I just finished Portal and got my cake (or not, depending on how you read the ending). While it is an excellent game with some unforgettable moments – such as being able to see myself through a portal while still moving – my strongest impression is that I don’t think I would ever design a game like it. If I had ever imagined a first-person puzzle game involving creating shortcuts between walls and ceilings, it would have struck me as too mind-bending, too niche, and even a bit too insider (like a video game version of The Player). I have a hard time believing that anyone could play Portal as their first FPS – it would be too much for a brain not used to moving in virtual 3d space. (I would be very interested to hear if Valve play-tested Portal with first-time gamers.) As designers, we should be wary of ideas which are most interesting to us simply because we are experienced gamers bored with concepts that are still novel to most potential players.
Nonetheless, it’s a good thing that Valve doesn’t share my attitude. Portal succeeds where I would have failed because it is so aggressively minimalist. The game gently teaches the player about 5 or 6 tricks and then only delivers puzzles which require variations on those original tricks. As the difficulty ramps up, the player simply falls back on what s/he already knows to derive a solution. I don’t usually comment on story in game – since I, of course, hate stories – but Portal was one of the first games where I actually engaged with the plot. Truthfully, the game has more of a setting than a story, but it worked for me. My in-game “character” never knew anything more that I did, and the smartly written dialogue revealed an interesting conflict which developed slowly – leading to my feeling real anger towards GLaDOS by the end of the game. Most importantly, no plot extraneous to my actual gameplay experience was forced upon me. You couldn’t make a movie about Portal‘s story, but – hey – maybe that’s why it works.
It also helps that the game does not overstay its welcome; I felt my spatial reasoning skills begin to tremor a little by the final battle. If the game had gone longer than 3-4 hours, it would have either repeated itself or gotten fiendishly difficult. The design team also went out of their way to make the game as easy as possible to digest. Leaving burn marks on the walls from the impact of the glowing projectiles (anyone know their official name?) means the player doesn’t have to guess when aiming the portal gun. Extending wall tiles out a few feet when the player needs to attempt a “flying portal jump” guides the player through seemingly impossible situations. Even putting the heart on the beloved Weighted Companion Cube helps the player remember not to leave it behind. The end result is an effortlessly fun game, but Portal is a bit like the proverbial duck, gliding smoothly over the pond but with its feed paddling desperately under the surface to keep things working.