If you consider the Companion Cube to be female, this is like lesbian porn!

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There’s no sense denying it; several years late, I have still managed to join the ranks of players and bloggers who consider Portal to be one of the best video games ever. Yes, this means I cannot think for myself and my brain is now the property of the media. Deal with it.

However, this post isn’t about how Portal is mind-fuckingly good. We all know that. If you don’t know that by now, you must be a hopelessly underinformed and sheltered individual (i.e. me until Octoberish). What this post is about, is how to make a good game.

I look forward to people finding this page in the near future and shooting me down.

Without further ado, here comes the list.

1. No cutscenes. If you absolutely must have cutscenes, keep them short. Portal has two moments that I would consider “cutscenes”: The main character gets out of bed and stands up, and at the end, the rubble of GLaDOS crashes around the camera. Both of these are less than ten seconds long.

A video game doesn’t need cutscenes. I’d argue it doesn’t even need a cutscene for an introduction. Nothing’s more annoying than sitting down to play a game and getting hammered to death with plot for the first three or four minutes. Now, this isn’t to say plot isn’t important: The first time we get to control the character, I had better damn well know where I am and why I’m killing bad guys. Portal provides no explanation during its first “cutscene”; instead, you wake up dazed and confused, as the main character does. Then, as you pace around your cell, GLaDOS monologues for a minute as on-screen instructions tell you how to jump and basically interact with the environment.

This achieves two awesome things: Firstly, you understand immediately who you are (a test subject), where you are (Aperture Science Enrichment Center), and what you are doing (participating in a test). That’s good storytelling. Secondly, this is all achieved in the first two minutes, while the player has complete control over the character. That’s good game design.

When you read a book, it does not snap itself shut for four minutes when you open it the first time and refuse to let you interact with it, because a book is designed to be read. A game is designed to be played; why wait for some cutscene to unfold beforehand? If I wanted to watch characters doing things without my input, I’d watch a fucking movie.

2. Responsive playable character. You don’t have unlimited freedom in Portal, but no one cares about unlimited freedom. Game developers seem to be on this “unlimited freedom” kick lately, with Spore and other games that promise you choices out the wazoo. No one wants that. Yes, players want freedom, but not this unlimited freedom bullshit.

Players want the freedom to control their character. Do that, and all else will follow. Sly Cooper was a fun game to play because the damned raccoon responded to everything you did. With Sly, you could creep, climb, walk, run, pickpocket, and race around the enviornment like the skilled thief you were. Players want to become the character they’re playing. Don’t take it away from them by taking the controls away, even for a second. If you think it’s really important that the character the player is controlling does something, then make it so the player doesn’t have a choice.

3. Illusion of freedom. The illusion of freedom is more important than freedom itself. The only time anyone notices anything is when it changes. Try this: Stare at a field of grass, not moving your eyes at all. Eventually, the individual blades disappear, and the only things you can “see” are the blades of grass that are moving.

Human beings need contrast to make anything interesting. Portal gives the player the illusion of freedom by handing them a Portal Gun (eventually) and saying “have at it.” Now you can place portals almost anywhere. Almost being the keyword: There are places the player cannot place portals, i.e. non-stationary objects, mirrored surfaces, and glass. However, without these limitations, the player would never appreciate the freedom they have to place portals in so many different areas. It would get old surprisingly quickly.

With the right surfaces available, though, the player can do whatever he or she wants: Create a “wall of mirrors” with two portals, send cubes flying through the air, or even place two on the ground and watch a turret pop in and out thanks to gravity. This illusion of freedom has led many players to explore different ways of solving puzzles, or even seeing how many Companion Cubes they can stack atop one another before the tower comes crumbling down. In fact, Portal is probably the most YouTube’d game I can think of, thanks to the freedom allowed by the portal gun and physics engine.

4. Varied gameplay with steadily increasing difficulty. Assassin’s Creed would have been a kickass game thanks to its graphics and AI. Reality is, it sucked because virtually all of the game was really the same five or six “mini-games” over and over again. In all honesty, the only reason I played that game through to the end was because I didn’t want my aunt to beat me in finishing the game. That’d just be embarrassing.

