Specially Level With Me, Adam Foster – Part Two

By Robert Yang on December 6th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.

In this very special installment of “Level With Me”, Robert Yang speaks with former celebrity modder / current Valve level designer Adam Foster about his work and process. In Part 2, we cover his work on Portal 2, game architecture, and how to design for players.

Robert Yang: Let’s talk Portal 2. It didn’t have any health-kits or power-ups, so how did you go about guiding players without those breadcrumbs?

Adam Foster: The game often worked best when it kept to the basic structure of the ‘test-chamber’ – walking through a door, GLaDOS says a funny line, you complete the test, GLaDOS says another funny line… It’s that constant, near-ritualised loop which can be subverted now and then, but you have to show the normal routine before the abnormal becomes surprising.

We had to scatter a ridiculous number of clues through the game to quietly help players through the puzzles. Sometimes they would be pretty obvious, such as flickering lights, other times there’d be a gentle gradation of lighting colours – a cool, blue at the beginning through to a warm yellow at the end. But yes, there’d be no obvious supply caches to confirm to the player that yes, they were going the right way. Instead, the reward could be GLaDOS speaking, and getting to see the next test.

We did experiment with much less linear, more natural exploration in some of the underground areas, but everyone got instantly, irretrievably lost.

RY: Oh, I remember when I first got to the Portal 2 underground levels, it felt so Adam Foster-y to me. I don’t know if it was the scale or the proportions or what.

AF: One thing I did was help with finding reference materials that eventually gave rise to many of the environments seen in Portal 2. Things like the destroyed modern Aperture (heavily inspired by some photos of a collapsed, abandoned Soviet space shuttle I found), the grid-like nature of the surrounding infrastructure (a combination of the innards of rocket test hardware, industrial architecture and deep inside CERN) and the deep underground sections (power station cooling towers, neutrino observatories, salt mines and so on).

(left: Portal 2 concept art — right: the Large Hadron Collider)

Having a vague scientific background was ridiculously useful. I’d remember something interesting I’d seen or read about years previously, then go looking for imagery – like for the neutrino stuff. Occasionally I’d hit the jackpot, as with the CERN photo archives. They’ve got perhaps hundreds of thousands of pictures online, going back to the 1950s – a near-complete evolution of particle physics research, along with incidental details like office hardware, architectural styles and the fashion stylings of the scientists and personnel involved. So many wonderful things.

(left: an underground-themed Portal 2 level — right: the remains of the “Buran” Soviet space shuttle program)

Then, we went exploring NASA’s archives. The process continued…

Design-wise, I’ve got really used to sketching stuff out in Hammer to get an idea of shape and scale. Huge blocks of featureless geometry to figure out sight-lines, perspectives, angles, form, lighting and whatever. It was a little surreal seeing screenshots of a couple of these quick Hammer-sketches printed out and stuck on the wall of the Portal 2 art room, surrounded by artwork from some seriously talented actual-artists.

(left: a geodesic sphere-shaped test chamber in Portal 2 — right: Buckminster Fuller with a model of a geodesic dome)

Once we’d nailed down a style, I then went on to bash holes out of formerly pristine test-chambers as part of the visual-pass stuff. Some of the initial training puzzles I worked on are closely based on those from the original Portal, so at certain points, I was taking this much-loved game out into a darkened alleyway – before kicking and tearing it apart into corroded heaps of twisted metal and asbestos panelling. I felt like a complete monster!

RY: … But you loved being a monster, right? All level designers love two things: (a) aimlessly flying around in the level editor, and (b) destroying levels and dropping rubble everywhere.

AF: At one point we were figuring out the way destroyed test chambers would twist and distort with the aid of brown paper bags and sweet wrappers…

(left: a ruined test chamber — right: a paper bag)

RY: Given your work on MINERVA, did you have any input into GlaDOS’s character? What, do you think, is it about omnipresent female cyborg constructs that appeals to players?

AF: Not directly, but I think a lot of the environmental design stuff we were doing rubbed off on the writers. Storytelling at Valve is remarkably fluid – while the writers will request particular scenes and locations and make many, many suggestions, they’ll also absorb all kinds of stuff from concepts, gameplay and other designs. It’s very much a two-way process!

As for the AI GLaDOS and the non-AI Minerva, I suspect a fair number of players simply quite like being ordered around. I was raised by feminists, so it’s been a pretty standard part of my existence.

