InterviewSpecial Topics In Gameology

Erik Wolpaw, Portal 2 head writer

Funny People: Erik Wolpaw, Portal 2 head writer

The Valve veteran and former game critic talks about stepping away from the cake and writing a comedy sequel without the element of surprise on your side.

By Anthony John Agnello • July 10, 2012

Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For this edition of the feature—Funny People—Anthony John Agnello interviews a few icons of video game comedy. The series debuted with Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe, followed by You Don’t Know Jack head writer Steve Heinrich. This week: Portal 2 writer Erik Wolpaw.

Video games are often iterative beasts, evolving through multiple sequels. A game comes out, the players react, and developers go back to make things better with Game No. 2 (and sometimes No. 3, and so on). That process isn’t an ideal environment for comedy, though. A joke doesn’t work as well the second time around, even if it’s been polished since the first telling. It needs to take its audience unawares to work, and it needs precise timing. It takes craftsmanship to make a game that’s funny, but a miracle to make a sequel that’s just as good.

Portal 2 achieved that miracle. Last year, Valve’s sequel to the hugely popular Portal returned players to the subterranean depths of Aperture Science, where a series of “tests” present increasingly complex spatial puzzles. Amid these sci-fi trappings, there’s a core of humane comedy, embodied in the first game by the sociopathic supercomputer GLaDOS (voiced by Ellen McLain). Portal 2 added the idiotic bot Wheatley (Stephen Merchant) and visionary Aperture founder Cave Johnson (J.K. Simmons) to the cast. The Gameological Society talked with Portal 2 head writer Erik Wolpaw about starting with a clean slate for the sequel, steering clear of memes, and his work in the early 2000s at the satirical game-criticism site, Old Man Murray. (Note: This interview discusses the ending of Portal 2.)

The Gameological Society: Walk me through the process of writing Portal 2. What was the very first step in writing the game?

Erik Wolpaw: First step was deciding what characters were going to even be in it. We thought originally: If Portal is a franchise, what is it? Can you do portals forever? We had this other puzzle mechanic called “F-Stop.” We thought that maybe the thing that ties Portal together as a series is that they would all be puzzle games, somehow involved with Aperture Science. So what’s the story there? Let’s not bring back GLaDOS, let’s not bring back Chell! It was going to be set in the ’50s, and you were going to be using this F-Stop mechanic in Aperture before GLaDOS had taken over, and Cave Johnson would be there. It seems obvious in retrospect that making a game called Portal without any portals is insane. And it quickly became apparent that people wanted GLaDOS back.

Gameological: Would Portal be Portal if it weren’t funny? How does humor define Portal?

Wolpaw: That was a given straight from the beginning. Portal 2 would be comedic. That was an axiomatic concept when we started designing. I never want to say “never,” but I can’t imagine sitting down to write a Portal game thinking it’s going to be re-imagined as a serious military shooter or something.

Portal 2

Gameological: What’s the first challenge in writing jokes that require your audience to participate rather than just react?

Wolpaw: You have an idea, but then you have to make sure that you sit with the animators and the level designers and work it out so that the idea works environmentally. We tend to over-record and over-write just in case something just isn’t going to work out once we actually try to wire it up. We’ll have five ideas, and two or three of them end up actually working in practice. There’s stuff that we record, that we think is gold, and it turns out to actually be pretty funny, but then the level gets cut, or it runs too long. Then there’s stuff that plain doesn’t seem funny to us after we record it. Have you played through the game?

Gameological: Yes.

Wolpaw: GLaDOS’ final speech where she deletes Carolyn used to be much longer. Three times longer. We thought it was interesting and funny when we wrote it. It was our last session with actress Ellen Mclain, and when the energy is that low, you know it’s because the writing isn’t good. We started rewriting the speech on the fly. Jay Pinkerton, our co-writer, was directing some of the other lines and I was madly trying to do rewrites. Jay and I were driving home later saying, “This is the final speech of the game and we still don’t like it!” Finally it occurred to us to just use the speech that’s in the final version. Whether or not you like it, believe me, it’s way better than what we originally had. We had to quickly get on the phone and book a session the next day with Ellen just to get it in the game.

