At the End of the Experiment There Will be Cake

The size of the Portal team may have limited the resources they had to throw at any given problem, but in other ways they were more liberated. Because Valve had kept the team small, they were free to explore experimental or risky ideas that might scare away a larger development team. For much of the game, these kinds of experiments panned out, but not every experiment produces expected results.

After the game released, Valve was taken aback by how many of the game’s jokes, such as “the cake is a lie,” exploded into cultural memes. “We had no idea those things were going to blow up like they did,” admits Wolpaw. In fact, one of the jokes that the team did think might become a big thing has been entirely forgotten. At the very end of Portal, after players defeat GLaDOS and are looking at the debris scattered across Aperture Science’s parking lot, a giant hoop slowly rolls into the frame. “We all loved that,” explains Wolpaw. “It was Hoopy the hoop. We thought we should have a warehouse full of Hoopy t-shirts and mugs and posters…we would watch that hoop roll by over and over again. That was the part of the game we were most proud of, and nobody cared.”

Hoopy probably just proves that development teams can get a little slaphappy as a game nears its ship date. But it also shows that one can ever expect what the wider gaming audience will latch onto; the mystery even extends to whether or not a game will sell. As Portal neared its completion, the company began to wonder what they were going to do with the title. Should they package it as a standalone game, or release it for download only? Since Portal was so much shorter than most retail releases, no one knew how much they could expect people to pay for the game. In the end, Valve combined Portal with Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two to create The Orange Box. Any fears Valve may have had that Portal would get lost in the crowd were quickly silenced once the game released, and many of the jokes Valve had forgotten about quickly became internet memes exchanged like secret handshakes.

Looking at the path it traveled from inception to release, Portal’s success is as unlikely as it is impressive. The game was short, goofy, and the small team’s first high-profile project. It even ended with a musical number – but it was exactly what gamers were looking for at the time. No one would have known that, however, if Valve hadn’t taken a chance on an experimental student project.


Be sure to check out all our Portal 2 coverage on our Portal 2 landing hub.