With Portal 2 finally gearing up for launch next week, we managed to secure a brief bit of one-on-one time with one of Valve’s most celebrated employees, Chet Faliszek. Listed as the co-writer of some stone-cold classics such as Half Life 2: Episode One, Half Life 2: Episode Two and now Portal 2 – as well as lead author of both Left 4 Dead games – Faliszek’s role at the house of Valve is difficult to determine. As it says on Valve’s official website: “We are still trying to figure out exactly what it is that Chet does at Valve, but at the very least he occupies office space on the 11th floor as a self-proclaimed Mr. Awesome…”
Zavvi: Apologies for kicking off with a question that you’re probably tired of answering, but how do you feel about Roger Ebert’s recent essay that concluded that videogames can never be art?
Chet Faliszek: I like reading Roger Ebert, I think he’s an interesting read. But I think that he may not necessarily be the guy who’s up on recent pop culture. The guy did write Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls so you can’t really hate him… but I don’t care. What Roger Ebert says about games, I could give a crap about. But that’s not to say that I don’t like Roger Ebert, it’s just that I don’t care. Who cares what he has to say? It’s not like it’s going to change what I do one iota…
With that in mind, do you consider yourself an artist?
Not really. That whole “art” discussion is the weirdest thing to me. Right? I mean who cares? Was there a point at which movies were like, “We’re art! Take us seriously!” and everyone else was like, “but you’re tying people to train tracks… that’s not art!” Who cares? I don’t think it’s the people making the games that care about that as much as people who want to philosophically talk about the games.
Do you play a lot of games yourself?
Yes, as much as I can. It goes through periods where we’re working a lot… and to come home and then sit there and play games would probably get me shot, but I was just playing Crysis 2.
How do you like it?
Which did you prefer?
It’s weird because they both hit a different tone for me that I like. But… the Bulletstorm guys, what was their other game?
I love that game. They did it again with Bulletstorm; just really fun moments of total craziness. And in Crysis 2, just going in and being more methodical… I always found myself going back to a map that I just completed, just to see if I could try and do something differently. So, you know, they’re both interesting in very different ways.
So do you tend to gravitate towards first-person shooters?
Yeah I play a lot of first-person shooters. That’s just what I like. I mean, I play a lot of games like GTA or Saints Row as well, and I loved… God I’m tired today so you’ll have to forgive me… the GTA horse game, how about that?
Yeah, that was super fun…
Do you have a favourite game of all time?
I’d hate to say… not of all time. I mean, just to not pick a Valve game would be nice, but honestly Left 4 Dead 2 is my favourite game of all time. But a non-Valve game? I think that GTA: San Andreas hit something perfect in me… I just really enjoyed so much of that game.
Playing through the first fifteen minutes of Portal 2 just now made me very interested in Valve’s writing process. Is the script always the starting point? Is it much more like a movie in that respect?
A lot of times for other games we’ll go off and write individually, but a lot of Portal 2 was about being in a writing room and writing together. We brought in some outside writers a couple of times as well, as you do tend to want to kick-start it with some new blood…
Did you stick to the script once it was completed?
Oh no. Multiple people come in on a weekly basis just to play-test, and we’ll make changes based on that as well. It’s not just the gameplay side; we’ll regularly change the writing to assist with pacing. There is a lot of material that ends up getting cut. And we probably write as much that gets cut, as gets in the game, so you end up not being precious about stuff. The first step is always: make someone in the room laugh while you’re writing it, and then you go from there.
So humour is even more important this time?
For a game like Portal 2 humour is really important. It sets the tone and lets you have fun in that world, instead of it being too drab and tiring…
How happy are you guys with the finished game?
Really happy. It drives us nuts that we can only demo the opening maps over and over, but we don’t want to give away what happens later in the game. Portal 2 is really dense with content, and there is just a ton of cool stuff in this game for you to experience. Music plays a part, with maps almost singing to you as you complete them… there is just so much cool stuff in there.
I got the feeling that there were a lot more literary and cinematic references in there than videogame ones…
Sure. Portal lets you sit back and listen a bit more than other games do because here you don’t constantly have bullets being shot at you, so with that we can have more fun… and bring in things that aren’t necessarily right in front of you. With Left 4 Dead we always had to talk about things that were actually in the world, because you’re moving so fast through that world that if you start going off on too many weird tangents, it’s very hard to keep that all in your head. Here, we can just run with it… and make fun of things like smooth jazz or classical music, or whatever.
So you’re stuck on an internal US business flight and you’ve got two hours to kill, do you watch a movie, read a book or play a game?
Sadly, I do multiple of those things at once. I’m normally watching a movie, and then I have my laptop and I’m playing a game that I don’t need sound for. Right now I’m playing Civilization 4: Beyond The Sword, and the Civ games have made me like travel a lot more.
With Portal 2, did you feel the need to make any concessions for people who may not have played the first game?
We condensed the training really quickly for you to try to help you get over that, while making sure that you are still entertained in a different way.
Are any direct references made to the first game?
Yeah and in fact, when Wheatly drops you off at the very beginning and you go down and get the Portal gun for the first time, you’ll actually see a visual representation of the whole of Portal 1, written by Rat Man on the walls. We also have a comic book coming out… it’s a two-parter that’s shown through Rat Man’s eyes, and you get to see what happens between Portal 1 and Portal 2.
As the story is such a strong element with Portal, how would you feel if some Hollywood big shot came to you with the idea of making a Portal movie?
We’re real hard-asses about the idea that… if anything like that is going to happen, that we would do it. You see a lot of bad movies made from games… I mean, you can make fun of Uwe Boll, but I think that he’s just purposely making bad movies, but there are other people that I think are actually trying to make good movies… that are still making bad movies. For us, growing Portal naturally through our own short films and comics is the way that we want to go.
Is Portal 2 a self-contained unit or do you think that there will be narrative-based DLC released for it?
There is DLC coming. When we’re working towards releasing the game we’ve got to put everything into the game, and it’s only now that it’s off to manufacturing that we really have that time to start working on the DLC. That’s what we’ve just started to do, so yeah, we’ll have more stuff coming out.
The recent rise of websites such as Metacritic has seen critics taken more seriously than ever before, particularly in the games industry. Does that bother you?
Oh we ignore critics entirely… but that’s a weird thing right? I mean, we always just concentrate on making the game, and I don’t know how you ever make a game for somebody else, but just the other day someone said to me, “What memes are you working on for this game?” And I said yeah, we have to make them small enough so that they can be tattooed on the back of a woman’s ankle, because that was a popular place for the Companion Cube. But honestly, who knows all that stuff? I have no idea. I’m just trying to make a good game, we make games that we like, and then we go from there….
Watch the Portal 2 trailer here: