Set many years after Portal 2, 'Desolation' tells the story of a cybernetically-enhanced test subject named Diana Mendez. After sustaining injuries, Diana is fitted with Aperture’s BRACE cybernetic system, featuring a suite of robotic upgrades including an integrated Portal Device. When a relentless threat emerges, she must embark on a perilous journey that will see her uncover Aperture’s mysterious past... and maybe even face her own.
Happy New Year! 2022 was a busy year for the Desolation development team, and as we ring in the new year we thought we’d share an update on our progress over the last twelve months. Read on for development insights as well as sneak peeks of some shiny new models created by our talented artists!
Back in March, we unveiled our new lighting and rendering systems, in the works for over a year. We’ve completely overhauled the graphical functionalities of the Source engine with the introduction of fully real-time lighting and physically-based rendering (PBR). You can find out more in the in-depth video below.
It’s important to stress that a lot of careful thought went into these changes; they were made specifically with Desolation’s unique art direction and narrative in mind. We still love how Portal 2 looks to this day, and we don’t want to replace or diminish that. This is simply a different take on the visuals, perfectly suited for a tonally moodier interpretation of Aperture Science. This is a really exciting leap forward for Desolation, but it’s far from the only surge of progress that we accomplished in 2022.
Our level design efforts have expanded this past year. While I’ve continued in my role as puzzle designer, crafting more chambers with Desolation’s new testing elements, our composer Roy Berardo has stepped up to block out some story maps which take place outside the testing areas. Roy has combined his extensive Hammer experience with a passion for designing intricate, engaging spaces to explore, and the resulting blockouts are a real joy to play, packed with enjoyable traversal and fun details.
It’s great to see the locations for key story moments take shape, and we’re very excited to give each of these maps the art pass they deserve. 2023 will see a major effort to complete more of these story maps and -- fingers crossed -- design about fifteen new test chambers to complete the set of 50+ total puzzles. With all this progress in designing levels, Desolation is feeling more real and tangible than ever. We’re making a game! That you can play! Eventually!
Generator model by l1zardr0ckets
Way back in 2020, the Desolation team faced a problem. We were working on a new visual theme for a substantial chapter in the second half of the game, and we had what felt like a great concept in mind for the chapter’s setting and visuals… but it just wasn’t working. A creative idea on paper doesn’t always work out in practice, and despite our best efforts to make things click (we made a number of prototype maps), none of us were satisfied with how the chapter was turning out.
So we went back to the drawing board, and within a matter of hours we came up with a solution: split the large chapter into two smaller ones, each with its own distinct setting and visual style. The two new themes to replace the old one were incredibly exciting, and over the past year-and-a-bit we’ve been working across the team to make them a reality. Our skilled environment artists have worked wonders to bring the vibrant imaginations of our visionary concept artists Hopper and Muii to life.
Now fully-fledged, these two new chapters are some of our favourites in Desolation. They’re technically ambitious, visually stunning, and rich in storytelling… so we’re going to keep them under wraps for now to let you fully enjoy them when you play, without spoilers. Maybe we’ll change our minds later and show them off, but we’re hoping to keep them a surprise! Hopefully it’ll be worth the wait.
Excursion Funnel model by Jofish, concept art by Hopper
I’ve been working on Desolation’s story for over five years at this point! You might think that’s a terrifying amount of time to spend on anything, and you’d probably be right -- but I care so deeply about this project that I really am pouring my heart and soul into this narrative, these characters, these jokes. Especially the jokes.
This past year in particular saw a large amount of effort channelled into refining Desolation’s epic narrative, and the team is very pleased with the results. There are so many amazing moments in this story that I can’t wait for you all to experience. I’m feeling giddy with excitement just thinking about them! It’s very tempting to tell you all about the Museum of Innovation, for example, or the Emergency Medbay, or the world’s largest Do Not Enter sign… but I have to keep my lips sealed on spoilers. I’m being restrained as we speak.
But nobody can stop me from giving cryptic clues to whet your appetite! Of the 25,000+ words that make up the currently in-progress dialogue script, I’ve picked out ten for you to ponder over: “companion”, “consequence”, “coolant”, “consider”, “control”, “contravene”, “cameras”, “cat”, “catastrophe” and “cookies”. You can look forward to hearing all these words (and many more) in context when Desolation launches. You’re in for a treat.
Balloon model by Kosan
Since we started development, Desolation’s test chambers have been undergoing rigorous playtesting and critique from a small group of experienced puzzle design consultants to make sure they’re as fun and intuitive to play as possible. But this year, for the first time, we opened things up to a slightly wider group of playtesters with a broader range of Portal experience.
I’m delighted to say that the playtest was a real success. We received a lot of encouraging and helpful feedback, both praise and criticism. Across all playtesters, it seems everyone really enjoyed solving the puzzles and found them to be fresh, memorable, and a satisfying challenge. We’re really happy with the results, they’re extremely positive overall.
I had the pleasure of watching someone I’d never met play Desolation for the first time in-person, and the atmosphere as they played was electric -- a massive jolt of infectious satisfaction from every puzzle solved! Watching them play reminded me of how I felt playing Portal 2 for the first time. This moment in particular boosted my confidence in Desolation’s design. We can’t wait to watch everyone play!
But there are things we need to work on too, including visual clarity in certain areas, a couple of unwanted spikes in the difficulty curve, and a number of inevitable exploits and bugs. We feel we're on the right track, but there's always room for improvement. Luckily, we've got plenty of time to make the necessary tweaks and fixes to ensure Desolation is as polished and refined as it can be.
Setting up and conducting this playtest took a lot more work than we thought; we have very limited resources so unfortunately we can't playtest as rigorously as Valve themselves. We'll have to be smart about how we handle this in future, but we would definitely like to do more. We're already making adjustments and improvements in preparation for the next closed playtest, and taking feedback into account when designing new puzzles.
Server model by ARES
This year also saw the launch of our brand-new website! Packed with media and info, it showcases everything we’ve revealed about Desolation so far, and it’s absolutely worth checking out if you haven’t already. This new website is the home of Desolation, and we’ll be updating it alongside ModDB as development continues.
The new website is really rewarding for us as a team, to be able to look back at everything we’ve shown publicly so far. It makes me very proud of all the work we’ve done, but it also makes me smile knowing just how much of Desolation you haven’t seen yet. What we’ve shown so far is a fraction of the eventual finished product. When we say Desolation is a big game, we really mean it. There’s a lot to look forward to! Which means there’s a lot of work to be done -- we’d better get on with it!
I’d like to close out this article by noting that we’ve been featured in LambdaGeneration’s Favourite Mods of 2022! It’s a huge honour to be listed alongside phenomenal feats of modding such as Entropy: Zero 2 and Half-Life Alyx: Levitation.
LambdaGeneration staff member Valkyrie, who played Desolation this year as part of our closed playtest, had this to say:
Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for following our project so avidly and sticking with us all this time. I know it’s a long wait, and it’s hard for us too -- we’re even more excited than you are! We love Desolation, and we’re determined to finish it for you all to enjoy no matter how long it takes.
That said, we need to aim towards the finish line even though it’s still years away, so don’t expect to see any major teasers from us for the rest of the year -- we’re at a crucial stage of development and we simply need to knuckle down and keep working on the game. Rest assured we’ll keep you updated, and we’ll show more when we’re ready. Remember to follow us on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Discord to stay tuned.
If you'd like to join the Desolation team, you can apply here!
Have a spectacular 2023!
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