RY: Yeah, I liked how Portal 2 is about two women and the men / system who conspire to exploit them. There’s that part where GlaDOS mocks Chell for being fat, and it offended some players who read it as the game condoning bullying or fat-shaming… when I thought it was clear that the insults were petty and unfunny, that the game actually condemned that offensiveness in this complex ironic way.

AF: If Portal 2 condoned such petty bullying, does that mean Half-Life 2 spoke out in favour of brutal, oppressive dictatorships?

Right now, I’m imagining a game where some character keeps congratulating the player in a wonderful, wholesomely glowing manner – for doing stuff which, when you scratch past the surface, has some utterly disgusting undertones. Actually, that would be pretty nasty – even if the underlying subtext is still that it’s very much a Bad Thing. For once, could insults take the edge off it?

RY: But what if the player is an impressionable earnest sweet innocent child? We can’t choose what our players comprehend or think. (… Yet.)

AF: At one point we were experimenting with architectural glitches, with repeating sections of test chambers, misaligned sections and three-dimensional compression artefacts. Unfortunately, bugs in transcription by self-replicating robots looked just like bugs in the game.

RY: Ahh, that sounds great! I can see that as a bug and poor design, but part of me also thinks, “you’re letting the least literate players decide what the most fluent get to see.”

AF: Before I was hired at Valve, I visited their offices and playtested a near-finished version of the first Portal. I got painfully stuck on one of the very first puzzles – it must have been agony for the Portal team watching. At that point I realised everyone is potentially an idiot when playing games – they can misunderstand or fail to spot some vital clue or control or gameplay hint, and everything becomes frustrating.

If something in a game is actively, unintentionally confusing people, then the idea’s not being expressed properly. So while Portal 2 ended up with loads of stuff which only super-observant players would notice, we had to be super-careful that it didn’t break puzzles for those who weren’t looking quite so closely.

RY: That’s what’s great about being super-observant, you focus on some stuff and overlook a lot of other things. Like, this puzzlemaker level, “Test 07: Concentre d’espace” – yes, it’s possible to get stuck, but I still love how elegant of an idea it is. It’s a level that’s more than the sum of its puzzles.

AF: In the screenshot, it was like seeing the insides of a tiny, compact piece of engineering. Every last voxel packed with hardware, this three-by-three cube is quite ingenious. A tiny little state-machine of puzzling.

Of course, I inadvertently trapped my fingers in the metaphorical machinery – lifting up the reflecto-cube through the grating, later using it for something I shouldn’t have, getting myself completely wedged in the puzzle. I had to restart. Oops.

RY: Yeah, the same happened to me. Seems like a huge flaw, the more I think about it, but I don’t really think about it. Maybe that means I love the idea of it more than the actual designed thing.

AF: Something I really appreciated on the first Portal 2 DLC in making a good puzzle was having that central, interesting idea to build everything else around. I figured out the basis for the ‘triple-axis’ map – requiring a bridge, tractor-beam, laser and reflecto-cube to be clamped in mid-air in order to power a lift to the exit. Every other gameplay element in the map is simply to support that moment.

Portal 2 is such a pure ‘game’ in so many respects that the environmental design works best when it alludes to that fact. The whole fiction is constructed around super-streamlined testing of scientific participants – the sleek test-chambers attempt to minimise external distraction. Introducing external details can potentially derail everything, but done with care, subtle not-quite-right aspects can appear hugely important. See the rat-man rooms from the first game, for example.

RY: But these important subtle details are actually unimportant, in that they’re not tied to progress through the game?

AF: For me personally, the non-game aspects of a game can be the most memorable – exploration, plot revelations, general atmosphere and so on – but again it all needs that central, interesting gameplay idea to rest on.

RY: I’m similar. Don’t you think that’s weird, or even a little bit crazy? That we make and play games just so the non-game aspects can live in our minds?

AF: For me, ‘winning’ is pretty uninteresting. In a big, open-world game, I’ll often be deliberately sabotaging my character’s actions and choices in believable ways – to create interesting new events and possibilities, subverting the game for new storytelling opportunities.

RY: That’s what I like about your levels, you apply that sensibility to your layout. You use a lot of symmetry, like a spine runs down the body of the level. Few games use symmetry outside of monolithic architecture, I think, because symmetry seems so “designed” and thus “unreal,” so we always have jagged concrete ruins with 1 of 10 lights being flickery.