Gameological: It worked out for the best. I can’t imagine GLaDOS’ little soliloquy about killing off this human part of her personality being any longer than it actually is.

Wolpaw: Yeah. We didn’t want to trap you in that elevator staring at her for too long, especially because it’s the end of the game and you’re like, “Let’s go, let’s go! We need to get through this!” Also, it was just overwritten. We cut it down to the core. There were a couple of nice beats in it but they just didn’t work. Sometimes you just get that sinking feeling.

Gameological: How do you set up physical gags without making the player feel like they’re just jumping through hoops? There’s that great little joke at the beginning of Portal 2, when Wheatley asks you to speak and the game’s just telling you what the jump button is. How do you keep things like that from weighing down the player?

At no point were we ever thinking, “Aw, we need to make Chell talk!”

Wolpaw: If you’re somebody who plays games a lot, that’s a joke that works good in the fiction but it also works as a meta-joke. Those ones are pretty successful, I think. Then there are physical comedy bits in the game that you’ve seen in television and movies a bunch of times, but that you haven’t seen in games very often. A good one: When Wheatley is saying, “Catch me, catch me, catch me!” when he’s jumping off the rail. That wouldn’t work in a movie now, but being a part of that sort of classic comedy scene, being an active participant in it, rehabilitates it a little bit.

Gameological: What does having a silent protagonist offer you in the writing process?

Wolpaw: This is reductive, but there are two types of comedy. One kind is where there’s a straight man in a world gone mad and the other kind is where there’s a crazy person stuck in a normal world. We’re definitely in the “straight man in the world gone mad” category. You’re the straight man. You-slash-Chell are the straight man. Straight man in a movie tends to get the straight-man lines. It would be strange to have a silent character on film. For better or worse, though, games have a history of having a silent protagonist. We get to make you the straight man, but we also get to cut out all those straight lines.

Having people stand around while you talk is tough in games, so if we can actually remove one whole character’s dialogue, that saves us a bunch of time for all the other characters. At no point were we ever thinking that, “Aw, we need to make Chell talk! This game is lacking in personality!” She probably can talk, though. In our minds, she can talk. She’s just pissed off the whole time and is refusing to dignify any of the things going by speaking about them.

Gameological: The classic Valve stoicism.

Wolpaw: Classic single-player characters, at least. We’re not against letting them speak. The Left 4 Dead characters are all little chatterboxes. After setting the precedent for the Portal series, we felt that it would have been odd to have Chell talk. Once she’s talking, you feel the need to have her comment on everything that’s going on.

Gameological: Why do you meet a friendly face at the beginning of Portal 2?

Wolpaw: We wanted it to feel like a whole new experience, and we also wanted people to be able to play 2 without having played 1, so Wheatley acts as a guide for newcomers while he also creates this abbreviated training arc enjoyable for returning players. With Portal 1, we had this trick that we were able to pull, a trick you get to pull once and never again: We didn’t advertise that it had a story. No one knew what was going on. We were able to start with this very spartan environment with these weird announcements that were kind of funny. That mystery is eventually broken about two-thirds of the way through when you realize that there is a story going on, but that cat’s out of the bag.

Gameological: Portal 2 is a lot more sentimental than its predecessor. There was certainly sentiment in the original, but it was cut with a bitter, sarcastic edge. This time out, there’s a lot of depth to the characters you meet. You feel for them, you even empathize with GLaDOS.

Wolpaw: If we could have just done the exact same thing, believe me, we would have done it. It would have been a lot less work. GLaDOS was basically two notes in Portal 1. We couldn’t hit those same notes, but we also had this longer puzzle experience, so since you’re going to be spending so much more time with these characters, we had the time to make them a little bit more interesting.

Gameological: Way back in your Old Man Murray days, you did an interview in 2001 and you said: “Good game plus crappy writing is probably still going to equal good game.” Is that still true?

Comedy gives you something little to digest in chunks. You get these micro-payoffs.

Wolpaw: Yes. I’m not saying good game plus good writing doesn’t equal better game, but if I’m—I don’t want to give any examples now that I’m in the industry. That would be bad form, even though I’m saying it’s a good game. There are good games out there that, when I play them, I’m skipping the cutscenes, and I could care less what’s going on, but I’m having a blast. There just isn’t an analogue in movies for me. Maybe when I was 15. If there was enough stuff on screen blowing up, then that was enough for me to get through, but now I can’t watch a movie if the acting, story, and writing are bad. If it’s a fun game, though, I can look past anything.

