Friday, May 27, 2011

Let the Stupid Rats Die. For Science. You Monster.

Clear-headedness under pressure.  It's a skill that should come in handy if I ever find myself in a life-or-death situation where I need to keep my wits about me to survive.  Am I driving a FWD, RWD or 4WD car?  That will be key to knowing how to regain control of the vehicle and not slide off the cliff into the canyon below.  Will water extinguish this fire, or cause an explosion?  Should I put my hands out to stop my fall, attempt to roll with it or take the full force of the fall on my stomach so as protect my head?

That last one is a real situation I found myself in where I did indeed take the fall on my stomach.  With a metal bar acting as the delivery system.  I couldn't roll with the fall and putting my hands out would have catapulted me off a ledge and onto my head.  The stomach option was very painful, but I take pride in the notion that it was actually the smart choice.  The details mattered.  In the best games, the details matter, because then my decisions have meaning, and I have a chance to develop this crucial survival trait that I may need some day.

Portal 2 is Well-Designed
I've played through Portal 2's single-player campaign, and the co-operative campaign with my wife, and I've just played through the single-player again with the developer's commentary enabled.  The  game's developers, Valve, are big into testing-based design.  That means that they get a bunch of playtesters to go through their game and they observe where the testers get stuck, what's fun for them, what's frustrating, and what just goes completely ignored.

It's a great tool in game design.  I remember wandering around old Doom levels for ages just trying to find the right key-card or door.  It was that sort of thing that made me give up the game after a while.  Test-based design, when utilised well, does wonders to correct problems like this.  Valve in particular is pretty good at pointing you in the right direction so you don't get lost in levels that are essentially linear.  Of course, this is a little too frequently expressed in the form of an arrow painted on the wall, literally pointing you in the right direction.  Baby steps.  At least they're addressing the issue.

Just like this one.

Portal 2 has been tested and honed to a tee, and the "drawing arrows on walls" problem is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that the entire setting places the player in a metaphor as a rat in a maze, with an omnipotent, indifferent scientist observing and manipulating their every move.  The controlling AI, GLaDOS, can reconfigure the entire facility to reroute you to where she wants you to be, so the sense of being railroaded into a particular course is perfectly sensible, and not at all immersion-breaking.

Reconfigure the Phlebotinum Field!
Anyway, this all brings me to the developer's comment that inspired this post (don't worry, no spoilers):
In this excursion funnel ride, playtesters would often end up shooting the wrong Portal at the critical moment and killing themselves.  This ruined the moment for players who often didn't quite understand why their excursion funnel hadn't been redirected.  As a solution, we now detect when the player places the wrong portal in hopes of saving themselves.  We help them out by moving their other portal under the excursion funnel source.  This effectively makes this section foolproof by allowing the player to shoot either portal to save themselves.
You don't really need to know what an excursion funnel is.  Replace every instance of the term with "[phlebotinum]" and the quote can still be understood enough to get the gist.  Basically, [phlebotinum] is needed to succeed.  The player has control of two portals and to correctly succeed, they must use the correct portal to manipulate the [phlebotinum].  If they use the incorrect portal the [phlebotinum] disappears and they fail.  Incorrectly.

Okay, fine, this is an excursion funnel.

The thing is, the [phlebotinum] can be anything.  It can be a "hard-light bridge", paint, the player, a box, even the player's point-of-view.  It's often a slightly more abstract concept like velocity or rotation.  Usually several of these must be manipulated at once.  This is the essence of the game - manipulate thing with portal placement.  The excursion funnel is just the newest addition to the roster of things that can be manipulated.

Throughout the entire game the player is trained to solve puzzles by placing portals.  One lesson they should have learned by this point, very near the end of the game, is that if they shoot the wrong portal at the wrong moment it can ruin their day.  I developed a habit of making a quick mental note every time I placed a portal: "Orange portal is at [phlebotinum] source; therefore blue portal delivers [phlebotinum] to destination."  "Orange portal has been placed at [phlebotinum] destination; therefore blue portal must be placed at [phlebotinum] source."  "Blue portal is at point A; orange portal is at [phlebotinum] source; [phlebotinum] is now at point A; move orange portal to [phlebotinum] destination."  It can get quite complicated if you're not on the ball.

I was going to link to a video, but this is more succinct.
It was All a Dream
The situation that the developer is describing is a tense, time-pressured escape where any mistake means death.  The antagonist is yelling at you, distracting you with hilarious one-liners and trying to mash you to death with crusher panels.  If ever there was a moment that this skill I've developed should pay off it's right now.  So I remember that I've got the orange portal at the [phlebotinum]'s renewable source, and wherever I need to use the [phlebotinum] I just place a blue portal.  I can't get back to the source anymore, so I keep my finger off the orange portal button.  If that orange portal moves, I lose the [phlebotinum] and I'm dead.  With this strategy, the solution is completely turnkey.  Place blue for [phlebotinum], repeat as needed.  If I remember my rule, I'll succeed.  This is a detail that matters.