AF: Something I’d get a lot when editing geometry, especially terrain, would be Rorschach-style ink-blot mirroring of random noise. Vague blotches in the textures would bring up butterflies, grinning devil-faces, all kinds of features.

I suppose adding symmetry to a pretty arbitrary lump of gameplay-oriented geometry can give the resulting structure much more of a sense of being ‘designed’, with otherwise arbitrary shapes and details taking on a new importance. Then, because of the Combine aesthetic of distinct asymmetry, you have to go back and mangle things up again, with the underlying symmetry still suggesting some deeper meaning…

RY: What makes a level seem “real” or plausible, or is that even important? Like, I’d argue a Doom 1 or Marathon level is more coherent / plausible than a Modern Warfare level — it’s not about perceived plausibility of details, it’s about the thoughtfulness of the layout.

AF: I imagine some people mistake my weird approach to design as building entire levels before shoe-horning gameplay into the architecture, whereas to me, it’s more both the plausible design and gameplay-oriented features going together simultaneously. Gameplay might suggest a lookout point at a certain position, then the world design will give stern recommendations as to what it should be. Or the world design might suggest a certain feature, then gameplay leaps on board and says ‘yes please’. But that believable world design is very, very important to me.

(“E2M2: Containment Area”, Doom.)

As for simpler layouts in modern games, it might partly be due to design programs changing from 2D overviews to more fully-fledged 3D systems. It would seem logical to make an attractive architectural plan when all you have to look at is a 2D overhead view, especially when the player is going to bring that same 2D overview up using the in-game map feature.

RY: If mini-maps affect the complexity of a level, then I think the side-step is to make the mini-map more vague. Thief’s maps were sometimes these symbolic scribbles, which is convenient given how big and complicated those levels were.

AF: When there’s no in-game 2D map, then perhaps it’s how it looks in 3D that’s what matters most? But I’ll still be building things with vast, overall structures only truly visible from the outside…

RY: I imagine you really like the Portal 2 puzzle maker and looking at all the levels from the outside, then.

AF: I’ve barely had a chance to look at any custom maps for Portal 2, sadly. I need to – I played about with the simple editor just before release, and really, really wish we’d had it for prototyping gameplay ideas in the original game. I love Hammer [(the complex level editor)] and all it stands for, but the simple editor is incredibly important – hopefully it introduces many more people to this fascinating world of level design.

RY: Last time I tried collaborating on a Portal 2 level during an interview, I wasn’t interviewing someone who worked on Portal 2… So, um, here’s an awful level that I made. It starts with the player walking in and seeing a turret staring right at them. (Let’s break all the rules, whoa!)

AF: First time I played it, I died horribly. Second time, almost as horribly. After loading it up in Hammer to mix things up again, first compile had the turrets kill me again. I like the idea, but the door locking behind the player as soon as the turret starts firing is just a little too cruel?

RY: Yeah, your placement works better. The main idea of the level was that the solution should involve undoing progress toward the solution. So many Portal puzzles with multiple cubes typically let you leave them somewhere forever.

AF: About the puzzle – if anything, I felt the cube powering the tractor-beam was too strongly locked in position. It took me far too long to realise I had to carry it past the piston. Perhaps just two cubes total would work better?

RY: I like how you put it: “too strongly locked in position”… this came up in the other Level With Me installments, a discussion of the “economy” in a Portal puzzle. You always assume you have exactly what you need. Are extra pieces poor design, or not hewing to a “right kind of puzzle”? It depends on how you see your player. Are you their benevolent puppet-master, their pleading parent, or their tired spouse, or what?

AF: ‘Annoying sibling’, probably. Showing off some weird thing I find terribly interesting!

MINERVA had a section in which the player’s weapons were taken away, and they had to run past various locked armouries full of tempting stuff. Some players seemed to think the game had broken, that they should be able to get into those armouries straight away – subverting the game’s language is one thing, but you have to reassure the player somehow that no, the game is operating correctly. Unlike most other modes of fiction, games can and do break down at times.

Early in Portal 2, there’s a section where you have to portal from one ruined chamber to another, in order to catch a dropping Wheatley. A fair few playtesters simply didn’t get their heads around this, and spent ages searching for a puzzle to solve in that first chamber. So Wheatley’s dialogue became remarkably insistent on the actual, seemingly trivial solution.

