Portal 2 (again) – Gameplay, Colors, and Lighting

Having finished the game completely, I have a few more thoughts (which means I’m averaging about six thoughts per day).

It’s funny because it’s true! (Source)

First, the ending – yeah, I enjoyed it. Going to the moon? That portal gun has some range. But I also liked how that was sort of telegraphed. Cave Johnson tells you that he bought a bunch of moon rocks to make that grey gel, and that’s the gel that lets you open portals on whatever the gel stains. Maybe that’s what it was – the moon-dust works so well as a portal material that when you shoot wildly at the moon from earth with the gun, the moon-dust picks up on the very faint signal and amplifies the portal strength.

Whatever the case, it was exactly what I want at the end of a main boss fight for a game – fun, dramatic, and with an unexpected twist or two. Also, the moon.

Such good aim, too. Hi, little rover! (Source)

As for the gameplay in its entirety – well, some of the puzzles are frustrating. The game isn’t as good as Portal 1 was at subtly guiding the player to the solution. Light bridges, light tunnels, reverse light tunnels, lasers; it’s all fun. But some of the puzzles are just irritating. The gels are also fun, but using them non-stop in the old Aperture facility gets a little tiresome. (The voiceovers of Cave Johnson really help in this part, but at the same time, I know that Wheatley is just messing stuff up above me and I really want to see that. Really, really badly, I want to see him crashing those moving rooms into each other while Stephen Merchant rattles on constantly. I loved everything about Wheatley.)

And it isn’t like Valve doesn’t know the importance of guiding the player. Portal 1 was near flawless at doing this, from what I remember. I never felt stupid because I couldn’t solve a puzzle. I’d just take my time, look around the level, try out a few things. In doing so, I would naturally be drawn to certain areas by how bright they were. Portal 2 just isn’t as good at this. In fact, one of the biggest strengths they could have used was lighting, but I think they tried to use color contrast instead.

Here’s what I mean – light is important. Like when Wheatley guides you through part of the game with his eye-light after GLaDOS turns off the lights on you. It’s a great way to guide a player. He shows you where to jump, highlights landing areas for you, shows you where portals can go on distant walls. To use light properly, you don’t even need the rest of the level to be pitch-black; just have areas of brighter illumination, where you want the player to keep looking or referring to. Wheatley, after all, can’t guide us through the entire game.

I can wish, though. (Image from Wikipedia)

What I think they did is try to use the color contrast of the panels. The white panels are where you can place portals; black ones can’t hold portals. So, when I’m looking around a room, my vision is guided by the lighter areas. However, unlike lighting, I am actually ignoring the black panels, because from a gameplay standpoint, they don’t do anything for me. If I can’t place portals there, well, I can’t significantly interact with them in a game where my primary mode of interaction with the environment is placing portals, can I? With light, a bright area will make me instantly recognize a place I can put a portal, or a place I want to get to by using a portal; and a shadowy area might make me think that something is hidden there, or I might shoot at it just to see if those shadowed panels are actually white and can hold a portal, even if I can’t see them clearly at a certain distance.

So, yes, I would posit that lighting is more important that color variation in this game – at least, when color variation is only black or white. There was one puzzle in particular that game me a real hard time because of this. You need to mirror boxes, the ones the change the direction of laser beams. When you first enter the level, the boxes are to the left and right of you. The one on the right is on a pillar that is shorter than where you enter the level – it’s easy to see just by looking to your right, which you naturally do because there are white panels on a distant wall to your right. You see the box just by looking for a solution to the puzzle.

See, I feel like I could drop a portal on that wall. (Source)

The other box is on a pillar that is higher than you are, on your left. Now, the player naturally looks in this direction at first, but since the box is out of sight, it doesn’t look like there is anything there. I had assumed the pillar was actually just an extension of the wall – that there was no pillar, in fact, but rather that the wall just came out an extra foot or two on that side. So from where you start, you can see how the puzzle is set up and you understand what the solution will be – bouncing that laser to where you need it.

But even from other parts of the puzzle, the second mirror box is hard to see. The boxes themselves are darker colored, and on top of a tall dark pillar and in front of a dark wall, I just couldn’t see it. I ran all over the place trying to find where the solution could be. Eventually, after feeling stupid and then frustrated – two things that a game shouldn’t do to its’ players – I discovered the box by accident. After that it was a cinch, but I felt no satisfaction, only relief. Finally I was done with this stupid puzzle!

Now, obviously the developers couldn’t put a white wall behind the box – that makes it too easy, as I could just open a portal up there and snag the box no problem. That’s hardly a puzzle. But maybe with a light up there, my attention would be drawn to the fact that the pillar is indeed a pillar and is relevant to the puzzle.

Additionally, I hate the bottomless pits. I didn’t like the water traps in Portal 1, either. Instant death is never fun in a game. The bottomless pits were just annoying – I’d be floating over one in a light tunnel, and I’d either tap the wrong button and jump out by accident, or I’d open a portal in just the wrong place, and instead of the new light tunnel appearing beneath me and catching me, I’d drop past it and die. And that’s an instance of “Do It Again, Stupid.” (I think I first heard that phrase from Shamus Young, who is a more competent game reviewer than I by far. I’m using it differently than he does.)

See, what I’d prefer is a floor that vaporizes any boxes in play. That way, I don’t feel like I’ve stupidly let me character die, and yet I’m slightly penalized for messing up. Now I have to go press more buttons to get more boxes, and place those boxes again. This is probably not a great solution either, but I think it might be less irritating than “oh, you didn’t do it perfectly; do it again, stupid.”

Or maybe you could land in those fun tubes. (Source)

At the same time, I realize that there needs to be some sense of danger. Otherwise the game is boring. But I think this argument has its underpinnings set firmly in the games-as-storytelling versus games-as-gameplay discussion. Portal 2 does both very nicely. Play it.

Hm, actually, now that I think about it, how are those pits dangerous? Chell has the long fall boots on, and in fact, at one point in the game, she falls all the way to the bottom of the mineshaft that the Aperture facility is built on (or in). Falling from one of the puzzle rooms would just land you back down there, wouldn’t it? You’d at least have a good chance at hitting one of the buildings instead of the water (or acid, it kills you so quickly I like to think of it as acid). Not so deadly falls after all – but still, from a totally objective gameplay point of view, I hate them and they are stupid.

Ultimate verdict, after which I’ll stop talking about Portal 2 (hopefully): Yes play this game, the story is fun, the characters are fun, the gameplay is fun.

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About seansynthetic

"...so I says the the guy, I says to him, 'No, YOU ain't allowed back into this Chuck-E-Cheese.'"

Posted on July 23, 2012, in Video Games and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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