Gameological: As the writer, you want people to care about the story, but there are a lot of people who, like you were just saying, sit down to play, and they can’t get past those story sequences fast enough. They just want to play. What’s the secret to getting them invested in your story?

Wolpaw: Giving them something moment to moment. Comedy helps. Comedy gives you something little to digest in chunks, and if you’re doing it right, you get these micro-payoffs. There’s something funny happening. Then on the macro level, those little jokes are building towards some bigger joke or story point. You bring them along by making every piece of dialogue a reward in and of itself.

Portal 2

Gameological: Incidental dialogue in games, the sort of circumstantial lines busted out intermittently by characters like Portal’s turrets, can get annoying fast. How do you go about writing lines that players are likely going to have to hear again and again and again?

Wolpaw: You try to keep them short and you try to keep them—“not clever” is a good phrase. If there’s too much cleverness, if the line is too complicated a thought, you don’t want to hear it more than once. The defective turrets in Portal 2 only have a little repeated dialogue, and you have to wait a while to hear any of it. The regular turrets, though, only need to say one or two things. Short and not super-duper clever is our recipe for anything you have to hear a lot.

Gameological: When you were writing about games rather than writing games 10 years back, there was still a great deal of space between creators and their audience. That vacuum has pretty much disappeared. Now there’s no way to tune out the audience. How does audience expectation affect your writing process?

Wolpaw: Going into Portal 2, you know the audience is expecting something surprising. You know going in that you’ve lost something. You can’t recreate the surprise of the original. You know that people are burnt out on the memes—the cake. You decide that you’re not going to pander to that which would just be sad and make people angry. I don’t know if we would have talked about cake anyway, but seeing that people, for better or worse, made that their own we figured we wouldn’t go back to that. They own that now.

Gameological: Comedy sequels especially are difficult. Jokes aren’t funny the second time around. How did you avoid Wayne’s World 2 syndrome?

Wolpaw: By having everyone be passionate about the game. Comedy sequels tend to be cash-ins. They aren’t passion projects like the first ones are. Portal 2 was. You had nine people working on 1, then it comes out, and it’s this huge thing. You have this huge talent pool in the rest of Valve, and suddenly everyone’s saying, wow, I really want to work on the next Portal. That brought a ton of energy to it.

Gameological: Why aren’t most video games funny?

Wolpaw: Comedy writing is hard. Especially if you’re just a single person. Luckily, we had three people on Portal 2. If you look at any kind of comedy show like The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live, they don’t have one writer, they have 30 writers. Comedy from moment to moment is about surprise. If games have any writer, they tend to just have one.

When comedy fails, it fails hard. Bad comedy becomes nothing.

Comedy is also tough from a timing standpoint. A lot of games are made with the writer writing the script then handing it off to somebody who hooks it into the game without the writer being involved. For comedy, that’s death. We do the writing, recording, and hooking up ourselves. We’re all in there huddled around a screen, hooking everything up throughout the process, shaving off a quarter of a second here, half a second there, trying to make sure everything is timed exactly right.

The last thing is that comedy is a bigger gamble. Drama either fails at a base level, passing you by without you noticing, or it fails to the point where it becomes comedy. When comedy fails, it fails hard. It’s unwatchable. It’s unlistenable. Bad comedy becomes nothing.

Gameological: What’s the dream project? If time and money and technology were no object, what would you make?

Wolpaw: Whatever it is, it would make someone bankrupt. It would make no money. It would appeal to me and maybe 100 people.

Illustration by Richard Hofmeier.

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  • Kilzor

    I wish this had been an article just about (SPOILLLLLLER) Nolan North’s fantastic monologue as the Adventure Core at the end of the game.  As much as I love Stephen Merchant, that take-off on Uncharted was just fine as a price of admission for my gameplay.  In conclusion: space.

    • George_Liquor

      Spaaaaaaaace!

