Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Now you're thinking with portals.

Well, it's approaching a month since it was released and I'm finally blogging about it. I guess the lapse of time makes it less of an issue if I include spoilers, though I'll still try not to.
Portal 2 spoilers, that is. Original Portal will be spoiled in this blog post, but it came out in 2007 and spawned multiple internet memes, so I'm pretty sure if you don't know how the game goes you probably don't care either. If you do care, odds are massively in favour of you knowing how the game goes, even if you haven't played it yourself.

Sidenote: If you haven't played the game yourself, you should go and do so. Like, right now. This blog post can wait. Go play Portal.

While this post is primarily about Portal 2, I will definitely be touching on the original, to compare the two if nothing else.

The basic concept of the Portal games is of course very simple - you can make two portals so if you go in one you come out the other regardless of actual distance between the two. There are a few finer details and additional puzzle elements, but it's all based around that simple central concept. The difference between the two lies to a significant extent in how much extra stuff there is - puzzle elements, different environments, plot, dialogue. So in fact I think I'll break down this post into talking about those things, though not in exactly that order.

Environments
In original Portal, you spend almost the entire game in the brightly gleaming Aperture Science test chambers, getting only occasional glimpses at the more grimy behind the scenes areas until the end of test chamber 19, where GLaDOS tries to burn you to death and you escape into those behind the scenes areas and go confront her. Even those behind the scenes areas never struck me as overly complicated. There is excellent attention to detail, but there's only so much detail needed.
The only other environment point is related to the puzzles. At some points certain panels would move specifically to draw attention to them when playtesters didn't necessarily get what they were supposed to be doing. (For example, the issue that it can be rather hard to get people to look up, but in Portal it can sometimes be very important that they do) And some surfaces would be patterned slightly differently, or have little hints from the Rat Man scrawled on them, similarly to guide the player towards the solution.

Portal 2, on the other hand, is more complicated. We come back to a facility in ruins, somewhat overgrown with plants. The opening sequence is comparable to the opening of Half Life when the train takes you all around the Black Mesa facility and you get a look at the place - but in this case you're in a moving room which is slowly falling apart, and you see other things which are falling apart through holes in the walls. So, yeah, more complicated. Plants and wreckage, things falling apart, the test chambers are not so bright and gleaming any more. And then there are more behind the scenes areas, showing more complicated stuff, so more than just getting to the other side of the observation windows and seeing pipes and things, you actually get a look at how things work at Aperture Science. Things being constructed. Things being destroyed. And so on. And there is wonderful attention to detail, though the loss of the elegant simplicity gives it a bit of a different feel.
Now, the environment guiding you towards puzzle solutions is still there. Possibily a bit too much in places. I've seen people complain about the fact that in some puzzles it's pretty much a case of putting portals on the only available portalable surfaces and working from there. Of course sometimes the portalable surfaces have to be limited for the puzzle to be at all difficult. But sometimes there certainly could be more, so you'd have to think more about where you really need your portals to be, instead of the game effectively just telling you.
Other point - linearity. Now, fair enough, linearity is how Valve do things, and obviously in a puzzle game you can't really allow a great deal of exploration. But nonetheless when you're out of the test chambers it does seem a tad implausible at times that all the wreckage is such that there is exactly one way you can continue. It's a minor loss of verisimilitude though, and I don't really know how it could have been avoided without reducing the amount of behind the scenes stuff.

Dialogue
Is hilarious in both games. This was one of the things that made Portal great in the first place. Because it had not just a load of rather interesting puzzles, but also some wonderful dark humour to keep things from becoming tedious. It also gave the game replay value. It's not generally that fun to replay a puzzle game, because you know how to solve all the puzzles, but with Portal it's worth it for GLaDOS' eminently quotable dialogue. Well, technically monologue, I suppose, since in the original the only other characters are you (apparently mute), the turrets (don't interact with GLaDOS) and the Companion Cube ("The Enrichment Centre would like to remind you that the Weighted Companion Cube cannot speak. In the event the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Centre urges you to disregard its advice.")
Anyway, funny, and producing wonderful lines like the one I just quoted in parentheses, and "Nice job breaking it hero," and a slew of others. I think I've mentioned before that Valve have their own section in the examples of the 'Memetic Mutation' trope on TVTropes, and one of the entries therein says simply "Pretty much everything GLaDOS says."

