Spoilers, Spoilers, Spoilers. If you have not finished the single player portion of Portal 2 do not read any further. If you have, you may pass. Also check out Giantbomb’s Portal 2 spoiler interview with Valve’s Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton, and Chet Faliszek. It’s great.
I ran into a problem with Portal 2 around chapter 7 of the game. I didn’t want to solve the puzzles anymore.
The whole game up until that point had been one long training session, and it continued in Chapter 7. I think it was this puzzle, the second propulsion gel puzzle that really stalled the game for me. The puzzle itself is very elaborate, many platforms need to be configured properly with the correct gel in order for you to gracefully reach the exit. But that is the problem, understanding how to properly configure the platforms was easy. There was no moment of “Well how am I going to do this?” I had very few moments where I was completely stumped in the game or felt really good once a puzzle was solved.
What heightened the onset of disappointment with the puzzles was the fact that the dialog and story in Portal 2 are amazing. The entry and exit locations to each puzzle are the best sections of the game. It must have been the hunger to see the rest of the story that eventually led me to despise having to traverse another puzzle.
Then I thought, I’ve felt this way before in a game. I feel as though the monotony of the game’s mechanics got in the way of progressing through the game’s story, a story I am both invested in and determined to see the end. Where have I felt that before? Oh, point-and-click adventure games.
I’ve played numerous point-n-click adventure games where the trial and error puzzle solving aspect of the game put a major damper on my progression and thus halted the storyline. Portal 2 was a little different, the puzzles acted more like a Rube Goldberg machines that I had to setup properly before continuing but all the pieces were there for me to place. Not much trial and error involved but I felt the same as in the adventure games. “Just let me see the rest of the story,” I said.
Though the notion that Portal 2 as a point-and-click adventure game is intriguing. Many people call Portal an anti-FPS or at least an alternative FPS given that a player shoots from a first-person perspective but does not seek to kill anything with the shooting. Portal is given the genres of Action, Puzzle, and Platform on Giant Bomb while Portal 2 is given Action-Adventure and Puzzle. In comparison, The Secret of Monkey Island, a notable point-and-click adventure game, is only marked with the Adventure genre. However, there is a mix up, Portal 2 doesn’t really have a lot of “Action” and The Secret of Monkey Island certainly has a lot of “Puzzle.”
When the connection came to mind that Portal 2 was more similar to say a game like The Secret of Monkey Island than Left 4 Dead, I remembered an article by Clara Fernández-Vara which goes into greater detail about the point-and-click adventure genre (in fact she wrote a whole dissertation about adventure games so I think she is a good source to tap). Taking her analysis of The Secret of Monkey Island it is very easy to swap that game out with Portal 2. Below are some quotes from Clare’s article with added analysis of how they apply to Portal 2.
Defining Features of Point-and-Click Adventures
“Adventure games are story-driven, meaning that the gameplay is practically inextricable from the story. The gameplay is based on puzzle-solving, which means that solving puzzles makes the story unfold.”
This is exactly how Portal 2 to setup, you must solve puzzles to progress through the story. Puzzles which are intricately linked with the overall story of a rogue science corporation and the strange robots and inventions that it produced.
“Another defining feature [of adventure games] is that there is always a player character, who acts as a surrogate of the player in the gameworld.”
Ever since the first Portal players know they are playing as Chell. Players are immediately confronted with the avatar of Chell in the opening room of Portal, orienting them to the fact that portals are connected spatially. Portal 2 is no different, though it takes longer for the player to have the ability to see Chell as their avatar.
“The player commands the player character using commands to navigate the space or affect the gameworld, usually following (explicitly or implicitly) a verb + object interaction pattern (e.g. “open door” of “walk to archway”).”
Portal 1 and 2 are very good at providing verb+object interactions. Button Press+Cube = Open Door. Drench in Repulsion Gel+Turret= Bouncy Turret. Walk+Portals = Breaking of Space-Time Continuum. It should also be noted that this is a different approach to adventure style FPS games when compared to a game like Fallout 3. Games like Fallout 3, Mass Effect or KotOR resemble a lot of point-and-click adventure games because of their dialog trees. Dialog does act like a type of puzzle in these games where players need to negotiate or otherwise unlock proper dialog options in order to find new ways to complete quests or find hidden content. They however do not emphasize the verb+object interaction in the worlds and instead focus on combat as the main world interaction (outside of dialog).
“One of the great things about adventure games is that they can be played by more than one person, with (almost) no struggle about who has the controls, or having to design a multiplayer feature, special user interfaces or including additional controllers. The frequent absence of time-dependent actions and events makes it easier for two, or even three players to sit down and play together in front of the computer.”
A lot of Portal 2’s gameplay is not time dependent at all. You can solve pretty much every puzzle at your leisure. So it is not hard to imagine a few people somewhere sitting around a computer or console and helping the main player solve Portal 2’s puzzles.
Objects and Abilities
“It was the basic object-hoarding that we had learned in other [adventure games], you take whatever is available for pick up because that means it will be useful later on.”
