F-Stop “Exposed”…

We finally get a peek inside the now-mythical “Portal” prequel that never was… After the break…

F-Stop “Exposed”…

Rumors, myths & legends all start out with some amount of truth behind them. Because we don’t know the full story, though, these small bits of truth then become elaborated upon by others until the final product is so overblown and preposterous that few, if any, can believe the purported story without any skepticism.

Living in an age of “fake news,” it is hard to separate what are genuine events and what is fictional. Actors, such as the late Carrie Fisher & James Dean, are being replaced by CGI wizardry in movies that they were not alive to act in. Artificial Intelligence learning is allowing us the ability to “fake” the voices of celebrities to the point where even specialized programs can no longer tell the difference between an actual human voice and a fake computer simulation.

Take, for example, the purported video game tale of “Polybius,” an arcade game that was supposedly invented by the United States military to explore the depths of psychological torture in the form of invoking epilepsy in unsuspecting gamers. Or, if you believe those pesky researchers who try to separate fact from fiction, “Polybius” is simply an internet “meme” that started in the mid 1990s and doesn’t have a single scrap of evidence that it ever even existed.

“Polybius” isn’t the only video game rumor, myth & legend, of course; There are hundreds if not thousands of tall tales involving the computer & video game industry. “Creepypasta” (yes, that’s a word) is an internet twist on the old-fashioned ghost stories of the past. Instead of telling tales about the old, run-down Victorian mansion down the street, kids tell tales about cursed versions of video games that have left unwitting gamers blind or have transported them into the game itself only to mauled by the in-game villains or the villains come out of the video game to kill the gamers or the game is so horrific that the gamer becomes irreversibly psychotic and can’t describe the horrific sights that they saw.

Of the many, many, MANY legends, rumors & myths about computer and video gaming to crop up over the years, one is particularly significant: “F-Stop.”

If you’re into computer gaming, the name “Valve Software” should be extraordinarily familiar to you. They were the makers of the “Half-Life” game franchise, featuring Gordon Freeman as a scientist trapped in a sprawling, underground military complex that had been invaded by space aliens. “Half-Life” (known later as “Half-Life 1” was wildly popular for it’s day and spawned an equally popular sequel, “Half-Life 2,” which was one of the first games to exhibit real-time physics as a gameplay mechanic (such as the fabled “gravity gun”).

Valve software would later be known for it’s digital distribution platform, called “Steam,” but they weren’t entirely done with publishing successful software. They published one more wildly successful franchise (Yes, I’m skipping over some other successful titles as well, such as “Team Fortress”): Portal.

The game “Portal” was a phenomenal in that it broke the rules of first-person gaming. Before “Portal” you couldn’t “create” your own doorways in first-person gaming: For instance, you couldn’t move a door from one wall and place it onto another while playing the game. Sure, there were games that allowed you to “teleport” from one location to the other but that mechanic wasn’t exactly the same or it wasn’t essential towards the gameplay. In “Portal,” you could create your own doors, essentially creating the entrance and exit points wherever you pleased within a reasonable degree. It was a breathtaking gameplay innovation that nearly single-handedly created the first-person gaming genre and the phrase “Portal clone” was soon created.

Now, to be fair, some history surrounding “Portal” is being glossed over for brevity’s sake. Valve didn’t create “Portal,” they merely hired a game developer who made an earlier prototype called “Narbacular Drop” and published a far more polished game that existed within the “Half Life” fictional universe. Also, there was a prior game in development by game developer “3D Realms” called “Prey” that had the exact same mechanic but met with a variety of delays and was more of a conventional first-person shooter.

“Portal,” though, was wildly popular: People wanted more “Portal” and they wanted it now. And they got it, with “Portal 2,” which gave gamers all of the gameplay mechanics of Portal 1 with some new mechanics including a variety of “goo” that altered the physics of surfaces that could be walked upon.

Yet “Portal 2” was not the sequel that Valve originally intended to release. In fact, “Portal 2” as released resembled nearly nothing, outside of some set dressings, of what the sequel to “Portal” was going to be.

What Valve wanted to release was something that they called “F-Stop” and it is this game, never to be made, quietly cancelled and re-booted into what would become “Portal 2,” that would fall into legend.

“F-Stop” supposedly had a brand-new gameplay mechanic that Valve believed would be just as good, if not better, than the “place doors anywhere” mechanic that they had introduced previously. They were so enthusiastic about this game and it’s gameplay that they spent nearly 2 years developing it until they stumbled upon a humbling reality: People wanted more “Portal,” new innovative gameplay mechanics be damned. Sure, the beta testers enjoyed “F-Stop” but where were the portals? Where was the leading character of the Portal series, Chell? Where was her arch-nemesis, a psychopathic computer named “GlaDOS”?

Valve was heartbroken and salvaged some of the setting and the characters from “F-Stop” into what is now “Portal 2.”

But what was the mythical, wonderful, mind-blowing mechanic of “F-Stop”? Nobody quite knew. There were a few pre-production art pieces released and speculation slowly grew rampant. It involved a camera… It involved manipulating images… It involved mannequins… But these tiny pieces of speculation could never create a cohesive whole.

Eventually, people guessed that “F-Stop” had to do with manipulating the size of ordinary objects, to make small objects bigger and to make big objects smaller to escape various predicaments. A few game design assets from F-Stop still resided in Portal 2 and the speculation solidified that the base gameplay elements had to involve forced perspective in some way.

Time passed and Valve remained silent. A game demo, initially called “Museum of Simulation Technology,” turned into a full-featured game called “Superliminal” that featured a forced perspective mechanic but it was not connected to the “Half-Life” universe, nor did it ever credit itself with being a ‘spiritual successor’ to the mythical “F-Stop” concept. Other people also produced game demos featuring forced perspective but these efforts were also just speculative on the part of gamers.

It appeared as though “F-Stop,” now nearly a decade removed from ever becoming a game, would fade into history, a legend of what might have been…

Until December 22, 2019, when game developer “Lunchhouse Software” revealed that Valve had given them the “F-Stop” source code and assets for them to create a game based upon those assets. The new game, titled “Exposure,” would continue where “F-Stop” had left off. A YouTube video showed the workings of the main gameplay mechanic, confirming that the game was about forced perspective but also revealing that the physics of those objects were retained regardless of their size and location manipulation.

It’s not often that significant rumors, myths & legends have their truths revealed. Valve is notorious for being tight-lipped on what it develops. Only snippets about cancelled games ever make it out of it’s offices…  A screenshot here, a brief statement there and usually long after the fact.

As exciting as it was to see the long-in-development “Superliminal” be finally released, it wasn’t “F-Stop”; Just a game that purportedly used the same basic gameplay mechanic. What Lunchhouse Software has IS “F-Stop.”

Here’s to hoping that gamers can finally play what Valve quietly tucked away from sight so many, many years ago…


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