The Story Behind That "Portal" Song, Its Place In Video Game History And Some Delicious Snacks [UPDATED]

(UPDATE: It was annouced that "Still Alive" will be made avalible as a playable song in "Rock Band")

Jonathan Coulton has written a song that is sung in a new video game. People are talking about it. People even want to download it.

That doesn’t happen very often.

Not to Jonathan Coulton video game songs -- of which only one exists.

Not to any songwriter's video game songs -- of which there really aren’t many.

I spoke to my fellow Brooklynite Coulton on the phone last week to find out more about "Still Alive," the song he wrote for the closing credits of the Valve-developed first-person-shooter puzzle game "Portal." The game has been the surprise hit of the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC combo pack called "The Orange Box."

Yes, "Portal" fans, you growing army. This post is about that song. (If you haven't played the game through yet, don't listen to it. It's full of spoilers.)

But before Coulton and I talked about his song and any future video game song work he might do, we tried to figure out his place in video-game-song history. You know, the video game history that has ... how many famous video game songs? I’m talking about songs with lyrics. Any?

We floundered.

Video games have had many famous jingles and lengthy instrumental tracks: The "Asteroids" beat. The "Super Mario Brothers" theme. The soaring score for many a "Final Fantasy" and the macho march of "Halo." But what about songs?

Coulton had two:

  • A tune from the 1998 PlayStation platform game "Skullmonkeys," which Coulton described as "a fantastic song that plays in a bonus room. It's about being in a bonus room. And it was just a guy singing and a guitar."
  • And, though he admitted it’s "kind of cheating," he threw in a song from "Parappa The Rapper": "I still remember most of the lyrics to ‘Kick! Punch! It's All In The Mind.’"
  • The only video game songs that I could recall were some "Metal Gear" and "James Bond" themes, the "Gears of War" M-rated end-credits rap (I tried to forget it) and the wonderful "Amped 3" end-credits animated song-and-dance routine that thanked players for playing the game (I have failed to find a clip of this anywhere).

    Joystiq’s Chris Grant, in helping me prep for the interview, was able to identify one other, a song for the 1987 game "Psycho Soldier," that is only better than Coulton’s song in a certain kind of way.

    So Jonathan Coulton, successful singers-songwriter that he is and Contributing Troubadour to Popular Science, did not have much competition when he set about writing a ditty that can now arguably claim the title greatest song of video game history (can we all agree it’s at least in the top five?).

    He got the gig in the manner he recently described on his blog a week ago. Fleshing things out for me, he explained that it was Valve’s Kim Swift who approached him in the middle of last year, after he finished a set somewhere in Seattle. Swift was part of team that had been hired by Valve because of her group student project called "Narbacular Drop." The student game would be re-made as "Portal." Swift suggested to Coulton that he could get involved with the new game.

    At the time Swift approached him, Coulton hadn’t been playing games much -- his days of enjoying "Halo" and Valve's "Half-Life" had been displaced by the additions into his life of a wife, a daughter and a Mac. (Not that he doesn't bump into games. More recently, fans of his who work at Harmonix let him into their studio so he could sample "Rock Band.") When Swift mentioned she worked for Valve, the "Half-Life" people, at the Seattle gig, Coulton was intrigued and ready to get his mind back on gaming. But with songs not being a huge part of games, it wasn't clear exactly how involved he could be, Valve project or not.

    Later in the year Valve invited Coulton to the company’s offices in Kirkland, Washington. "They flew me out there at Kim's urging," Coulton said. "During the visit they sat me down and I did a little play-testing on an unfinished version of ‘Portal’ and just loved it. We sat down with Eric Wolpaw, the writer…Eric said, ‘I always wanted to do a musical number in a game,’ and I said, ‘Oooh, that sounds juicy.’"

    Back in his New York studio, Coulton wrote "Still Alive." Without spoiling things, the song conveys the closing thoughts of a major character in "Portal," a character whose voice Coulton recognized as the subject of a lot of his non-game work: a "kind of monstrous, passive, aggressive misunderstood personality."

    The song was finished in late spring. On Friday, Walpow, the writer told me: "We had a choice between him and Ben Folds and we feel we made the right choice. Jonathan is an incredible talent and co-producing this track was one of the most enjoyable parts of creating 'The Orange Box.'"

    For months Coulton had wanted to tell his fans that he was writing a video game song. He wanted to tell his friends. But he couldn’t. He was sworn to secrecy about his work. "I'm sure that I told my wife," he said, "even though that's probably a violation of the non-disclosure agreement."

    His wife doesn’t care much about video games, but those who do, at Valve, reacted very well to the song. "When I had the finished version, I sent it to everybody there and they passed it around and listened to it. I got a lot of comments from people saying, ‘Yeah, this song is so catchy that I'm a little annoyed. I can't stop singing it.’ Which is always a good sign."

    So far the success of "Still Alive" can be measured only in indirect ways like word of mouth or the 149 comments on Coulton’s blog post about the song. Valve marketing director Doug Lombardi told me that the song will be released early this week on Valve's Steam download service as well as through the iTunes alternative TuneCore. It will also be included on "The Orange Box" soundtrack which Lombardi said will be sold on Steam "in the coming weeks."

    The song, which is sung by soprano Ellen McLain, also has some potential for live performance. Coulton told me ....


    ... he’d like to perform it for any audience that might be into games. "I would probably have to play it in a different key," he said, which would make sense to anyone who has heard it. "To me that's the power of the character, that she gradually reveals herself to be almost painfully human as the game goes on, which is why you become really emotionally involved in the story. If I were to perform it I wouldn't worry too much about it sounding like a computer because I wrote it to sound like a human."


    With "Still Alive" behind him, Coulton would like to do more video game songs. "Nothing specific has come up," he said, "although the people at Valve and I have definitely talked about the possibility of working on more stuff for them. It's easiest for me to imagine working on "Portal 2," if there is such a thing. We'll see."

    He can see a future when songs are more important in games. He can even see a day when there are video game musicals.

    For now, though, "Still Alive" will stand as a rare … one of a kind?

    Do "Psycho Soldier" and the "Gears" rap really count? Come on.

    Personnel File Addendum: Those who have played "Portal" might want to know if Coulton was ever offered any cake by people at Valve while working on the game. "No, I don't think I ever got any cake, but they promised it all along," he said. "I will say they have the greatest table of snacks in their kitchen that I have ever seen: baskets and baskets of granola bars, and candy and all kinds of gum and Tootsie Rolls and Nerds and Doritos in little bags. I'm a big snack fan and so when I was there -- even though this is also against the non-disclosure agreement -- I took a picture of the snack counter and sent it to my wife in triumph."