Portal 2 diverges from stereotypical point-and-click adventures by not having an inventory (unless you count the portal gun). In fact it is impossible to bring anything into the elevators that transport the player to each new puzzle (which offered a funny companion cube moment in the game). However, I would argue that many point-and-click adventure games have stages where the player collects a set of items and then use those items before moving onto the next stage of the story. An obvious example is how the five The Tales of Monkey Island episodes are setup to only allow a few select objects to bridge the different game episodes. In Portal 2 the environment provides the needed items that the player has to use to solve each puzzle. If there is both a repulsion and propulsion gel pipe dripping in the level then they will most likely be used in combination to solve the puzzle. There is no need to carry items.
“One of the most memorable parts of [The Secret of Monkey Island] is sword fighting, or rather, insult-fighting. In order to master the sword, we had to defeat the Sword Master of Mêlée Island. For that to happen, like in all good adventure games, we had to fulfill a set of other conditions, namely, getting a sword and finding someone to train Guybrush.”
In Portal 2 players are on a grand journey learning to use portals, light and gels in order to understand how to use them at key moments in the game, for example the final Wheatley fight.
“In the last part of [The Secret of Monkey Island], we had to venture into the depths of Monkey Island, whose labyrinthine passages we could only navigate with the aid of a magical object, the mummified head of a navigator. We had to hang the head by its hair, and it would turn to the proper path.”
It was delightful to have Wheatley at the beginning of the game, and then Glados, as a sort of sudo guide through the Aperture complex, acting as Portal’s own version of the mummified head. Though not an adventure game concept in general, I think comparing Wheatley and Glados to a mummified head is amusing.
“Both King’s Quest V and the Indiana Jones game were afflicted by some of the recurrent problems of adventure games — they were very well written, had good stories and interesting puzzles. But some of the puzzles consisted of trying to guess what twisted and quasi-sadistic sequence of events the designer had envisioned as their solution.”
The chapter 7 puzzle that I mentioned at the beginning sort of felt as if I was just putting together a sequence of events that the designers laid out for me not solving a puzzle on my own. But there wasn’t too much guess work involved. The puzzle rooms were laid out in such a way that if something was uniquely standing out, then it most likely had to be used in the puzzle solution. There are other puzzles that have multiple solutions though, for example the first Wheatley puzzle in chapter 8.
“Having a single sequence of actions means that if the player cannot solve one puzzle, she is stuck in the [adventure game], because there are no other puzzles for her to solve and come back later to the one troublesome puzzle. This is the “linearity” that is often cited as a handicap of adventure games.“
This is Portal’s handicap as well. If a player cannot solve a puzzle they don’t progess. Clare mentions that in The Secret of Monkey Island the game provides the player with multiple puzzle paths for the player to pursue. Thus a player can leave a difficult puzzle for later and work on solving a different path. It leaves me wondering, what if Portal 2 was a multi-path game?
“Puzzles help us discover things about our own world, and make us see things that we already know in a new way. They also deal with information in a playful way — they point to a missing piece of information, and invite the player to fill it up … There are different types of insight, depending on how information is connected in order to solve a puzzle:
1) Making apparently irrelevant information relevant.
2) Using analogies and metaphors, in order to draw a non-obvious relationship between two pieces of information.
3) Combining two items in order to form a novel one.”
Finally, I felt this list of how to provide players with insights to solve a puzzle was relevant to how Portal 2 is structured. First, seemingly irrelevant information like the fact that Conversion Gel is made out of lunar rocks became very relevant in the last moments of the game. Second, analogies or example of how to use substances like repulsion gel where shown before the player had a chance to use the substances. Third, many puzzles had the player combining cubes, light bridges, and different gels together to solve the puzzle.
I believe the woes I experienced during Portal 2 are connected to the fact that Portal 2 is a point-and-click adventure game that suffers in some places due to linearity and simple puzzle design. Additionally, the tremendous story exaggerated those woes because I found the story so compelling I wanted to race through the gameplay near the end of the game. But I don’t think designing the game differently would have fixed my personal experience.
In terms of linearity, I mentioned that it would have been interesting if Portal 2 was less linear. Perhaps allowing the player to choose which gels they wanted to learn first would be a viable example. Then again, I would have probably experienced the same dread of knowing exactly how many gels I had to learn in order to get on with the story. In terms of simple puzzles, if the puzzles were harder I may have just resorted to using online walkthroughs and videos.
All in all, Portal 2 is a great game. The cheeky dialog and puzzle solving (for most of the game) is a lot of fun and with a completion time of eight hours it provided a lot of entertainment. Thinking about Portal 2 as a point-and-click adventure game also is a great way to understand how that genre’s style of gameplay is still alive in popular games today, even games that are outside the current adventure game reboot lineup coming out of Talltale Games. Perhaps we need a new genre to describe them. Point-and-click FPS seems to simple but hopefully we will see some more soon.