Hi there; sorry to keep you waiting! Believe me when I say that we’re anxious to get a proper media update out soon showing off some fully developed maps and gameplay (expect something near the end of the year!) In the meantime, however, some of us on the team have pitched in to answer some questions we’re commonly asked, and to clarify any confusion surrounding certain aspects of the mod.
Here are the developers that will be answering questions:
Stract - Project Manager, Environment Designer
Demon Arisen - Creative Director, Writer, Puzzle Designer
TeamSpen210 - Environment Designer, Script Programmer
Practical Problems - Modeller
Roy Berardo - Composer, Audio Engineer
How’s development going so far?
Demon Arisen: I’m really pleased with the amount of progress we’ve made so far! I’ve designed about half the puzzles for the game, they’ve been playtested rigorously, and the environment design team have been hard at work making them play smoothly and look gorgeous. I recently finalized the story and can now begin writing the dialogue, which is very exciting. We also just finished an internal Game Development Document, which acts as a comprehensive guide to the creative vision of the game for the team to consult throughout development. Steady progress is being made on our two new test elements, and various improvements to graphics and lighting have been made. You’ll also start to see our new logo being used across the board starting today, which is very exciting - it’s a great design and there’s a lot of meaning behind it. However, as much as we’ve made a lot of headway so far, the game is still years away from being finished - which is only natural for an ambitious project such as this. If you’d like to help speed that process along, and have valuable skills you can bring to the table, you can apply to join the development team here. We're especially in need of skilled 3D modellers!
P.S. Please don’t apply to be a playtester! We have playtesting delegated to a closed group of trusted friends with lots of experience and insight to offer.
Will we be seeing more sneak peeks soon?
Demon Arisen: Unfortunately a lot of the progress we’ve been making is invisible: we’ve done tons of work that we either can’t show you because it would spoil the experience, or don’t want to show you because it’s not in a presentable state yet. People enjoy seeing pretty screenshots of finished maps much more than they do seeing fragments of code or snippets of dialogue, so that limits what we can reveal. Luckily for you, there actually are a few pretty screenshots of finished maps sprinkled throughout this article, and we’ve been assembling a special sneak peek at some narrative elements which you’ll see in a future blog post. We’ll try to keep you updated as much as we can, but it’s vital to us that we don’t ruin the game by giving too much away.
Why did you decide to make Desolation in the first place?
Stract: Before Demon joined the team, I started the project with a very vague goal of making a really ambitious, story-driven mod that would feature a darker, more lonely and decrepit atmosphere than Portal 2. I’ve always really loved the Half-Life and Portal universe and wanted to try to expand upon it somehow. I wasn’t too sure about the puzzles and the specific narrative — those aren’t exactly my forte — so Demon came on board to flesh that out. Since then, the mod has grown into something quite concrete that I really love and can’t wait to see finished.
What keeps your team motivated to continue working?
Stract: Most of us on the team are busy people with tight schedules, and this can sometimes make work difficult. In the end, however, all of us are motivated by our passion for Portal and our drive to make something that we can all be proud of in the end. We really want to raise the bar and make something refreshing and new. Work and motivation is also driven by our team’s coordination: we make use of Trello, Git, Google Docs, and Discord in discussing, planning, and assigning tasks.
What does Desolation plan on achieving that other Portal 2 mods don’t? How will it stand out from the dozens of mods out there?
Demon Arisen: First of all, I think it’s important to note that Desolation wouldn’t even exist without the foundations laid by other modders; the creativity and talent showcased in accomplished Portal mods is part of what inspired Desolation in the first place. With Desolation, we hope to take that spirit of crafting fan-made experiences and expand upon it, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in a Portal mod. There are quite a few things that set Desolation apart, the crux of which is its dark and unsettling narrative. It’s a new take on the Portal formula, with more complex characters and a more involved plot. Desolation is certainly more story-driven than other mods, although the focus is still primarily on gameplay: we have two new test elements, giving you new toys to play with as well as putting new twists on familiar mechanics. The game looks stunning, with jaw-dropping set pieces, meticulous detailing, new models and textures, and improved graphics and lighting. We also have an amazing atmospheric score which envelops the player in a tense and unnerving atmosphere.
Recently, Portal mods have received unrealistic coverage from the press, boasting them to be "Portal 3" or "the next big thing". How would the Desolation team stand in regards to such claims, were they to come as release date approached?
Stract: Ultimately, we aren’t trying to make Desolation analogous to “Portal 3”. Desolation should be seen as a distinct game that happens to take place in the Portal universe, not necessarily directly expanding on the events of Portal and Portal 2. Being excited for the mod is all well and good, but expectations should be kept tame, especially given how the media has a tendency to exaggerate and inflate what it touches. Over-hyping can be dangerous. Regardless, I don’t think that any mod – no matter how well-made – should be called “Portal 3”.