  • rvb1023

    One of the few things that put me off of Portal 2 initially was how all the characters took turns being funny.  Glados wasn’t funny until Wheatley stopped being funny and while Glados was having the “Carolyn” epiphany Cave Johnson (Easily the best thing in this game) comes in to save the day.  It was at that point I realized I wasn’t playing for the puzzles anymore, I was playing to get to the next linear walking area where one of the characters would talk.  I think that speaks volumes on how well this game was written.

    Great interview, always like hearing about the writing process for video games as it always seems like a tricky thing to do.

    • George_Liquor

      *Spoilers, etc*

      I don’t follow you. GlaDOS’ attitude obviously changes once she’s stuck inside a potato, but she never really stops spouting the one-liners. Likewise, Wheatley goes from plain incompetent to incompetent and evil, but he never loses his charming, rambling idiocy. 

      • rvb1023

         Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t laugh once at Glados until she was a potato, Wheatley carried that first third of the game.  Evil Wheatley had about one good moment before he started acting like a junkie.  At the ending the humor comes back in all fronts but it only lasts for the final hour or so.

        • HobbesMkii

          I may have said this before, but the other difficult thing about comedy (besides writing it) is that it’s incredibly subjective.

        • George_Liquor

           Aww c’mon. The final battle with Evil Wheatley alone is worth the price of admission. He’s as much defeated by his own stupidity as any action you take.

          “I’m still in control, and I have no bloody idea how to fix this place!”

        • Electric Dragon

          Valve have to pull off a tricky balancing act with GLaDOS as a character – she has to be funny, but at the same time there has to be a genuinely menacing edge to her.

        • rvb1023

          @HobbesMkii:disqus Obviously plenty of people liked it fine enough, so it definitely sounds like a personal problem.

          @George_Liquor:disqus At the very least I did admit the ending was funny throughout.

          @google-6108c5611fbc5b86af5df565c4b4b048:disqus Which again stands as a testament to how well written this game is that it worked despite my initial misgivings.

      • Monkeylint

        I actually sat for 10 minutes listening to the defective turrets on the assembly line.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ramon-Mujica/650405180 Ramon Mujica

       Well, I for one liked the puzzles. Specially the ones involving the white paint.

  • caspiancomic

    I wonder how many hours of dialogue they had Stephen Merchant lay down in that recording booth? I know that loads of stuff made it in- I doubt any one player has heard every recorded line to this day- but considering how much must get cut for whatever reason, and how much of it was just Merchant riffing, they must have had days of material sitting in a big digital pile.

    Also fun to note in Portal 2: getting comedy out of the mechanics of gaming, not just the funny things the characters say. The moment I’m thinking of specifically is the part where he kills you. Having the line echoed- twice- and having the chapter title come up was all well and good, but when the Achievement/Trophy announcement came up, that pushed it into genius territory. People talk a lot about conveying story using your gameplay mechanics, but using the built-in components of the game or console to deliver a joke was an inspired touch.

    (Also, Merchant is now and always has been funnier than Ricky Gervais. I said it!)

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      The beginning of “The Part Where He Kills You” always cracks me up too. Using the game’s mechanics as tools for humour is something that more games should do; maybe writers and gameplay designers should be working closer together on some projects.

      (Also, Ricky Gervais was never funny. *dodges e-tomatoes*)

      • caspiancomic

         The only drag about it really is that it’s sort of a one-off joke. Short of deleting the game’s junk off your profile and starting the game over totally from scratch, there’s no way to get the achievement a second time. But I guess it’s a small price to pay: how many jokes are really as funny the second time around?

        (Also, I liked The Office and Extras, and I think he’s a really talented guy, but his ego is getting in the way of his most recent projects, which is a problem Stephen doesn’t seem to have. Also also, Ricky is a terrible painter.)

        • Tarranon Sel

          also, a mediocre lover 

      • Captain_Internet

        Merchant and Gervais have both featured in two of the best-selling and highest rated computer games ever produced and I’ve never seen either of them talk about it in public.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           Hey, neat, I had no idea Gervais was in GTA IV. That’s kind of cool!

        • Enkidum

          @bakana42:disqus His standup in GTA IV is pretty goddam funny, unlike Katt Williams, who’s mediocre at best.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        Eh, he starred in arguably the greatest (and most influential) television comedy of the last decade, and was an extremely integral part of the writing and conception of that show.

