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[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.