Untold Riches: An Analysis Of Portal’s Level Design

By RPS on September 20th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.


Words by Hamish Todd.

Portal has the best-designed first-person puzzles I’ve ever seen. They’re surprising, focused, and concise. They are also designed very perceptively, and we can learn a lot from looking at this perceptiveness. Read on for an analysis of Portal’s level design, and some lessons about what learning from it can do to improve game design.

BE WARNED: This article uses multiple animated .gif images on the same page, and might be tough to load on slower connections.

This diagram shows a move called the “fling”, where you turn a fall into a leap forward using portals. It is a beautiful and interesting possibility within the game engine, and the level design is intelligently constructed to make it accessible. On the surface, Portal is a game about changing your position in space, but the fling move is about changing your direction and repurposing gravity as a means of increasing your elevation. So the fling move is a quite sophisticated idea; it’s also rich in uses, and involves you moving in a swift, continuous curve – so it’s very fun.

A fling is also an extremely disorienting experience. This makes it cool to plan around, but difficult to teach. Good thing then that Valve’s level designers are expert teachers, who know exactly how to craft around player’s thought processes. The sequences in the game that teach you the fling saw more design iteration than any other part of the game, so you can bet that they’ll be streamlined and full of clever psychology. In this article I’ll be looking closely at the series of levels that slowly build up the fling, and after that I’ll look at the deeper strategic variations on it that are presented.

Chamber 10
In the following rooms, the player is able to control the position of the blue portal only, the orange one being set down immovably by the designers, a limitation that is used to make your education smoother. The first part of this education is a room that is almost insultingly simple to “solve”:

All you have to do here is put a portal somewhere and go through it. It would be wrong to call this a puzzle, really. It’s an antepiece, a brief task that exists not to provide challenge in itself but to introduce an idea that will help the player deal with a setpiece that will come soon after it. Another example of an antepiece in Portal is the incineration of your companion cube, which gives you a method you will later use to kill the last boss.

The action introduced here is a forward movement, out of a portal, across a gap, to a place you couldn’t reach (the player will have found that that ledge is slightly too high to jump onto). This action also becomes associated with the very visible thrust-forward panel with the orange portal on it, which will become a motif.


Straight away there’s the thrust-forward panel again. The clever thing that can happen here, which I’ve tried to depict in the gif, is that the player is lured into making a mistake that will actually bring them closer to a solution.

It may be a surprising concept to a player that you’re supposed to fall into a pit. So note that the platform over the pit is shaped like a diving board. This encourages the player to dive off it, and if it isn’t enough, the player is likely to fall off it anyway because it’s so narrow.

When you’re in the pit, there’s not much you can do other than try to get yourself out, and since this pit’s walls lack the white texture that other pits usually have, you have to put a portal on the floor in order to get out. So you do that, and you “plop out” (emerge with low momentum) of the orange portal panel, to a point near to the diving board again. And then there we are: your portals are now set for you to solve the puzzle, or at least give you a clue. You dive in again, and the momentum you build in falling takes you to the exit.


It is actually possible to have blundered through that previous room without even having looked directly at the thrusting panel with the orange portal on it, and therefore without understanding how you solved it. This room makes sure you get a better idea of what’s going on.

The designers have put the orange portal in the pit, so to prepare for your fling you must place your portal on the panel above – so you’ll have engaged with both parts of the set up. Famously, playtesters would take ages to look up and see the white surface they need, so to draw attention to the panels the designers gave them protrusion animations. They’re loud and slow-moving, so you’re unlikely to miss them.

The player flings themselves twice in this room, and all the variables (fall height, gap length, elevation of destination) get changed. This is a step toward the player being able to see the system and manipulate those variables themselves. Bearing in mind that the fling is so fast and disorientating (the second fling turns you upside-down!), it’s nice to be able to gain this understanding at a slow pace. As you leave the room, the voice over remarks “momentum is conserved between portals”. The player can link this neat fact to intuition quite easily.

Chamber 12
Between the chamber just described and chamber 12, we’re given control and responsibility for both portals. Chamber 12, then, exists mostly to make you handle both ends of a fling.