Portal provides a more challenging puzzle with each test chamber. In fact, if you listen to the commentary, every single test chamber serves a purpose. The first is designed to get the player used to the concept of portals to avoid any confusion later. Later chambers have other purposes, including: Training the player to use cubes; training the player to use momentum; introducing the player to the Emancipation Grid; introducing turrets; and so on. Every level has its own specific, unique purpose. In this way, the player learns increasingly complex tricks with the Portal Gun to keep them occupied and having fun. Which leads me to my next point:

5. Gives the player an opportunity to learn and perfect a new skill. I strongly believe that every video game should provide the player a chance to learn a new gameplay element, then use that element. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as learning and mastering gameplay, then using it to kick some ass later on. Every game I consider even remotely good does this: Builds the player’s skill, then puts it to the test.

Ratchet & Clank is perhaps the most obvious non-Portal example I can think of. The R&C series (which is currently not going in a direction I like, if I were to be honest) forced players to learn how to use, control, and be economical with this enormous arsenal of weapons they build up each game. They pulled this off extremely well in the first game, then ditched everything they’d done right with the weapons in the next few games. The weapons became so powerful and the ammunition so plentiful in R&C 2 and 3 that any idiot could hold down the fire button and wipe out a planetful of enemies. Of course, R&C made other improvements to the game series, otherwise 2 and 3 would have absolutely sucked.

(Aside: Future is great for the spectacle, by the way, but if you’re expecting a real Ratchet & Clank game, you’ll be sorely disappointed. I’d compare it to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s not a bad game if you judge it by itself, but there’s something very different about it from the original series.)

I’ve seen it in other games I would consider good, as well. The Sly Cooper series gives the player the opportunity to learn lots of different skills. One of the most brilliant game design philosophies I’d ever heard was from the commentary in the first Sly game (whatever happened to the commentary? I liked the commentary) which was this “n+1” philosophy. Give the player a new challenge, then increase the complexity of that challenge by one, and again, and again.

Portal demonstrates the “n+1” philosophy rather well:

  1. Portals are gateways the player can walk through.
  2. Portals are gateways the player can walk through. They can change position.
  3. Portals are gateways the player can walk through. They can change position. The player can fire a blue portal on particular surfaces.
  4. Portals are gateways the player can walk through. They can change position. The player can fire a blue portal on particular surfaces. High-energy pellets can also go through portals.
  5. Portals are gateways the player can walk through. They can change position. The player can fire a blue portal on particular surfaces. High-energy pellets can also go through portals. Some moving platforms can only be activated by high-energy pellets.
  6. Portals are gateways the player can walk through. They can change position. The player can fire a blue portal on particular surfaces. High-energy pellets can also go through portals. Some moving platforms can only be activated by high-energy pellets. The green floor is deadly to the player.

And so on. By the final level, the list of rules the player has internalized would go something like this:

Portals are gateways the player can walk through. They can change position. The player can fire a blue portal on particular surfaces. High-energy pellets can also go through portals. Some moving platforms can only be activated by high-energy pellets. The green floor is deadly to the player. Momentum is conserved between portals. The player can fire an orange portal on the same surfaces they can fire the blue portal on. Turrets are deadly. Turrets can be deactivated from behind. Turrets can be deactivated by dropping objects on top of them. Portals can be fired through grates. The Emergency Intelligence Incinerator destroys objects. A button must be pressed to activate the Emergency Intelligence Incinerator.

The player applies each of these rules during the climax of the game. The climax of any game should test what the player has learned throughout, otherwise all of the skills they’ve built up over the course of the game seem worthless when it comes to defeating the final boss, and the climax feels as though it came out of nowhere. By incorporating previous gameplay into the ending, it makes the game feel more like a cohesive whole.

The most satisfying ending of any creative work is one where all of the other parts of the work come into play in some way or another. It’s no different with gameplay.

In short, Portal knows it’s a game. It doesn’t have the identity crisis most games released these days seem to have. It doesn’t try to bullshit you into think it’s a movie, or an epic, or a life simulator, or a program where you can create whatever you like. It’s a game. And that’s all we as players want from the game industry – games. We haven’t been getting much of those lately.

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