Josh Weier, Portal 2 Project Lead, Discusses Difficulty and Musical Integration

Portal 2 is the kind of sequel that would generally have problems thanks to the surprise success of the first entry into the series. Not only do they have near-impossible expectations set by their fans, but they have the task of taking a game that was, more or less, a side game to the fantastic Orange Box, and transitioning that into a fully featured title. Luckily, Portal 2 is a Valve product, meaning it is backed by a team that fully understands what it means to live up to impossible expectations.

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Josh Weier, Project Lead for Portal 2, claims the team knew they had a solid game with the original Portal from day one, but weren’t quite sure they had a hit. This resulted in the game being bundled with the Orange Box. “It’s kind of a weird thing because the DigiPen students that we had hired […] had made [the original Portal] and we were fans of it internally because it was a very small team that made it, so a lot of us kind of played it just as it was getting ready to release as well,” Weier said. “We really loved it, but it was just one of those things that it was just such a fresh and interesting game that we thought it would do really well but we weren’t really sure, so we wanted to sort of put it out there on a smaller forum, just to see and test the waters. Of course, it did pretty well, so here we are today!”

The original Portal was, in fact, an instant hit. The game has been lauded as one of the most intellectually challenging titles that appeals to a mainstream audience, but Weier is careful to point out that Portal 2 is not all about making everything tougher just for the sake of it. “Right off the bat, we didn’t want to make Portal 2 the game that was just harder,” Weier said. “We knew this wasn’t going to be what we wanted and we have ways, when you’re playing the game, that we can kind of see where people stopped. We looked at who had played the first Portal and where they had stopped and we found a lot of things out. […] Our process really is about play testing. We’ll come up with an idea; we’ll put on a whiteboard what we think is a good puzzle idea, we’ll build it, and then we’ll just throw people against it and see how they do. We just keep tweaking and revising it. After a while, there’s going to be like 50 or 60 people who go through these puzzles by the time we publish them and that just gives us a ton of confidence. We haven’t tricked anybody, we haven’t hidden anything we didn’t need to hide, but also that we didn’t make it too easy. That’s the other way to go, right? It’s easy to make a puzzle not hard, but it’s hard not to make it too easy as well. That’s really the kind of balance we had to drive. Really, that’s just getting people to play it, evaluating and watching them and then just making tweaks.”

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Through that very intense testing approach, the team at Valve is able to ensure that they have the right difficulty balance. “[Portal 2] can be more complex at times because there are more mechanics, but I think one of the things that was most important about the first Portal was that it made you feel smart often,” Weier said. “That’s what we wanted to give players. We didn’t want people to be frustrated. If they’re going off and checking online for how to solve something or going on YouTube or whatever, we kind of consider that a failure. We don’t want people to have to resort to that. We want them to be a little frustrated, but when they get past that point and they actually succeed, it feels all the better. That’s really a fine line.”

One thing that is sure to drive fans absolutely crazy is the new co-op mode, which is completely separate from the single player campaign. The new co-op puzzle designs look to bring a new angle to the concept of Portal. “[Co-op puzzle ideas] kind of came from a lot of different sources,” said Weier. “Some things, we were just ready to do right off the bat, other things we sat down and said ‘what are the things we want the player to do that’s hard right now?'”

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With a new cooperative mode comes a new online mode that allows players to work together with friends across the world. With any game that can be so based on timing, online lag is always a concern. Weier insists that testing has gone really well so far and lag shouldn’t be a problem. “[Portal 2] is based on the Source engine, which came from Half-Life, Counterstrike, Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead; all those things have just made the engine really great for online play, so we feel really strongly that it’s going to play really well for everybody,” said Weier. “There’s a lot going on in Portal, but compared to Left 4 Dead, with tons of zombies running around, it’s not quite as frenetic as that, so it kind of works out for it.”

The Portal 2 team also recently announced that there would be a bridge between Portal 1 and Portal 2, which happens several years down the road in the storyline. Not much is known about the bridge at this time, and Weier wasn’t about to spill the beans. “We’re going to do a little bit more with [the bridge between Portal and Portal 2] between now and when we launch,” said Weier. “We kind of want to fill that in a little bit in an interesting way, but we’re not quite ready to talk about it yet.”

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Weier was incredibly excited to discuss the part that music plays in Portal 2. “We just announced something pretty cool,” said Weier. “We worked with [the National] to put a song into Portal 2. We’re not quite talking about how we’re doing it yet. We’re being very mysterious today, but it was another cool way to introduce music into the game. Jonathan Coulton is still doing the end song, which is another excellent thing we can embed in there. Today we showed off some other cool stuff we’ve been doing. Cave Johnson was announced as being voiced by J.K. Simmons, and we showed a little bit in [the PAX East demo] some of the interactive movies we have in there. […] We wanted to make music a big part of the game, like it was for the first game, but we wanted to do it in a surprising way. One of the things we did, if you watched [the PAX East demo] was that as you bounce on the Repulsion Gel, the music actually changes and kind of dynamically moves with the player. That was a really intentional choice we made. We can track your velocity, we can track when you bounce, and, additionally, where you are. So if you move, the music is changing and shifting based on what you’re doing in a dynamic way, so you can almost play it like an instrument. I think that’s going to be this cool thing that players find.”

One huge rumor going around right now is that Portal 2 is going to have some type of connection with the much-desired, yet unannounced Half Life: Episode Three. Unfortunately, Weier was unable to comment, but he did have this to say: “I can’t talk about that, it’s too spoiler-ish.” Take from that what you will. Portal 2 will be released on April 18th and is easily one of our most anticipated titles of the year!

Want more Portal 2 action from PAX East? Check back later this week for more PAX coverage on Portal 2!

About Brian Shea

Brian Shea is VGW's Editor-in-Chief and one of the founding members of the site. In addition to leading the team at VideoGameWriters.com, he contributes such regular features as “Shea’s Say,” "Eleven Things," "Commercials from the Past" and “Essential Gaming."
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  1. I’m excited about the dynamic music details. Games that contain music that fits the themes always pull me in more than others. I especially like sound design that puts in those nuanced details that engross me further.

    SSX Tricky is a good example of this. I think that’s the earliest title that implemented that sort of dynamic music/sound design — to my recollection, I may be wrong. However, I was really impressed by how the music responded to my actions.


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