You start at the bottom, and you ascend by placing “fling-out” portals on the panels, to fling to places you won’t actually be able to see. When you’ve gotten to the top, you’ll be in a situation where your “drop in” portal is quite far away and out of sight of your “fling out” portal. This means you’re now comfortably using resources in two separated places. You’ll also fling from a skewed panel here, which is powerful and novel.

There’s an interesting, well-chosen structure here. An enjoyable vertically-progressing level is a rare beast in first-person games, and that is how you move through here, with flings out of successive panels as they slowly become visible to you. But then you keep returning to the bottom because that’s where the “fling pit” you’re using is (you even make a return from the very top shelf where the exit is, because you have to bring a cube down to a button). That means that you can understand and grow accustomed to these odd, initially-obfuscated spaces as they unfold, giving you a real sense of the privilege of having both portals and using them to explore lofty locations.

Chamber 15

We’ve taken a big step forward in the game. This room uses a thrust-forward panel to reminds you of the fling; but in contrast to previous areas there’s no pit to jump into. Understanding the fling means knowing the difference between exiting a portal with momentum and just plopping out of it. Without your pit to build momentum you can only plop.

The elegant solution is to use your plop as a descent. So the solution involves going into the same portal twice in a row, but with different results. Since flings are disorientating, players can have difficulty realizing they need to plan this, but when you get it the movement feels lovely.

There’s an aesthetically pleasing clue in the layout: the first half of the pre-wall area is white, while in the second half the walls and ceiling are black. The place on the floor you “plop” onto is at this precisely marked half-way point. The designers are suggesting to the player who arrives here “you have done half the job, you may want to double up what you just did”.


The puzzle here very strictly forces you to place a portal while falling through the air, such that you will go straight into it – not so easy, since you’re emerging from a fling that has rotated the direction you perceive as “up” by 90 degrees!

Here, if you plop out of the portal on the thrusted panel with zero momentum, you’ll just fall onto the black unportalable floor. That’s why you use the petite fall in the room on the right to get a minor fling – not enough for you to clear the glass barrier, but enough to get you to the white, portalable floor. It is when you’re falling towards that surface that you slap down a portal in front of you, allowing you to chain directly into a second, more powerful forward fling that completes the puzzle.

You have to climb some stairs to get up to the small fall. This is possibly to emphasize the fact that you are getting some usable elevation here, small as it is.

This challenge puts the last parts of your tool in place. You can make a plan involving a descent divided into two quantitatively different sections, in two separate rooms. You’re trained in repositioning a portal while in the air, and you’ll probably find that you’re capable of making the decision to do that on-the-fly (lol). You will think nothing of reappropriating the fling as a convenient means of transportation – which is sadly what you are required to repeat ad nauseam in Portal’s “behind the scenes” sequence, and Portal 2’s.

Strategic extensions of the fling
Now that we have a thorough understanding of the fling, we can create and enjoy interesting puzzle solutions by putting mathematically natural spins on it.

This is like the previous fling, but you’re falling towards a portal on a miniscule piece of floorspace. It takes a delicate jump (from a portal in the hallway) and air control to to hit the target.

This puzzle from the “Advanced” version of chamber 15 is also more about dexterity than brains, but it’s a very cool kind of dexterity. You have to get a portal on the thrusted panel while doing an endless fall between portals on the white squares. This requires the shooting of a target that is (from your point of view) rapidly cycling upwards.

What happens if you do a fling out of a portal that’s on the floor? You fly high into the air, and then fall back down, into your portal – and then you come out of your other portal, and repeat!

When you’re flung out of one of the platforms in this level, at the apex of your trajectory you have a chance to slap a portal on the surface of the next platform up. You climb these mammoth stairs by repeatedly doing that – and remembering to alternate firing blue and orange portals! Note that the platforms resemble the earlier thrust-forward panels.