So I got through that section myself without any problems (surprise surprise), and I thought it was because I'd done it right.  Now the developers are telling me that they rigged it.  There was only one place to put a portal at that moment, and it didn't matter which one.  So in fact the only thing I could've done wrong was nothing at all. I have no idea if I got it right the first time I played, so the intrinsic reinforcement of success that test gave me was in fact false.  They didn't want to ruin the flow of the moment, so they removed all meaning from it instead.

Now, a friend of mine who is very experienced at running tabletop role-playing games says that he does that sort of thing all the time, and the developers using this trick isn't really the problem.  Their mistake was telling me about it.  The thing is, there's a difference between using sleight-of-hand in a computer game and using it in a live situation.  There's a rule among magicians that you should never repeat a trick for an audience, because they'll get a chance to analyse the trick and figure it out, which will ruin it for both of you.  In a computer game, the audience has infinite do-overs.  Even if the devs hadn't revealed that trick, it would've been noticed by someone at some point.  Also, you don't get do-overs in a live situation, so you need the tricks.  A ruined moment is ruined forever; it can never be fixed.

So What's the Problem? 
I'll tell you what the problem is:  I'm playing a puzzle game.  If a moment in the game is dressed up and presented even as a trivial puzzle, I expect it to be an actual puzzle, with some kind of potential for failure.  When Yahtzee reviewed Portal 2, he bemoaned the fact that instead of being a puzzle game with a really good story framework, it was instead an interactive story with some puzzles thrown in because, well, it's supposed to be a puzzle game.

What I've described here is only a single example of the developers placing story and accessibility above the actual puzzles in this game.  They've done a lot of things right, like removing time or dexterity dependent puzzles from the game, thus allowing the main story to be experienced by a broader spectrum of players.  That's a good thing, because it's certainly a fun ride, one that's helped my wife to get into the first-person genre a bit more, for which I am eternally grateful.

The thing is, this is near the end of the game.  I can't imagine a player who would be critically discouraged by a minor setback at this point, so audience members wouldn't be lost here.  In the developer's words, they just didn't want to "ruin the moment".  Okay, sure, it's a good moment, but it's only ruined for people who made a mistake, and since there's a 50-50 chance of getting it right even if you've left your brain at the door, those people are almost certainly in the minority.

I Do Not Understand How They Could Not Understand
But here's the real infuriator for me - apparently the moment was doubly ruined for players who "often didn't quite understand why their [phlebotinum] hadn't been redirected."  Seriously?  They didn't get it?  Often?  They've been playing this game for 6 or 7 hours if they're good at it.  I can guarantee you that if they're still confused about why they failed, it took them a lot longer than that to get here, and they should be made to relive their stupid, pointless death over and over until they do understand.

Don't get me wrong here; I'm not saying that stupid people should be punished.  Far from it.  If you've made it this far, you're obviously not stupid enough for this lesson to be beyond you.  If you've made it this far but somehow managed to avoid such a fundamental piece of understanding, then you are clearly complicit in your own ignorance.  This is supposed to be a puzzle game, and while it is inevitably beyond the infirm of mind, one of its primary functions should be to cure the lazy of mind.

This is the reason that I believe that test-based design can't solve all our gaming ills.  When I heard that quote, I realised why the game was so easy.  It seems that Valve really lost perspective in their pursuit of a smooth and enjoyable experience for all their test subjects.  If the worst players are given veto power over anything that's too difficult for them, then the whole game will be brought down to their level.  Looking back over my time with Portal 2 I realise that it wasn't satisfying at all, because I had learned very little.

One of GLaDOS's many foibles is her incessant compulsion to test, and test, and test.  Apparently she's doing science, but it's never really explained what kind of science she's doing.  If they're just testing the portal device, they don't really need to put humans through a deadly gauntlet.  The tests seem more suited to psychological research, but even then it's never really revealed what it's all about.  It's kind of a subtle running joke throughout the whole story.  I find it ironic, then, that Valve has failed to learn the moral of their own story by literally testing to a fault.  If there's one thing that we can learn from Portal 2, it's that GLaDOS would make a poor game designer.

This is a jump.
Because I needed something to separate the article from the epilogue.

