Thursday, May 17, 2012

Now You're Thinking with Portals.

My apologies for the lack of posts this lack week. I spent the majority of the week working, and when you're pulling 12-hour days it really leaves you with a distinct lack of inspiration and motivation for writing. It usually takes me a day or two to fully recover, by which point it's time to go to work again in a rather vicious cycle.

But you're not reading this to hear me make excuses, you're here for another of my random musings. Today I'd like to talk about an event that happened last week. This event was the release of the Perpetual Testing Initiative that added an in-game level editor to Portal 2, along with Steam Workshop incorporation so that maps made could be easily published and downloaded.

If most of the words in that last sentence mean nothing to you, let me take a moment and explain. I suppose I should begin by mentioning the fact that there is a company called Valve, which is responsible for creating some of the best computer games ever made, at the expense of being so perpetually late that it spawned the concept of “Valve time”. (This is mainly because, unlike most game companies, Valve is entirely employee-owned and thus can take the time necessary to make sure that what they do is done right without having to worry about investors or returns. Since they may very well be the most profitable company on a per-employee basis on the planet, it seems to be working for them.) Anyway, Valve also created a program called Steam that gives users the ability to conveniently organize, buy, and download games. A bit less than a year ago (October 13, 2011 to be precise), Valve introduced the Steam Workshop, which allows people to submit their own content for various games for easy downloading and installing by other people.

To explain the rest of that sentence in the second paragraph, I need to explain about Portal. (And I should mention there are some spoilers for Portal and Portal 2 ahead in the pictures, though I've tried to keep it to a minimum in the text.)

Portal is a game, released in 2007, that very quickly gained an enthusiastic following for its mind-bending gameplay mechanic and quirky, humorous writing. The central theme of the game is the eponymous portals. You, the player, have a portal gun (known in-game as the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device) that allows you to create the two ends of what is essentially a wormhole, creating an opening that allows you to enter one portal and exit the other. The game then focuses on using portals to solve puzzles – separated into modular “test chambers” in the cryptically-named Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center – that typically require some outside-the-box thinking to complete using various components such as buttons, boxes, and a few other devices that can be brought or sent through portals in order to satisfy certain requirements necessary to open the door and proceed to the next test chamber.

Looking into and back out of a pair of portals, to see behind you.

Portal was released to near-universal acclaim, with the innovative thinking required to play being cited as one of the chief joys. I'm sure that many physicists, like myself, were intrigued at the implications of being able to play around with the currently highly-theoretical concept of wormholes. The ability to conserve energy between portals meant you could jump from a height into one portal and come out the other at a high speed, potentially using this to “fling” yourself across barriers or gaps. It's always fun to watch people's first exposure to portals, and their “Aha!” moment when they finally grasp how they work.

See that robot up ahead there? That's you. Yes, you're looking into one portal and out the other and back in and...

One of the few complaints people brought up with Portal was that it was too short. Even an inexperienced player with no prior knowledge of portals could complete the game in a few hours, and it was mainly the stellar writing for the game's main antagonist, a computer in charge of the facility named GLaDOS, that saved it from being little more than a glorified demo.

See these? These are turrets, and despite their ridiculously adorable voices they will not hesitate to pump as much of their limitless ammo into you as possible. Easily incapacitated by knocking them over, however. Also have a surprising aptitude for music.

Fast forward to 2010, when Valve announces the upcoming release of a sequel, Portal 2, which elicited much rejoicing among lovers of the original game. Fast forward again to April 18, 2011 when Portal 2 came out to even more widespread acclaim, going so far as to gather several Game of the Year awards and earn perfect or nearly-perfect scores from dozens of reviewers. The gameplay was improved with a few annoying parts from Portal removed or modified, the addition of several new elements and characters (with similarly high-caliber writing), and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the incredible music that fills and surrounds the game, adding to the incredible atmosphere throughout.

I'm getting a bit off-topic, because what I wanted to talk about was the recently-released Perpetual Testing Initiative for Portal 2 that came out last week. You see, the Portal games are puzzle game, which cause most of their joy by being novel – encountering a puzzle you've never seen before and trying to figure it out (which is pretty much what scientists like me love to do anyway, just with more math and less action). Now, while Portal 2 is much longer than Portal (a typical play-through for me takes about 10 hours, plus at least a couple more in the delightfully fun 2-player co-operative mode), there's still only so many times you can solve the same puzzle before it starts to lose its charm.

GLaDOS and the two robots (P-body and Atlas) that show up in the co-op mode.

The good folks over at Valve knew this, and thus released the tools they used for building maps for Portal 2 along with it. The only problem is that these were professional game design tools and thus quite Byzantine and unintuitive for the new user. I'm sure that a lot of people like myself took a look at them and never bothered to put the effort into overcoming the steep learning curve necessary to master them. It didn't help that the only way to play a new map was to manually place it in a certain folder and then open it from the console, since there was no way to do it in the main menu.

A character you meet in Portal 2, about whom I can't say too much for fear of spoiling it. This is one of my favorite moments in the game, though.

Now, Valve is also known for being great about releasing additional downloadable content for their games, and they have already released a completely new course for the co-op mode entirely free of charge. But while it would be nice if they could keep releasing new maps, realistically they have other things to do, and there's only so many maps their relatively small workforce can think up, create, and playtest.

A picture from the oh-so-fun co-op mode, as I attempt to get my partner up to my level through the use of special bouncy paint (the blue stuff).

This led to the absolutely brilliant idea of letting the players themselves create new maps, by coming up with a simplified in-game editor and integration with the Steam Workshop that allows new maps to be published and played with just a few clicks. This is the essence of the Perpetual Testing Initiative, and as of this writing, 8 days after its release, there are already over 82,000 entries into the Portal 2 Steam Workshop section. Yes, you read that correctly, that's eighty-two thousand.

A picture from the in-game level editor of my first published creation, “Turretopia”.
What's especially neat is that a few of those test chambers are mine! That's right, I have decided to embark on the vast forbidding sea that is designing a high-quality test chamber that is fun to play and (hopefully) gives the player that delicious “Eureka!” moment when the solution finally clicks into place. If there are any Portal 2 players reading this (and I do hope that I have convinced you to check it out) you can access my workshop files here. I'd like to keep releasing new test chambers and improving my test-designing capabilities, so constructive criticism is much appreciated.

(Random Trivia Fact of the Day: The title for this post comes from the tagline of one of the earliest trailers for Portal, where at the end you hear GLaDOS intone “Now you're thinking with portals!”.)

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