Your body does a complete sideways roll whenever you pass through your upward-facing portals. Initially people try to counter this movement, trying to get a clear shot by staying upright, but eventually they learn that it’s better to just let the movement happen and try to aim as soon as you’re upright. It’s an amusing feeling to try to compose oneself while falling at terminal velocity and periodically doing side flips. Fortunately you never lose any momentum, so you can go through a “portal-trampoline” on a given platform as many times as you like before taking a shot at the next one.

Putting two portals on the floor is one of the first experiments a lot of people do when they get the gun, and they find that it often just results in a mess. If you did that experiment, this is a rewarding chamber to come to. There’s a game design principle to be gleaned from this: we must look for the things that people tend to enjoy doing in our engines, and then make levels with some practical excuse for doing those things.

The above puzzle is by far the best piece of design in the whole of the “Portal: The Flash Version mappack”. Here the portal that you initially go into is the same as the portal that you eventually fling out of, so there’s that cute fall on the left side of the picture where you come out of the blue portal and then immediately reposition it such that you fall directly back into it. It may seem simple, but realizing you can conserve that orange portal where it is can take a lot of thinking – then when you get it, there’s a delightful symmetry to it.

In the real Portal there’s a puzzle in the Advanced version of test chamber 15 which has the same solution. Those of you who have played it will see that the sloped ceiling that you bounce off at the end here is a very conscientious touch. Valve screwed up their version of this somewhat; instead of the bounce, it’s like you have to manually air control yourself onto the ledge, which is a fussy dismount from an elegant routine.

Finally, this article would not be complete without a picture of this, the final puzzle of Narbacular Drop, the student game that would eventually become Portal. In the middle of the screen is the avatar, princess Noknees; the two monster-faces you can see are the portals.

This was the first proto-fling ever to be implemented. It’s situated at the top of a tall tower which you climb mostly by positioning portals over platforms at precarious angles. The room as a whole has something in common with chamber 12, though less like a piece of shapely Rococo furniture, more like a multi-storey car park.

In theory it’s cool to have you climb almost all the way up a tower in one way, and then have you ascend the final step in a novel but somewhat-related way. However, I think that surprising puzzle solutions like the fling require focused puzzle design, so to me this is very ugly. It’s certainly enclosed and obfuscating. When you get the solution it doesn’t feel so smooth or substantial. And chances are that you won’t get that solution without having wasted some time searching for clues or getting fixated on unimportant details in this level. The time-wastiness is compounded by the room being deadly and unforgiving, and therefore discouraging experimentation.

Assessments
When people talk about works of interactive entertainment aspiring to offer some insight into the world, they tend to advocate titles like “The Walking Dead” and “Dear Esther”. That is sad to me, because it seems to suggest that to be artistically insightful, a game must be strategically dull.

I feel that the most beautiful pieces of interactive entertainment are the ones that communicate through strategic decisions you make. This means that the things you communicate are mostly “mathematical”, so I usually use comparisons with Bach and Islamic art when I’m trying to explain to people the kinds of artistic insights video games can offer.

I believe Portal contains quite a lot of mathematical communication. I would not claim that the puzzles teach you anything about the wormholes that may actually exist, with the possible exception of the ones that focus on the energy pellet. But it seems to me that the solutions I’ve discussed here do have a thing or three to say about the real world. For example: when real objects are moving at high speed and there is a sudden change in the direction of their acceleration, they move through a curve that you will be able to recognize, as a person who has experienced the “fling”. And that may not be the kind of insight that you usually expect artists to work on, but it is communicated beautifully, which is why we need even more good developers working on things like Portal.

Portal offers a brave new philosophy of puzzle design: “we value puzzles not because we like struggling, but because we like having mechanical phenomena revealed to us”. Less like math questions, more like interactive math papers.

When you’re writing a math paper, you want to be as clear and concise as possible, which is what we have in Portal. A designer plays around in a game engine, discovers some naturally emerging phenomenon like the fling, and says “now to design a puzzle which involves the player experiencing this phenomenon”. In designing the puzzle, to paraphrase Einstein, we must make things as simple as possible, but no simpler. No red herrings; no unnecessary extra tasks or things for the player to get distracted by. Use stepping-stone puzzles to make the player’s discoveries active, concise, and thoroughly-established, and only allow things to be repeated if there’s a real chance the player hasn’t understood something yet. This is a philosophy you only see in post-Portal puzzle games, with a few wonderful exceptions.

