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Monday
Jul252011

Portal 2

I was with a group of game designers and I said, "Probably I'm in the minority here, but I was really disappointed with Portal 2." To my surprise, everyone there (about 10 game designers) agreed, and not a single person was willing to take up the contrary position. I'll explain the complaints, but first I'd rather say what is great. This is all about the single player mode, by the way.

Mechanics Spoiler

I think the mechanics are great. SPOILER of mechanics. I'll just casually mention some here, and you can skip this paragraph if you'd rather not know them ahead of time, in a strange world where you have somehow not played this game yet. Anyway, there are beams that you redirect through portals, bridges made of light you can extend through portals. There are three kinds of liquid goo that you can spatter around the world, each with different properties. I really liked the kind that let you portal off of otherwise unportable material. There are force fields beams that carry you over pits, and you can redirect those through portals. All of this stuff is great. My letter grade is A or A+ here.

Good Stuff

The beginning of the game was probably pretty difficult to design. It has to kind of feel like the old game, also it has to have easy stuff that's like the beginning of the old game so new players know wtf is going on mechanics-wise. It also has to introduce some sort of story and tell us where and when (and who!) we are, relative to the last game. I think it succeeded on all these fronts. Another A grade.

The end (not like the last minute, I mean the last 20% or something) has to put together stuff we learned and give challenges that are more complex than the earlier ones. There's a lot of mechanics here, so it might have been hard to figure out just how to put these together for us in the last several puzzles. I think this was done very well, too.

Subtractive Design is Needed

What's the damn problem then? Everything sounds pretty great! Well, there are three things. The first is that there's this pretty long middle section of the game that kind of throws away what is good about Portal. Instead of small environments where you can portal off of almost anything, it's large environments where you can portal off of almost nothing. These environments look great, so whoever implemented them did a great job, but their very existence makes for a worse experience, in my opinion. Sometimes these parts felt more like a "Where's Waldo" puzzle of just finding the tiny thing that I'm allowed to shoot a portal on.

One designer raised the point, "Whether the environment is large with few portable surfaces or small with many portable surfaces, it's solving a puzzle either way. In both cases, there is usually going to be one correct solution to the puzzle, so does the objection really matter?"

We were all quick to say, "Yes, it matters." The best articulation of this point was that in a small room with nearly all portable surfaces, you are surrounded by choices that are wrong. It takes thinking to figure out what would be a right thing to do. But the feeling is not the same in a large environment with very few portable surfaces. There, you have very few choices and you can solve a puzzle by performing the only real legal moves, not even knowing exactly why it worked. Sometimes not really having to think about it.

Why do these large areas even exist at all? My guess is that there was an executive decision to sell a boxed $60 game, and that game design should just figure out what to do. I hope I'm wrong in that guess. A more sensible approach would be to make the best game possible, and sell it for whatever price made sense. At $60, I am guessing Valve thought people needed to feel a more grandiose experience. And further, that the game needed to be at least a certain length and a series of small test rooms would feel too monotonous for $60's worth of length, whatever that means. So to vary the experience, maybe they thought, "What if you could portal around a Half-Life-like environment?!" Nice idea maybe, but I think some subtractive design would have removed that, for the better. There's something pleasing about the idea that the Portal 1 world is all portable, except for specifically marked black material. The long middle section of Portal 2 teaches us that any old random material is not portable, only the white texture is portable. It just feels sad, like it's not following through with the really bold concept of "if you can portal off everything, how is there still a game?" Portal 1 answers that, but Portal 2 is like afraid to fully embrace it during this middle section.

Objection 2

The above was my strong objection. There were two other objections by other designers. One was that the game is just too easy. I hadn't thought much about that, but when he said that...yeah it did seem pretty easy overall. You could say the market has spoken, and they want easy games. That's not a very satisfying answer to me though. A game like Rez shows how it can be hard (score attack, trying to get 100% shot-down), easy, or even zero difficulty with "traveling" mode. What if I wanted a harder Portal 2? Why can't I have that?

I'll tell you why I can't have it. Because if a puzzle is too hard, it will stop all progression. There is no way around it, given the structure of the game. I think this is where Portal can learn something from Braid. Braid faced that same design problem, but it had a different solution. In Braid, you can progress past a puzzle you're stuck on, you can just skip it basically. Maybe something will click for you later, and you'll go back and finish it (you want credit for all those puzzle pieces after all!). This type of structure allows the designer to make harder puzzles and get away with it. I kind of wish Portal 2 had done this.

