weekend recap: principles, portals, and other p-words

Some scattered thoughts while I have a few seconds:

1. I picked up The Talos Principle for PS4 a few days ago, as it’s currently on sale for $20.  (Yes, I own it on PC, but my PC is falling apart, and as it happens the PS4 version runs incredibly well.)  That game is pretty good!  Tricky puzzles that give that pleasant euphoric rush once you finally piece it together, all tied together with a very subtle sci-fi / metaphysical narrative.  I think my only real issue with it is one of jarring textural elements – I know there’s a better way to phrase to it, but the words aren’t coming to me at the moment.  Essentially, each puzzle involves you trying to unlock a gate to pick up a puzzle piece; unlocking the gates requires manipulating certain things in the environment.  The disconnect is that the worlds each take place in very specific environments – the first hub world could be Ancient Greece (but with red brick), the second could be Ancient Egypt – but the puzzle elements are strikingly modern (laser-sighted machine gun turrets, light-beams guided by prisms mounted on industrial-grade tripods, etc.  Maybe there’s a narrative reason for this?  I’m about as far into the PS4 version as I was on the PC – maybe a little further along, actually, since I’m using a walkthrough when I get truly stuck (which is happening a bit more than I’d like).

2. So among the Xbox 360 games recently announced by Microsoft as now being backwards-compatible is Portal: Still Alive, a stand-alone digital-download version that came out maybe a year or so after The Orange Box was released.  Of course I bought it, even though I’d already beaten Portal a dozen times on both 360 and PC, and of course I immediately downloaded it for my Xbox One, because come on.  Portal is one of the best games ever made.  I mention this only because this past Saturday night my living room TV happened to be free, and my PS3 is hooked up to it as our blu-ray player, and I decided to give Portal 2 a whirl, as I hadn’t played it in a long time.  You know what?  Portal 2 is a perfect game.  I appreciate the argument that the first Portal might be a better game if only because it was so completely unexpected and that the narrative twist was (as my friend Greg put it) that it had a narrative in the first place.  Portal 2, though, is bigger and funnier, and the puzzles are just as inventive, and Cave motherfucking Johnson, and Glados is a potato, and Stephen Merchant as Wheatley is, bar none, my favorite voice performance in any game I’ve ever played.  My save game put me in place to finish the final third, and now that I’ve experienced the ending again I can certainly see why a Portal 3 might be difficult to pull off (from a narrative standpoint, at any rate), but that doesn’t stop me from wanting more Portal in my life.

3. Harmonix has announced a U2 DLC bundle for Rock Band 4, which means I have to now buy Rock Band 4.  It’s only 8 songs, and not the 40-song bundle that I’d hoped for many years ago, but it’ll do.

4. Still haven’t started my Games of the Year post; still not sure when I’m going to get to it, or if I’ll even be able to fill out a top 10.

5.  I’m actually more interested in working on a Music of the Year post, even though I haven’t written one in years, and even though I don’t really listen on an album-by-album basis.  My music consumption process has changed so radically in the last few years that it’s barely recognizable to me; the me that posted ridiculous lists on LiveJournal would be hard-pressed to wonder what the hell has happened to me.  It’s something I’m very much wanting to explore, at any rate, so… look forward to that, eventually.

Weekend Recap: Order out of Chaos

The Game:  The Order: 1886
Current Status:  3-4 hours in, halfway through Chapter 9 (out of 16)

The conventional wisdom on The Order: 1886, as far as I can tell, is the following:

  • for a $60 game, it’s far too short and has no lasting value beyond the initial campaign
  • for a third-person cover shooter, it hardly reinvents the wheel, and the combat is bland and uninspired
  • it’s absolutely gorgeous, though the decision to force black bars on the top and bottom of the screen (to enhance the cinematic widescreen effect) means you see less of the world than you’d like
  • but still, holy shit, the game is gorgeous
  • there’s not much to do beyond shooting, and while there are lots of nooks and crannies off the very narrow path, there’s not as much hidden secret stuff as you’d expect, and the stuff that’s there isn’t particularly interesting or provides any tangible benefit to the player
  • given that Nikola Tesla is basically the game’s version of James Bond’s Q, you’d expect the weaponry to be a bit more diverse than it actually is
  • in any event, the weaponry you encounter in the world is not adequately explained (which is to say it’s not immediately apparent why you’d pick up one weapon as opposed to another when given the choice)
  • also:  lots and lots of QTEs, which are dumb

I can’t really argue with any of that; and yet I’m still finding myself enjoying the game quite a lot.

