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  • 05.05.11

iPad App Goes Behind The Scenes Of “Portal 2”, Pushing Limits Of Storytelling

Geoff Keighley’s 15,000-word multimedia opus about the making of a hit videogame could serve as a model for publishing a la carte journalism as apps.

iPad App Goes Behind The Scenes Of “Portal 2”, Pushing Limits Of Storytelling

Geoff Keighley is kind of like the John McPhee of video game journalism: he made his name by publishing exhaustively reported, fly-on-the-wall accounts of the making of blockbuster games like Metal Gear Solid 2 and Half-Life 2. Then he realized he had to do un-McPhee-like jobs (like writing for Entertainment Weekly and producing shows on G4 and SpikeTV) to make a living. But he never let go of his passion for writing epic behind-the-scenes stories about video game creators — and in 2010, he saw a dual opportunity.

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“I equate this to the music industry, where everyone buys singles now.”

Valve, the game studio behind Half-Life 2, was putting the finishing touches on a sequel to its cult-hit game Portal. (Whose creators we interviewed here.) And Apple released the iPad. “I knew Portal 2 was going to be a phenomenon, and I was excited about the iPad’s possibilities for long-form journalism,” Keighley tells Co.Design. “These things were the perfect storm.”

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The result, a $1.99 app called “The Final Hours of Portal 2,” is a 15,000 word, 13-chapter opus stuffed to the gills with magazine-quality photos, videos, and interactives. Sound like an intimidatingly dense, loss-leader passion project? Wrong: it’s doing gangbusters business and raking in five-star ratings. “I equate this to the music industry, where everyone buys singles now,” Keighley says. “There’s a shift going on in publishing much like what happened in the music business, where the single became popular online. And our app shows that a deep dive on a particular topic can be very appealing.”

Keighley teamed up with designer Joe Zeff to ensure that the text content and app functionality were woven together tightly from the get-go. “I hadn’t written one word before speaking to Joe,” Keighley says. Instead of using a templated solution, Zeff started with a blank slate on the WoodWing publishing platform. (The pair briefly considered building the app with same Adobe tools that Wired uses, but it was still in beta at the time.) “This is the difference between an off the rack suit and a custom designed garment,” Zeff says. “It all had to fit perfectly.”

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The reading experience is highly immersive and also packed with momentum.

Two key user-experience decisions were made quickly. First, that the app would have a baked-in landscape view as opposed to a dual design that reflows the page elements depending on how the user is holding the device. “We decided that on day one,” says Zeff. “Geoff wanted a 15-page magazine article that didn’t look like a magazine, so our first impulse was to turn it on its side!” A landscape orientation also served the demands of the widescreen multimedia content, Geoff adds. “Our app is so long and in-depth, you want to invite the reader to settle in.”

Second, Keighley and Zeff decided the interface would be ruthlessly simple: all the reader does is swipe each page from right to left (as opposed to multi-dimensional navigation schemes like Wired, The Atavist, and Mag+ employ). “You sometimes have designers from print finding themselves with this whole new toolbox [on the iPad] and trying all of them at once,” Zeff says. “We designed this app like a highway: you start at one end and drive along the road, seeing things along the side, but you don’t get pulled to all these off-ramps and then worry about how to get back on the main road.”

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By embedding the story in a fixed widescreen layout and dead-simple interface, “The Final Hours of Portal 2” creates a reading experience that’s highly immersive and also packed with momentum — an essential attribute for something this long. Could this design approach work for non-videogame journalism, too? “It’s true that video games tend to have a lot of interactive assets to take advantage of [in this format], and Portal itself has a huge fan base already, but sure, I think it will work for other topics,” says Keighley. And the highly differentiated, a la carte, “bespoke” nature of the design is essential to the success of this publishing model. “Other publications that put out their content more regularly have tight timelines, and in that model it’s hard to innovate,” Keighley notes. “But this model clearly works for long form, ‘event’ pieces. I’m not doing it every week or every month — it’s special, and readers respond to that.”

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[Click here for our interview with Portal 2’s creators.]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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