Objection 3

This brings us to the last objection I heard, and it's the most subtle one. The objection is that Portal 2's underlying goal is sort of the wrong one. The design goal appears to be to give the player that "aha!" moment (ok, great) but to not care too much about how he got there. The claim is that a better goal would be to primarily care about the transmission of an idea from the designer to the player. This is a pretty interesting point, so let's look at what's really being said here, and how it differs in Braid and in Portal.

Jonathan Blow has said publicly several times that Braid is not about making the hardest possible puzzle. He isn't afraid of having a hard puzzle, and as we discussed earlier, giving the player a way to skip a puzzle, keep going, then come back later allows the puzzles to be harder than they'd be allowed to be in a strictly linear game. Anyway, he says the point is to have INTERESTING puzzles, which is a different concept than hard ones. Braid is trying to communicate ideas about time to the player. When a new mechanic is introduced, the puzzle is usually something that makes the player realize the logical consequences of whatever time-thing is going on. By realizing that, the player can solve the puzzle.

Let's go back to Portal now, and use some more concrete examples. One of the very first things in both Portal 1 and Portal 2 is situation where you see the orange portal in front of you, on the other side of a pit. You have the blue portal gun, but not the orange gun. (Or maybe you do have the orange one in the Portal 2 version of this, I forget). Ok so you shoot a blue portal right next to you and this lets you come out the orange portal, on the other side of the pit. Yay!

But now there's a left turn and another pit between you and the way out. The very first moment I saw this in Portal 1, there was a split second where I thought, "Ok, so I need the orange portal gun." I was thinking that I just came out of an orange portal, so I need to put an orange one on the far wall. But of course after just a moment, I realized that's not true. All I need is the blue portal gun because I can go *in* the orange portal I just came *out* of and it will lead to the room's exit as long as I put a new blue portal past the second pit.

Another way of describing this is that in this moment, I learned the concept of using one central portal to go in and out of, while you move the position of the "satellite" portal. This is almost too easy of a concept to write so much about, but it's an example of the right kind of thing. I don't think this first "puzzle" had any challenge whatsoever, but it caused me to think something and understand something, so it was a very good thing to have in the game.

A more complicated example is concept of momentum through a portal. At some point, Portal 1 shows you that if you put a portal way down at the bottom of a pit and fall into it, then you can come out of some other portal somewhere else really fast. Maybe fast enough to fly across some other pit. Again, that puzzle isn't really about it being hard, it's about communicating that idea to me. That idea is a tool, and I can now use that tool in my arsenal as I progress through the game.

Portal 2 does have moments like this, but I almost think they are a side-effect rather than the entire point of the game design. There are so many other moments that are more like shooting around at whatever available where's-waldo surface, and somehow progressing. Progressing in a situation like this can be "wow, it worked!" and it seems Valvle polished up those moments to be all they can be. But "wow, it worked!" is just not the same depth of experience as "wow, I get it now!" Portal 2 does have those moments, but I think it has way too many of the "wrong" kind of wow.

To put it another way, I felt Braid was trying to educate me, in a way. Portal 2 seems more concerned with entertaining me. Being an entertainment product, it's hard to fault a game for being entertaining, but the worst parts just feel...more shallow or something than the experience from the education moments. In both Braid AND Portal 2, the education moments are are very satisfying, so it seems that should have been more of the goal.

Despite all these complaints, I still recommend the game. It's highly polished, has great mechanics, and is...well...entertaining.

Reader Comments (12)

Been silently reading your blog for years now, and felt like chipping in here.

Saying I was disappointed would be far too strong (I loved the game, despite its flaws), but the #1 and #2 objections you listed just nailed the gripes I had been mentioning to my friends. #1 in particular. That middle section really felt like it dragged on, and I felt that Valve was being especially cruel by periodically letting us know that we had gone up another 100 feet out of the 6000 or whatever that were remaining. If it wasn't for the moments with Cave Johnson and the fact that they let us take an elevator for the last few thousand feet, that middle section likely would have ruined the game for me, since, as you said, it was just a matter of finding the spot, rather than having to think.

As for #2, while I'm uncertain how it could be made non-linear in a way that would make sense (I'm just an enthusiast, not a designer, after all), raising the difficulty within the context of the story would be a welcome change.