I think what we’ve got here is essentially an incredibly polished first draft.  The game’s world feels rich and deep, and the characters are acted quite remarkably well, even if the script is somewhat lacking in urgency and certain elements of the plot feel somewhat under-developed.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a sucker for finely delivered British accents that I’m allowing myself to gloss over the story’s shortcomings.

As to whether the game is worth $60 – well, I’m renting it, so I’m not feeling shortchanged.  But I think there’s something to be said about a game’s length in proportion to its intrinsic value.  Not all games need to be 100 hours long in order for me to feel like I got my money’s worth.  I loved Dragon Age Inquisition but there’s a fair amount of padding in that game, and once I finished the main story I lost any and all desire to finish my considerable amount of sidequests.  Meanwhile, I’ve played the considerably shorter Portal and Portal 2 more times than I can count, and I enjoy them every time I do.  Length isn’t the issue; it’s making sure that every moment feels as though it matters.

To that point, I don’t feel like my time is being wasted in The Order: 1886.  It’s not without some considerable problems, but I’m having more fun than I thought I would.  Maybe it’s the graphics whore in me, too – but goddamn, this game is spectacular to behold, even despite the fact that a lot of it is dark and dreary.  I would love to see Dishonored 2 run this well.  (It also reminds me a fair amount of last year’s ill-fated Thief reboot, for whatever that’s worth; games inspired by London in the late 1800s are apparently a thing now, but when they’re done well it’s quite breathtaking.)

The First Few Hours: Trials Fusion (PS4)

Current Status:  I’m around 2.5 hours in.  I’ve gotten gold medals in all of the first 2 locations (“Easy”), I’ve completed the third tier with silvers (“Medium”), and I just unlocked the trick system, which also opened up a whole bunch of locations, costumes and bikes (including 4-wheel ATVs).

I have been a heavy-duty Trials fan for what feels like years now, even if I’m nowhere near an expert.  There was an early, PC-only version (whose name escapes me at the moment) which I was terrible at, but when the Trials games appeared on Xbox 360 I immediately devoured them, even as I repeatedly beat my head against the wall of “Hard” difficulty.  Last year, when I was in my hard-core PC gamer phase, I even went and bought the Trials HD edition on Steam (which combined those first two XBLA games, plus added some bonus content) and tried to play that for a little while, although that PC version is kinda terrible.

And as I think I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve become fiendishly addicted to Trials Frontier, a completely new game for iOS, with a free-to-play model that is surprisingly not terrible.  The game plays just fine, but the reason why it’s worth bringing up here is that it’s also made some significant tweaks to the Trials formula – namely, it’s now a kind of RPG, in that there’s a narrative, a “bad guy”, and a host of NPCs that give you tasks that reward you with XP, money and blueprints for new bikes.

What this iOS game ultimately succeeded in doing is to make my appetite for a proper, next-gen edition all that much more difficult to sate.  Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait very long.

There are good and bad things to discuss with regards to Trials Fusion.  Let’s start with the good.

It should come as absolutely no surprise that Trials Fusion is drop-dead gorgeous.  I’m aware that the Xbox One version came with a day-one patch that upped the resolution a bit, but the PS4 version arrives fully formed in glorious 1080p, and a frame rate that feels pretty rock solid despite the craziness of the backgrounds.  And, man – there is a lot of craziness happening in the backgrounds.  Buildings explode, wind farms collapse, dams break – and the draw distance is deep, so everywhere you look there’s something bananas going on, even if it’s something that looks 5 miles away.

