Friday, 22 April 2011

Critical leaps

In all the sound and fury of the reaction to Portal 2, it is hard to have a more subtle critical dialog about the game. There's two main points worth exploring: which go in two different directions and which I have hinted to earlier.

1. The disparity between the overall critical response and the overall end user response. This is part of a wider conversation about the complexity of reviewing a game at release. I don't mean this needs to be a conversation about the ARG, in fact I'm not especially interested in it beyond watching the car crash of Valve's clever and inspired marketing and overwhelming end user expectation. If Portal 2 was an unqualified success, the end user grumpiness would be quickly silenced. But the fact is that the critical response is so overwhelmingly positive, when in fact there are problems with the game - such as the weaker story with some really ham-fisted moments and plenty of missed opportunities; that if you don't warm to the two-dimensional characters, Wheatley especially, you'll be left out in the cold; that you need to play co-op to experience puzzles which are actually challenging; the final encounter ends in a train wreck of cut scenes and music.

2. The feeling that Valve's game design somehow doesn't ring as true as it used to. I had the same problems with Left4Dead 2 as I do with Portal 2: for almost the whole game there is this feeling of one obvious path, which for me ended up me rushing through the levels waiting for the 'good bits' to begin. Paradoxically, it took me 9 hours to complete but almost all the delays were me missing switches and not using angled ramps for their intended purpose[1], which meant I would repeatedly try weird alternate solutions. The puzzle design in single player rarely involves any planning or experimentation: it's all spoilable in the sense that once you figure out the problem, implementing the solution is trivial. I particularly miss the sense of escalation to the 'you've got to be kidding me' level of complexity of the first Portal, something Valve has done well since Half-Life: instead here is all big is better, and 'distance fog makes levels awesome'.

The biggest flaw to me is the sense that games should be aspiring to something other than this. Maybe I'm over reading what is an encapsulated game experience, but the AI director and limited experiments with procedural level generation lead me to believe Valve was moving in a different direction. Portal 2 feels like a dinosaur raising it's head to watch the oncoming Minecraft block asteroid.

[1] Spoiler: Which is always jumping.


J. Prevost said...

I think there's a bit of "different games are different" here. I think that procedural stuff is definitely the rising tide, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for the tightly crafted experience here and there.

It's somewhat equivalent to the spectrum of "Open World RPGs" to "JRPGs", with "BioWare RPGs" somewhere in between (although on the JRPG side). Some people really like the open world scenarios, but I find myself lost, because I'm more interested in the narrative in that kind of game. I *want* to like Morrowind (for example), but I just can't get into it. KoTOR, on the other hand, spoke to me quite well. Other people go totally the other way.

You may also be seeing Portal through some rose colored glasses--I re-played it recently and... well... even years after playing it before, it's really really easy. None of the puzzles is particularly hard, once you understand the problem (as you remarked about Portal 2), and that understanding of the problem stayed with me, even if the exact details of everything didn't.

Anyway, I think there's room for a lot of different games in the world--and I think that's why both Minecraft and Portal (and Portal 2) strike people: Not because those sorts of games are fundamentally *better* than other games, but simply because they are *different*. Minecraft essentially created a genre. Portal, on the other hand, created a new sort of emphasis on the FPS front, which the industry has largely ignored (the only thing I can think of that built off of the "FPS puzzle game" model was Mirror's Edge.)

In a world filled with third-person manshoots where huge burly men fire huge burly weapons from behind huge burly walls, practically *anything* is a breath of fresh air. And so Portal's "light physics puzzling with novel physics devices and a background story that emerges around you" makes a lot of people happy.

As a final note: Something I find interesting about Portal 2 in reading about peoples' experiences is that it seems that practically everyone gets stumped at some point in the game--but finding two people who got stumped by the same puzzles is rare. Certainly the basic puzzles--where a new mechanic is getting introduced, for example--are easy for everyone. But the harder puzzles, everybody is different. I think it's probably a combination of everyone having slightly different approaches, and everyone noticing different things first, changing their focus on the problem.

And that's perhaps the most interesting thing for other game developers to take away from this. It's particularly important in building puzzles (and a good reason to not let puzzles be "blockers" for a game if they're at all challenging--you want the player to always have something else to do for a while if they get frustrated), but in other games it's still relevant... different players notice different things.