Post Scripting
Hopefully when Valve releases their new DLC for the game in the middle of the year there'll be some stuff in there for the hardcore puzzlers.  But if not, I'm okay with that.  If there's one thing that putting my ideas out on the internet for all to see has done for me in this case is to make it clear to me what I want:  I want to make their game better.  It's for people like me that Valve helped pioneer the release of developer tools to their gaming audience.  I'm gonna use the free Portal 2 Authoring Tools to make hard puzzles, and I'm gonna try to make them right.

The solutions will all be applications of well-known Portal mechanics in clever and complex ways, requiring some real head-scratching to pull off.  One thing I'm not going to do is require (spoiler warning) silly, elaborate, esoteric, glitch-exploity, waste-of-damn-time tricks to make it through the levels, like some user-made maps.

There's a map contest being held at the moment, and I'm doing a level design class at college in the trimester after this one.  Maybe I can get credit for this.

Hang on a Second...
I've just had another thought.  The physics in first-person games have been developed around games in which navigating the environment was secondary to the challenge at hand.  In fact, if you missed a ledge while attempting to defeat the invading horde of evil things then it was a cheap death, and it detracted from the game.  So a bunch of helper physics were written into early FPS games to reduce this problem.  The most obvious one allows the player to alter their trajectory mid-jump.  Obviously this is absurd, but you can see why they did it.  Unfortunately, it's exactly that kind of physics that has made it into the Portal franchise without a whole lot of modification or even thought, and it's allowed a lot of cheap tricks to bypass the real puzzles at hand.  You could argue that these tricks require a lot more skill than the original puzzle, and in fact they wouldn't occur to you the first time you tried the game, but I wonder if the same physics would've been implemented if they were made from the ground-up for a physics-puzzler like Portal.  My guess is not.


  1. It's amazing how much I enjoy reading this, even though I've never played any Portal games.

    The video review you linked to made me want to go to Australia and hang out with intellectual gamers.

  2. Thanks! I do like me some praise. :)

    I think you'd really like Extra Credits, on the same website:

    Their videos are done in a similar style, but without the typical acerbic gamer style. They're not doing reviews - they're actually talking about the state of the art & industry of computer games. They're American, though. In fact, I'm pretty sure the writer goes to Carnegie Melon, so intellectual prestige and everything!

  3. Okay ... this is the second time I tried to post an interesting comment and blogger ATE IT. Blogger hates intellectual conversation!

    AND I can't recompose it now, because I have to go and meet someone. I will be back.


  4. Okay. Blogger, am I going to have a problem with you? No, because I'm going to ctrl+a+copy before attempting to post comment, you berk.

    So, essentially, I have no real comment on your Portal commentary since it all made sense and I have nothing much to add/ask, but it reminded me of something I've been thinking about recently courtesy of watching Numb3rs too much while I paint my room.

    Which is the larger dynamic of outliers vs pack. Outliers being those who operate pretty much outside the pack – leaders, pioneers, etc – and the pack being, uh, the pack. On Numb3rs, Charlie, the prodigy mathemetician guy, has to learn that he can't go rabbitting off down a mathematical trail without reference and even limits from the "pack" of the FBI team. Which is not anything new, but the point is that his maths was actually made better because he was tethered to the pack.

    And I guess it goes without saying that operating within the tension between the two is more beneficial than the pack stagnating and the innovators disappearing over the horizon, but
    I got thinking about how much the outliers recognise the benefit of being tethered, rather than being frustrated by it. But I haven't got much further in thinking about this yet. I mean, it's tangental to what you were talking about – being too tethered in the sense of how you use the testing results to "improve" the game (ie, pandering to the inertia of the pack mean in that critical moment you were talking about, rather than requiring them to overcome it), but it's a dynamic that's woven through any creative or innovative product, and therefore anyone in that kind of field would benefit from recognising where they fall in the dynamic and having a philosophy on the subject as to how best operate within it.

    That's about all I have to say on that for the time being. What's Carnegie Melon? Doesn't sound prestigious at all. Sounds like something Bugs Bunny would attend.

  5. Carnegie Mellon (two l's, sorry - not a fruit) is a university. I know about it mainly through this video from one of the professors who used to work in their VR program:

    I guess that's the same as keeping most of the rules of the art form and only changing one or two, as opposed to throwing the rulebook out the window and trying to make something that's "Totally never been done before!" but just ends up being rubbish. Is that the sort of thing you're talking about?

  6. I wrote an article on Portal 2 for The Ontological Geek which I thought you might find interesting (and which links back to this post). It's not specifically about the point at hand in your post, but it actually does deal with some of the questions raised by Nina May above.

    Also, you might be interested in the blog itself, which aims to be about serious discussion of games-as-art.

