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Jonathan Coulton

Jonathan Coulton is a musician and songwriter. A former computer programmer and self-described geek, Coulton tends to write quirky, witty lyrics about topics like science fiction and technology: a man[…]

Roger Ebert says no, but Jonathan Coulton weighs in on the power of some games to move you.

Question: What did your song about "Portal" mean to you asrn a video games fan? 
Jonathan Coulton:rn I was very proud to work on "Portal." I had been a fan of the company rnValve for some time. I had played their games before. So when they askedrn me if I'd be interested in writing music for them, I said absolutely, rnwithout hesitation. And I played an early version of that game and like rnthe rest of the Internet, I had seen the teaser trailer for it and so I rnwas excited about it, and I knew it was going to be cool. And then when rnwe came up with this idea to have one of the characters sing a song, at rnthe end, basically put a musical theater number in the game. It seemed rnfun and awesome, but also like maybe it wasn't such a good idea and it rnwasn't going to work out. But when we were finished, we were all kind ofrn happy with the results. But we didn't know how people were going to rnrespond to it and of course everybody just went crazy, which was rnextremely gratifying. For me, I grew up playing video games, and there'srn that thing that happens at the end of the game. In particular, a game rnthat has a long story arc to it or a kind of quest to it. You get to thern end and you're a little sad, you know, because you've been existing in rnthis world and you've been participating in this story and then suddenlyrn it's over. And you know that there's no new that thing anymore. You're rndone with new that thing and so I took inspiration from that. The paradern of all the characters at the end of Super Mario brothers, it's a rncelebratory moment too, but there's also a little bit of sadness, when rnyou sort of sit back and watch the credits because damn it, you've rnearned it. 

So I wanted it to be like that. It's funny, my rndaughter and I, my daughter who's five, we just played a game called “A rnBoy and His Blob,” which is a long platforming game where you have a rnfriend who's a blob of stuff and if you feed him certain jelly beans, rnhe'll turn in to different tools that you can use to solve puzzles. And rnso she and I played that together and for weeks and weeks, I watched herrn figure out how to play a video game, which was awesome. And then, at rnthe end, we killed the last bad guy and the credits started to roll and rnshe started to cry. And I was like, oh I know, I know exactly how you rnfeel because that's what it is at the end of the game. So, I'm of coursern pretty pleased with how Portal turned out and how it was received and Irn still think it's a terrific game, even leaving aside the song, it's rnjust such a brilliantly drawn character that you get to know in GlaDOS rnthroughout the game and you come to really love her and understand her rnby the end, even though she's trying to kill you. And I think that's a rnremarkable achievement in any medium. 

Question: Do yourn think video games can be an art form? 

Jonathan Coulton: Irn do. Roger Ebert actually wrote a blog post recently where he declared rnhis opinion, which is that video games can never be art. And immediatelyrn there were thousands and thousands of comments from people disagreeing rnwith him. And I won't get into the details of his argument, I think we rnjust have a fundamental disagreement about semantics, which immediately rnmakes it a really complicated issue to discuss. But, yes, I certainly rnthink that video games are a young medium and only recently have we beenrn able to have the kind of video and audio experiences that are strong rnenough to really carry a story and create a vision and all that stuff. 

Although,rn that said, I think the trend of art games is really interesting, games rnthat are playable but not really winnable; they are experiences and theyrn are artworks. There's a game called Passage, that is really just a sortrn of metaphor for going through life and making choices and ultimately rndying and it's really very powerful. It takes a few minutes to play. rnIt's not a very interesting game to play and then at the end of it, it rnmoves you. And you know if that's not art, I don't know what is. 

Question:rn Will there be a sequel to “Portal?” 

Jonathan Coulton:rn I have not started working on it yet, but yes, I have had some rndiscussions with Valve about writing music for "Portal II" and it does rnlook like it's going to happen. I don't think I'm allowed to talk about rnany details but I have seen some demo stuff of the new game and there's arn lot of cool stuff in it and you know I'm really pleased to be dipping rnback into that universe again. I think the game is going to be rnfantastic. I am also terrified about that because it's, I don't think rnthere's any way we can follow up on the success of "Portal I." But, rnwe'll do our best.
Recorded on May 6, 2010