A great argument for play-testing with a lot of different people, and for trying to build a lot of variety into games in general.

Andrew Doull said...

I agree that there's a different games are different here. My argument isn't that Portal 2 is a good game, it is, but that there's probably been too much play testing and thought put into the final product (it's a weak criticism, I know) and it'd be nice to have had some of the rough corners left exposed. And at the same time, the story feels weirdly under baked and poorly thought out in many ways, and Aperture Labs too much of a game construct and not enough of a real place.

I'll have to go back to the first Portal again, and I've just started on the co-op with Portal 2 which definitely has more mind bending puzzles (even in the first few areas) and laugh out loud moments.

So on many levels Portal 2 is successful. I just don't understand the unqualified love (and outright defensiveness in many instances) of games journalists and reviewers.

Tobias said...

I just replayed portal 2 in order to see the commentary. Which was disappointingly sparse. And screwed up the autosave which made for some irritation moments when I fell of a guiderail looking for easter eggs.

I like it a lot less now than before the replay. Once the plot has been spoiled it becomes very boring. The execution is still good, but each sequence is just a little to long to enjoy the mood perfectly.

What really annoyed me about this finding is that there are some easter eggs which reference the ending, so the game is obviously meant to be played more than once.

I don't mind the spoilable puzzles. I prefer some thinking followed by trivial execution in portal 2, over no thinking followed by an hour of trying to do a pixel perfect jump.
Portal 2 is catering to people like me who don't really play FP games except minecraft and portal.

About the procedural stuff. Saying procedural and open world games will replace story heavy games, is like saying games will replace TV.

thorgot said...

Unsubscribing from your blog since you almost never talk about Unangband any more and it's been more than a year since a major release.

J. Prevost said...

Hmm. The only "defensiveness" thing I've seen is over at Rock Paper Shotgun—and honestly, that whole thing is bizarre. Not on the side of the RPS authors, but on the side of the metacritic trollers.

There are a lot of things that Portal 2 can be criticized for, but the trolls were criticizing it for things that were patently untrue (specifically "it's under 4 hours of content", "there's day one DLC", and "the PC version is a bad port of the console verison".) The RPS folks posted once to note the bizarre criticisms, and once after looking at the play-time claim being even more incredulous.

I imagine that other places that I don't follow have done similar stuff.

So here, it's not so much "Portal 2 is the best thing ever, and we will hate anyone who suggests otherwise!" but more "Dude, Portal 2 was fun, WTF are you so pissed off that you're *lying* about it?"

And probably stuff that's not even talking about the bizarre complaints is going to be infected with that sense of "No, really, this is a good game!"


On Aperture being more of a game construct and less of a real place... Hmm. I find that interesting, because I more or less think that "Aperture as a character" is the point of this game. All of the background bits come together for me to build a sense of the history of Aperture, its growth in mad science from the early days of idealism to later cynicism and inhumanity. (Rogue AIs are inhuman, right?)

I don't know what I think about that story, yet, in terms of "what does this story say about humanity?" But I do have a much clearer sense of how Aperture grew, and what it stands for. And a feeling as I travel through it that it is the work of thousands of people over decades. (Rather than perhaps being a startup in Silicon Valley.)

Andrew Doull said...

thorgot: Fair enough.

J. Prevost: I didn't get much of the 'early days of idealism' vibe, which left the whole thing ungrounded. My impression was pretty much 'off the wall science' from day one.

J. Prevost said...

Heh. Well, it's idealism in the *context* of mad science. Clearly it's mad the whole time! (Mantis men?) But it moves from "The whole world will support us in our mad endeavor!" downward. It's unclear how many people clamored to help develop "science" in the early days, but clearly by the end CJ was feeling quite old and unloved.

You also have to place this in the context of the world: Whatever world this is, the people (or shady government organizations thereof) are able and willing (at the outset, anyway) to support at least two organizations dedicated to mad science (Aperture and Black Mesa). Presumably others as well.

Andrew Doull said...

But Black Mesa was never 'whacky', and Portal tread a fine line between humour and seriousness (see the trailers for the original). Sure, the AI personalities (GlaDOS and the turrets) were out there, but there's a long tradition of senility in AI.

And I was looking forward to fighting the Mantis men...