Last night, NYU’s Game Center played host for a talk with Erik Wolpaw. You undoubtedly know Erik’s work as one of the writers behind “Portal” and the recently released “Portal 2.” But he’s been writing awesome words for way longer than that. Years before entering the game development community, he created the much-revered site, Old Man Murray, which brought a refreshing and hilarious take on the world of video games.
Last night’s talk, however, was all about “Portal 2,” and Wolpaw opened up about several fascinating insights into the development of the game’s story and characters.
One element I’ve always been curious about was the lack of development of Chell as a character. Chell is the voiceless protagonist of the “Portal” games, and despite a few glimpses of her when crossing through portals, you never really learn much about her. As a character, Gordon Freeman of the “Half-Life” franchise is a smorgasbord compared to what we learn about Chell. During the Q&A portion of the evening, I asked Wolpaw about the decision not to develop Chell as anything more than a vessel for the player.
“[Chell] could be anyone. It could be you. There’s the silent protagonist, which I don’t know is specifically a Valve thing, but it’s a thing. It’s probably a little bit tougher in ’Half-Life,’ because it’s slightly more realistic and there’s conversations that are happening and you kind of have to write around why Gordon isn’t saying anything.”
Unlike “Half-Life,” “Portal” doesn’t really refer to the player specifically. The name Chell is never actually said aloud in either of the games. The story is never about her, it’s about GLaDOS, about Wheatley, about the insanity of Aperture Science. She’s practically a bystander, and this allows her to be utilized as a tool for the comedy in the game.
“There’s this thing with comedy…there’s sort of two different patterns. One is, you’re the straight man in a world gone mad, and the other one is you’re a crazy person in a straight world. ’Portal’ is definitely the world gone mad straight man, and the straight man is you. Because you have to write in the margins in a game, time is at a premium, so the fact that there’s already this established thing where you have a silent protagonist, that saves us a lot of time. You may want to know Chell’s backstory, you may want to hear her say things, but I guarentee, if she had to say her straight man lines at the expense of half of the other dialog, it would suck.”
Wolpaw went on to remind us that Valve isn’t married to the silent protagonist concept, saying that the “Left 4 Dead” characters “are all real chatterboxes.” But, he said, it made a lot more sense for “Portal.”
“I don’t think people are super invested in the character of Chell…obviously because we haven’t given her much character. But they’re invested in the relationship they have as the player. We always assumed she could talk, she just chooses not to, what with robots all being dicks, why give them the satisfaction?”
Speaking of robots being dicks, GlaDOS repeatedly calls Chell fat throughout the game, which Wolpaw admits came from a personal place.
“I was a fat kid my whole life and I had this passive aggressive grandmother who was always needling me about it. That’s kinda where that came from…my grandmother raised it to an art form.”