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Oh, snap! It's yet another PCG Q&A, where every Saturday we ask the panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. You're also very welcome to share your thoughts in the comments below. This week: which game actually lived up to the hype?
I hated the first Witcher game, and although the second one's an improvement in a lot of ways I still thought most of it was dull—apart from the bit where you get drunk and wake up with a tattoo, obviously. So when glowing reviews came out for The Witcher 3 I ignored them. There was plenty of other stuff to play in 2015: Tales From the Borderlands, Rocket League, Life is Strange, Pillars of Eternity, Devil Daggers, Her Story. I was busy.
It took a solid year's worth of articles about how incredible every aspect of The Witcher 3 was, from the side quests to the potion-making to the characters to the wind in the goddamn trees, before I finally caved and tried it. Everyone was right, it's now on my "best games of all time" list, and I've become one of those people who says you should turn the music down so you can hear the wind in Velen. There's an entire subreddit devoted to whinging about games journalism's never-ending love affair with writing about The Witcher 3, but without that constant praise I wouldn't have pushed past my disinterest to give it the chance it deserved. And now I've become one of those people who won't shut up about The Witcher 3.
Not everyone will agree with this one, but I've lived through multiple Metal Gear hype cycles (MGS2 and MGS4 most memorably), and this is the one game that really deserved it. While this Metal Gear has the worst story in the series by far, it's also a superior stealth game. With its suite of upgrades and repeatable missions, I easily played MGSV for over 100 hours, and I have no doubt I'll reinstall it someday.
I think the original Portal was a near-perfect experience. You learned to play as you played and each test chamber increased in complexity at a rate that was challenging but never frustrating. It was funny and surprising and satisfying, and short enough that it didn't have time to wear out its welcome. When trailers for Portal 2 began appearing, I was just as excited as anyone else, though I wasn't really expecting to love it in the same way. More complex, more characters, more story, more puzzles, more more more. I just couldn't imagine it matching the original, which proved (to me at least) that less is more.
It definitely lived up to the hype, though. Portal 2 is amazing, funny, challenging, surprising, and every bit as brilliant as the first. Maybe it's still true that less is more, but that doesn't mean more is less.
Piggybacking off Chris here, Half-Life 2 was an incredible follow-up to one of the best (if not the best) games of the '90s. The original Half-Life surprised the hell out of me with ways it changed the first-person shooter. After playing a ton of Quake and Quake 2, story seemed to be an afterthought, but Half-Life revolutionized the genre. Okay, the Xen levels at the end almost ruined it, but I still wanted more.
And then I waited, waited, and waited some more. Daikatana proved that games too long in development could suck, and HL2 felt like it might be doomed to the same fate. But with the addition of the gravity gun and physics, plus a great setting and story that made you care about the characters, it exceeded its source material in every way. I'm still holding out hope for HL3, naturally, but those are some massive shoes to fill.
I was dangerously excited when a new Deus Ex was announced. I was hyped to the extent that it would have really stung if a new Deus Ex fell well short of expectations. Human Revolution had a few problems, but it was exactly the atmospheric cyberpunk playground I wanted and the art direction added a new dimension to the Deus Ex universe. Due to the technological limitations of the era the old Deus Ex games struggled to show art or architecture (apart from that silly Earth-in-a-giant-claw statue at the start). Human Revolution decided that everything would be gold, and full of triangles, and its depiction of futuristic augments was gorgeous. I would quite like a pair of Jensen arms.
Human Revolution really got Deus Ex. It had hacking, vents, and intricate levels. But it also had something else, something new: retractable arm-swords. Not many people would look at the groundbreaking masterpiece of Deus Ex and think 'this needs retractable arm-swords', but Eidos Montreal had the vision to make retractable arm-swords happen. I will always respect them for that.
I remember the buzz around Vice City vividly. Every time I saw that stylish advert on TV, the one with 'I Ran' by Flock of Seagulls, I got a tingle of excitement. Magazines were full of gushing previews, treating every morsel of information like it was the biggest scoop since Watergate. And then when it came out, it was everything I dreamed it would be. A bigger, more detailed city. An incredible soundtrack. More fun and varied missions. A better story. An all-star cast. HELICOPTERS. Being able to fly around a city of that size back then was a genuine thrill.
GTA III was great, but it felt like an experiment in places; a concept for what a 3D Grand Theft Auto game could be. But Vice City was the first time Rockstar really nailed it, and laid a solid foundation for the 3D era of their world-conquering series. The '80s (or at least some exaggerated, romanticised version of it) has begun to saturate pop culture to an annoying degree lately, so I can't see Rockstar returning to that setting. It's too obvious. But I would like to see Vice City again in a different, more contemporary era, perhaps showing the bleak, faded aftermath of its hedonistic '80s heyday.
