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Portal 2 Game Design review: Part IV (and last)

Fourth and last part of the Portal 2 Game Design review. These series will dissect the constituent (and sometimes unnoticed) game design elements behind acclaimed Valve's Portal 2.

Abel Bascunana Pons, Blogger

May 7, 2011

7 Min Read

This game design review contains spoilers. Please feel free to come back after having completed the Single Player mode of Portal 2. You'll also better understand all what's commented here after having played the game thoroughly.

In the last entry, we ended the game design analysis at chapter 6.


Chapter 7

In the first room, the player will immediately learn a new gameplay mechanic, the Speed gel. Again, this mechanic is presented alone, without combining it with other elements so the player can get the gist of it.

The next room combines the speed gel with water to perform high long jumps.

A curious issue that could be considered a minor bug occurs if you don’t reach the bridge but touch its border:
You’ll hear Cave Johnson’s voice saying ”Great job, astronaut!” while you fall to the abyss and die. The sound trigger event could have rather been put near the elevator instead to avoid the issue. Actually, this kind of "false alarm" sound events also happen in other parts of the map.

If structures and rooms were huge, they now turn much bigger even as you perform double jumps through combining speed gel + repulsion gel + repulsion gel.

At mid level 7, we’ll reach a chamber where 3 levers must be activated to break a big metallic pipe. Here we’ll be introduced to the portal gel, that will allow us to shoot at the surfaces it paints to create portals.

We’ll use the portal gel twice and we’ll be again “invited” to walk through corridors and empty rooms as Cave Johnson talks to us to avoid making the experience a dull one.

We’ll immediately use the portal gel again to move up buildings performing superjumps. We’ll reach an elevator hole that we have to ascend, again, using the portal gel alone.

It seems the designers are sure at this point that the player has assimilated how the portal gel works, so now they combine all the three gels for the first time: repulsion + speed + jump gel to climb up the building.

Now, as if a premonition of what’s to come, in this new warehouse room we’ll use both portals alone without trace of any of the gameplay mechanics we have learnt during this chapter.

After so much climbing up through buildings and rooms, a cutscene will show a descending elevator platform. It will take us up as if rewarding us for our previous great efforts.


Chapter 8

We’ll play test rooms again, recovering the first chapters flavour. Now Wheatley is in control of the system.

We won’t see any gels until the end of the chapter. The first two test rooms will be super easy, actually we are obliged to repeat the second one two times while Wheatley mocks at the player!

From here, elements that will appear on next rooms are those we had seen on the first chapters (each line is a new room):

Teleport stream + box + jump trigger

Teleport stream + box + change stream current

Teleport stream + box + jump trigger

- Jump trigger + screen blue laser + enemy turrets

All the anterior elements + laser reflection box

Lasers + laser reflection box

-Switch (to activate teleport beam) + switch (to activate platform) + box + speed gel (as in the final battle we’ll need to use the three gels, the designers will remind us its mechanic in the last three rooms of this chapter)

White gel (in dynamic cutscene)

Repulsion gel + teleport beam+ turrets

In this level there’s a small game design flaw:

There’s a 2-directional teleport beam that transports repulsion bubbles to the other side of the abyss. Repulsion bubbles will be used to kill enemy turrets. Until this point, we’ve never used repulsion gel bubbles to kill turrets yet. The level layout makes it hard to figure out this game mechanic. The same goes for the teleport beam that transports the bubbles. As long as i can recall is the first time that these two elements are combined.

I call it a game design flaw because it breaks the rule of directly explaining the nature of a game element and how it can be combined with other elements afterwards. So it would have been better that we had been taught separately how to kill turrets with gels, and then how to transport gels with teleport beams. Then, these elements could have been combined, as in these room, and the player would have been able to infer the logic behing rather than making an exercise of trial and error.


Chapter 9

An enraged Wheatley chases us as we’ve made it through the test rooms he devised. Structures fall apart as the whole system collapses. Here we'll be “invited” again to run through many corridors and stairs while using the white gel.

We’ll face easy puzzles again, as in levels 5-6 (killing turrets, using portals alone...). The arcade feeling is revived: now we can die if we don’t measure jumps or avoid spikes.

After Wheatley loses track of us, we’ll learn another gameplay mechanic: the use of bombs, that combined with the white gel to made them explode in other parts of the room.

We are still learning new game mechanics even at the last level!! what game can presume of doing this??


Last Battle

The last battle is relatively easy. Wheatley will throw us bombs and we must create two portals so the bombs get back to him.

Then we need to get 3 defective robot heads and connect them to Wheatley’s machine to create a short-circuit. For each head, we’ll use one of the three gels.


Final word

I won’t say anything that hasn’t been said already. Portal 2 is a masterpiece, and its gameplay is a genre definer. The scripts, jokes, mockery or reflections about society touch us emotionally in some way or another.

Actually, when GladOs says he just saw a deer, and ironically remarks how the player is never interested in such things anymore…  isn’t this our sad current state of being almost completely isolated from nature? 

Is the player finally amnestied by GladOS from this eternal slavery of testing rooms because he showed a strong desire not to become a robot alienated by the capitalist system (even pharmaceutical empires)?

Game design-wise, it’s important to notice the resource-saving modular design of each level. Many elements are reused again and again in different parts of the game, "only" changing its textures.

The most impressive characteristic is the clever architectural level design so we can’t use portals in unforeseen zones that allow us to cheat, specially when we are amidst huge buildings and structures.

I only have two complains:

The first one is about the time we spend on corridors and empty rooms. Supposedly, they have been devised to tell us more about the story, to make us feel tiny, make us aware of the weight of being trapped within a megastructure, and to give a sense of continuity of this underground world so it's more credible...

I’m curious to know if game designers created first all the actual game rooms, and then the scripting part was attached to “stretch” the duration of the game. I would say almost 1’5 hours are spent within corridors and empty rooms, which tell us something: designing funny rooms is not an easy job. How many of them must have been dismissed during the iterative playtest phase?

My second complain refers as when Wheatley takes control of the system… it seemed a bit… forced i would say. How he’s so easily and quickly corrupted felt a bit out-of-place, but this is a very personal and subjective opinion.

The experience that best defines Portal 2 is “game flow”, how we are constantly surprised by new environments, new puzzle elements, how we are obliged to keep learning almost until the end of the game, how we are pointed to the solution but never told too much so we must make a conscious effort. We are somehow taken back again to our early childhood where, perplexed, we tried to match shapes on its correspondent holes, inferring solutions from the pool of knowledge that we were learning in real time. We are, as newborn, challenged to constantly learn new game rules and quickly apply them to survive.

The story, with all its characters, makes the game something alive and organic, with an unsurpassed charisma that will take a long time to be dethroned, probably until a Portal 3.

Meanwhile, i hope we can make the wait more endurable with the DLC content and of course the mod editor!

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