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52 Comments »

  1. Fumarole says:

    I’d recommend anyone who hasn’t done so to play through the game with the developer commentary on. It’s quite fascinating and details many of the items discussed above.

    • Iskariot says:

      Oh, that is a good idea. It is so easy to overlook options like that.

    • Drinking with Skeletons says:

      Any game with commentary is immediately improved. It’s fascinating! Too bad that more devs don’t do it. The only non-Valve game I’ve encountered that had the feature was the original Sly Cooper (not the sequels, oddly).

      There’s also an interesting overlap between game design and education, though they don’t share the same terminology. I would advise aspiring developers to look up the term “scaffolding” as something to keep in mind when designing levels.

      • welverin says:

        The original God of War had commentary, unfortunately it was hidden on a dvd with the strategy guide, which was particularly disappointing, because they included the first level commentary with the demo. I could swear some other game I have did as well, but I can’t think of what.

      • Eagle0600 says:

        Gunpoint had commentary from the artist, programmer/designer, and composer.

      • Noumenon says:

        Ratchet and Clank 2 & 3 had volunteer developer commentaries added by Mike Stout and Tony Garcia, on YouTube.

      • SkittleDiddler says:

        The boxed version of Civ IV Complete has a commentary, along with a behind-the-scenes DVD.

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      Absolutely. The Portal commentary shows how much effort went into the smallest things, which is why Valve could densely layer so much information into the sparsest-looking environments, and how much the game was conveying to you without you even realising it.

  2. Rincewind says:

    Interesting, well-written article. As the previous commentator noted, playing Portal with the Developer Commentary on is a really great experience if you’re interested in game design; it shows you how much thought actually went into the design.

    Inherent in the experience is a bit of an interesting contradiction that a lot of post-Portal puzzle games seem to struggle with; how to create puzzles that are fun without being frustrating, and challenging without being too difficult. For example, some portion of the game-playing public might find Portal’s handholding-disguised-as-clever-writing to be condescending, without realizing how brilliantly it eliminated the traditional tutorial. It also presents a challenge to game designers who don’t have access to an essentially unlimited supply of fresh minds who are totally unaware of the principles behind a particular game design.

    I’ve been encouraged by games like The Swapper, which managed to capture that sweet spot quite well through stepped-up difficulty. That said, it’s very easy to learn the wrong lessons from Portal, and spend the vast majority of a game’s time teaching a mechanism, with barely any time left over after the teaching to simply revel in the experience. Quantum Conundrum is a good example of the latter; it’s possible that without the limiting conditions of the original Portal project, Kim Swift simply got caught up in mechanics.

    • Inverse Square says:

      (writer here!)

      Interesting comment. I recognize the “having to spend a lot of time teaching” problem, but actually I don’t think it applies to Quantum Conundrum, which from what I recall has lots of emergent phenomena in its puzzles. The game that you made me think of was “Lit”, a fairly nice puzzle game which sadly involves so many different (and rather pointless) tools that you spend most of the game just learning about them, although at least it’s a non-tutorialized kind of learning.

      But sorry, I don’t see how Portal’s writing has an impact on the tutorial? The “momentum” stuff is the only time I’m aware of puzzle specifics being referred to in the voice over, and she really only says that stuff *after* you’ve completed the basic chamber 10 puzzles?

  3. Fenix says:

    Really interesting piece, thanks.

  4. noclip says:

    This article immediately reminded me of an interesting talk I watched a while ago. Once I scrolled back up and read the byline I realized why.

  5. Justin Keverne says:

    No red herrings; no unnecessary extra tasks or things for the player to get distracted by.

    This is something I think Portal 2 fell victim to, particularly in the sections below the testing facility. The environments were visually busy leading to frequent distractions and locations that read like they should be accessible but weren’t.