The first time I saw this teaser I made a noise like a ten-year-old opening the latest issue of Tiger Beat. Then I saw this teaser, and I pretty much hyperventilated and passed out. I knew in my heart that DX: Human Revolution couldn't be that good, because Deus Ex was lightning in a bottle: Ugly, clunky, with terrible voice acting and a ridiculous, incoherent story, all of which somehow got smushed together into basically the best game ever made. How do you fall down a flight of stairs and land in a bed of roses twice?
But then Human Revolution came out, and it was that good. Not perfect, and I will never not be mad about those boss fights. But Adam Jensen is the perfect successor (predecessor, I suppose) to JC Denton, I loved the visual style (including the piss filter) and the music (because it's not Deus Ex without a great soundtrack), and the whole thing just felt right: Not as off-the-conspiracy-theory-hook as the original, but big and sprawling and unpredictable—a legitimate point of entry into that world. It took more than a decade to get from Deus Ex to Human Revolution, and it was worth the wait.
Seeing "the cake is a lie" memes in 2017 hurts me about as much as slipping on a linoleum floor and bashing my head on a marble counter top. If I had to choose between reviving the meme for another complete circuit or never playing Portal again, I'd eradicate the game from my Steam account.
I don't hate Portal or anything—it's my favorite game of all time. I even have a bad Aperture tattoo on my back. I've just heard that fucking catchphrase belted out with such frequency since Portal's release in 2007 that it's forcefully supplanted treasured memories and worldly knowledge, like my the sound of grandfather's voice or the equation for calculating the volume of a cylinder. "The cake is a lie" is good fun, but Portal is so much more than a cute combination of words.
It's a catchphrase that has since fallen into whatever meme obscurity is called. So, already bearing the scars, I set out to wrap myself in its cold, disemboweled corpse to examine its lifespan and determine what kind of irreversible changes a viral sentence about cake could inflict on videogames, for better or worse.
Portal writers Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek didn't set out to make Portal's cake catchphrase a meme—they were born before the '80s so they still don't know what memes are. They just wanted to write a funny game. For them "the cake is a lie" is just part of a clever plot device, a thematic anchor that offers a chuckle or two in its setup, reveal, and post-credits wink. Its viral potential was never even a consideration.
"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," Wolpaw told Game Informer. "That was the part of the game we were most proud of, and nobody cared.”
Don't worry if the name doesn't ring a bell. As the innocuous hoop that falls from the sky after defeating GLaDOS and escaping an exploding Aperture, Hoopy isn't the most iconic character from the Portal universe. Chances are Valve didn't actually expect a chunk of industrial metal to become Portal's unofficial mascot; Hoopy is a classic Wolpaw-ism, a roundabout point made to illustrate how distant a creator is from how the public will perceive their work.
Between writers, animators, programmers, and everyone else juggling ideas and managing strict development pipelines, it's easy to imagine why they couldn't try for or predict the popularity of "the cake is a lie"—or any meme-able phrase. A forced effort to 'make a meme' would come off as crass and awkward. Hoopy with googly eyes and a shrill voice would be a grave mistake. Valve ended up demonstrating that the best way to make a meme was to not make one at all.
A deciding factor in Cake Meme's success can be credited to the year it blew up, a year in which some of the most legendary memes gained notoriety and cemented themselves near the head of the wacky, inexplicable semiotics parade. 2007 gifted us a kid in corpse paint that really likes turtles, a biting infant named Charlie, a prairie dog dramatically turning its head towards the camera because that's good fun, the hit single Chocolate Rain, and the practical joke that never gets old except it did in 2007: Rickrolling.
Somewhere smooshed between Tay Zonday and an errant turtle shell sits 'The cake is a lie.' It's a phrase that won't carry much impact to anyone that hasn't played Portal, but according to Don Caldwell, managing editor and meme specialist at KnowYourMeme.com, that's all it takes.
"It seems once a game reaches a certain level of popularity, the fan base is constantly looking to make jokes out of whatever quirky content they discover in the game." he says. "Catchphrase memes like these are easily spread across the entire web and have a very low barrier to entry for participating in their proliferation."
Through the sheer volume of players repeating the message, the underlying idea eventually caught on with people that hadn't played or even heard of Portal before. 'The cake is a lie' is straightforward enough: all your effort is for nothing. Once removed from its fictional context, the phrase carries the same pseudo-intellectual weight as any quote from the Matrix.