Now, in Portal 2, we have basically more of the same from GLaDOS, though the dynamic has changed somewhat due to the events of the previous game, where you, y'know, killed her. In fact she's somewhat less creepy, because she's being directly antagonistic. You know where you stand somewhat more, whereas in the original she was incredibly polite, with only the implications of something more sinister. And it's amusing to see how she insults you. Because it's basically like the writers thought of some of the most childish and petty insults they could, but then wrapped them up in GLaDOS-style subtlety (I mean it's obviously not so subtle you can't easily recognise the jokes, but she doesn't say them outright).
Then there's a personality core called Wheatley, who is, to be perfectly honest, a moron. But an amusing one. The juxtaposition of him and GLaDOS is very interesting and amusing.
Oh yeah, there's also a pre-recorded announcer, before GLaDOS reboots. Not really a character, very impersonal stuff, but amusing, since it basically expands on our view of Aperture Science.
And then, of course, we get to hear a bit about old Aperture Science, pre-GLaDOS. And so we hear from Cave Johnson, founder and original CEO of the company. And listening to him, we realise why it seems like Aperture Science was run entirely by mad scientists. Now Yahtzee, in his Zero Punctuation review of the game, said there wasn't anything which jumped out at him as being quite so memetic as, say, "The cake is a lie" from the original. I can only assume he wasn't paying enough attention to Cave Johnson. If there are memes anywhere in the game, there are most definitely memes from Cave Johnson. (Oh, also from the end of the game, but I can't tell you about that because SPOILERS)
It's slightly disappointing that since Cave Johnson has been dead for years, you can't actually meet him, only hear pre-recorded messages which he left behind. But it struck me that, really, it doesn't matter. His personality is fairly well indicated in those messages, and also - well, it's comparable to something I saw said about Dante's Inferno. When you reach the end of the Inferno, Satan is basically described as just a big beast. No indication of the mind behind it. But then, this doesn't matter, because the mind is portrayed through his domain, the whole of Hell, through which Dante and Virgil have descended. Similarly, Cave Johnson's mind is expressed through Aperture Laboratories, in all its insanity.

If you haven't seen them already, in the lead-up to Portal 2's release, Valve released some videos about 'Aperture Investment Opportunities', narrated by Cave Johnson:

Plot
The plot of original Portal is very simple. GLaDOS puts you through tests, you gradually get the impression that there may in fact be no other people in the facility, and after GLaDOS tries to kill you you discover this is in fact the case, because she killed everyone else. Except possibly for any other test subjects in suspended animation. You destroy her, find yourself on the surface, and then get dragged back in by an unidentified robot.

Portal 2 is more complicated. Obviously I can't go into much detail because SPOILERS. But basically, you want to escape. Wheatley wants to escape. GLaDOS wakes up, she wants you to continue testing, and we go from there. Along the way you learn more about the inner workings and history of Aperture Science.

Puzzles
The big one, obviously. It's obviously good to have an interesting plot and dialogue and nice scenery to look at, but this is a puzzle game and so the puzzles have to be good. I've already mentioned the extra guidance-through-environment in Portal 2 with there sometimes being a paucity of portalable surfaces.
Now, puzzle elements. In the original, there aren't that many. Portals themselves, of course. Cubes and buttons. Energy balls and receptacles. Liquid that will kill you if you fall in it, turrets that will kill you by shooting you. That's basically it. And so the game follows a simple pattern. Each puzzle element is introduced, and then developed on, with your standard sort of difficulty curve, the puzzles getting more complicated as you progress and have to use more different elements.

Portal 2, on the other hand, still has portals, cubes, buttons, liquid death, and turrets. Lasers (Or 'thermal discouragement beams') fill a similar role to energy balls. But then there's more. We also have discouragement redirection cubes (Redirect lasers), aerial faith plates (Catapult things through the air), hard light bridges (You walk on them), repulsion gel (Makes things bounce), propulsion gel (Makes you go fast), conversion gel (Makes things portalable) and excursion funnels (Carry things gently through the air).
So, considerably more puzzle elements. Should make for more interesting puzzles, right?
I've seen mixed opinions.
Personally, I would say, yes, it definitely does make for more interesting puzzles. Some of them could have been more complicated than they were, of course, but there were very definitely interesting puzzles in there. One type of puzzle I liked was where you effectively have to solve something and then unsolve it. I'll explain. In most puzzles, you collect your puzzle elements and arrange them in a certain way, cubes on buttons, lasers pointed at receptacles and you can get to the exit door, which is open. But there are some puzzles where you need things one way to get partway, and another way to get the rest of the way. So you have to set things up the first way, but such that you can switch it to the second from a distance.
The problem I think people had is not that there aren't interesting puzzles, because there are. Perhaps the ones in the co-op campaign are more interesting. It is somewhat balanced out by the fact the co-op campaign has less of a story. But the real problem is the difficulty curve. Because there are so many puzzle elements, one gets introduced, you learn how it works, then you do something more complicated with it, then there's another one and you're back to more basic things. The difficulty curve goes up for each new element and down for the next, giving the impression of not going up that much because it averages out at roughly a straight line, rather than just steadily building to really complicated for the climax.
I do feel this is a flaw. Some longer, more extended and complicated puzzles towards the end would have perhaps counteracted this, to give more of the steady increase at the end, if not throughout the rest of the game. But the game is still good as it is. And to be honest, it became gradually better in my mind as I got over the feeling of disappointment that there wasn't any more. I want more! Valve, make me some advanced test chambers like in the original!

So, while I agree with Yahtzee that it is perhaps not as flawless as the original, on the other hand, it does more. The flaws are more than balanced out by the extra content, and as expected, I do pretty much feel Portal 2 is the best video game ever.

Only big disappointment: things which were in previews and trailers that then didn't actually turn up in the game. Pneumatic diversity vents, an interesting looking test chamber, and a GLaDOS line: 
"We're a lot alike, you and I. You tested me; I tested you. You killed me; I- oh. I guess I haven't killed you yet.
Food for thought."

Portal 2 has really grabbed my desire to possibly do a Let's Play video. I might do that if I can get the required software, and possibly a friend to also comment on stuff, because I fear that I might get boring on my own. It's always nice to have someone to bounce off.

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