    • Grey Poupon says:

      Portal 2 kind of needed those though. The puzzles themselves were so simple and easy that the only hint of difficulty came from deciding which puzzle pieces to use. That’s also why I rank Portal 1 way higher than the sequel. It didn’t treat the player like a baby with one of those shape box toys and a spinning crib planets & starship toy overhead. It’s just so much slower to develop good intellectual puzzles.

      • Cinek says:

        Well, I agree that puzzles were more tedious than fun, and that P1 was better, but did P2 needed these? I don’t think so. Honestly: I doubt any game ever needs gigantic, but inaccessible environments that only clutter the game more than doing anything useful (you have no clue how much time I spent trying to get somewhere only to give up later on and “follow the path for idiots”).

  6. WrenBoy says:

    Great piece. Thanks.

  7. pupsikaso says:

    This conversion of vertical movement into horizontal movement is the biggest thing that I couldn’t understand in Portal’s puzzles. We are usually ingrained that vertical and horizontal movements of a body in ballistic motion are completely separate.

    • Cinek says:

      If you forget about physics for a moment and just enjoy the game – it’s much better.

  8. JuliaPeterson32 says:

    my classmate’s ex-wife makes $65/hr on the computer. She has been out of work for 9 months but last month her check was $12932 just working on the computer for a few hours. additional reading…. w­w­w.c­n­n­1­3.c­o­m

  9. JuliaPeterson32 says:

    my classmate’s ex-wife makes $65/hr on the computer. She has been out of work for 9 months but last month her check was $12932 just working on the computer for a few hours. additional reading…………………………………… w­w­w.c­n­n­1­3.c­o­m

  10. Asherie says:

    A great read. I love this sort of article. I’d love it to become a frequent thing, a sort of Game Appreciation thing

  11. derbefrier says:

    Portal is one of those games I wish I could erase my memory of and play it again for the first time as nothing will ever compare to those moments when it all clicks for the first time and you suddenly “get it”

  12. zin33 says:

    i loved the advanced maps on portal 1 (getting gold on the challenges was also fun!). they were wayyy more complicated than the campaign and i had blast beating them
    i was very sad when i first opened portal 2 and noticed it didnt have any :/

  13. Jack Mack says:

    This is a great, thoughtful article. However, in general, I’ve begun to dislike criticism that focuses on analyzing level-design from a purely theoretical perspective. When you’re an intense fan of the game and you know everything about it off by heart, it’s easy to go back, rationalize the design after the fact, and believe that it’s completely intuitive. That doesn’t show whether or not the techniques actually work.

    We have a lot of articles like this:

    http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/HugoBille/20120114/9236/

    which analyze and praise a game for the way it teaches new players. The problem is, they don’t come from the perspective of a new player. It’s just someone who’s played the game over and over, attempting to put themselves in a new players shoes and rationalize after the fact. If you look at the experience new players actually have, you see pages of frustration like this:

    http://www.kotaku.com.au/2013/05/the-kids-of-today-seem-to-be-struggling-with-super-metroid/

    From that article, you can see how people react to this stuff with derision – don’t these people understand how well-designed Super Metroid is? Haven’t they read the theory? I’ve found myself consistently frustrated and stuck through almost every game in the half life series, so I’m often irritated when design analysis posts like this come up and praise those games for the way they lead the player. I know that if I comment, though, I’ll be derided for my lack of skill.

    • jrodman says:

      I never finished portal. I found myself sure I was doing it wrong since it felt so clunky and difficult at times, but I was glad to be past the obstacle in question, until I got towards the very end and decided to just watch the youtube video from then on.

      It turns out I was doing it mostly the way everyone else did, so that part was working. I just didn’t feel like it was clicking, and i couldn’t execute at the level the game was demanding. Oh well.

    • Radiant says:

      Kids are universally soft these days.
      Throw them in a room with any c64 or spectrum isometric puzzle platformer and watch them explode.

      Case in point: Head over Heels.

      • Jack Mack says:

        I think kids were always soft. It’s just that nowadays, they post about it on the internet instead of just ditching the game and going outside.

        • RobF says:

          Yeah, exactly. Take tape out, load something else or go outside and do something else. Old videogames didn’t breed a generation of kids who were well ‘ard and knew how to tackle the toughest videogames, they were just stupidly shittily hard too often.