And like "There is no spoon" or the more recent "You know nothing, Jon Snow," early use of "the cake is a lie" indicated a wry state of knowing. For Portal players, the phrase represented a shared experience, and for everyone else, a clever way to flag down false sources of motivation.
Shortly after Cake Meme peaked, as most memes do, it quickly outpaced itself and became so far removed from its original context through repeated use that its purpose was lost in the noise. Memes co-opted the catchphrase by haphazardly smashing together One Nerd Thing with Another Nerd Thing. "The cake is a lie" itself became a lie.
According to Caldwell, memes without an attachment to a specific image are easier to distort and deploy. "Catchphrases like this tend to wear out their welcome a bit quicker than other memes, as they get repeated ad nauseum across chatrooms, discussion forums and comment sections across the internet." Caldwell tells me. "The same thing happened with 'I took an arrow in the knee' as well. People got sick of it really fast."
Interest nearly dropped off completely in early 2009 before spiking on July 6 of the same year. Caldwell attributes the renewed interest to an xkcd comic referencing the tired phrase, a sentiment that returning Portal 2 writer Erik Wolpaw wholly endorsed. "If you thought you were sick of the memes, I was sick of it way ahead of you." he told Gamasutra three years into his hell child's life.
Discovered after its release in 2011, Portal 2 still contained one overt reference to cake via a door labeled "Cake Dispenser". The reference is the likely cause of another spike in search traffic and roused some short lived interest in the meme again. After 2011, "the cake is a lie" flatlines.
The trend isn't surprising: popular game memes come and go with increasing frequency. As Caldwell mentioned, Skyrim's 'arrow to the knee' meme drove us all to the brink of quitting games forever, Fallout 4's Preston Garvey became the face of awful quest givers, Adam Jensen never asked for his "I never asked for this" notoriety, and we've been told "It's dangerous to go alone" at a steady rhythm for decades.
Memes have since become their own industry. Games are harvested for sharable content the moment they release, diluting the chance for any one meme to last for more than a few months anymore. "The cake is a lie" isn't the funniest videogame meme ever produced, but we may never have another of the same scale as grassroots as Portal's baked deceit. May it rest in equally divided pieces shared among a dinner party, but may there also be a gluten free option available as well, also resting.
Great memes never truly die, I suppose. Jump to 2:45.
"The cake is a lie" lived like its subject: short and sweet. Its impact was dissolved in misguided overuse, a fate most memes share. Even so, Caldwell thinks while the cake jokes will become extinct in the next decade, he doesn't think we'll ever forget them. "Portal was embraced by the internet in a way that few games had been up until that point. If anything, Portal (and "the cake is a lie") proved that video games could have vibrant, creative online fandoms just like other forms of entertainment."
Now, those vibrant fandoms are the status quo. Even the smallest games have their own subreddits or Discord servers spilling over with fan art and community curated memes. From Dusk's soap secrets to PUBG's chicken dinner, we'll be entertained and overburdened with an endless cycle of exhaustive catchphrases and hackneyed JPEGs captioned with Impact lettering from now until the end of everything.
Begrudgingly, I have to admit that as irritating as "the cake is a lie" became, without it there would be no gentle aura buzzing around Portal's history. We'd look back on it as a great puzzle game with bold, surprising ideas, but we may not have a cultural touchstone for how it made us feel. And I may not have this dumb back tattoo that I still adore in secret, a browser history I can't erase unlike the memes I laugh at and share with alarming frequency.
Cakes are rarely the apex of humor, but Portal proves the memes that sprout from great games come from a gentle place, too.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Team Fortress 2, Portal 2 and other Source Engine games were all affected by a particularly nasty exploit until recently. Basically, by uploading custom assets into a custom map, hackers could use them to trigger a "buffer overflow vulnerability" which resulted in the victim PC being open to remote code execution.
"Valve's Source SDK contained a buffer overflow vulnerability which allowed remote code execution on clients and servers," OUP's statement reads. "The vulnerability was exploited by fragging a player, which caused a specially crafted ragdoll model to be loaded.
Multiple Source games were updated during the month of June 2017 to fix the vulnerability. Titles included CS:GO, TF2, Hl2:DM, Portal 2, and L4D2. We thank Valve for being very responsive and taking care of vulnerabilites swiftly. Valve patched and released updates for their more popular titles within a day."
For a demonstration of how it worked, this very short video tells you all you need to know. Death has never been so scary.
With Valve continuing down its path of never making another game ever again, it’s shed another one of its writers—an increasingly common occurrence. This time it’s Jay Pinkerton, who has been writing for Valve since 2008 and co-wrote Portal 2.
