Well I just finished Valve’s Portal and I must say that I had a ton of fun. Many of the forums that I visit regularly had a number of posts about what people thought of the game and I agree with the general consensus…the game is really well done!
It was so intriguing that I am compelled to share a few of the things that I liked, disliked and concluded from playing this small, yet polished game from a team that had come up with this idea at DigiPen.
The Portal Mechanic
The game is centered on one new mechanic, the portal. The portal is essentially a teleporter that a player can put virtually anywhere via the use of the portal creation gun. Portals have two ends and players can walk into either one and come out the other. The mechanic is particularly interesting because the velocity that the player has when entering the portal is preserved upon exit. For example, imagine that a player falling at a velocity of 2m/sec downwards enters a portal with an exit on a vertical surface. Then the player will exit the portal and be moving at 2m/sec along the horizontal. This is, of course, temporary as friction and gravity continue to affect the player as normal.
The portals are fun to play with because they are visually stunning. Looking into the portal allows you to see through the other side as if you were standing at the other end. If one end of the portal is close to the other end, you can even see yourself…it’s quite bizarre.
The Level Design
The levels are all very well done. There is a good balance of the various “tricks” that are possible with the portals. They also are introduced quite well, each level building upon the previous. The entire first 2/3 of the game plays much like a long tutorial. The voice over does some helpful guiding in the beginning, which is tremendously entertaining. I am not sure how many level designers worked on Portal (I was too wrapped up in the music of the end credits to pay attention) but the levels are all very consistent. Not a single level feels like it doesn’t belong or was built by a separate set of motives. My hat is off to the Lead Level Designer for keeping this a tight as he did.
The Coat of Paint
The game could have gone out the door without the connection to a Black Mesa test operation gone wrong, sure, but the added bonus of a playful set of tweaked out experiments made Portal more than just a mechanic game. Ok, yes, the core experience is really just a simple game about a controllable teleporter, but the team took it so much further. For example, there are secret rooms all over the place that are not explained at all. All of the secret rooms indicate that people have actually lived secretly in the walls of the test chambers. It is as if they were escaping having to do the trials. Towards the end of the game, players break off the “tutorial” path and are propelled into the “underground” world of whatever survivalist story that these rooms are trying to tell.
In addition to the “underground” secret passages, the game takes on an endearing tone with both the computer, who guides you through the tutorial, as well as the playful, but deadly turrets. The computer is a warbling robotic woman who lures you onward by offering you cake if you can finish all of the tutorials. She also periodically “messes with the player” as if she is playing with you for her own amusement. For example, at the beginning of one level she states that the level is “impossible to complete.” Of course, as educated gamers we know this cannot be true, but her humorous implication might make you wonder if you are about to have to think about solving the puzzle in an unconventional way. At the very least, her voice-overs made me hesitate and be extra cautious as I played. I have to conclude from the tutorial computer that good voice over work really can have an impact on a game.
The second, more innocuous voice work is that of the turrets. The turrets’ VO is to the point of being cute. They have a number of things they say based on the player’s interaction with them. For example, if they see you they will say something like, “Hello, is anyone there?” If you then disappear they may ask where you went. Reappear and they will exclaim, “Ah, there you are!” and open fire. The best lines for me are when you knock them over, rendering them “dead.” They say in a sad tone, “It’s ok. No hard feelings.” Again, with the female sounding voice it screams cute.
The interesting part about both voices is that they are mechanical in nature, but more importantly they are all feminine. I believe them being feminine makes them feel much more on the endearing side of coin, where if they were male they would come across as egotistical and maybe even arrogant. Also, the voices warble, as if whatever machine making them is falling apart. It’s even slightly pitiful sounding. Again to the point that good voice over work has proven to really bring a game to life.
The voice work and the pleasantly endearing interaction with the turrets, along with the strange “underground” sub-text really give Portal an awesome coat of paint on top of an already fascinating mechanic. Gratz…
More companies need to do this. The in game commentary is simply priceless…I plan on encouraging adding this to my next game.