    • Mman says:

      Thing is, Valve themselves outright state that they use this approach, and this article is essentially a much more detailed version of what the commentaries already go into.

      Just because a lot of players are still going to miss stuff doesn’t mean these methods of teaching are invalid. There’s always going to be outliers (unless you make it so insultingly easy you turn everyone with a brain off anyway), and you can still take steps to cut them down as much as possible. I was actually part of the audience the fling stuff apparently went over the head of, as, rather than simple flings, I ended up using some hideously complex method to get over high ledges involving ground portals and using crouching to boost momentum (I even did the final boss using that). In retrospect though the fling stuff is so obvious that I know I have no-one to blame but myself.

      Also, the first time I played Half-Life 2 I found it’s attempts to guide me at every moment so transparent it was obnoxious. I got over that fast after everyone else took the absolute wrong lessons from that style and managed to remove even the degrees of freedom HL2 gave, but that’s an opinion from the opposite side of things.

    • Ninja Foodstuff says:

      I have a similar reaction to most FPS’s because I have a bad sense of direction. I consider it a good thing that most modern games have objective markers, even though I know a lot of people are put off by them.

      The Fallout 3 map display was one of the worst implementations of this I’ve ever experienced though.

      • jrodman says:

        How does the bad sense of direction combine with a good in-game map, like in doom for example?

        I generally loved finding my way around because I have a good sense of direction, but I still didn’t like getting confused in some of the more byzantine levels in say quake 1.

    • Inverse Square says:

      This is a valid concern. There’s a way to avoid the self-justification stuff though: playtest the game with new players yourself. I did this, and saw how easy it was for players to go through chamber 10 while seeing the fling as “magic”. They would only fully understand how it works at the end of 10, or someway through 12.

      Here is a list of other “antepieces”: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Antepiece -a lot of this list was added by me. I’d be interested to hear whether you think I am just finding the things that I want to find, in these games.

      • Inverse Square says:

        Allow me to strain there that you playtest it with new playerS. The guy writing the Super Metroid article you included seems to have used one, which explains passages like this:

        “One of them requires missiles to open, the other one doesn’t. Now that you have your missiles equipped and warmed up, what will you do? The player is compelled to go right.”

        Screw this! I went left! As would anyone who is compelled to open doors “in ascending order of the upgrade required to open them”. And even if he was right it’s not clear how this is noteworthy design.

      • Jack Mack says:

        “I’d be interested to hear whether you think I am just finding the things that I want to find, in these games.”

        I love the theory, it makes sense to me, and I assume that valve have playtested the mechanic with and without antepieces and found that playtesters are less confused with them. What I wonder is, how does it compare to other techniques, like a straight tutorial?

        Of course, every puzzle will lose some amount of players. I guess the question is, how many players does explaining a mechanic like this lose compared to a straight tutorial, and is it worth losing that many players in exchange for the extra simplicity and elegance? Playtesting is great, but it’s only qualitative: it can’t really apply to the general population.

        Again, it’s a great analysis, but I’d really love to see some actual data. The only thing I can tell, based on portal’s achievements, is that the quarter of the game that this puzzle existed in lost 7 or 14% of players (can’t remember which quarter it was). What could be better is some game which uses antepieces and also includes an in-game walkthrough, and tracks which parts users look up (maybe putting some barrier up to discourage overuse). Research on this stuff would be fantastic.

        • Inverse Square says:

          The people working at Valve would reply to you that most players don’t even bother reading tutorial text when you include it, they just skip through it and if it becomes relevant later they won’t even be arsed to think back. They use silent stuff like this because they think it’s more effective in every way – the elegance and added activeness of the learning experience is a pleasant side effect!

          The bigger question here is “is it worth trying to build a game opening with an active/completely nonverbal tutorial?” And it just seems utterly obvious to me that the answer is yes. The only excuse for not doing so is if you’re unfamiliar with the possibility. And I am convinced it is always a possibility, even in TBSs or whatever.