I’ve also made a couple of other tweaks to the map: the grating in the middle has been changed to glass with a visually-cube-pickup-allowing slit down the middle -

RY: Wait, I don’t understand the purpose of the slit — you don’t really need it to solve the puzzle. Or is it a red herring to get the player to put the cube in the tunnel?

AF: I… think I must have found an alternate solution?

RY: What? Oh… oh… right.

AF: … And the distant button has gained some invisible trickery to encourage the box to land on it. Hoopy the Hoop is now there by default.

RY: (Hoopy the Hoop for president!) I’m a big fan of “invisible trickery.” My favorite Portal 2 level entity is probably info_placement_helper [a special invisible doodad which snaps portals to a specific point and angle, an aim assist].

AF: Many important portal-flings had invisible catapults on the exit surfaces, lasers would automatically create placement helpers when they hit portalable surfaces, cubes being flung would funnel themselves through portals. Kind of sneaky, but Portal is more about the puzzling than pixel-perfect accuracy. Solving a puzzle, then having the solution fail because a fling fell slightly too short, or a cube caught the edge of a portal, tends not to be much fun. Skill can be one thing, random failures are another.

RY: And now, this is weird. I want to work on this more with you, but I feel like just calling it done. Usually there’s always so much more to add and fix. How do you (and/or Valve) decide when it’s done, or do you just wait for a cathartic epiphany accompanied by angelic choir?

AF: Puzzle design could be considered ‘done’ when most playtesters would find the puzzles fun, and make it through without getting irretrievably stuck. That last one is important – it’s absolutely fine to take a while, but if someone’s spent an hour trying the same, unsuccessful thing over and over again without spotting the real solution, that’s not good. Getting the puzzle immediately is bad, but it still has to be solveable.

The path-hinting thing can be terribly subtle. The triple-laser puzzle in the single-player game used to be one of the hardest, with people inevitably getting permanently stuck – but then suddenly, with some incredibly subtle changes in the cubes’ initial positions, it was fixed. We don’t really know why.

The usual route when dealing with a puzzle that seems too complicated is not to change it directly, but modify previous puzzles so that they vaguely hint at particular mechanics.

With Portal 2, we’d have these pure, bare puzzles, which got slotted into the plot at appropriate points – with artwork and audio and more playtesting and signs and lighting and performance fixing and so on… And eventually it’s time to fix the bugs, tidy it all up and ship the game.

RY: Okay, one last question, totally unrelated to the subject of shipping games. When’s Half-Life 2: Episode Three coming out?

AF: ^H*DSd]]/&s Wlb-%£–NO CARRIER

RY: Thanks for your time.

AF: No problem.

You can play the resulting Portal 2 level, “Hoopy the Hoop”, if you really want to.

, , , , .

33 Comments »

  1. wccrawford says:

    The portal-snapping always bothered me.

    If the puzzle requires snapping, that maybe it’s not well-made? By that, I mean that it probably requires quick reflexes or some other non-puzzle skill instead. If I have to move my portals in quick succession, without a pause, then the puzzle turns into a test of my motor skills instead.

    On the other hand, if I can try the same puzzle over and over, then I don’t need pixel-perfect placement automatically… I can place the portals over and over again until I get them right.

    But beyond that, it also *prevents* inventive solutions. The Razer Hyrda is a great toy for Portal 2 because you have *so* much more control over the portals and the cubes. The portal-snapping is the exact opposite of that.

    • baby snot says:

      Is there really that much variety in terms of possible solutions though? I was under the impression they playtest the frack out of their levels to make sure players find the solution Valve was aiming for…

      So maybe instead of having the snapping they should have reiterated on the level design?

      • RobinOttens says:

        Well, in Portal 1 I could usually find two or three possible solutions to any particular puzzle. Portal 2 was streamlined to hell and back so in most puzzles there is one and exactly one route to the end. It seems like in the second game finding multiple solutions has become the domain of internet speedrun wizards, whereas in the first game it was definitely possible for a mere mortal to play through a level in multiple ways.

        It’s why I liked the levels where you get to play with the white moon-paint, those felt more freeform and open-ended.

        • baby snot says:

          It’s why I liked the levels where you get to play with the white moon-paint, those felt more freeform and open-ended.

