Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mini-Review of Portal +

It's easy to get depressed about the game development industry. On the rare occasion when a really good game surfaces above the insipid Mario/Sonic console junk and the over-emotional Kratos/Dante killfests with their Freudian-sized weapons, it's followed by a bunch of me-too games with a few minor tweaks.

Portal is one of the very small number of superb games that come along just often enough to keep us sifting through the mud in the hope of uncovering a diamond. I'm glad I finally gave it a try.

But an interesting thing came to light for me recently. While trying the advanced versions of six of the training levels, I got stuck on the last one. Curious, I watched a YouTube'd speedrun of all six advanced levels... wow, was that ever a mistake. Because what it showed me is that these levels aren't optimized for puzzle-solving, but for mere manual dexterity.

Actually, "manual dexterity" is putting it waaaaaaaay too mildly -- the people doing these speedruns are aiming at and hitting openings for portals (while in the middle of a double fling) that cannot be more than maybe 30 pixels wide. In some of them I don't think their feet ever touched solid ground more than once or twice -- it's sick.

The thing is, Portal's designers seem to want to promote this kind of ape-like behavior. The game has "achievements" (console alert!), among which are six challenge levels, each of which can be attempted while minimizing things like time or footsteps. So it's pretty clear that they’re actually encouraging people to try to blast through levels as quickly as possible.

While I can admire the artistry, I wish there had been more levels created that rewarded insight and creativity and perception and planning. In other words, I'm thinking now that Portal's designers favor the Achiever-type gamer -- what about the Explorers like me, whose enjoyment comes from seeing how things work? What about levels that offer more interaction with GLaDOS or other denizens of the Aperture labs (even if through text only) for the Socializers who enjoy a richly detailed story with interesting characters?

This isn't really a jab at Valve or the Portal team; I still think the core Portal game is tremendously good. It's just a funny realization I've come to after doing some more exploration of the other features of the game.

Can't wait for the (recently-acknowledged) sequel!