Review: The Final Hours of Portal 2

Well, this is something we don’t see enough of.

Games development processes are all-too-rarely made public. There’s the rare bright spot – the fantastic one hour documentary about the history of Volition (developers of Descent, Red Faction and Saints Row) being one. But mostly gamers – and even games journalists – are kept out of the loop, aside from the occasional development diary. Geoff Keighley’s Behind the Games series was one of the few attempts to really explore this side of games, and Valve – famous for doing things differently – have previously shown an unusual openness about their development process: be it Gabe Newell’s frankness in interviews with, well, almost anyone; the inclusion of interactive commentaries in many of their games; or their past co-operation with Geoff Keighley in his previous “The Final Hours of Half-Life 2” article. Which, sad to say, was his last feature in that series – until Portal 2.

The result is something a bit different: since The Final Hours of Half-Life 2, Keighley has gained a lot of experience working for a variety of outlets (not least GameTrailersTV), and his appreciation and use of multiple forms of media as a part of his work shows clearly in this most recent Final Hours.

For one thing, it’s not being distributed as an article on a website. Rather, it’s being distributed as something more akin to an ezine, in on distribution platforms more associated with, well, games and applications. Specifically, the iPad App Store and Steam. As I lack an iPad, you can probably guess which version I purchased.

More fundamental is the fact that in releasing it as an application using Adobe Air (yes, I know, yuck), Keighley has tried to make this an ‘online’ experience, loaded with videos, audio clips, slideshows and other interactive tidbits. Some of these are genuinely interesting – clips of the songs that inspired the team, the advert that inspired one of the personality cores; or add a nice sense of place to the discussion – the text describing Gabe’s famous E3 2010 announcement is accompanied by footage of the selfsame event. Other information is, well, less enthralling – online polls asking readers which Valve game they played first, for example. Though it is fun/depressing/unsurprising to learn that, at the time of writing, 50% of readers want Valve’s next game to be Half-Life 3, another 30% want another Portal game (either a sequel or prequel), and only 10% want Valve’s next game want to be “Something completely original”. To think that people complain about companies milking their franchises.

"I'll take twelve!"

For all of this gloss, however, what really matters is the content. And, quite simply, what’s in there is fascinating reading. Some you might already know, but it’s all well written, well presented, and there’s an awful lot of content that has simply never been published elsewhere – the advantages of Keighley having been given full access to Valve during the game’s crunch period. It’s not a huge tome – it took me about an hour to read through, including time taken playing with the different media and looking up some of the references made – but the content is more than interesting enough to warrant the asking cost (currently £1.49 on Steam); and perhaps as importantly, the concept is important enough to be worth paying for. This is exactly the sort of games journalism that needs to be promoted, allowing the outside world to peek in on the processes behind the development of some of the best games in the world. Actually, I’ll revise that statement: allowing the outside world to peek in on the processes behind the development of games, full stop. One thing that we could really do with seeing more of is seeing what went on in the background of those games that failed – what went wrong, and what could be avoided in future, is just as important as knowing what went right in those games that do work out.

In case I’m not making myself clear enough: if you haven’t done so already, you need to go to the distribution platform of your choice and purchase The Final Hours of Portal 2 for yourself. Both for its actual content, and for what it stands for. You won’t regret it.

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