  7. Gasp! People I don't know reading my blog? Well, I never.

    Thanks for the link, that's rather encouraging. Fizban actually linked me to your site a while ago, but I hadn't given it much time. Incidentally, how did you find my blog?

  8. You're welcome for the link.

    Strangely enough, I found your blog while searching my blog's name on Google, trying to see if anyone was talking about it after Blogger reported some preposterous number of views without any cited source. Never did find where those hypothetical views came from, but did actually find Fizban's reference to the Ontological Geek in the comments section of your site. I clicked through, read a few of your posts, and enjoyed what I read.

    So I suppose the real question refers to how Fizban found out about the Ontological Geek. ;)

  9. Cool. I just asked him - he's an RL friend - and apparently he found it on the Role-Playing Public Radio forum. Fizban is the experienced RPG DM that I mentioned in this very post.

  10. Yes, me.

    So, I come towards this issue from a slightly different direction than Nina (although I liked her idea - brain food).

    My comment simply is "Welcome to behind-the-scenes." It was a lot longer, but it's my job to comment, not write a whole post. Basically, I would say:

    1. Portal (2) is not a puzzle game. That's an inaccurate genre classification. Take Portal and delete the humour, the story, and GladOS. That's a puzzle game.

    2. Products need to be accessible, and this is done either by education or assistance. Some goals are simply not worth the cost of education. Games designed for people with and IQ of 196+ have a market of 6, and make no money.

    3. Tricks are ruined* when you see the back-end. If you don't like it, no-one forces you to live in any other way but blissful ignorance.

    *Some people prefer truth to fun. Those people are not fun.

  11. Is that the sort of thing you're talking about?

    Not exactly, although that's really annoying – that's pack-people who are only identifying one element of outliers' groundbreaking work, that is, the fact that it breaks existing paradigms, and then applying that single element to what they're doing from the conviction that that's what makes it groundbreaking. They lack the perspective/skill/mastery to see how and why breaking the rules in that particular way was both groundbreaking AND effective. Outliers do tend to benefit from their perspective of being outside the pack, but that perspective is rarely communicated well or easily grasped by people on the inside. How much blame attaches to who for that varies.

    The reason the keeping rules/breaking a few vs throwing out the rulebook isn't exactly what I'm talking about is because that is the choice of the outlier, exercised according to their expertise. What I'm talking about is the limit the pack places on the outliers' exercise of their own expertise. Whether it's through control or oversight of the rescources the outlier has access to, or through not accepting or understanding the end result, or whatever, the outlier is not able to pursue the path of their interest as far and as fast as they would choose if they had the choice. I mean, at the most fundamental level, there's the reality of needing a place to live and food to eat, and although that's a universal need, the way we meet such needs is a constraint constructed and enforced by the pack.

    Which I think is fairly well understood, but what I think the outliers often fail to acknowledge (often through sheer frustration that they can't go where they want as fast as they want) is the benefit of being tethered by the pack to the pack. It seems to me that recongising that, and learning to work with the tether rather than against it (since you're never going to be able to get rid of it) is going to make your work as an outlier probably better and almost definitely less frustrating.

    Which was the observation I was making on the product-testing of the game. Not so much whether it was done well in this case, or the result was ideal (because clearly you think it wasn't), but how much the people involved in these processes understand what their function is and how to capitalise on the tension of the tether between pack and outlier. Has that clarified it at all?

  12. It has clarified things, although I'm not sure how to analyse this case with respect to the outlier/pack concept. Valve is in a fairly unique and enviable position as a self-made studio, with enormous funds from their position as a distributor and publisher that can then feed into their own games without outside meddling. Their CEO is Gabe Newell, and he's an old-school game-designer and programmer, so it's not like the studio is run by suits. They've apparently got a very progressive work environment with a flat hierarchy, focussed on giving everyone the potential for creative input, and they're also in a position of great respect in the gaming world, which gives them their pick of employees. I can't see a whole lot of pack intertia at play here - I think the issue is that the outliers are chasing a philosophy whose uglier side is only just making itself known.

    It seems that the design mentality of the studio at the moment is heavily testing-based, and I think that's just because it's a fairly new tool, so it's getting overused. I get the sense there's still a way to go in learning how to use playtesting well in development, without allowing it to railroad the entire production.

  13. Now about Fizban's comments:

    1) Portal 2 is a puzzle game, because all of the actual gameplay is centred around the solving of puzzles. There is a lot of story, and it has a huge impact on the overall experience of the game, but to say that the presence of story and humour and a bunch of other things that are ancillary to the gameplay ultimately make the game NOT a puzzle game is false.