          There is still a multiplayer game just waiting to be made using portals and gels. I’m thinking something like the level design out of Plain Sight but played in the first person.

        • Mist says:

          That was my main beef with portal 2. Instead of going “ok… let’s see if I can make this work” by judging for yourself where you wanted to place your portal, and then needing to execute the placement, portal 2 had too many puzzles where there was exactly 1 solution that may have looked cool with large flings etc, but there was only 1 way to do the fling and performing it was trivial.

          Some players may not know this (edit: it was mentioned in the interview >_<), but instead of free-form flinging (where your angle/speed actually determines your trajectory), most flings in P2 were hidden faith plates: if you placed a portal on the right exit surface and came out with a somewhat reasonable speed, you would always land exactly where the developer wanted you to land.

          And yes, many of those jumps would've been very hard to get right manually, so the trade off was "pretty cool manual flings in P1" vs "awesome, map crossing, tiny ledge landing, scripted flings in P2". I preferred those in P1.

          • onodera says:

            That’s not just your beef. That was my biggest beef with Portal 2: too few portalable surfaces. You get into a room, and there’s this neat portalable square on the wall. And you immediately start looking for the other one. Bam, you are now not thinking with portals, but how to get a cube or yourself to one.

  2. Snids says:

    ^H*DSd]]/&s Wlb-%£–NO CARRIER eh?

    Inform the ARG sleuths! The game is afoot!

    • RobinOttens says:

      Alright. So that first part looks like someone planted their face on their keyboard, as if they fell asleep at the computer. This can be taken as a hint that HL3 will be released at night, when everyone is tired. Now that ‘£’ obviously means the game will take place in the UK.

      And it will contain no carrier.

      I’m confused.

      • Mr. Mister says:

        Actually, the NO is linked to %£, indicating the lack of price difference between different coins, while “carrier” could hint that the Borealis has also air-carrier capabilities?

      • darkChozo says:

        Finally, confirmation that HL2:EP3 isn’t a codename for the next Starcraft.

      • Dianoga says:

        No carrier suggests everyone’s favorite gnome may not be making an appearance.

  3. Screwie says:

    “We did experiment with much less linear, more natural exploration in some of the underground areas, but everyone got instantly, irretrievably lost.”

    This was one of the things that irked me most about Portal 2. It feels like they simplified the underground sections way too much – it become a search for the next bright white patch of wall (of which there was rarely ever more than one) to make progress. It just drew attention to how linear the game was (especially disappointing compared to Portal 1, which hid it so well).

  4. Jahkaivah says:

    So was Erik Wolpaw’s butter in danger when Valve started to take an interest in brown paper bags?

  5. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    I’m always a little put off whenever I read/listen to/watch behind-the-scenes stuff from Valve. Their games come off as extraordinarily–but subtly, secretly–controlled, like some sort of sinister version of Uncharted or God of War. Those games are linear as all hell and don’t offer much at all in the way of player freedom, but they never try to hide that fact and offer spectacle and engaging combat (well, God of War offers engaging combat) in exchange.

    But Valve has no more interest in offering players genuine challenge or freedom than any other mainstream developer, they just craft an elaborate illusion. There’s really not much of a system for the player to master, because the game is designed so that the player is gently guided to success.

    I kind of wish they’d shut up about their processes so I didn’t have to think this way about their games.

    • Dervish says:

      I think it’s funny that your reaction is “I wish I did not know the truth” instead of “I wish they would stop doing that”.

      • Drinking with Skeletons says:

        I’m fine with linear games. They can certainly be fun, and their developers are no less worthy of financial and critical success than any others. Plenty of my favorite games are extremely linear and tightly controlled, such as nearly all of the class LucasArts adventure games.

        I think what bugs me is that Valve receives such adoring praise. I’m not a huge Half Life fan; I only played Half Life 2, and while it was fine I’ve never had any desire to replay it and it’s not even installed on any of my PCs right now. I don’t even care that much if Episode 3 is ever released. Portal was good. Portal 2 was kind of tedious, honestly. Left 4 Dead is my favorite game/franchise of Valve’s, simply because it actually feels like there is something of an actual skillset to build when playing, even in co-op. But I never play it except with friends, and even then only occasionally.