        He’s annoying and arrogant as hell, and I certainly find Merchant funnier on the podcasts and in stand-up and so on, but it seems a bit disingenuous to assert that he was never funny.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          I should amend that then: I’ve never been a fan. He’s been funny to many other people, but never to me.

        • Effigy_Power

           I’d argue that “Extras” is far funnier and far smarter than the Office, but then again I am also just one little person in this world of ours.
          “The Invention of Lying” started amazingly funny and then tapered off like a long turd, that’s what kind of killed his humor for me.

        • caspiancomic

           @Effigy_Power:disqus I think The Invention of Lying is the most disgusting waste of an amazing premise I’ve ever seen.

        • HobbesMkii

           He’s kinda like Britain’s Dane Cook, I think. He had a decent gag that was good when it was novel, but then he just kept at it, long past the point people were prepared to stomach it. So it’s retroactively tarnished his “funniness.”

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          @Effigy_Power:disqus : “Extras” is fantastic, and benefits from more Merchant on-camera. I haven’t watched it in a while, but I could definitely imagine someone (possibly even me upon revisiting it) judging it more smart, funny, and/or affecting than The Office.

          At the time, The Office was so different and so awesome, and so blew my mind that I hold it in hyperbolically high esteem (and that “At the time” factor is also why I’d cite it as the most influential comedy and progenitor of a decade of single-camera/mock-doc shows), but I also really enjoyed Extras.

          @Merve2:disqus : Have you watched the British Office, or are you working mostly from his solo stand-up work and stuff? Obviously you’re entitled to not enjoy The Office or Extras, but if you haven’t you may enjoy them in spite of Gervais’s participation.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @bakana42:disqus: I haven’t watched the British version of The Office. I’m not confident that I’d like it unless its sensibility is radically different from the American version. I’ve never been a fan of the American one, even in its earlier seasons.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           @Merve2:disqus : This is obviously just subjective, but to me the U.S. Office, even in its heyday, was a “pretty good show,” whereas the British Office is “one of my favorite shows ever, period.” I would say that despite a superficial similarity, there’s definitely a difference of degree and type of humor. The British one is a lot more uncomfortable and sad in its humor, and Gervais’s character is much less charismatic than Carell’s (which is why its such a feat when the show makes you sympathize with him).

          You might still hate it, though, especially if you don’t like how cringe humor makes your skin crawl.

      • http://www.avclub.com/ B.K.

        Another gameplay joke that made me laugh out loud was Wheatley’s First Test Chamber. “TEST” written on the wall and a very simple cube drop onto a button.

        This interview made me want to re-play the game and appreciate everything I missed while straining my eyes for white patches in the distance.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar

       I also enjoy evil Wheatley’s first “test.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/ville.hakkinen Ville Häkkinen

    The “Press Space to speak” gag was the funniest thing I have ever encountered in a video game. Including Tim Schafer’s stuff.

    On the other hand, I spent a fair amount of time running to the opposite end of the accessible area to be as far away as possible from Wheatley bollocking on and on. Gervais and Merchant have roughly the same comic persona and I am so, so tired of it.

    • Cheese

       Okay, that? What you did there? That’s called “jumping.” Now say “Apple.”

  • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

    I think one of the main reasons that humour comes so easily to a puzzle game like Portal is that the pace is slow enough to let the jokes sink in. By contrast, it’s hard to appreciate the humour during the boss fights. I’m sure that the ramblings of the spheres are pretty funny, but it’s hard to pay attention when you’re racing against the clock. 

  • Electric Dragon

    JK Simmons’ performance as Cave Johnson doesn’t get enough attention. Not only in the game (“Pick up a rifle and follow the yellow line. You’ll know when the test starts.”) but in the “Investment Opportunity” trailers (“We’re between banks right now, so just go ahead and make those cheques out to ‘Cash’”) he really nails that oblivious self-confidence that made Aperture the company it is.

    Also I would like to give props to the subtle touches scattered around, like the “Know Your Allergens” poster.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      You know they added more Cave Johnson quips with the level editor right? I think there is like 20 or 30 minutes of talking that they added. It’s pretty cool. 