What’s the most challenging aspect of development?
Stract: I find that the most challenging aspect of development is synchronizing everyone’s workflows. For example, building a map and not having the necessary assets because team members with other roles on which we depend may be busy or are working on something else. This can leave a lot of maps stuck with placeholders for a long time, which can in turn also make it more difficult to get a better sense of the area with which we are working. The same can also be true for those on the team with other roles. For example, it may be more difficult for our composer to write the music for an area until that area is fully fleshed out, which may take a while for mappers.
Where did the idea for Desolation come from? What inspired you to come together as a team to work on the mod?
Demon Arisen: When Stract approached me to work on Desolation, I leapt at the chance. He told me about this great idea to make a darkly atmospheric Portal mod with an ambitious scope, but he needed a writer to come up with the story. I instantly agreed - I knew Stract already, although not very well yet, and I had a lot of respect for his mapping expertise. When it turned out he also needed a puzzle designer, I put myself forward because I’ve been designing test chambers for fun since 2013, and have quite a substantial following on the Portal 2 Workshop. I knew I’d be doing what I already loved, but working with a team towards a much greater goal, which was incredibly exciting for me. So I crafted a story, designed some puzzles, and worked closely with Stract to conceive a really strong creative vision for the game. Since then, we’ve managed to recruit a bunch of super talented folks who are equally enthused about making Desolation a reality. I can’t wait to see how development progresses!
Will other mods be able to use the Desolation branch when it releases?
Practical Problems: I think the general consensus among the team is that other mods will be allowed on the Desolation branch, but they won't be allowed to use the Desolation story/characters/etc.
Stract: In general, strictly engine content will be fair game to modders. However, those modders wanting to use any of our custom assets or game-specific content should contact us about usage. This will be allowed on a case-by-case basis, save for core story/“hero” assets which will not be allowed. In any case, credit should be given to us for usage of our engine branch and relevant assets.
Will Desolation have any extra content/entities/fixes implemented in it just for the sake of other mod bases?
Practical Problems: We try to fix unrelated stuff when it becomes broken, but we're not really going out of our way to fix stuff that doesn't affect Desolation. Also, if the fix hurts a feature in Desolation, we won't implement it.
TeamSpen210: Yes. It’s not our focus, but we’re trying to make improvements wherever we touch code. For example cube models have been redone such that you can easily add custom ones, and reflection gel is fully functional even though it won’t be used in Desolation’s campaign.
What’s the story like?
Demon Arisen: It’s unlike anything seen before in a Portal game. Desolation has a dark, thrilling, and unnerving narrative, with compelling characters and a complex, twisting plot. The story focuses on psychological themes such as loneliness and morality, but also has a keen sense of adventure. It takes itself seriously, but not too seriously. We can’t wait to see what you guys think of it!
Will it be funny?
Demon Arisen: Since we’re striving for a darker tone than Portal 2, you shouldn’t expect outright comedy; but it won’t be all doom and gloom. We aim to fully embrace the ridiculous nature of Aperture Science while also exploring murky concepts and ambiguous characters. As such, I’d liken the tone of Desolation to the subtle dark humor of the first Portal game, as opposed to the absurd and excitable comedy of Portal 2. Expect plenty of witty dialogue and visual gags, but you probably won’t be laughing so much you fall off your chair.
Are you working with other mod developers to ensure that your mods do not conflict narratively, and can fit into the same head-canon if players desire?
Stract: While we aren’t actively working with other mod developers to resolve narrative conflicts, and we have no intention of doing so, Desolation’s story is arguably distinct enough such that it should not actively conflict with the stories that other mods tell. We can’t control what other people decide to do with their stories, and as such it’s not something we will worry about.
Does Desolation’s narrative directly connect to Portal 2, or is it a completely separate story?
Demon Arisen: Desolation is not a direct sequel (or prequel) to Portal 2, but it does take place in the same universe. Think of Desolation as a sort of Portal spin-off; it’s the same Aperture we all know and love, with brand new locations, characters, and ideas existing within it. I love Portal 2, but I think those characters’ stories are over, and it’s not my place to interfere with them too much. I wanted to push the boundaries of what stories are possible to tell within the confines of Aperture, to expand the Portal universe rather than simply iterate on what’s already there.
Is the mod appropriate for all ages? If not, what sorts of deeper/darker subjects and themes do you plan on touching?
