I remember when The Orange Box came out, and the world felt right. The sun was shining, the bees were buzzing around the flowers, and it just made perfect sense that Valve was releasing some of the best games of all time as essentially a value package. Among them all Portal was the true original, a game built around one perfect idea that absolutely squeezed every drop of juice it could from the concept: and made you laugh while doing it.
The announcement of Portal 2 was a welcome surprise, especially as this was happening at an almost unprecedented rate of knots for Valve, and incredibly "the game that didn't need a sequel" (the title of a GDC talk some of its developers later gave) got a sequel that lived up to and in some ways surpassed the original. It remains to this day the funniest co-op experience I've had on PC, and a singleplayer campaign so brilliant I'm now just thinking about when life gives you lemons and reinstalling it.
Then.. nothing. Well, not nothing: we got Aperture Desk Job. But there is and has been no sound about a Portal 3 and, 11 years on from Portal 2, any experienced Valve-watcher knows the rules: Valve don't do threes.
A new video from YouTuber DidYouKnowGaming (opens in new tab) interviews some of the key creatives behind the series and, while there's a lot across the videos to unpick, the standout is that Jay Pinkerton and Erik Wolpaw, largely responsible for the exceptional scripts, have a firm idea for the third: and not only that, it's been shopped-around internally a little.
"I don't know, it's almost like the numbering system works against us," said Wolpaw. "Because we made Half-Life 2, then sorta made a 3, but it was an episode, so maybe that was just the luck of the draw."
Naturally Wolpaw makes the point that this isn't deliberate, and that it happens because Valve staff "just keep getting sucked into other stuff. Someday hopefully there will be a 3 of something."
OK so what about Portal 3?
"Yeah Jay and I have an idea that we think is pretty awesome for what would happen, generally speaking," said Wolpaw. "We don't have a script or any details worked out, but we have sort of a starting point that we like a ton.
"So you know, it's good we have this idea but there's a lot left to do. Someone's gotta think up some new portal puzzles! But we do have an actual idea, yes."
Apparently the prospect of a third game, and the idea for it, has been brought up at Valve and received a positive response.
"But again, us having that idea versus actually committing to making a game is a way different thing," said Wolpaw. "It's not unknown, but there's no formal pitch process at Valve either. It's always kind of a, you know, grassroots campaign I guess."
Well, there's Erik Wolpaw basically saying "email Gabe Newell until he puts a team on this". To be clear: he is not saying that at all. That's me putting words in his mouth, like "players should start a campaign and I hear internet petitions are real successful at causing change". Wolpaw didn't say that either.
This latest video follows another which examined Portal 2's cut content, which is a great dive into Valve's iterative development process. One of the interesting things about the company, and this comes across very clearly when talking about Portal 2, is how seriously it takes playtesting and watching us normies try out their ideas: then ruthlessly cutting whatever isn't serving the game's ends.
In Portal 2's case, this results in a lot of stuff that sounds fantastic, and doubtless many will wish they could have seen this version of the game, but probably didn't work. GLaDOS, for example, was absolutely acerbic towards the player in earlier versions (to the extent even the voice actor was commenting on how harsh it was), but this didn't balance-out with how the game would use GLaDOS in the later stages as a companion: why would you want to carry around a potato that's just being a straight dick to you all the time?
Amusingly enough, one proposed solution (before they just made GLaDOS a bit nicer) was that at the start of each segment, a bird would fly in and peck off a bit of the potato, thereby reducing GLaDOS's power for that segment: and over time making her even smaller. The bird actually survives in the final game: you see it in at least one sequence with GLaDOS, where it panics her, and in a Wheatley scene where he gets in a fight with it.
Another lost idea which got recycled was that at some point you would come across Cave Johnson's consciousness in a companion cube, and eventually 'kill' him by using the cube to solve a puzzle. Presumably after being suitably berated. This was pretty much the setup of Aperture Desk Job. And a final nugget: there was a 'Morgan Freeman' core, a Wheatley-type companion, that was intended to reflect the wisdom and serenity of the actor's character in the Shawshank Redemption: but only within the small room in which it had spent its own existence. As soon as you took it a few metres away from its 'home', it lost the plot completely and couldn't handle it.
So, my fellow Portal fans, it is time to start huffing the copium big-time. Is Portal 3 coming? Not yet. Is there a firm idea for it and does Valve seem to have the enthusiasm for it? Maaaybe. The designers are at least right about one thing: Portal never needed a sequel. It needs two.