I really love everything that Portal 2 is. It’s gorgeous, doesn’t spell everything out, has an athmosphere and shows that you can have engaging experience without shooting things to a gory mess.

The first game undeniably has a cult following, all down to a certain mantra which is better left unreferenced1.

Screenshot of Portal 2
You monster.

It is interesting to see what the future holds for Valve, as there are some clues that this might be their last game with strictly single-player experience. Or maybe multiplayer games and microtransactions are just the thing right now.

The gateway drug

The game isn’t as challenging as the first Portal was, which I think might be a good thing, because it potentially allows for a wider audience to enjoy the game. I wouldn’t call it a compromise, but evolution as I’ll later explain. The difference in the level of challenge is that you’re not expected to shoot out portal while in mid-air or do other tasks requiring precision and reflexes that only come from a decade’s worth of playing FPS games. Also, the fact that the game is also for consoles might play a part.

It’s a bit of a shame, because most of the game you’re introduced to elements and gameplay mechanics and in the true Valve game design fashion, then expected to employ them in a new setting. The game never really progresses to the “mastery” level in the single player story. All up to the final boss it feels like the game is making more or less subtle hints about how to proceed.

I’m well aware that I’m in the minority so it’s more than okay, because if this game works as a gateway drug for people new to first-person, high production value games all the better. I think the current gaming population is overserved with “realistic” 20th century warfare titles. I would hope that many players who enjoy PopCap’s games, for example, would find Portal 2’s way of presenting puzzles to players even more engaging format. That could only be a good thing.

After completing the game, I went back and watched the trailers on Portal’s website and I started to wonder where all those cool levels were. They were clearly earlier iterations of the levels actually in the game, and they looked somewhat more difficult. I don’t even remember seeing any Pneumatic Diversity Vents, for example2. The woe-fully outdated Wikipedia page for Portal 2 even stated at some point that the more challenging version of the levels would appear once the player had completed the game. These challenge packs are expected to arrive in the free DLC this summer.

This date was later clarified to be somewhere in the middle of September.

The future is multiplayer

I’ve yet to try out the co-op campaign3, but it seems clear that it’s here where Valve will probably focus in the future. And why not? The longetivity of their multiplayer games shows that Valve knows a thing or two about capturing an audience. The story is already told and there’s very little you can add to it.

It’s often said how the modern games resemble movies, often as an argument that games are “art” or as a lament to their shortness and heavy-handed storytelling at the cost of the actual game. Valve, on the other hand, seems to have realized that once they have built the game and its world, it’s really cheap to add content to it. Here I don’t mean how many publishers have figured out how to push DLC, but how you don’t have to invest millions of euros and man-hours inoto publisihing sequels each year when you can just add hats and never develop a Team Fortress 34.

As such, I’m pretty sure Pixar envies Valve. If Pixar wants to bring their audience back to the world of Toy Story or Monsters, Inc., they have to make a completely new film. Yes, the usualy way to achieve this has been to push out a sub-par Saturday morning cartoon version, but they are often a far cry from the original. Nothing stops Valve from adding levels to the Portal 2’s co-op campaign or hats to Team Fortress 2 indefinitely. They can even retroactively upgrade the whole experience to a new level as they have with Team Fortress 2, which has been updated to take advantage of processing power of new computers.

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see why multiplayer games are economically really interesting to developers and publishers. However, in a stark contrast, Valve has traditionally resisted the DLC gravy train and published these new updates for free.

As a fan of the adventure games in their golden age, this shift of focus from immersive single player experiences is a sad one. The game designer has much more control in single player gameplay and can craft the story around the player in a way that is impossible in multiplayer games. But that story is one-off. Once you have played through it, like a movie, it’s exactly the same the other time around. Except you might notice stuff that you missed on the first go.

The single player story

This isn’t to say that the single player story in Portal 2 wasn’t immersive; on the contraty, the game has a lot going on below the surface. There are more dialogue than most players probably will ever hear, you really have to go the extra mile to hear it all. But you’ll be rewarded for it.

I missed many things on my playthrough, but these don’t probably matter to people who aren’t familiar with Half-Life 2’s storyline, for example. They are just there for the fans.

As for the story, it’s really refreshing to see how the story is driven by the characters. The one great thing about Half-Life and Portal is that the player remains in the control of the character at all times, except sometimes for certain storytelling reasons in the beginning and the end. In Half-Life, you assume the role of Gordon Freeman, but in Portal 1, only the fans know that the main character has a name - it’s not mentioned in anyway within the games. You even have to set the portals just right to even see your character’s model. You can just be… you.

