Experiments are a dangerous proposition. Valuable resources can be wasted if a creative idea is poorly implemented. At a glance, Valve’s 2007 release Portal might have seemed like a risky gamble. While it came from one of the most respected development houses in the industry, the actual team was small and the gameplay featured novel mechanics difficult to convey in simple screenshots. Even the creators didn’t know what to expect from Portal until it released – that’s when Valve’s experiment turned into a phenomenon.

The Half-Life Connection

Valve fans that played through Portal may have picked up on the game’s subtle references to Valve’s biggest franchise, Half-Life. GLaDOS mentions Half-Life’s Black Mesa in the closing song, and a Powerpoint presentation detailing the financial competition between Aperture Science and Black Mesa can be seen in the later sections of the game. Given that Portal and Half-Life have vastly different tones, the link between the two titles seems a little odd. Valve’s other major franchises – Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress – have received their own distinct settings, so why was Portal an exception? The answer is simple – it was a decision made out of necessity. But to understand the dilemma, we have to go back to Portal’s humble beginnings.

In 2005, Valve discovered a young group of students at DigiPen and took them under its wing. The young programmers had been working on a game called Narbacular Drop (for more on Narbacular Drop be sure to check out our video feature on the game) Valve supervised the team and paired them up with one of its newest writers, Erik Wolpaw, a veteran humorist from Double Fine and the website OldManMurray.com. Valve saw great potential in the student project, but it kept the Portal team small, because it didn’t know if that potential would be realized.

Because the Portal team’s resources were so limited (the core team was less than a dozen people), certain developmental concessions had to be made. For one, the team didn’t have enough artists on tap to create assets for a new world. “It seemed like it made sense to put Portal in an existing universe,” recalls Wolpaw. “Some of that was driven by the fact that we didn't have a big enough team to do the art from scratch, so we ended up reusing primarily Half-Life 2 art assets.” The two games may have been linked by a similar setting, but the team had a feeling that they should keep that link as understated as possible. As it would turn out Portal would be a vastly different title from anything Valve had done before.