Pinkerton joined Valve after leaving Cracked.com, where he was an editor. He worked with Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek, co-writing Portal 2. Wolpaw left Valve in February, while Faliszek left in May after working on Valve’s virtual reality projects.
You can also thank Pinkerton for a lot of the ancillary stuff that Valve churns out, like the comics and videos that expand Team Fortress 2.
So that’s almost all of Valve’s writers gone in a space of less than two years. The real surprise is that it’s taken this long, frankly. There hasn’t been a game for them to write for in a very long time, only the additional stuff that supports older games.
It’s still a shame, of course. Valve used to be famed for its writing. But on the plus side, there are now considerably more top-notch writers out there actually doing things instead of getting covered in cobwebs inside a broom closet in Valve HQ.
Erik Wolpaw, a long-time Valve writer who has worked on game series including Half-Life 2, Left 4 Dead, and Portal, revealed today that he is no longer with the company. Marc Laidlaw, himself a former Valve writer, let the news slip on Twitter, while Wolpaw confirmed it in a status update on his Facebook page.
Wolpaw joined Valve in 2004, and has credits on Half-Life: Episode One and Two, Left 4 Dead, Portal, and Portal 2. Prior to that, he was with Double-Fine, where he co-wrote the outstanding platform-adventure Psychonauts, and before that he was one-half of the brilliant (and sadly defunct) gaming site Old Man Murray. He's currently involved in the development of Psychonauts 2, which was successfully crowdfunded in early 2016.
A reason for Wolpaw's departure wasn't given, but it does appear to be legitimate this time around. A report that he had left Valve also surfaced last summer, but in that case it turned out that he'd just called in sick for the day.
I've emailed Valve for more information, and will update if and when I received a reply.
Update: The report originally stated that writer Jay Pinkterton had also left the company, but apparently not.
Word of J.J. Abrams-led Portal and Half-Life movies first surfaced three years ago when the esteemed film director and Valve's Gabe Newell floated the idea at the DICE 2013 summit in Las Vegas. In March of this year, Abrams confirmed both films' existence "they're in development", he said however information has been thin on the ground since. When pressed by IGN at Wednesday's Westworld red carpet event, Abrahams confirmed he's meeting with Valve next week.
"We have a meeting coming up next week with Valve, we re very active, I m hoping that there will be a Portal announcement fairly soon," Abrams told IGN. "We are having some really interesting discussions with writers, many of whom...once you said you re doing a movie or show about a specific thing that is a known quantity you start to find people who are rabid about these things."
Which is pretty reassuring, given the fact Newell has spoken before about the poor quality of pitches he's received from Hollywood production companies over the years some of which were "brutally, the worse", as a result of "not understanding what made the game good."
Abrams continued: "As someone who loves playing Half Life and Portal, what s the movie of this, it s incredible when you talk to someone who just gets it, it s like, oh my god, it s really the seed for this incredible tree you re growing.
"I look forward to being able to talk about it and announce who's working on it."
As do I. Now, which Hollywood actors would best suit these roles, I wonder?
The Valve News Network—obviously, not a Valve-run news network, but rather a thorough YouTube channel dedicated to all things Valve—has released a new video, about Portal. The Unseen History of Portal delves deep into the making of the classic puzzler, presenting a bunch of unseen footage and little-known info in the process.
SEE Portal's origins as student project Narbacular Drop, WITNESS its evolution into a Valve property and into the Source engine, and BEHOLD what came after, i.e. cake. PC Gamer even gets a (very) brief mention—did our site really used to look like that?
Science has gone too far. One minute you're enjoying a spot of light testing, the next you're trapped in the infinite, unknowable void between dimensions, outside of space and time itself, staring at the side of your own head through a kaleidoscope. It's remarkable no one has tried it before.
YouTuber CrowbCat used the Portal 2 SDK to set up a test chamber in which two portals could be brought face-to-face. In keeping with scientific spirit, he jumped on in. Somehow, the game doesn't crash and the result is fun to pass off as part of the lore of the universe. In one of an infinite number of Portal timelines, Chell is lost in the orange and blue folds of the fabric of reality. What a way to go.
Joy to the world, the tests are run! The result is a spectacular three-minute Portal carol built in Source Filmmaker by Harry 'Harry101UK' Callaghan. The turrets—including the Animal King, naturally—have come together at this special time of year to spread neurotoxin to the tune of Mykola Leontovych and Peter J. Wilhousky's Carol of the Bells.
Callaghan did the voices and music himself, with turret rigs provided by August 'Rantis' Loolam, which is an exhausting array of talent and an indictment of my own sorry skillset. You can find his YouTube channel here, and the song is available on Bandcamp.