The game also feels great, and a lot of this has to do with how much better the PS4 controller is at handling the fine-tuned movements that are vital to landing certain jumps or climbing steep inclines.  I do not find myself missing the 360 controller, which says pretty much all that needs to be said as far as that goes.

And the level of variety in each course is astonishing.  Again – I’m still towards the beginning of the game, but each course is radically different and shows off a hell of a lot more than I ever saw in the last-gen games.  I have no doubt that the creator community is going to go absolutely nuts once they get their hands on the tools.

There’s also, like in the iOS version, a quasi-RPG system, though it doesn’t yet appear to serve any real purpose.  You gain XP and money for completing levels and meta-objectives (more on that in a second).  I think I hit level 20 last night, but that doesn’t really mean anything as far as a noticeable increase in my skills or in my bikes – all it means is that I’ve reached certain plateaus where previously locked bikes and clothes are now available for use.*

* I think it would be neat, eventually, to have an RPG system in a Trials game that actually improved your skills dependent on how well (or how often) you executed them – like in Skyrim, or (digging deep here) Aggressive Inline.  So, for Trials, if you show that you can land flips regularly with ease, you should have greater control over your spin with a heavier bike, for example.

Those meta-objectives are interesting, in that they can be tough to ignore.  The levels are already pretty challenging, but once you see that you can earn bonus XP for landing 10 flips in a zero-fault run, or if you avoid touching certain colored obstacles on the course, those things are tough to un-see, and so it adds an extra layer of stress to your run.

The biggest change to the Trials formula is probably the trick system, but since I only just unlocked that before calling it a night last night, I’m not quite ready to discuss it.  It’s a neat idea, though, and I suspect that it’ll give multiplayer matches a lot more depth.  (Oh, yeah, there’s multiplayer.  Haven’t tried that yet, either.)

Alas, not all is perfect in Trials Fusion.  In a game famous for giving you the ability to immediately restart a race at the touch of a button, the biggest grievance I have is the interminable waiting that happens after you finish a run; there’s a period of what may be only 30 seconds but feels like 20 minutes as the game does… something… after you finish.  Perhaps it’s sending your run to the uPlay cloud?  I’m not sure what the cause is, but it takes WAY too long and completely ruins the flow.

The weirder aspect is that there’s also an attempt here of some sort of narrative.  There are two disembodied voices that you hear – one is a male announcer, making either kinda lame jokes about how it’s only been 14 minutes since the last workplace accident, and to “keep up the good work”, or else some weird attempts at giving the weather.  The other is a female AI named Cindy, who walks you through each tutorial phase and who also tends to chirp in from time to time to comment on the male announcer’s ramblings.  Between the futuristic laboratory environments and the AI companions, it’s almost as if they wanted to set a Trials game in Portal‘s Aperture Science, but forgot to hire funny writers.

And, also, the writers they did hire did not factor into account how many times you might restart a race – which, if you’re like me and you’re determined to get as close to gold as you can, is an awful lot – and so you’ll hear the same quips over and over and over and over and over again, until they stop making any sense (if they ever did make sense), and you kinda just wish they’d shut up.  Cindy keeps making these odd comments about how nice it is to see you – or, at least, this version of you, anyway – and this is strange in a game that takes such gleeful joy in ragdolling your rider in increasingly bizarre and convoluted ways after each finish line.  Is the joke that we’re just a bunch of clones?  Is that the big twist?  That’s not really that big a stretch.

Anyway – long loading times and weird storytelling aside, it’s a next-gen Trials game, and if that’s the sort of thing that tickles your fancy, well, you’ve probably already downloaded it.

 

on collectibles

Collecting stuff always comes across as filler at best, psychological manipulation at worst. Most games do a poor job of justifying collecting other than giving you a reason to pick stuff up. I’m OK with the collecting being about further exploring the world, but even most games don’t seem to pull that off. I know that someone people really like that base level of completion, though, and it’s just not my thing.

(from Patrick Klepek’s tumblr, answering a question regarding the selling of Steam cards, which is something that has now netted me $5.68 since yesterday’s post)

[Note: I’m not trying to turn this blog into a Patrick Klepek appreciation/stalking site; it’s just that a lot of the stuff he says/writes resonates with me.]