For #3, while synthesizing new tools from the ones you've been given is definitely a satisfying type of "aha", I've always found it more satisfying when it's paired with a challenge or plot advancement, rather than standing alone. Otherwise, it can feel like it breaks the immersion when I'm given a jarringly obvious tutorial level. For instance, if I suddenly see a level with nothing in it but a new mechanic to learn, my first thought is that the developers are holding my hand too strongly while teaching. And if that level occurs somewhere other than at the very start of the game, my second thought is that the next portion of the game will be defined by the use of that mechanic, which again takes me out of the game. It's nice to have levels which strongly feature new mechanics so that you can grasp them, but there's a real danger in making the level feel like it has no value to the story in doing so, since you're effectively putting everything on pause while teaching that mechanic.

Even so, I remember that blue portal level you mentioned, and it really was a good moment, so maybe I don't have all of my own thoughts together on the matter.

Anyway, what Portal 2 lacked for at least part of the game was the sort of "aha" moments resulting from when the player discerned the proper course of action from the multitude of options available. To me, that should be the bread-and-butter "aha" moment for a puzzle game, but it's dependent on the puzzles being challenging enough to demand some actual thought, while being simple enough that the player doesn't forfeit their thought and flail. Portal 2 definitely erred on the side of being too easy, which resulting in puzzles that didn't prompt much thought (too few choices in the middle made thought unnecessary, re-used patterns near the end that hadn't been reinvented or twisted in some way made identifying the steps too simple, etc.).

The game was big enough that they did have some excellent "aha" moment tossed in amidst the more lackluster "I did it" moments (very true near the end), but I definitely have to agree that excising various portions of the game would have made for a better game. It certainly would have provided better pacing, better overall content, and more enjoyment.

July 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

On the topic of "why do these large areas exist", I'd assume it's a combination of wanting a decently lengthed game, and them having the art assets. Apparently, Portal 2's storyline was originally intended to be entirely in the past, in those retro-modern environments and enrichment spheres. This is back when they were making the game without Portals at all, before they basically did a complete reboot. I'd assume they went "Hey, we have all of these assets from the 50's, we may as well try and make use of them". In that sense, I'd say they did a good job.

About that section of the game being a huge disconnect and intensely frustrating, I couldn't agree more. It's funny you mentioned about how you said "It's probably just me, but..." - I felt the same exact way. In fact, that section of the game basically ruined Portal 2 for me. Up until then, I was having an absolute blast. Stephen Merchant was great, the story was great, the level design was fantastic, about everything was A+ aside from some small annoying changes to the gameplay mechanics. Once I hit the Cave levels, it just got worse and worse until I eventually was playing out of pure frustration. I called this section to friends "find the white pixel" - your "Where's Waldo" analogy is spot on. Eventually, I noclipped my way out of a Cave level. Yes, that's how hard the damned little piece of concrete was to find - after about 45 minutes of looking around and being absurdly frustrated, I cheated. I can't remember the last time a game has forced me to do that, and it's a damn shame that Portal 2 was the game that made me do it. It's not even a game where you can really be killed by enemies, haha!

July 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Zehnich

I'm starting to feel like one of the only people who didn't mind the middle-portion of the game. Don't get me wrong, I loved the early sections but I enjoyed the much needed change of pace the middle offered and I loved Cave Johnson. I was actually disappointed when the game shoved me back into levels and levels of traditional testing environments. Frankly I was rather tired of them. It was nice to see different environments than stark white sanitary testing facilities that I had seen so much of not only in the beginning of the game, but also it's predecessor.

HOWEVER, I do agree that the sections in the industrial portion that was more pixel hunt than puzzle solving could be a bit irritating.

One of the biggest of my problems that I've explained to people about Portal 2 is that I played the first one first. That probably makes little sense, but Portal 2 was just building on what was established in the first game. It had the same kind of environments and some of the same characters. Portal 2 seems much more in the vein of a Portal 1.5, or that Portal 1 was a proof of concept than Portal 2 feels like a true sequel.

July 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRiss

To me, the point of portal is to have fun playing with portals, just like the point of Mario is to have fun jumping and running. If you don't let me portal however I want, its like having all the tiles in mario not jumpable except for the one right before a pit. They're limiting the amount of fun I can have with portals.

July 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstew

Thank you for teasing out the subtle reasons this game made me feel uneasy about its value. I immediately recognized the issues you mentioned. When I first played the game, I excused the boredom in the middle section of the game as probably the result of a played out gameplay mechanic (in addition to being filler for the $60 price point.) I figured they probably had run out of possibilities for the puzzles. I should've known that logic would fall apart because I also realized that they introduced several new mechanics from the first game. I felt like I couldn't quite say that the game was a disappointment, but now when reflecting clearly on the problems as you mention them, I see how much better they could've done.

In conclusion, it really was a disappointment. It's not a total waste though. You live, you learn. Hopefully the designers of Portal 2 will see their mistakes in this product and improve on whatever project they work with next time.