    2) Yes, products need to be accessible, but not to everyone. This game made almost no real demands of the player. The problem is, the vast majority of the game was about educating the player and then... the end. There were very few properly developed puzzles that utilised the education that the game gave you. Far too many of the levels boiled down to being linear portal-based tasks as opposed to actual puzzles. The situation that I described of redirecting an excursion funnel to catch yourself was very well educated for the player, but apparently Valve felt that wasn't enough, so they just rigged it anyway.

    If Valve did create puzzles that took the tutorial tasks further and demanded that the player really sit down and puzzle over what to do, I imagine that would've been interpreted in playtesting as "frustrating" and "a point where people got stuck". But the problem with playtests is that players come in and play the game in one long sitting. Good puzzles often require a player to put the game down, sleep on it, then come back to solve it another day with a fresh perspective. They require the mechanics of the game to really seep into the player's subconscious so that the solutions can come in flashes of inspiration at 3 in the morning.

    Perhaps that's another problem with a story-puzzle game like this one. If you are forced to complete puzzle 6 before moving on to puzzle 7, then the game can get much more frustrating. If you are given a bit more flexibility in the order of puzzles solved, then you're able to defer solving a puzzle and do some others, then when you come back you might have understood something new in the interim, or just gained fresh eyes.

    3) I think this is where I just wasn't clear enough in my post, and I've realised that I spent way too long on this single situation and not enough time on the actual point. The fact that this trick was used wasn't really what got my goat, it was just the straw that broke the back of my tolerance for the endless handholding.

    Perhaps I reacted extra-strong because when I stepped back and really paid attention, I realised that most of the game Valve had been holding my hand, but they'd distracted me with the story so well that a lot of the time I didn't even notice. That meant that the story was fun, but the game itself was kinda... meh. And it was meh before I understood why, it just left me with a kind of unsatisfied feeling that I couldn't quite pin down.

  14. 1) Or it's an interactive puzzle story game thingy. 'Game' is actually harder to define than it sounds.

    2) I think you are too good at the game. Reread your comment, and replce "the player" with "me", because it's unfair to say that your experience is the same as everyone else's. Out of curiosity, did Peta find the game unchallenging?

    You're failing to appreciate that real people, real playtesters, felt real struggles and real frustrations that really got in the way of their real enjoyment of the game. They're not all you - they may not have spent 885.9 hours playing games on Steam. That's almost half a year of full-time work, by the way.

    Some people in the world, when so frustrated by something they paid $90 for to entertain them that they drop it, don't come back to it. And you know what happens if people don't finish your game? They can't all talk about how cool the 'cake is a lie' scene is, because they never got there. And if people aren't talking about the game, then it's not buzzing, and if it's not buzzing, it's not having the impact the first one had (people got companion cube tattoos for crying out loud!).

    3) You played this game for 28.7 hours. Not bad for a 'meh' game. I wonder, when did you realise it was meh? Did you keep playing because you wanted to see how it ended? Because of the story? Because now you can talk about all those things in Portal 2 that only people who have finished the game know about? Because it left you feeling unsatisfied, and you wanted to dig and dig and dig until you found out why?

    I can't speak for what percentage of the gaming population, or the regular population are like that. But my point is that not all of them are.

  15. I think that's just because it's a fairly new tool, so it's getting overused.

    Well, that makes sense. That happens everywhere.

    And I understand what you're saying about the creative environment of the developers, and that's one arena of outlier/pack dynamic, but I was actually thinking of the company (Valve?) itself as the outlier, and the consuming public as the pack; the product-testing being the most obvious manifestation of the tether (although not the only one). Fizban articulated other manifestations well in his "Some people in the world..." paragraph.

    And if I can jump into that conversation a little bit, what you seem to be saying is: why spend the majority of the gameplay educating the player in a particular set of skills – and then make the payoff something that appears to test those skills, and require the education to have produced some significant proficiency in the player, but in reality is rigged for success no matter how well or poorly the player has learned the skills of the game. Yes?

    Which, if that's what you're saying, is a fair point. But, as Fizban points out, you are assuming that the highest priority of the developers is to educate and challenge the player, rather than educating and challenging the player on the way to making a buzz-y game. Assuming their highest priority is the latter, they made no mistakes. You may respect them less for their priorities, but you can't say they should have done it better; you'll have to settle for saying they should have priorities closer to yours. Which, you know, I'm all for. Everyone should have priorities closer to ours. Our priorities *rock*.

  16. Having just recently been introduced to Portal by my 13-year-old nephew, I think I can sympathize much better with the "what do you mean they didn't get it?!?" thing. And if I can, I certainly know he can. After all, he's 13 (read: omniscient).