      Also, I think Cave Johnson was the internet’s favorite, I remember people were trying to make “Combustible lemons” the new “cake is a lie.” The internet can be the worst sometimes.

  • Destroy Him My Robots

    You know, this F-Stop talk really makes me want a full photography puzzle/adventure game. Set your aperture to f/2.7 to manipulate a single object. Want to manipulate two at the same time? Set it so those two objects are within the depth of field. Throw an object across a chasm and shoot at 2sec shutter speed to turn that object into a bridge. Turn pinwheels into solid discs. Get through fast-moving laser grids by shooting them at 1/1000sec. Need to get an object in the background closer to one in the foreground? Take ten steps back and zoom in. Bend surfaces with wide-angle lenses. Connect sparks to a device in need of electricty by using long exposure time and panning. A kid is bored with it’s plain white toy? Turn it colorful by using extreme ISO settings. Scare people by summoning ghosts using double exposure. Or help scared people by canceling out shadows by correctly aiming your flash. MAKE. THAT. HAPPEN.

    • caspiancomic

       I like the way you think, Mr Robots. I’ve been drafting up a pipe dream project in which the only action in the game is photographing stuff, but it’s more of an exploration/adventure thing, like Beyond Good and Evil with all the actual story and combat ripped out (which, admittedly, sounds terrible). But being able to just rattle off multiple different potential puzzles and their solution that all centre around creative manipulation of camera settings? My hat, it is off.

      • Destroy Him My Robots

        Thanks! And I’d be on board for your game too. I said this when we had the photography-in-games inventory here: Taking photos was my favorite part of BG&E. I mean, saving the world? We’ve all been there & done that. But having that nice science lady tell me how rare that animal I took a picture of is? That really made me feel special.

        But yeah, pipe dream. This would have to be some sort of 3D game with lighting and physics and stuff, and I know from experience that my particular style of programming (*cough* with GameMaker) can bring a 3GHz machine to its knees when I try my hand at a Super Robot Wars BUT WITH A TWIST thing.

      • Aaron Riccio

        So it’s Pokemon Snap meets Fallout 3?

    • Professor_Cuntburglar

       Your idea sounds interesting, and also like it would give me a headache.

    • Brian Stewart

       Genius. Someone with getupandgoitude needs to make this a Kickstarter campaign so I can throw people with money at it.

  • Critcho

    Wayne’s World 2 is just as good as the first one.

    • Mike Mariano

      This is absolutely true, but I think there can still be a “Wayne’s World 2 syndrome” because the audience wasn’t as surprised by the sequel—they knew what to expect.  Portal 2 kept the element of surprise in there (at least for me).

      But yeah, watching the films back to back shows there’s just as much awesome in each film.

      • Critcho

        I guess, but I still see people slag it off all the time. Even Myers apologised for it.

        But I mean, it has Del Preston in it! Yeah he’s partly a Withnail and I rip off, but still! And the guy with no pigment in his eye! Also the surprisingly sincere celebratory festival atmosphere resonated with my teenage self.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anthony-John-Agnello/1362601810 Anthony John Agnello

      It’s not that Wayne’s World 2 is a horrible movie, it’s just the exact same movie as the first one. Same thing happened with Austin Powers 2, Ace Ventura 2, Caddyshack 2, Ghostbusters 2. The comedy sequel formula is: Same joke + added zaniness. 
      Never really works.

      The next entry in this interview series covers some of this territory as well.

      Wolpaw’s point that comedy sequels usually aren’t passion projects has a lot of merit I think. That’s why I have faith in Anchorman 2. That’s a bunch of funny people that just really want to make something together.

      I wish the road trip version of Wayne’s World 2 got made.

    • http://twitter.com/HttpLovecraft Http Lovecraft

      Nay, superior to the first!

    • craigward

      It’s crazy how much Waynes World 2 follows the formula of the first one.

      It’s about 80% as good, which is pretty good.  I wouldn’t have minded if they made a third.

  • AHyperkineticLagomorph

    I enjoyed that talk on the number of writers involved. Why do videogames have fewer writers than pretty much any other big-budget medium?

    Well, okay, because “Who cares about the story as long as gameplay is fun?” seems to be a fairly common attitude, as well as the fact that hiring more writers means more people on the payroll.