Let me throw out two questions to you.  I’ll answer them (because that’s what I do), but I’m curious to get your feedback as well.

  1. Do collectibles matter to you?  Have they changed the way you play?  Do you prefer games with hidden collectibles, or do you avoid them?
  2. Are there any games that have successfully made their collectibles relevant and worth pursuing beyond simply getting a trophy or an achievement?

1.  I used to be obsessed with finding the hidden areas in games like Quake 2 and Duke Nukem 3D.  I’d turn on God Mode and just wander around, looking for hidden nooks and crannies.  The loot was usually nice, but that wasn’t even necessarily the pull; it was simply the idea that in these intricately designed worlds, there was always a reason to venture off the beaten path.

When Achievements became a thing, I couldn’t help but notice that games started putting hidden stuff back into their games with greater frequency.  It became a sort of status symbol of how hard-core you were in a given game; yes, I found all 500 Orbs in Crackdown; yes, I killed every pigeon in GTA IV, and here’s the proof.

Maybe that’s a bad example; I never found every pigeon in GTA IV, or even came anywhere close.  Some games were better at hiding their collectibles than others, and Rockstar’s worlds in particular were so huge, and so dense, that hunting down those specific things would’ve taken hundreds of hours that I simply didn’t have (unless I used some sort of map, which would – to me – defeat the purpose of the hunt).

Other games are less about obscure hiding places and more about simply overwhelming you with sheer numbers.  The Assassin’s Creed franchise comes to mind, as do the two most recent Batman Arkham games; both of these games feature so many goddamned things to find that the hunt stops being enjoyable and simply feels like busywork; a lazy way of implementing “added value”.  When you finish the game and see that you’ve only completed 70% of what the game has to offer – and this is after you’ve already sunk 20-40 hours – it can feel downright discouraging.

I don’t feel the pull towards these things the way I used to, though it also depends on the game.  I couldn’t be bothered to look through every viewfinder in Bioshock Infinite, but I was kinda pissed off that I missed a few of the voice recordings – especially since I apparently missed some pretty major plot points as a result.  And I’d thought I’d been pretty thorough, too!  

2.  When I started this post, I figured that by the time I got around to answering this second question I’d already have a list of games that offered worthwhile collectibles, but it turns out that I’m coming up somewhat empty.

I seem to recall that while some of the hidden objects in Psychonauts got a bit ridiculous in number, the “mental vaults” were quite important – one in particular (in the disco level) added a level of backstory to the disco teacher lady that was absolutely jaw-dropping; I made it a point to find every single one after seeing that.

The hidden skulls in the Halo games offered a great deal in the way of replay value… although I was never the world’s biggest Halo fan, and I only ever found those (when I was inclined to hunt for them) by looking at YouTube videos.

I’m reminded of Valve’s games, suddenly, even if their games were never particularly prone to hidden collectibles.  But scouring the environments always yielded interesting rewards in terms of story (i.e. the hidden rooms in the first Portal, the hand-written messages in the Left 4 Dead games).

If you can come up with better ones, by all means, let’s hear ’em!

weekend recap: bits and bobs and odds and sods

So I had big, grand plans for blogging here last week, and, clearly, those plans all went to shit.

I’d written a rather gigantic review of Beyond: Two Souls for the NYVCC (which probably won’t be going up until early November), and in the process of putting it together I started getting a little philosophical about the concept of “fun”.  Not even necessarily about what constitutes fun (as an example, the fun I had in exploring the house in Gone Home is much, much different than, say, the fun of online Call of Duty matches, should you enjoy that sort of thing), but more along the lines of:  is “being fun” the thing that separates/elevates a game from an interactive experience?  Can a game with stellar graphics, a gripping story and fully-realized characters still be considered “great” if it isn’t “fun” to play?  And likewise, can a game with stellar gameplay mechanics (i.e., the “core gameplay loop”, or the “30 seconds of fun” design principle that went into creating Halo) still be considered “great” if the story and the characters and everything else is shitty?