        But all of those criticisms are simply my opinion. Everyone else can go on and on about Valve being the most amazing developer ever–and I’m not disputing their very real industry contributions or the contexts which have made many of their adored titles important regardless of quality–and that can be chalked up to a difference of opinion. But when Valve itself makes it plain as day that they create titles that are designed in much the same way as games that are frequently dismissed as catering to the lowest common denominator (the more high-minded opinions of Uncharted spring to my mind), I start to feel like I’m the only one who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid.

        • DrGonzo says:

          I’m not sure what you mean by designed the same way. Call of Duty ( which I assume is the kind of ilk you were referring to) is done lazily with invisible walls, ‘press x to continue’ bits. That’s the opposite of Valve’s design.

        • LintMan says:

          What I take away from most of Valve’s developer commentary is how amazingly focused they are on the gameplay experience during testing. If a setpiece isn’t working well, they’ll rework it or remove it. If players are getting lost or confused, they’ll tweak it to make it clearer – by using subtle cues in the enviroment, not by simply adding waypoint arrows to the HUD. If testers find the AI companion is annoyingly gung-ho and feel like they are being led around by her, they tweak and rewrite it.

          As for systems for the player to master, the Portal series had those for sure, and personally I found the HL series to be fairly challenging. If you’re looking for heavy challenge, I don’t think the story-based FPS genre is necessarily the place to look for it, not do I think they are trying to target that – I’ve heard the same issues you’ve voiced aimed against games like COD:MW, etc – it seems more a complaint about the genre than about a particular game.

          • Drinking with Skeletons says:

            But who praises those games to the level that Valve gets? There are people who write off the CoD’s of the world rather snootily as being too linear and too scripted, but Half Life 2 typically gets a pass. To me, Valve makes decent but homogenized games. They are well put together, but they are games that have been painstakingly made for everyone. No one will be put off of the story or mechanics if Valve can help it! And that’s great and all, but it’s weird that games like Dark Souls–which swings too far in the opposite direction–can get praised just as much by much the same people.

            I dunno, it’s just weird to me. I don’t get the Valve following. There are games with better, more ambitious stories and there are games with better, more engaging mechanics. If other companies were better at both story and mechanics, rather than just one or the other, I wonder if Valve would occupy such a high place in gaming’s pantheon.

            Caveats: Valve is very good at telling stories. I just don’t think there’s anything amazing in the actual contents of their plots. The big exception here is Portal, which deserves all the praise it gets, but which, if I understand things correctly, was made by a small subset of the company almost as a proof-of-concept rather than being a big, company-wide project; it’s the exception that proves the rule.

          • SuperNashwanPower says:

            It may not be true but I always feel like Valve LIKE me. Their games make me feel like they like me, know what I want, even if I don’t, and how to give that to me. Add to that, Half Life was the first game I ever had on PC when I came back to gaming back in 2000. My dad gave it to me, so maybe there’s the whole familial thing too. But yeah – I love the games of theirs I have played, love the worlds they create, and I never FEEL directed or hemmed in, even if the games are linear. Black Mesa just felt like I was finding my way out of this massive labyrinth. City 17 likewise – always a sense of being in some sprawling, huge place.

            I dunno. <3 VALVE <3

        • fabulousfurrygingerfreakbrothers says:

          I don’t disagree with you, really, as there were sections of Portal 2 where I was wandering along looking for the next white wall, but at least Valve think about things like putting cues in the previous level, or using lighting to draw you in. This, surely, is better than an instakill for going the wrong way. Blimey, “Private! Stay with me!” worked well.

  6. ClaudiaBrowne22 says:

    If you think Lori`s story is shocking,, 3 weeks ago my auntie’s best friend basically made $5400 putting in a twenty hour week from home and they’re neighbor’s half-sister`s neighbour was doing this for five months and got more than $5400 parttime from their mac. use the tips on this web-site… Fox76.com

  7. CMaster says:

    Just dropping by to say that I love the Level with Me series, even if the eventual level(s) aren’t so great. The discussions in them are great fun.

    Also, are we supposed to ask when the next part of radiator is coming out still?

  8. SuperNashwanPower says:

    Anyone remember Rubiks cubes? No one could solve them unless they were given a manual.Thats a challenge.

    Why was the rubiks cube so popular as a puzzle, if it’s challenge beat almost everyone who ever tried it? Given the answer to this question, whats the difference with games? Is it just a sense of fairness that developers want to give us more easily solvable puzzles? Why is it less OK to sell us something balls-out frustratingly hard now? Is there a puzzle equivalent of Dark Souls?