    But he brings up stuff like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report which have many, many writers. Comedy is tough to write, and you need people to bounce it off of. Not just as a test to see if the joke flies, but sometimes someone can improve it.

    Of course, you also have to avoid the very dangerous situations where each writer is just trying to force his or her particular style or substance through no matter what anyone else wants. Thirty writers fighting each other just leads to a train-wreck of a story. However, getting a group of talented people together who understand the game, the tone, and what they want to say and I think we could improve not just comedy in games but their writing quality as a whole.

    • doyourealize

      I was interested in this, as well, but I wonder how true it is. I mean, I’m sure historically there’s been no more than one writer, but I know Mass Effect 3 had more than one writer, and I’m sure other big budget games do, as well. However, I’m sure writing is not as painstakingly tested as gameplay (understandably), and maybe that’s why Portal 2 stands out.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        Most Bioware games are written by multiple writers, but each is assigned a set of missions (and codex entries) to write by him- or herself. That being said, everyone helps storyboard the game initially, and they all help bring it together at the end.

      • Effigy_Power

         Yeah, I would say Bioware uses multiple writers due to volume and streamlining the whole process, not out of fears of stale writing. (That’s inserted later, sometime around the end.)

      • http://www.facebook.com/arthur.chu.94 Arthur Chu

        The scuttlebutt is the legendarily infuriating ending of ME3 happened because the head writer kicked everyone else out of the writer’s room because he wanted to do the Really Cool Really Deep idea he’d been nursing All By Himself.

        The way it turned out is pretty much a textbook example of why you don’t do this. The DLC they did to “fix” the ending demonstrates that even if the core idea was bad (which it was) and wasn’t going to be changed (it wasn’t) having different writers fight for their territory — like insisting on getting some closure on how these events affect this plot point or that character — makes the ending feel at least like it’s a part of the story and not just a tacked on cut to black.

        • doyourealize

          @Merve2:disqus @Effigy_Power:disqus @facebook-4100490:disqus I wasn’t using BioWare as an exemplar for good writing in games, just stating that there was more than one writer in their games, and so maybe that’s not the problem, as Wolpaw seems to imply. That might have something to do with it, but I think it’s probably the revision process that cuts the most corners.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @doyourealize:disqus: Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear earlier. I didn’t intend to comment on the quality of Bioware’s writing. (It would be silly of me to do so, since the only Bioware games I’ve played are the Mass Effect games.) My point was that Bioware games tend be lengthy and have a modular structure that easily separates into quests/missions/assignments. Those kinds of games lend themselves well to being tackled by multiple writers.

    • Brian Stewart

       Crime and Punishment had one writer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

    “steering clear of memes”

    The Space Core may have a word about that.

    • caspiancomic

       See also: lemons.

    • Dan Park

      “steering clear of [existing] memes”

      He can’t help new ones that pop up because of the game.

    • Dan Park

      “steering clear of [existing] memes”

      He can’t help new ones that pop up because of the game.

  • Pgoodso

    Wolpaw talking about that final speech reminds of an interview with (of all people) Bono, and he talked
    about the writing process for U2, and how they actually produce about
    10x the material they need for each new album, and how even though he loves all those songs, he said that the best skill
    to have as a writer is the ability to let something go so that something
    better can take its place, even if that thing is just a shorter album.

    • caspiancomic

       A sort of “kill your darlings” attitude, eh? He’s actually right, somehow, that being too sentimental about your own work results in something sloppy and indulgent. Being able to objectively say “I love this thing but it just isn’t going to work” is difficult, but definitely necessary. My friends and I have always believed that there should be no double albums, since every double album contains exactly enough material for one really good album. (Feel free to list exceptions to this rule if you feel the need, I know it burns some people up to hear that Mellon Collie or whatever is less than perfect.)

      (Also in the future, if you want a cooler example of someone saying basically the same thing, ?uestlove has said that The Roots wrote and recorded 100 songs when they were recording Things Fall Apart, and that 4/5s of those songs just didn’t make the cut.)

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    Your question and Erik’s response about incidental dialogue is spot-on.  The first thing I think of when that subject is mentioned is Skyrim, specifically this guy in Whiterun:  “Have you been to the Cloud District lately?  What am I saying, of course you haven’t!”  That line was ten times more annoying to me even than the “arrow in the knee” line…if you’re going to have such detailed incidentals, you should at least take the time to make them change during the course of the game.