Demon Arisen: Desolation is aimed at people aged 13 and older, and is not recommended for young children or those who are easily disturbed. That said, we know that everyone finds different things scary or upsetting, so allow me to explain further. Desolation is not a horror game. There won’t be extreme gore or sudden jump-scares. But since it aims to create a dark and thrilling atmosphere, there will be a sense of intense threat throughout with some shocking scenes. There will be violence and disturbing imagery, although the horror is much more psychological than visceral for the most part. The game will explore potentially upsetting subjects such as: death and grief, loneliness and depression, morality and sanity, and the nature of the human body and soul. Overall the game is more creepy than scary, more haunting than horrifying, and we’re sure the vast majority of players will really enjoy the grimly unsettling experience. But we don’t want to hurt anyone, and it’s really important to make those who may be sensitive to the matters explored in Desolation aware of what they’re getting into, so we’ll go into more depth on this matter closer to launch.
Is Desolation a linear game? Do your choices as a player matter?
Demon Arisen: Desolation is a linear game, in much the same way as all the existing Portal and Half-Life games. We experimented early on with the idea of branching paths, and while it’s technically feasible it would require exponentially more work from the entire team, so we decided against it. I also think that having multiple paths would somewhat dampen the impact of the carefully tailored narrative. So while your choices as a player don’t affect the story, we still want it to feel like your character matters a great deal.
Will there be easter eggs that players should look out for?
Demon Arisen: Yes! We plan to include plenty of easter eggs. However, we don’t want to rely on cheap and lazy references to other media in order to make our game interesting. The vast majority of the secrets you’ll find in Desolation will fit seamlessly into the Portal universe, and may even enhance the narrative.
TeamSpen210: For example, we plan on including a system whereby you can find and read collectible documents and other information scattered throughout the levels, which will give more detail on the plot or unlock other areas.
How does the original soundtrack for Desolation relate to the classic Portal feel? How does it differ?
Roy Berardo: One of the biggest factors in Desolation’s tone is its environment. Aperture is a massive world of metal and machinery that isolates the player character, and the Desolation soundtrack aims to reinforce this feeling. It features massive synthesized and metallic sounds that surround simple melodies to capture the tone of being alone in this world. In addition, the new soundtrack will also be more story-focused and dynamically score important narrative scenes. However, that’s not to say that the music will be entirely separated from Portal’s style. Music that plays in test chambers will have a similar feel to that of Portal 2’s famous minimal electronic sound. Also like Portal 2, the music will change and morph depending on what actions the player does within the test chambers.
Will Desolation feature any pre-established characters from the Portal games?
Demon Arisen: Desolation will feature a fully voice-acted cast composed entirely of brand new, original characters. You can look forward to a diverse variety of complex personalities who are memorable and enjoyable in their own right, rather than relying on familiar Portal tropes. We hope you’ll love the characters in Desolation, but don’t expect to see any familiar faces; we think it’s much more interesting to explore the untapped potential of new characters than to rely on existing ones.
How many puzzles will there be?
Demon Arisen: We aim to include about 40 - 50 test chambers! For comparison, the Portal 2 single-player campaign has about 45 depending on how you count, so we think 40 - 50 is a good, substantial number. I’ve designed about half that amount for Desolation so far, so while 50 puzzles may seem far-fetched, it’s not unachievable. There will also be smaller additional puzzles behind-the-scenes, outside of standard test chambers. If that sounds like a lot to you, don’t worry: there will be regular breaks from puzzle solving, with story segments and exploratory areas roughly every 4 - 5 puzzles, and the puzzles themselves will have fun, satisfying, and varied solutions to keep you on your toes. I love puzzles, but I know that playing lots in a row without a break can be fatiguing, so we’ve tried to ensure that the gameplay is well-paced throughout.
How difficult are the puzzles in Desolation going to be?
Demon Arisen: I’d call them “medium difficulty”. They’ll generally be harder than the puzzles in the Portal 2 campaign, but won’t be as brutal as some of the more hardcore mods or workshop maps out there. We want everyone to enjoy the game, but we also want to satisfy you with a decent level of challenge. The game will follow a carefully crafted difficulty curve. Early-game puzzles will be relatively straightforward, easing you back into Portal mechanics and warming up your logical and lateral thinking skills. Mid-game puzzles will build upon your knowledge of key mechanics and concepts. Late-game puzzles will offer complex logical challenges to put your skills to the test. Test elements will be introduced one at a time, allowing players to experience different types of gameplay and build up an armory of skills over the course of the campaign.
Is Desolation going to be enjoyable for both new and expert players? What is your target audience?
TeamSpen210: Desolation is aimed primarily at players who have already played Portal 2, although we’re aware that some won’t have played in a while. The game starts with a number of introductory puzzles to get back into the swing of things, then ramps up to harder puzzles which will give anyone a challenge.
