Portal design

When people ask me what I think is the best video game of all time, my answer is Portal. The game looks good, is highly amusing, is accessible for both gaming novices and experienced gamers, has an original mechanism, and is all around fun. The main “problem” with the game, from a publisher’s point of view, is that the player finishes it in about 3 hours time. A secondary problem is that Portal is a Puzzle game, not a genre in which much money is made.

Normally these would be reason enough not to get the game published, but Portal was bundled with two other games in the Orange Box. Furthermore, the building of the game could be done pretty cheaply: it reused the Half Life 2 engine, its environments were all very similar and needed very little artwork, and only one voice actor was involved. All this together made it possible for this excellent game to see the light of day, and become very popular. So popular, in fact, that a sequel was made: Portal 2, which recently hit the market.

Sequels are a tricky business. In movies, barring rare exceptions, sequels are usually much worse than the originals. There are many reasons why that is the case. An important one is that the elements that made the original movie fun, no longer are new in the sequel. Ripping off a good movie and adding lots of special effects does not make a better product. In games we see similar problems, although the fast advances in technology make the chances for a sequel being good higher.

So, is Portal 2 any good?

In my opinion, Portal 2 is a truly excellent game. It took the core components of the original: the puzzles, the interesting characterization of the computer opponent GLaDOS, the self-contained environment, the atmosphere, and the surprising developments, and improved upon them. It did not change them, it improved.

The puzzles are still there: at the start of the game we even see the same puzzles as in the original game. Now, the game could have gotten away by using the same puzzle elements to create more puzzles of higher difficulty, but it did not do that. Instead, halfway through the game it adds a couple of new puzzle elements, which fit in very logically and consistently, to allow completely new puzzles to be created. Not harder ones (in fact, I think that the Portal 2 puzzles are all easier than the hardest ones from Portal), but different ones.

GLaDOS is still present, and has the same characterization as before. But now it is joined by a second personality, Wheatley, who is uniquely different but at least as much fun as GLaDOS. Also, the environment and atmosphere still feel like Aperture Science. Where the game was really improved was by the addition of a story. Not so much a story in which the player fulfills a role as protagonist, but the story of the history of Aperture Science, from its origins in 1952 until the present day. It explains the background of the developments of the Portal Gun, the puzzle environments, and the test subjects. Was that necessary? Absolutely not, as the original game proved. But it makes for the environments to have more meaning, and allows the introduction of slightly different visualizations of the environment elements, such as walls, signs, buttons, and computers.

One of the clearest indications of good game design in Portal 2 is the complete lack of cutscenes (except for the ending movie). While there are certainly many forced occurrences in the game, always the player is interacting. Interaction is the lifeblood of games, and game designers should not strive to be movie directors. Unfortunately, most of them seem to think that they are.

Portal 2 is as strong a game as the original Portal was. It took what was good about Portal, left it more or less unchanged, and added good stuff that fit in well.

The greatest problem with Portal 2 is its length. It can be played from start to finish in 6-8 hours. Longer than Portal, but much shorter than most competing games. And now it is published on its own, not bundled with anything, apart from a multiplayer mode which, frankly, is not what the game is about. Is Portal 2 too short? In my opinion its length is ideal for what it offers. Make it longer and it starts to get boring. The pacing of the game is exactly what it should be.

So, personally, I have no problems with Portal 2‘s length, but it will be hard to find publishers that are willing to invest in these shorter games. This particular game could be published because of its lineage. Other games of similar length will have a harder time to get published. Often we see game developers resort to padding to increase game length, which is usually detrimental to the game’s quality.

Will Portal 3 be published? I guess that depends on how well Portal 2 does. Will it be any good? In my opinion, it will be very hard to top the quality of Portal 2, but I would certainly be interested to see what the development team can do. Although just like in the movie business, in video games sequels of sequels are usually a disappointment.


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