Erik Wolpaw on Portal 2's ending: "the [spoiler] is probably lurking out there somewhere"
Relax. All done now. Potatoes collected, game digested, portals spent.
Time for more Portal 2! After finishing both of Portal 2's campaigns we sat down with writer Erik Wolpaw to discuss what was – and wasn't – featured in the return to Aperture, the game's ending, and a lady with an especially sexy voice. Needless to say, if you haven't played Portal 2 to the end, this is spoiler PACKED. So don't read any further until you've completed the thing.
PC Gamer: No more cake. Well, one reference. Were you sick of the memes?
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah we felt like it had kind of run its course and we didn't see any reason to – we knew, that particular thing, we were going to retire that and not push it at all. It wasn't even bait as far as I know, it was just that was one of the axiomatic design principles, you know – no more cake. Even though one might have slid in there it was with a light enough touch that it's hopefully done in good taste.
PC Gamer: Has Cave Johnson got a bit of Andrew Ryan in him?
Erik Wolpaw: I've heard that. Well 'the industrialist' is a fairly standard character – this is a bad admission, but I haven't played all the way through Bioshock. But from my knowledge of Andrew Ryan I don't think he's especially funny, which hopefully Cave Johnson is occasionally. We also like the idea of, Andrew Ryan aside, this guy who is kind of on top of the world and then takes this fairly precipitous fall and realises at the last moment that maybe his focus has been on some of the wrong things. For all I know that actually is Andrew Ryan – does that happen at the end of Bioshock? Anyway – I can say for sure, without hesitating, that they all come from a common genesis point though I don't know what that is, maybe whatisname from Citizen Kane. Kane?
PC Gamer: Did you use the same voice actor for Caroline and GlaDOS? Because Caroline has a very sexy voice.
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah that's Ellen McLain. I don't know the actual science that would turn Caroline into GlaDOS, but I assume it has something to do with DNA and genetics so it obviously makes sense. GlaDOS has this actorly affectation, she kind of speaks in this particular way, and then we give it these effects so it changes it from her natural voice. I'm sure she'll be happy to know that you describe her voice as sexy!
It's interesting you find that sexy. It is a sexy voice. She also does the voice of the announcer in TF2 and I always found that hot, kind of a sexy voice to me. You know she sounds kinda like a chain-smoking harpy but there's something kind of... I don't know... anyway, great actress!
PC Gamer:The script was great – was everything we heard scripted?
Erik Wolpaw: A lot of it is scripted. Probably the character who goes furthest afield is Wheatley, Stephen Merchant, a writer in his own respect and also a good ad-libber. So we'd write a bunch of lines, and sometimes he would spin off and do variations on it that he would just riff on something for a few extra minutes. But he also has the ability to take a line we've written and read it in a way that sounds very natural and ad-libbed, which was one of the things we really liked about him – we knew he was quick on his feet, we'd been listening to a lot of podcasts with him when we were initially writing Wheatley.
There's this thing. Video game characters tend not to feel very naturalistic when they speak and we wanted to attempt something that sounded more off-the-cuff, like someone is ad-libbing these lines as it goes. I think we pulled it off reasonably well, and Stephen Merchant did a great job of making that happen with Wheatley.
PC Gamer:Our favourite line is “Machiavellian!”
Erik Wolpaw: Machiavellian! Misunderstanding Machiavelli. He'd read it, but didn't quite grasp... or maybe he didn't read it. It's hard to say. There's a running undercurrent that neither he nor GlaDOS can actually read. We didn't really push it that much but it's kinda funny.
PC Gamer: And quite apart from the hot voicework, the co-op bots managed silent comedy very well in their gestures and animations – how did you go about creating those characters?
Erik Wolpaw: In terms of the nuts and bolts, I mean the general idea was that we knew early on we didn't want them to talk,because it would just add a bunch of noise to what is effectively a game about communication between two players that you're going to be talking a lot. We didn't want them competing with the player. So they would make their little robot noises.
And thinking back to the original design a lot of it is watching the other player do things or failing to and that is funny. It's physical comedy. So they were kind of designed with the idea of the classic comedy duo, you know the short fat guy and the tall thin guy. In terms of the moment-to-moment animation I don't really have any great insights to offer there, apart from the animators did an amazing job on it!
PC Gamer: It seemed a fairly happy ending for Chell, if you didn't think about what was out there.
Erik Wolpaw: Depending on how... yes, generally speaking. There's always that debate about 'ooh we could pull the rug out from under you at the last minute' which I guess we sorta did in Portal 1. I always feel that's a little bit cheap, I feel you the player as Chell have earned a moment of grace, right?
We did three endings, it's a long series of endings. We wanted to show you GlaDOS, show you Chell and then show you Wheatley – GlaDOS learns a lesson and promptly deletes it so she can set herself back to zero. You learn whatever you learn and you're out and it doesn't look so bad – but we know the Combine's probably lurking out there somewhere. And you get the Companion Cube back – that could be good or bad, it's not really clear. In my mind GlaDOS has given you the Companion Cube like “take your shit and go”, or the Companion Cube has been on its own adventure this whole time and just manages to escape at exactly the same moment you do, in which case it's probably pissed.
And Wheatley actually is contrite. He potentially has learned an actual lesson – he's up in space and relatively sad. I thought Stephen Merchant did a nice job of seeming actually apologetic. One of our dreams is to have a boss monster say sorry – because you kill boss monsters all the time, and they scream and they're dead. Never really had a boss monster offer me a sincere apology for all the trouble that he's caused me. I mean, he was a big pain in the ass for a large segment of the game!
PC Gamer: He didn't sound sincere to us.
Erik Wolpaw: He's sincere, he's sorry! He's floating in friggin space for christ's sake! And he even makes a point to say 'and not just because I'm floating in space!' [pause] He may not be sincere. If we ever need to bring him back for any particular reason, all his traits are there. Personally I think he's sincere – there's authorial intent versus people's interpretation of it. I think he genuinely does feel sorry for all the trouble he caused. Actually the only person who gets the unequivocal happy ending is the space sphere, who is now out in space and genuinely pleased about it – he loves it. No asterisk, no strings attached there, a happy ending.
PC Gamer: And is the Combine out there?
Erik Wolpaw: The only qualification is something we're just kind of saddled with – you know that the world to some extent has gone to shit, right? It's not a happy world she's exiting into. Although having said that we don't know how much time has passed – maybe the Combine have been beaten back and the world is nice. If nothing else we want to give her as happy ending as we can, entering into the Half-Life universe. It's a fairly bucolic scene, it's very nice. She gets serenaded on the way out, that's always pleasant. She does get a happy ending, there's no point in being negative about it, I just can't let go of the fact that we know where she gets that happy ending, and there could be some danger out there. I'm an adult, terrible shit happens to me all the time. I want happy endings for everyone, the kind I'm not gonna get in real life – I mean, we're all gonna die, let's face it.