Check this site out…it’s fun to play with. It's been around for more than a year and it's an interesting lead into the game, but somehow I don't think it spread quite right…so…uh…FAIL! As an actual "viral marketing" tool that was put up a year ago, it didn’t really do its job, but a great site all the same.
The End Song
The end song was just so silly that I felt it was worth another listen. Hit the link for the tune. Johnathan Coulton writes a bit more about it in his blog here. He posted the lyrics and all!
No Other People
Ok, so I am actually a little torn on this one. On the one hand I do like that there are no people in the tests with you, but I really felt like there was a perfect setup for there to be people in the secret rooms that appear around the levels. Some sort of interaction would have been nice. For example, upon entering one of the secret rooms a person could have at least spoken through a door or a wall. Perhaps even something more subtle like a plate of warm food or a still smoking cigarette. The implication would obviously be that someone was just in the room moments ago.
It is in the Half Life World
It bothered me a little bit that Valve feels the Portal world has to be an extension of Half Life. Sure it fits, but it was a chance to start a new IP if they wanted. Instead they put it into their existing IP, even though Half Life already has enough to stand on its own and Portal won’t sell more because it is in the Half Life world.
ZOMG multiplayer would have been great! Now, if this weapon makes it into the full world of Half Life it is unlikely that we are going to see the game with JUST the portal gun. Odds are it will be used along with all of the other guns from the Half Life world. Not to mention, I bet it will be limited with a number of uses as it will be too powerful.
I would rather like to see a multiplayer where portal guns are the only weapon. Then, players can gather power-up that give them abilities. For example, the ability to jump very high or the ability to run very fast. Maybe to limit it, players can only pick up one ability at a time. Essentially, these added abilities should work in conjunction with the portal idea. It would also be interesting to have different sized portals, portals that timed out, portals that were one use, etc.
There are quite a few interesting possibilities with multiplayer…it makes me wonder if they already have it at Valve, but it just wasn’t ready. Ponder this for a moment…someone fires a rocket at you. You turn and shoot a portal at the wall and then the other end portal by the person who just shot the rocket at you and BOOM they are hit by their own rocket.
The Hidden Areas Were Not
I found something cool and was hoping to get something cool out of it. If the hidden areas had something of interest or value, it gives a reason to find other hidden places! But, FAIL, all intrigue and no payoff. As I mentioned earlier, there could have been some sort of interaction with other humans here. Nothing required, but would have been a good way to continue the excellent story that the developers set forth.
Limited Portal Placement Not Explained
It really bothered me that I could only place portals on a specific texture with no explanation behind it. Sure, I understand it from a gameplay stand point…many of the levels would simply be too easy if the portal could be placed anywhere, but only being able to use it on that single concrete texture felt a bit contrived.
SO WHAT NEXT?
More than one person I have talked to has said that they think this is essentially the demo for Half Life 2: Episode 3. Well, first lemme start by saying that the amount of buzz generated by this game suggests to me that Valve is dumb if they don’t do something else with this mechanic. I personally stand up and suggest that they separate it from the Half Life story and make it a completely different thread in the Half Life world.
I think everyone who is speculating that Valve will use the portal idea as the core of Episode 3 is right. Now, the really interesting part is going to be how they take this mechanic and place it in the “real world.” That convenient concrete texture is not going to be as convenient outside. How will they limit its use? It will be interesting to see how Valve combines the portal gun and other guns.
Does this Mechanic
This portal mechanic seems to be generating more buzz that I expected, but now I have to really ask myself why? What is so damn interesting about this mechanic that has players AND developers talking? Well, first of all it is a really fun mechanic to play with. Forget jumping or finding elevators to get up higher…simply use a portal! Space as we know it in the FPS is now thrown out the window. Dropping from a high elevation is now a GOOD thing. Getting across a lava pit is now trivial.
I follow up with a final thought…isn’t the portal idea simply a teleporter where you control the two endpoints? Teleporters have been in games for a long time. Why has this iteration been so damn refreshing? My answer is that it’s the coat of paint that they apply. Without that endearing, yet twisted narrator, I don’t believe the game would be as interesting…at least not to me…but then again I am a sucker for those extra bits.