Writing Valve's silent protagonists

GDC Online 2011: Erik Wolpaw, Marc Laidlaw, and Ted Kosmatka explain the rules behind writing for Half-Life's Gordon Freeman and Portal's Chell, set the record straight on Portal 2's rumored rape scene.


The Orange Box
Portal 2

At Valve's 2011 Game Developers Conference Online writers roundtable session today, studio scribes Erik Wolpaw, Marc Laidlaw, and Ted Kosmatka spent an hour answering audience questions covering everything from Half-Life to the upcoming DoTA 2. One of the topics touched on repeatedly was the notion of Valve as experts of the silent protagonist, thanks to their work with Gordon Freeman in Half-Life and Chell in the Portal franchise.

ATLAS and P-body weren't the biggest of talkers themselves.
ATLAS and P-body weren't the biggest of talkers themselves.

Despite that perception, Wolpaw said the writers don't always know exactly what they're doing when writing for their mute mascots. Specifically, he pointed to a segment in Portal 2 where the player is exploring an abandoned Aperture Science facility with the aid of the antagonistic artificial intelligence GLaDOS.

"We had envisioned it as this buddy-cop thing, where you'd be together and you'd be bickering and it would be awesome. It honest to God did not occur to us that the buddy-cop thing doesn't work if one of you is quiet. It's funny now...everybody's laughing, but it was a true moment of incredible panic for us when we realized we'd painted ourselves into a corner. And that's when we decided we need to give her some external thing to deal with. She has a relationship with Cave...realizes she was another person. And then there's the bird and other stuff. We run into that a lot with the silent protagonist, even at this point."

When later asked about things that were left on the cutting-room floor, Wolpaw seized the opportunity to quash a rumor that had been circulating about snippets of unused dialogue left in the game.

"J.K. Simmons will do anything if you pay him."--Erik Wolpaw.

"There's some piece of dialogue in there where Carolyn is saying 'No, no, no, I don't want this. I don't want this,'" Wolpaw said. "And there's some kind of story on the Internet that apparently people think has been verified that there was a scene where Cave Johnson was raping Carolyn, and that J.K. Simmons wouldn't read the dialogue, so that's why we don't have it [in the game]. Apparently, these are people who never saw [prison drama] Oz. J.K. Simmons will do anything if you pay him. But that is absolutely not true. It's like they played the rest of the game and thought we wrote a rape scene in there and had that in there for a while and thought, 'Well, maybe we'll ship that.' It's insane."

For more on what did ship, check out GameSpot's review of Portal 2.

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