July 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchance

To add onto what stew said, I liked how in Portal 1 a lot of the later puzzles felt more freeform and almost improvisational. Every test chamber in Portal 2 feels like there is one intended solution and nothing else can work. The Mario analogy perfectly describes how I feel about that, and why I'm generally wary of games that feel too "context-sensitive" - it feels like you're playing with handcuffs on even when you have these awesome moves that are supposed to make you free.

July 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPoisonDagger

Re: Large areas with only one "solution." I don't think the large areas (I assume you are speaking about the later half of the game in the lower levels of Apature) are suposed to be super challenging or at all like the "test chambers." They are there to provide the epic scale of the environment, as well as to pace the content. Valve's signature is their pacing. They were the first ones to recognize that gamers get bored of the same thing over and over and over again. That's why Half Life and Half-Life 2 interspersed puzzle-rooms between their combat sequences. It seems quite analogous to Portal 2's "travel spaces" between the puzzle rooms. I really enjoyed those traveling areas, as it really brought to life that "this is not just a collection of rooms, this is really a complex." That helped provide a good deal of the immersion to me. None of it felt like padding the game length either the first or 2nd time I went through the game.

Also, being able to portal off of everything makes the game too easy. That's why you get restricted in the later sections of Portal 1. There are probably a few clever ways to make "infinite" portal rooms challenging, but by and large you need the restriction in order to find a challenge.

I actually enjoyed the middle section more than any other. It told the story of appature science visually, through a broken down test chamber. If you pay close attention, you'll notice that the first chamber has velvet and expensive wooden molding. They announce "welcome astronauts, sports stars, etc." As you progress upwards, the technology starts to improve, the logo changes. But the more subtle change is how the environment starts to look more shabby, and the announcements now start speaking of the dregs of society instead of the best of society that they started with. It's a bit of tragic moment when you start realizing that aperture is going downhill, and then what happens to Cave...it's a very emotional setting in a game with an otherwise very upbeat, humerus narrative.

The way I look at Portal 2, is that the mechanics are a vehicle for telling the story. The mechanics are not the reason to play the game, because I did find most of it quite easy. The fact that I didn't get stuck on anything allowed me to continue to enjoy the story, however.

However, there were a few times where the puzzles seemed too obvious, the solutions too broadcasted. The Co-Op experience was more difficult and involved more maneuvers while in flight. I hope to see more of this in the DLC they announced. Those reminded me of the cool stuff you could do at the end of Portal 1.

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBridger

I understand what is being said here, commenters included, but apparently I just don't fit into the group at all.

Playing with portals just don't do it for me. And, of course, this article was written from the design standpoint, but as as someone who's not a designer I had enough fun with the initial test chambers to just immerse myself in the plotline when the areas grew larger.

I was most definitely not disappointed by this title. I also would enjoy it a lot less if any of the puzzles featured a skipping option.

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHopp

Nice design of games.HOWEVER, I do agree that the sections in the industrial portion that was more pixel hunt than puzzle solving could be a bit irritating.

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSwords

I'm surprised you didn't write anything about the extremely pandering and fan-serving writing in Portal 2. They essentially ruined the GladOS character. I appreciate their resistance to including anything about cake, but really, that was a very, VERY easy decision to make. Had they said anything about cake (or god forbid, the level of truth regarding said cake), it would have obviously been the most horrible thing ever, so it's hard to give them too much credit there. But including GladOS at all really was a mistake. Making her into your buddy for part of the game was equally bad.

Other than that I generally agree with your comments. The game is, I'd say, in all ways far weaker than the original portal. Also - multiplayer? What? Only useful if BOTH players haven't played the game.

November 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKeith Burgun

GladOS seemed fine to me.

November 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

It's been over a year now since I played through Portal. I remember playing through it once they playing through it again with the developer commentary. In my opinion I disagree with the article. I felt the flow of the whole game was just right and the middle section was a breath of fresh air. You start with the basic mechanics, then let the player play around with the mechanics then you dive into this fantastic atmosphere that tells a story. It becomes more of a hunt and that encourages me to explore the whole area and that's is what I loved about it, and then we jump into complex puzzles. I think Valve certainly understands and uses subtractive design.

Portal 2 isn't just a puzzle game, if you were to really apply subtractive design you would strip away all the narrative, dialogue and environment that get's in the way of the puzzle. Portal 2 is a world you can lose yourself in like you do a book, there are moments that require a lot of though and moments where you can take a breath.

July 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLuke Perkin
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