A Valve Release – I

So Valve Software recently released their much-awaited sequel to Portal. Before its release they published a number of in-house generated trailers, and promoted the release with an alternate reality game. The game came out, the critics almost universally loved it, but on Metacritic, the forums and blogs there seemed to be general ire against the game and Valve in particular. I’d like to explore this to get a feel of the current games market and blow off some steam on Portal 2, the ARG, Steam and Valve themselves.

So Valve Software recently released their much-awaited sequel to Portal. Before its release they published a number of in-house generated trailers, and promoted the release with an alternate reality game. The game came out, the critics almost universally loved it, but on Metacritic, the forums and blogs there seemed to be general ire against the game and Valve in particular. I’d like to explore this to get a feel of the current games market and blow off some steam on Portal 2, the ARG, Steam and Valve themselves.

Portal 2

Straight up, I really enjoyed Portal 2. I think it’s superior to the first game in almost all respects. The graphical design was superb – you can see they poured a lot of themselves into it with the level of detail involved, especially with the animations. Same goes for the sound – the sound design, the soundscape, the voice acting… All excellent. I appreciated little things like the music changing to signal that you’ve done the right thing on a puzzle, the way all the sound drops into a New Age meditation when you get caught in an Excursion Funnel, or just the way the jump sounds different when you’re on a Hard Light Bridge.

I thought the writing was locally excellent, although globally okay. I laughed out loud or marvelled at individual lines or events, although I’m a little fuzzy on the overall picture. There’s something fascinating going on in the writing (anyone else get a Divine Comedy vibe from the numerous rise-and-fall story arcs within the game?) but I’m not sure I quite have a handle on it, nor if the writers did entirely either. I had a sense that some of the exploration of the theme had been lost to the very tight game design. But in any case there was enough masterful stuff[1. SPOILERS I really enjoyed the link between the white gel, portal technology, Cave Johnson’s demise and the final puzzle. I felt it was a nice payoff over the whole game.] going on that I have faith in what they were doing.

I liked the puzzle design in that you didn’t have to glitch your way to victory, and they tended to shut down silly ways of approaching a puzzle. Most puzzles only had one solution, which is par for the course for puzzles. Replayability of the single player section is limited, although there a bunch of subtexts, clues, and easter eggs to find on a later run-through. Portal 1 was the same. Given it’s a puzzle game and not a physics sandbox, I can’t really fault this sort of design. I fully expect “Advanced” versions of the levels to come out later, like they did for Portal 1. Although my girlfriend and I are only a little way into the co-op, I think there are tougher puzzles to be found there. This too could be easily extended in later patches.

I had relatively minor concerns about some of the level design – Valve do a really good job on highlighting where to go and what elements to focus on… Almost too good a job. Certain parts I could feel were automatic. Whether this was because I was in a flow, or good behavioural conditioning, I don’t know. If the latter, was this an intentional or ironic nod to Portal 2’s theme of “testing gone mad”. Valve are known for extensively playtesting their games to avoid common roadblocks. They even have a behavioural psychologist on staff. Despite the excellent design of particular elements, there was a general inorganic pattern going on. Solve a puzzle, get a funny line. However, the overly obvious level design was lampshaded on a few occasions[2. SPOILERS Like when Wheatley interrupts a puzzle mid-test for an escape, and GLaDOS trapping you in a super obvious room.]. I feel weird banging on about too-good level design, like if you went to an orchestral recital and complained that they played all the notes perfectly.

I thought the length was spot-on (I was getting sick of test chambers in the end despite the literal and metaphorical deconstruction of them). I thought the boss fight was fine. The final video was a bit odd, but I guess if you can be okay with a fly-through of a facility ending with a cake surrounded by unexplained AI modules, followed by a song, then you should expect weirdness. I believe whoever thinks the PC version was a console port is an idiot. And I don’t think you can finish the game on your first run through in 3-4 hours.