Portal 2 really sweats the details. The story is completely told by the dialogue and the items in the game. As such, I imagine it’s a bit like Myst or other exploration-heavy adventure games. Other close candidate is Mirror’s Edge, which also tried the concept but did not succeed as well.

The similarity between Apple, Pixar and Valve is that they all make their fans by really sweating the details. They know their audience well enough to make something great time and again. And most importantly, they know how to make business. They are not just pioneers, but actively evolve.

Aside: A love letter to Gabe, or why playing games sucked in the 00’s.

To me, the most amazing thing here is that I’m playing this game on my MacBook Pro.

The first computer I got my hands on was my dad’s PowerBook 140. And it had games like I wouldn’t see for years after I got my first PC. Sure, they were in black and white, but the games had sounds and music, nice graphics and all that. All of that changed when I got my 386sx running MS-DOS 5.0. Sure, there were colours, but the only sounds were beeps. And the graphics weren’t as good. But the games themselves were better.

From there it didn’t take long that I had switched from being a fan of the Mac to proclaiming that Mac users were lame and that there weren’t any games for the Mac5. And that was a bit true at the time. Only at Windows’95 would the PC catch up to where my dad’s PowerBook had been GUI-wise so many years back. However, the advent of DirectX, Windows XP and PlayStation 2 meant that only the truly the most hardcore Mac fan would try to use his computer for playing games.

One notable exception was Blizzard, who to this day releases its games for both Windows and Mac.

However, the PowerBook 140 had made its mark and I switched back to a PowerBook G4 and Mac OS X once I started at university. That’s when the drought started, I stopped playing computer games6 on my computer. One reason was that I didn’t have that much time and the other was that there was weren’t any.

The tide was starting to turn around the time I upgraded to my current MacBook Pro, which had Intel inside, and a real nVidia GPU. Soon it also had a Windows partition inside and a bunch of games. All thanks to BootCamp, VMWare and dual-booting.

Everything changed in 2010, when Steam arrived for Mac - followed by all of Valve’s games. It was revolutionary, I could natively play actual games again and on my Mac. It had taken almost exactly 20 years.

Today, I find myself dual-booting less and less and many of the games that I would otherwise dual-boot are getting Mac ports7. This wouldn’t have been possible without the enormous push by Valve and their Steam platform. They seriously not only saw the opportunity but grabbed it by both hands and realized they had a market right there.

Sure, even today Mac gamers represent 5% of users on Steam, but it would be nice to know how they otherwise compare against their Windows rivals. For one thing, I’m quite sure most of the Mac gamers have a laptop. And many dual-boot to Windows. But are they more loyal to Valve or Steam? Are they more active gamers? How many switched to Mac because it was again a fertile ground for gamers and how many are happy the drought is finally coming to an end?

This wouldn’t have happened without Valve. Apple made it possible by making the right hardware and software decisions along the way, but they never really encouraged this development. It is amazing that after a so lengthy segregation, the Mac and PC gamers are today on an equal footing.

I’m sure I’m not alone with my story. It’s nothing short of amazing, today almost 50% of the games in my Steam library run also on Mac. The only miracle left is for Microsoft, Apple or someone to port and maintain DirectX for Mac OS X8.

The end

And there’s closure. It’s a new thing for Valve and I applaud them for it. Sure, the first Portal originally ended up by Chell escaping the facility but this was retroactively changed for a bit different ending but the end song was always there hinting that the criminally insane GLaDOS was, well, still alive.

I’m really nit-picking, but it is a bit dull that the ending is prerendered and not rendered by the game’s engine. Maybe that was a self-imposed safeguard against changing tampering in the ending. I truly hope so.

  1. As it was, thankfully, in the game itself. I, however, didn’t understand why people tried to force combustible lemons as a meme from Portal 2, when potatoes are much more plentiful.

  2. But I can easily see how they don’t really add anything interesting to the game.

  3. Actually, that was the case as of writing this but I’ve since completed the co-op part of the game as well. More about that later.

  4. Or for that matter, Half-Life 2: Episode Three.

  5. One funny thing was that one of my friends did endure the sameful period with his Mac only to switch to PC around when the Mac OS X arrived to the scene. It would still be years before OS X was any good or the games would finally arrive but he was so close. In a curious case of reversal, he became the one to proclaim how gaming on Mac was for losers.

  6. By computer games I mean here the “AAA” titles and other “core” games.

  7. Mac ports that are actually equal to their Windows versions. I was never really a fan of the poorly optimized ports that were previously available for some of the best-selling PC games.

  8. Or some other cross-platform API to emerge, but I doubt that.