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Keeping Players Awake With Humor and Narrative

Puzzles are a feast for the mind, but have the risk of boring the player. By looking at Portal we analyze how the Valve team kept players interest high while asking them to stare at a puzzle for minutes on end.

This article originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more resources on game design.

“Wait a minute…go back.”  I was doing my best to explain Portal to one of my old college friends.

“Ok, so what I did was create a portal on the floor, and then another one up on the wall.  When I fall out of the wall, then I go through the one on the floor, so it’s like I’m falling continuously.”

With a zap I fired the portal gun twice, and then illustrated my point, sailing through the air.  ”Got it?”

“Uh…wait…” he said, scratching his chin to figure out the puzzle.  ”So….”

Augh…this was going to be a long discussion.

Portal was an impeccably well-designed game.  With Portal 2, many developers and fans are very excited to enjoy what Valve has as the follow up to the smash hit.  The game that came out in 2007 rocked the industry, taking the high quality polish normally associated with AAA console titles and combining it with innovation normally seen with obscure indie titles.

Portal has a number of great game design nuggets, but the one we’ll be covering today has to do with their technique for fighting player boredom, a challenge in all intellectually-charged puzzle games, games where players can often be stuck in a room trying to understand something for minutes at a time.  Too long and …*snore*

Game Design: Humor in Audio Narrative

Applicable Platforms: Puzzle Games

Applicable Experiences: Keeping players’ interest while thinking, avoiding boredom

In the commentary for Portal, Valve developers discuss the challenge that they began to run into on about the 5th or 6th room.  Though the intellectual challenges presented by the puzzles became more and more sophisticated, providing more and more of a challenge to the player, they found that players began to get bored or tired of the process.  A little too much left-brain action, it would seem, is exhausting.

In order to remedy this, the Valve team experimented with a few approaches and decided to take advantage of the narrator in the game, GLaDOS, the computer simulation designed to guide the test subject through the levels.  It was quite easy, it seemed, to make GLaDOS more entertaining by developing her into more of a character:

“Remember, the Aperture Science 'Bring Your Daughter to Work Day' is the perfect time to have her tested.”

“In dangerous testing environments, the Enrichment Center promises to always provide useful advice. For instance, the floor here will kill you. Try to avoid it.”

“You euthanized your faithful Companion Cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations.”

And it didn’t take much.  By keeping the audio that players were listening to lighthearted, the design worked and the boredom went away.  For a moment at a time at the beginning of each level, at the end, and sometimes after certain actions, players were delighted to hear silly comments and sarcasm from the robot.  It seems that it just took a little right-brain humor to keep the left brain puzzle solving interested and engaged.

What better is that Valve was also able to weave this humor into the narrative of the game.  Using GLaDOS as not only a mechanism to deliver light jokes, but also as a source of backstory about the world and instructions for the player, and finally as a final boss.

Not Humorous Text, Humorous Voice

One important thing to note in this design solution is that Valve choose not to have the narration from GLaDOS in text form.  While this makes sense because it follows in the vein of their other Half Life games, it is also a key feature of what makes this design work.  Many players often find reading to be tedious, no matter how enthralling the text itself is.  Players who are interested in action games or first person shooters can tend to fall in this category.  Text is often completely bypassed.

Thus, this design solution to player boredom may be difficult on platforms other than console or downloadable titles; in Flash games, for example, the audio file size may make the design untenable.

Another important aspect of this design is that it happened without the player’s doing.  Players didn’t need to go out of their way to go and find humorous jokes by flipping switches or performing any action.  The humor lined the normal path of the game and ran automatically.  And since it was audio, players were forced to enjoy it.  If it was optional or required player action, then many players may choose to just focus on moving forward and, in the process, bore themselves.

This article originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more resources on game design.

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