    When I’ve become a close friend of the Jarl, killed dragons above the town IN FRONT OF THIS GUY, and he’s still spouting this same line every time I walk by, it really takes me out of the experience.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      Oblivion has the same problem, in my experience. A simple “Nice to see you, adventurer” or “Sorry, I’m busy right now, adventurer” would have sufficed.

      • Aurora Boreanaz

        Oh, I’m sure.  My memory’s not what it used to be, however, so I wasn’t able to remember if Oblivion or Morrowind were as bad in that department.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply any oversight on your part. I’m just speaking from my own experience, since I haven’t played much of Skyrim.

    • Xtracurlyfries

      Completely agree. I hate that guy.

      Skyrim and Oblivion seem designed to take you out of the experience at every available opportunity. I love Yahtzee’s review of Oblivion for this reason.

    • Effigy_Power

       I was also annoyed with the skill-related comments.

      Guard: “Ah, you favor the bow I see? I am a sword and shield man myself.”
      Dragonborn: “How do you know that? I… I am not even carrying a bow. This is my town outfit!”
      Guard: “Just keep your hands to yourself, sneak thief!”
      Dragonborn: “Excuse me? Did I ever steal anything from you? I’ve never even been in Haafingar! How would you know this?”
      Guard: “Don’t try and haggle with me like those damn merchants.”
      Dragonborn: “Why in the world would I want to buy something from you? You are an Imperial soldier. What could you possibly sell that I need? What is happening here?”
      Guard: “I’d be a lot happier and warmer with a belly full of mead.”
      Dragonborn: “Why are you telling me this? I don’t even know your name, if you actually have one beyond “Solitude Guard”.”
      Guard: “Favoring the restoration school, huh? Skyrim needs more healers like you.”
      Dragonborn: “Listen mate, I am getting pretty tired of this. Who set you up to this? Is this a joke? Hidden crystal-ball or something?”
      Guard: “I was once an adventurer like you, but then I took…”
      Dragonborn: “FUS-ROH-DAH!”

      • Aurora Boreanaz

        Every guard is a distant relative of Sherlock Holmes, apparently?

        Guard: “Elementary, my dear Dragonborn!  There are scuff marks on your bracer where a bowstring struck it, indicating a penchant for archery.  The dagger on your belt is from a limited series made by a blacksmith in Whiterun, and I happen to know all ten owners, so you must have stolen it from one of them…from the color of the road dust on your boots I would guess Sir Richard in Riften.  And the restoration magic?  There’s a tear in your sleeve, obviously made by a mountain lion, but no wound or scar.  If you’d been attended by a healer prior to arriving here, you most likely would have repaired or replaced your tunic, so you must have healed the injury yourself.

        Though I suppose I could be wrong about that, and you’re just messy…but your gloves are new, so I doubt it.”

        • HobbesMkii

           I would watch the shit out of a TV show called “Elementary, My Dear Dragonborn”

    • Professor_Cuntburglar

       There’s also that kid in that one store in Solitude who’s like “I thought adventurers were supposed to be tough” every time you pass him.

      I’m like, I am literally the most powerful person in Skyrim right now. I could kill your mother and steal everything in this room and no one could stop me.

      Sometimes I really wish you could kill kids in that game.

  • Jonathan_Harford

    “Whatever it is, it would make someone bankrupt. It would make no money. It would appeal to me and maybe 100 people.”

    Every single person who read this article: “And I would be one of those people.”

    • JokersNuts

      totally – i would love to see what that is

    • AHyperkineticLagomorph

       In my defense, I followed that thought up with “Well, thinking that is an act of extreme hubris.” But that thought was also followed up by “No, I totally would be in that 100.”

    • blue vodka lemonade

       My ideal game:

      Perfectly rendered facsimile of my hometown, but I have superpowers, and also my house has a pool. Also there’s a kraken.

  • http://twitter.com/Haitani Haitani Masayuki

     I really would be one of those 100 people. :)

  • JimTreacher

    You guys would be surprised.

  • Orhan Talip Söylemez

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