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Design Language: The Portal Paradoxes
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Design Language: The Portal Paradoxes

April 10, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Starting a new design column for Gamasutra, Sinistar co-designer and LucasArts veteran Noah Falstein presents a comprehensive design critique of Valve's acclaimed Portal - from intro to 'Still Alive'.]

Welcome to my new regular feature, Design Language. I've been the design columnist for Game Developer magazine for six years straight -- an eternity in game industry time -- and it's time for a change.

This ongoing feature will cover a range of game design oriented topics. I will continue to discuss principles and rules of good game design, but also interview noted game designers and writers, analyze and discuss games that exemplify interesting aspects of design, and talk about what game developers can learn from them.

And for this first foray, where better to start than with 2007's Game Developers Choice Awards Game of the Year, Portal!

There already many articles in praise of Portal, online and in print. But this game is all the more interesting because at first glance, its success seems based in part on business and development strategies that are risky, or at least contrary to common sense.

Although many aspects of Portal's design are built on solid principles that any designer would be wise to emulate, in many other ways it is the proverbial "exception that proves the rule", and if the games industry is to learn from its success we need to be careful to look beneath the surface. To do that it will of course be necessary to discuss many of the details revealed in the course of play, but if you haven't already played the game, what are you waiting for?

One of the tougher responsibilities of a game designer is to learn to evaluate games taking into account your own biases, but not being overwhelmed by them. To come clean on that score, I do like puzzle games and although I'm not a hard-core physics game junkie, I have always appreciated the realism that good use of physics adds to games.

As an old and jaded game designer, I'm definitely in favor of interesting new game mechanics. I heard about Portal through the YouTube video of Narbacular Drop, the game that was essentially its working prototype, and was immediately intrigued, both by the gameplay shown and by the "bright team of developers makes good" story behind it.

Perhaps most importantly, I really like good writing in games; I loved the Old Man Murray columns and was a huge fan of the writing in Psychonauts, so I was pleased to hear Erik Wolpaw was involved.

They did such a good job making fun of the game industry tendency to destroy untold numbers of innocent crates, that it's only fitting he had a hand in making the player feel remorse over one particular cube in Portal.

So all in all I was probably biased slightly in favor of Portal before I even played it, hoping to be favorably impressed.

But I never expected to be completely blown away.

I finished Portal several months ago, and I still find myself humming the song and smiling from time to time. I can't hear the word "cake" without experience a mild sense of betrayal. And I find myself talking earnestly to the metal base of my desk lamp because it is cube-shaped and heavy enough to merit the term "weighted". OK, I made that last bit up, but I did take the unprecedented (for me) step of replacing my ring tone on my phone with an excerpt from the Portal song. But I get ahead of myself.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Game Designer


Leonardo Ferreira
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I personally think that Portal was a bit overrated game.Yes, the story pacing was great, and the writing was intentionally funny without being silly, but the story is told in a similar way to the Half-Life series (also by Valve, no coincidence here), and there is a lot of other greatly written games (like Psychonauts, to take an example) who didnít got extensive analysis and interpretations like Portal did, mostly because Portal received (and is receiving) much more hype than they.The game also was a bit too short and easy(I never really spend a lot of time stuck in a specific puzzle), and the challenges were just filler content.The overall mechanic is indeed good, but the start of the game is too slow (with the need to collect power-ups for the portal gun being totally unnecessary), and it ends too quick.The final boss battle (and subsequent credits song) is brilliant though, but the companion cube thing is a little too ridiculous, since you donít even get to spend so many time with it to fell really attached when you destroy it.From my view, is a really good game, but it failed to amaze as I though it would.

Michael Baker
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I agree that the merger of game design elements in Portal is highly successful. I also agree that analysis of the game's design might yield a few lessons, but it seems to me that Portal is more so the result of a tightly knit team operating under the legendarily permissive auspices of Valve Software. The development team knew what they wanted and needed a place in which to cultivate their vision.

The first time I played through the game, I enjoyed a definite sense of place. A sense not of immersion, but of a unique experience unfolding step by step despite an entirely predictable progression of story and puzzles. As you indicate, this level of cohesion and quality only happens under the right development conditions. I tend to believe that the application of design rules can only be successful if there is a strong shared vision of what the final gameplay experience should be.

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@ Ferreira

With the exception of it being short, you were a sucessful subject of the game. You see, the producers of Portal *wanted* you to not spend much time on any puzzle. The whole reason you had to collect the Portal Gun parts was so that the learning curve wouldn't start offset. As I understand, the challenges were all intended to show you something. Just imagine trying to start level 18 first with a progressing difficulty. You would quickly get frusturated and quit.

As you may have imagined while playing, GLaDOS was trying to teach you about the world around you to prepare you for the more complex puzzles. In the case that you did, you were correct.

Tony Dormanesh
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Good article. Yes, it was kind of a perfect storm for Portal (Definitely was for the Nab Drop team of students). Some would call them lucky, but luck is when preparation meets opportunity. They were prepared and Valve provided the oppportunity.

I loved the game, I was smiling like a giddy school girl throughout most of it. I laughed at times, but I was smiling mostly because of the great levels and the creativity I was given with the portal mechanic. In the slew of great FPS games that came out late last year, Portal was ultimately refreshing and fun.

On the other hand, I really don't get this "Still Alive" phenomenon. GLaDOS was cool also, but...

Anyways, as long as everyone is having fun and enjoying fun games I'm happy. Great article on a great game, I look forward to reading more.

P.S. In an article about Orange Box, I have to mention TF2! Any developer in the history of games would be happy to be included in a package deal with TF2!

Rafael Kuhnen
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Definetly a Game Design lesson. The game itself and all the developer's comentary made on each level should be fully apreciated by game developers and students alike.

Great article, looking forward for your next one.

Simon Jensen
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I wonder if we're going to see more studios adopt the orange box approch of bundling small innovative, experimental 2-3 hour games along with a triple A title, it seems like it would be a great way to mitigate the risks of developing a stand alone game and still foster innovation and trying something new and unique. It's an approach that's worked well for Pixar with their shorts allowing them to utilize untested techniques in a production environment.

Noah Falstein
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Glad to hear feedback, everyone. The print articles in Game Developer would get about one email every one or two months, so it's great having half a dozen in a few days.

Steven An
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To me, Portal felt a lot like a good ol' episode of the Twilight Zone. Short, sweet, and clever. Beyond its polished design, great writing, and what can only be described as creative magic, I hope developers also learn and explore the possibilities of a shorter format.