          Tutorials are fucking boring as shit, and you don’t need many numbers to tell you that. When I start a game and have to go through too much (read: >50 words) of text, I turn it off nowadays because I feel I could be playing other games that would treat me right =/ Though this does mean I don’t play many video games.

          • Jack Mack says:

            I respect that conviction. I find myself playing too many terrible games.

            E: You’re right, really, of course this is better than a text tutorial.

            Good luck with music of the spheres, it looks fantastic.

          • Inverse Square says:

            Uhh well, Music of the Spheres is already out and I have already turned out to be pretty damned unlucky with it :P If you do like the look of it, you can buy it here http://www.desura.com/games/music-of-the-spheres – It has no shortage of antepieces.

  14. Radiant says:

    An issue I had with the level design [and, as a game developer myself, an answer to the question "how would you improve Portal"] is that, as it introduced to you skills as you went along, you could never go back to the earlier levels and re-apply those newly learnt skills.

    It would have been wonderful to go back to say level 4 and open up a new avenue of approach metroid style to complete the level through skills you picked up in level 8.

    Or even just use those skills to better your time on a past level.

    The sad fact is for speed runs you have to mostly learn a completely new set of game breaking skills to compete.

    • bateleur says:

      The problem with using a metroid-style approach is that some players would intuitively use those “new skills” long before the game had taught them. All the brilliant game design this article talks about concerns how to teach slow players about the game in a way that doesn’t spoil their fun, but highly capable players are just as much of a problem for designers.

    • Inverse Square says:

      Actually, they do exactly that! You break into test chamber 9 while in the “behind the scenes” part: http://theportalwiki.com/wiki/Portal_Test_Chamber_09 And you solve it without the use of the companion cube it formerly contained.

  15. kyrieee says:

    I know I’ve seen this analysis of Portal before somewhere.

  16. Bull0 says:

    Interesting read. And for some reason, the cross-section images with orange firey stuff at the bottom really make me want to play Minecraft.

  17. inertia says:

    It’s like Gamasutra is leaking, and I like it.

  18. ffordesoon says:

    I think it is vitally important to the future of game creation and game commentary that articles on theory like this one appear more often on general-interest game sites. RPS has a history of posting such things, but it’s ultimately – not to insult the fine folks at RPS, my very favorite gaming site – a niche blog. I wish the Gamespots and IGNs of the world would publish stuff like this regularly or even semi-regularly, as opposed to endless insipid Top 100 lists and regurgitated press releases and checklist “this game may not appeal to some” reviews. Or in addition to them; I don’t care.

    To IGN’s credit, they have started to improve in this area, though any article they publish wherein players are asked to look at games through a different lens is usually just an excuse to loosely relate games to something Old and Famous and Important, thus swatting the discourse right into the intellectual sandtrap of “WHAT IS THE [THING MY PARENTS LIKE] OF VIDEO GAMES?”

    Sigh.

    Getting so caught up in an angry screed that I forgot to praise the actual article would be awful of me. It is quite easy for someone like myself – that is to say, someone whose understanding of mathematics boils down to “IS MAGGIC MAEK ROKKIT GO TO MUN” – to take the beauty of a mathematical revelation like the one the article posits is conveyed by the “fling” for granted. We act as though the joy of solving problems through play is not as important as grappling with the Big Issues, when in fact both are equally important to the medium. It’s time we recognized that.

  19. Redpossum says:

    I’m studying for my TEFL certification right now, that’s Teaching English as a Foreign Language. One of the things we have been studying is the ways people learn, and this article provided me with some interesting insight on that. Although I have played Portal through from A to Z twice, and played certain favorite levels far more than that, I found this article all but impossible to read.

    Now, it’s not that I lack understanding of spatial relationships. I have done quite a bit of 3D map design for various FPS games as far back as Quake 1. I just can’t read the words and form a picture of WTF the author means. This is not to say there is necessarily anything wrong with the way the article is written.

    I did note his/her comment on the rarity of good vertical levels, and I emphatically agree. I *still* remember a certain intensely vertical level from DOOM2 that I particularly enjoyed.