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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The sequel to the hit video game "Portal" comes out today. The original is a small puzzle game that was quietly released four years ago and went on to sell nearly four million copies. NPR's Travis Larchuk has this story on "Portal 2."

(Soundbite of music)

TRAVIS LARCHUK: To understand Portal you kind of have to play it. So I took my X-Box into the studio and gave the controller to MORNING EDITION producer Tom Bullock.

TOM BULLOCK: I play a lot of video games and this looks exactly like a first person shooter. Pretty classic.

LARCHUK: The big difference: no zombie hordes or gangs of bad guys are trying to kill him. In this game, he's all alone, except for an omniscient computer challenging him to escape from a series of rooms.

(Soundbite of game, "Portal 2")

Unidentified Woman #1: This next test is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it.

LARCHUK: Luckily, he has a device that creates portals he can use to teleport himself and objects from place to place.

BULLOCK: Oh, I see. That's how you solve that puzzle. I'll be honest. I did not expect to think this was that much fun.

LARCHUK: When "Portal" came out in 2007, it hooked players, like video game critic Jeff Gerstmann, who I talked to on Skype.

Mr. JEFF GERSTMANN (GiantBomb.com): It was so well written and just the mechanics of it felt so tight that, you know, you take a look at it and it seems like something more.

LARCHUK: Portal began as a student project seven years ago at Digipen Institute. That's a game design school in Washington state. Garrett Rickey was one of seven students on that team. Back then, the game looked and sounded pretty different. And it wasn't called Portal. It was called "Narbacular Drop."

Mr. GARRETT RICKEY: We wanted to make up a word that hadn't been used for anything else so that when someone searched for it we'd be the top link.

LARCHUK: One problem with that strategy: when people Googled the made-up word Narbacular it autocorrected to carbuncular.

Mr. RICKEY: Which is some disease, so that wasn't ideal.

LARCHUK: So naming issues aside...

At a school career day, the video game developer Valve saw the project and invited the students to come back and give the company a demo.

Mr. RICKEY: When we got there and started showing off the game they kept bringing in more and more people, just different people we'd never seen before. And by the end of the day they didn't just give us advice, they offered us a job, which was not what we were expecting at all. This rock star company was going to hire us to make our student project a real shipping game.

"Portal" was short, only a few hours long. It came packaged with two other titles - both shooter games. But "Portal" in particular struck a chord with gamers. Take the dialogue the computer uses to try to get you to do her bidding.

(Soundbite of game, "Portal 2")

Unidentified Woman #1: Quit now and cake will be served immediately.

Mr. ERIK WOLPAW (Writer, "Portal"): You know, if you just do what she says, there's going to be some cake at the end of the game. Like you're going to have a little office party.

LARCHUK: That's "Portal" writer Erik Wolpaw. And, spoiler alert: It turns out that sweet-sounding computer goes all "2001: A Space Odyssey" on you. There is no cake. It's a lie.

Mr. WOLPAW: And somehow, for whatever reason, The Cake Is A Lie caught on as this thing that was appearing everywhere.

LARCHUK: On blogs, message boards, people even started making "Portal"-themed wedding cakes. And then there's this.

(Soundbite of song, "Still Alive")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) But there's no sense crying over every mistake. You just keep on trying 'til you run out of cake.

LARCHUK: The song is called "Still Alive." The computer sings it to you when the game's over. It was written by singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, who's known for his quirky lyrics.

Mr. JONATHAN COULTON (Songwriter): Immediately there were all of these spin-offs and people doing covers on the ukulele. And I think it's an elementary school chorus who sang the song.

(Soundbite of song, "Still Alive")

GIFFORD CHILDREN'S CHOIR: (Singing) You just keep on trying 'til you run out of cake.

LARCHUK: That's the Gifford Children's Choir from Racine, Wisconsin, singing the "Portal" song.

Now Valve, the company that made "Portal," has gone all out for the sequel. "Portal 2" is four times longer. It's a standalone game with a big publicity push behind it - TV ads, billboards, the works. It's a senior class project, all grown up.

Travis Larchuk, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) I'm not even angry.

MONTAGNE: It's NPR News.

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