort of voice. We were like, “ah man, it'd be awesome if we got J.K. Simmons," and we just contacted his agent and he was like “great.” I think J.K Simmons knew somebody who was a game fan and I think [Simmons] actually said [his friend], “There's this game called Portal 2 that they were asking me about," and the dude was like, “oh my god, you got to do it.” So that helped us there. Community helped to get J.K. Simmons.

GR: What kind of DLC can we expect for Portal 2?

EW: I think we, fingers crossed, I hope we've been saying this, we do have DLC coming out but just haven't given any details. We're not ready to talk about it yet.

GR: Without giving anything away, can you tell us whether Stephen Wheatley or J.K. Simmons provided any voice work for the planned DLC?

EW: Well, there are some spoilers there. We knew we were making DLC, so we did record with an eye towards the DLC.

GR: Will Steam on the PS3 affect the pricing of DLC? In the past, Valve has provided some downloadable content for free via Steam on the PC.

EW: I actually don't know what the pricing plan is yet.

GR: Are we going see any hints about Half-Life 3 in Portal 2?

EW: That would be spoilerish.

GR: Well, I had to ask (laughter).

EW: If that even exists.

GR: (laughter).

EW: Just like Portal 1, it does take place in the Half-Life universe, so Portal had some kind of subtle, in-joke, sort of connection to the Half-Life universe, and there will be more of those in Portal 2 for sure.

GR: From the design standpoint of Portal 2, were you are thinking in your mind, "if we were going to make a Half-Life 3, how would Portal 2 tie into that main story line?"

EW: Yes, to a certain extent, you don't want to do something that is going to screw up Half-Life 3. So I can tell you that Chell is not going to blow up the Earth by the end of Portal 2. You want to leave something there. But having said that, we do the linkage and do some references but we kind of considered, at least Portal writers do, [that] if you think of it as the X-Files, Half-Life is the ongoing serious story with the characters of X-Files. Then X-Files would have these absurd one-off episodes. Portal is a self-contained thing and that's the Aperture Funhouse of Science, you know?

GR: Has Jonathan Coulton composed a new song for Portal 2?

EW: He's back. Wrote a song and it's done. Well, the game is done.

Q: Is there a plan for a Portal 3?

EW: We just finished Portal 2. Give me a two-week breather.

GR: The only reason I ask is because the current trend is to plan franchises in installments.

EW: Yeah, we haven't announced anything. It'd be crazy for me to sit here and say, “no we never contemplated it. We were working on this game and it never ever entered our minds.” You're always, especially as a writer, you're thinking about where can we go in case it does happen and we need to do it. We want to be at least mildly prepared in our own heads for it.

Wolpaw further elaborated that gamers can expect to see Portal's trademark humor during the co-op story and GlaDOS will be involved as well. He acknowledged that expectations are high for the sequel and felt that Portal 2 will definitely live up to them. From what we've seen of the game so far, we are certainly excited to make our return to the labs of Aperture Science.

Portal 2 releases on April 19, 2011, for the Mac, PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

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