    I didn’t buy any other versions of the rubiks cube. Maybe thats a hint to myself as to the answer…

    • Mist says:

      With most puzzles, trying to solve it is the entire goal. In most games with puzzle elements, actually solving it, and thus unlocking more content (more puzzles, story, jokes, levels, etc) is an important element. People who buy a rubiks cube and can’t solve it still got everything that they paid for. People who buy a hypothetical Portal 3 and can’t beat the first puzzle and are locked out of the rest of the game, will be annoyed.

    • kharnevil says:

      Who needs a manual for a Rubik’s Cube?

  9. MattM says:

    When I finished the Portal 2 commentary track I wrote into Gabe about the signposting of the levels. In P2 once I looked around the level I usually knew the solution or even worse I knew what series of moves I needed to make to solve the puzzle even if I didn’t know what exactly would happen. The structure was too rigid and showed exactly what to do. One of the great part of puzzle games is considering all you know about a puzzle then having a flash of insight that allows you to solve it. A lot of the P2 puzzles lacked that because the solution was too obvious and the execution was too simple thanks to the largely digital portal placement and use (as opposed to the more analogue portals of P1).
    I like P2 but its puzzle core was weaker than it should have been.

    • identiti_crisis says:

      Watching that triple laser video brought back almost painful memories.

      I walked in the room, saw two of the lasers, saw three receivers opposite a small wall and immediately recognised I needed a single portal with all three lasers entering at different angles.
      I jumped straight into the laser room, slapped a portal in the same place as in the video, “behind” the angled laser’s emitter, started positioning a cube to direct the vertical laser to enter the portal at an angle, noticed the third laser hitting the wall at an angle…

      So I just quickly slapped a portal there instead, moved the cube a bit and put the second cube where it needed to be and felt at once satisfied and horrendously disappointed. I had solved the puzzle, more or less, just by looking at it. It’s not like I’d paced around the level looking at things for minutes, trying to figure out where everything should go, imagining how each thing plays out – I walked in, strolled around a bit, moved a few blocks, walked out.

      As I passed those three receivers on the way out, I felt like I’d missed out on a genuinely brilliant spatial puzzle. It didn’t feel like I was solving anything at that point, only consuming content.

      That said, other puzzles were great, and I did get completely stuck on one puzzle on my second play through that I’d ropily, visually solved the first time, so I guess I can understand the whole “difficult to balance” thing. I think, overall, I enjoyed the puzzling in P1 more, but the atmosphere in P2 was better.

      • theSeekerr says:

        IMO, Portal 2 is two completely different games.

        The first game is the one you describe – a linear rollercoaster story with almost absurdly simple puzzle design. Frankly, it’s an 8 hour tutorial with a lot of great voice work.

        The second design is the co-op. Some of those are really, properly hard. It’s the game that the first game spent so long teaching you to play.

  10. MichaelPalin says:

    how did you go about guiding players without those breadcrumbs

    Portal 2 was the first Valve linear game that made me realize I hate Valve linear games. They have the unhealthy idea that the player needs to be guided all the time and it’s more obvious and annoying the more Valve games you play. And they did choose some dumb testers for Portal 2: “some testers did not realize the blue walls cancel the portals so we filled the level with clues until they got it”, o_0

    We did experiment with much less linear, more natural exploration in some of the underground areas, but everyone got instantly, irretrievably lost.

    And then they dropped the non-linearity and transformed most of the non-chamber puzzles into “spot the white wall”. Seriously Valve, leave the players be.

  11. Terraval says:

    That’s not the LHC, that’s the innards of the ATLAS detector, one of the experiments *on* the LHC.

  12. bill says:

    I think Valve’s highly tested subtle guidance works pretty well for their FPS games. It alows slightly open levels that still guide the player well.

    I enjoyed Portal 2 a lot, but the guidance was often way too obvious, and it was rather sad that the puzzles were so limited and linear. It was almost always a case of: walk into room, look for white patches and lights.

    This kind of smoke and mirrors only works if it’s subtle, if it gets too obvious then people cotton on, and that breaks the illusion.

    • bill says:

      Plus, maybe valve shouldn’t talk about it so much. Everyone who reads game blogs or listens to their commentaries now knows to look for lights when they enter a new area.