You could say that Portal and Portal 2 are games about game design. GLaDOS is, of course, our game designer, piecing together test chambers for her test subject(s) to solve, helplessly addicted to the process. She lives for it. The idea is bolstered when Wheatley takes the reins in Portal 2 (that was a spoiler, I guess) and creates a laughably bad level– complete with the caveat that it will be much cooler very, very soon. And you could say that those constant tests, institutionally performed by Aperture Laboratories, mirror the gameplay testing that Valve, in the real world, is famous for practicing as an integral part of its development process.
You could go further: consider that our relationship with GLaDOS as players captures, in some way, a player’s relationship to the game designer. GLaDOS possesses an uncontrollable urge to set out a series of exquisitely crafted challenges; we are driven by the urge to conquer them. She taunts us, tells us it can’t be done, but every test chamber is actually very carefully tuned (through those playtests) to be solvable, to click magically after a certain amount of time, to preserve the player’s state of flow. Valve needs them to be able to be solved.
A most enterprising theorist might even go so far as to suggest that GLaDOS’ arch commentary and barbed insults, cushioned for our ears by their diverting cleverness, is Valve talking back to its fans– saying, in a coded way, the kinds of things they have always wanted to say after the trauma of the dark period around 2003-2004, when Steam wasn’t the powerhouse it is now but a nascent, buggy thing that regularly sparked some of the bitterest online tirades imaginable, when Half-Life 2 was stolen by a hacker and then delayed. Game developers tend to claim confidently that they never feel pressure from “the fans,” and that the vicious snake dens of their own forums do not periodically wound them. But those rants do get read. It would be naïve to claim they really had no effect.
Finally, there is Cave Johnson’s character. He, clearly, represents the designer of a game (or a game industry) in its embryonic stages: the period where the developers are just winging it, trying random things to see what they do and to assess if they might be worth anything (“Science isn’t about ‘why,’ it’s about ‘why not?’” he says). Here’s something that makes you bounce. You can throw it on the floor. Can we do something with this? Can we make a game from it?
Let’s run a test.
I noticed your game has a character editor, but doesn’t include the option to make a female character. Why is that?
Well, it’s hard to make female characters. First of all, in order to accommodate female characters in our pipeline, you’d basically need to re-code the entire engine from the ground up. Because the technology we have today just wasn’t built to be able to handle stuff like that. I’m thinking about it now and I have no idea how you’d even start making those kind of changes in our low-level architecture. The implications to our engine are just all over the place– the threading system, the frame buffer…
Then there’s the art aspect. Can anyone say they really know what a woman looks like? I mean we all have ideas. But we’ve tried them and they don’t work. Women are difficult to model because they have– they’re sort of put together– well, let me put it this way: male bone structure is mostly made up of ninety-degree angles. Right? Maybe a couple forty-fives here and there. But it’s simple, and that makes it easy. I guess I shouldn’t say “easy,” but I mean more straightforward.
Female bone structure, on the other hand, is extremely complicated. There are, like, n-gons and inverted matrices in there and everything. The math involved is just mind-boggling. And it’s not only the mesh: there’s the textures and the lighting, too. The way light bounces off… I mean, all of that is completely different as well. So to really do it right we would have to undo all of the pixels that are in the game right now, and re-do them over again from scratch. It’s just a ton… a ton of work.
So when you look at it– you look at the cost of creating all those assets, the modeling, animation, the voice over, and so on– you take that cost and multiply it by a billion. And then it just comes down to, what should we spend our time and money on? We only have a limited amount of resources, so we need to be very careful about what we choose to do. Right? If we just sort of said, hey, let’s go for it, let’s make that female character model… well, the whole project could collapse and we might go out of business. I mean, I’m not trying to sound negative here. But that’s, you know, that’s the reality we’re facing.