Demon Arisen: We’re hoping that Desolation will cater to people of all skill and experience levels, although that’s proving to be quite a challenge since this is a linear game with a set difficulty level. The way I’m combating that is by making sure the game teaches you how to solve puzzles as you go. By the time you get to the challenging puzzles later in the game, you’ll have learned enough tactics and mechanics to be able to tackle them.
How long do you expect the average player to take to complete the game? Will it be shorter or longer than the Portal 2 main campaign?
Stract: While this statistic will vary greatly between different players — and we can't give a very accurate estimate since we're still so early in development — I'll say that generally, Desolation should be similar in length to Portal 2. It features fewer chapters, but each chapter has a little more bulk to it. For reference, it takes the average player roughly 6–8 hours to complete Portal 2. Take this with a grain of salt; Desolation will be as long as it needs to be and no more. We consider pacing to be extremely important. We'll definitely have a more concrete number as we approach release!
How would you describe your design philosophy when it comes to making puzzles for Desolation?
Demon Arisen: My ethos when designing puzzles is to emphasize elegance and fun over complexity and difficulty. In other words, puzzles should have simple layouts, with the goal presented clearly. The solution should be hidden in plain sight, and completing the puzzle should make you feel smart, not stupid. I also strongly believe that the difficulty should be in the puzzle’s logic rather than its execution, meaning that although there’ll be plenty of fun flings and acrobatics, the puzzles in Desolation will never rely on gaming dexterity or lightning reflexes - all you need is a well-oiled brain.
Are there going to be any new testing elements? If so, how will they integrate with existing elements?
TeamSpen210: There are two new testing elements in Desolation. The first is adhesion gel, a new gel which allows players and objects to stick to coated surfaces. Its main use is in providing mobility to the player, as well as painting cubes to adhere them to walls. Like all gels, it can be placed on light bridges and be carried by excursion funnels. It can also be poured on turrets to gum up their mechanisms, preventing them from firing. The second is a new variant of the Hard Light Bridge, but we’re keeping it under wraps for now.
Adhesion gel was originally going to be used in Portal 2, and according to what little leftovers we’ve seen, it was colored purple. Why did you decide to make adhesion gel green in color?
TeamSpen210: The original purple color was never finalized; adhesion gel was cut from the game long before the visual aspects were properly designed and made. That is to say, purple was a temporary color. Green evokes slime and other sticky materials. It is also a much more vibrant primary color, much more distinct from the blue and orange of the other gels.
Moreover, how do you plan on handling some core issues with adhesion gel, such as motion sickness and disorientation?
TeamSpen210: One key to solving disorientation is to ensure that all chambers featuring the Gel have strong contrast between the walls, ceiling and floor. We are also experimenting with having various cues on the HUD to indicate the direction of gravity.
Will the puzzles be using advanced techniques unexplored in the Portal 2 campaign?
Demon Arisen: Since the vast majority of people who play Desolation will be familiar with Portal 2, I think it’s really important that Desolation moves beyond that. It has to evolve, to innovate, to challenge, otherwise I feel there’d be no point in making it. So yes, existing test elements will be used in new ways, and our new elements will create new interactions which will layer on top of familiar ones. But these new ways of playing with existing mechanics will grow organically out of the mechanics themselves. I won’t bend the rules or defy expectations, I’ll just unlock the potential in the elements that’s always been there. I wouldn’t call them “advanced techniques” though, because that implies you need to be a hardcore Portal player to perform them, and that’s not the case at all. The game will teach you new interactions between mechanics as you go, so you don’t need any prior knowledge or experience, other than preferably having played Portal 2 itself. Basically, don’t worry! You’ll be fine. Probably.
Will there be any new visual styles? How will they fit in with the Aperture we all know and love?
Stract: There are three visual styles featured in Desolation, of which two are completely new. One such style is one we call “Industrial”: constructed in the 2000s, this serves as the intermediate layer between what we know as “old Aperture” and “new Aperture”. Drawing upon visual inspiration from the co-op Art Therapy style from Portal 2, test chambers are built into the tops of the old salt mines, constructed haphazardly with a mix of old and new materials, along with somewhat bare but brutalist architecture. Conversely, the offices and behind-the-scenes areas are fairly well-insulated from the mines and feature drab but somewhat overly optimistic decor. The other visual style is a secret, and to explain it would be to spoil the story!
Thanks for sticking through! This article has been a long one, but we really hope that it's been informative and will give you all a better idea of what's to come regarding the mod. Keep an eye out for another update article in the near-future! If you have any other questions, feel free to ask and we'll answer what we can!