All in all I thought the game was creative, interesting, daring in bits (name another triple A co-op puzzler, especially one that plays across platforms), and a far cry from the usual testerone-laden, war-themed FPS churn-em-outs that dominate the gaming landscape. It’s a great sequel to their original sleeper hit. Not as replayable as, say, Team Fortress 2 or the Left 4 Dead series, but it’s a different beast. It’s still my pick for game of the year, though Batman might beat it.

The ARG

Before the release Valve got together a bunch of indie developers and told them to make an Alternate Reality Game to promote Portal 2. They had a much smaller one for the initial announcement of Portal 2, but that was done in-house and had very limited scope. In general the ARG was designed like this:

  1. 13 indie games were all promoted as a single Indie pack (The Potato Sack), and each had significant patches come out simultaneously.
  2. People would catch on to something being up and the community would band together to solve the puzzles.
  3. Playing and cross-examining the games would reveal potato-themed hints that GLaDOS was loose on the world (specifically those 13 games).
  4. Puzzles would be solved, revealing a second challenge to “power up GLaDOS”, meaning games played and secrets found would release Portal 2 early.
  5. The gaming community would rally around it, and Portal 2 would be released early. Parties for everyone.

How it turned out was:

  1. People who owned a bunch of the games (which had been heavily promoted previously) had sizeable, unexpected patches pushed on them through the auto-patching system.
  2. A bunch of dedicated ARGers got organized and smashed most of the puzzles, traditionally or nefariously (reverse engineering code or just peering through a delta of the game resources).
  3. There was some sort of connection between the potato pack and Portal. A website was found explaining people needed to play games to get Portal 2 maybe released early, although due to time differences, a vagueness of the release date over the previous month and general mistakes, it wasn’t clear what an early release meant.
  4. People played (or idled) the heck out of the games. You could gain potatoes somehow and it wasn’t clear what that meant in terms of ARG progress. Some of the potatoes required ridiculous requirements. Some involved randomly joining certain Steam groups.
  5. People complained vehemently that they shouldn’t have to pay $30 for an early release of Portal 2, that it was a money-making scheme for Valve, that it didn’t get released early enough, that there was too long a wait or too much effort required for the early release… amongst many other complaints. Which they voiced in between playing Portal 2 before they were supposed to.

I participated in the general potato-gathering and so forth. I couldn’t follow the ARG because they moved too fast and I had to go to work. ARGs in general cater to a very niche audience and I’m outside of that. I didn’t lose any sleep over that. I got a chance to play some indie games I hadn’t played in a while, and explore some new ones (The Ball was particularly interesting although I don’t know if I’ll finish it). The potato sack was a massive discount and money went to indies (and Valve) so I didn’t care too much. From my perspective I got to play Portal 2 a whole two days earlier which meant a lot to me as my parents were coming to visit on the original release date. Not only that, but it was a worldwide early release. I’m sick of games having staggered releases on digital platforms when there is no reason whatsoever for it. Two days isn’t a huge difference in terms of release dates, but it’s better than nothing. Or worse, Valve-time long delays. Not only that, but it gave the traditional retail markets a bit of a shake up.

I didn’t mind that the whole thing took about a week. It gave everyone a chance to participate if they wanted. And moreover, you didn’t have to participate. If everyone figured it was too silly, too expensive or too much work, then it wouldn’t have mattered. Of course, we’re living in a modern society where there’s some serious entitlements issues going on, but we can ignore that.

Overall I thought it was a clever and interesting approach to marketing. In general it’s mad – Valve promote their own game by encouraging people to buy and play someone else’s[3. And, strangely, make an indirect buck off it. I don’t know if that’s masterful. I don’t think it’s evil as some people do, especially if you got all the potatoes you got a free copy of every Valve game they ever made, plus Portal 2.]. EA might try something like that, but with EA-only games. I think it was a marvellous thing to try. It might not have quite worked out smoothly, but it’s an attempt to innovate. Better than accidentally encouraging people to sexually harass booth babes. Anyway, that’s my take on Portal 2 and related promotions. Next time I’ll talk more generally about Steam and Valve’s forays into micro-transactions, both of which have come under a lot of scrutiny and attack with the release of Portal 2.