I’d wanted to sink some serious time and thought into this piece, but, again, the week fell apart and I couldn’t put it together – not even after I tweeted that I was working on something ambitious, and that I sincerely hoped that I wouldn’t quit on it.   The tweet was more concerned with the post becoming too ridiculous for me to wrangle into shape; it didn’t take into account the many external factors that conspired against me even having the time to put it together (i.e., day job, sick baby, musical side projects).

Such is the blogger’s dilemma; as I am not in an environment where I can concentrate on writing 24/7 (or even 9 to 5), I seem to only churn out these sorts of lightweight posts – weekend recaps, uninformed gut reactions to industry news, whining about jerks on social media.  The heavy-duty stuff is problematic – I get intimidated because I want the piece to be great, and when I get intimidated I either allow myself to get distracted, or I get too critical and censorious and the whole thing falls apart.

I don’t necessarily want to abandon this idea, though, even if I just gave it away.  Because one thing that I am going to start doing over the next few months is a thorough examination of this console generation, and I’m very curious to see how my personal definition of “fun” has evolved over that time.

Case in point:  I ended up spending quite a lot of time in GTA V this weekend, trying to finish a few Strangers and Freaks missions, and also trying to trigger new ones – there’s quite a few missing in my Social Club profile, and I have no idea where to find them or how to start them.  Two of them started quite by accident; I decided to buy up some businesses, and one of them (the pier in the WNW area of the map) triggered two different quests that essentially sent me underwater, circumnavigating the entire island (one quest in a submarine, the other involving deep-sea diving).  These were strange, laborious and frequently tedious missions, and yet they were also, at times, deeply engrossing – if for no other reason than to simply appreciate the staggering amount of work that went into creating the underwater environment.   And since these missions were also untimed and free of enemies, I could explore at my leisure, and I personally really enjoy that sort of exploration – even if the speed of the sub and/or swimming was painfully, agonizingly slow.

Indeed, most of my time now in GTA V is spent driving around the northern expanse of the map, wishing there were Skyrim-esque dungeons to explore.  (Or, barring that, Red Dead Redemption-style gang hideouts to raid.)   (Also, mostly wishing that someone would mod GTA IV to incorporate GTA V‘s gameplay improvements – combat, penalties for mission failure, quick-saving, etc.)

Also this weekend:  I was generously gifted a copy of Deux Ex: Human Revolution (Director’s Cut) on Steam, and so that was a lot of fun to go back to.  I didn’t notice much in the way of the advertised graphical or AI improvements, and I haven’t gone far enough to see the re-tooled boss fights, but the commentary is a really nice touch, and it was neat to re-approach the first few levels without the clunkiness of my first playthrough.

Also spent a little time with Eldritch, a Lovecraftian roguelike that looks like a Minecraft mod.  I’m not really all that into roguelikes, nor am I particularly into Minecraft, but I do love me some Lovecraft spookiness, and so I finished the first dungeon and am contemplating a return visit.

Finally, I spent a few hours with the new PC port of Enslaved, which is a game that I remember being really impressed with on the 360 – I recalled it being a colorful adventure in the vein of Uncharted, which is a game that I could stand to see more clones of, and in my “Best of 2010 feature” I specifically called out Heavy Rain and said:

See, Heavy Rain, this is how facial animation should be done.  Hell, this is how storytelling should be done.  There’s more said in a character’s face here than in 20 overwritten lines of dialog.  The relationship between the two lead characters was thoroughly believable and authentic.

The PC version for the most part looks incredible, although the camera has considerable moments of severe jank.  And for whatever reason, this second time around, the story seems to be moving a lot faster than I remember – especially in regards to the relationship between Monkey and Trip.  The game is still fun, though – and it’s also pretty neat to see how the combat in Ninja Theory’s reboot of DmC evolved from what they did here in Enslaved.  If you didn’t play it on the console, this PC version is definitely worth picking up for $20.

I seem to doom myself every time I promise a blogging schedule for the upcoming week, so I’m not going to do that now.  But as I said above, my larger project over the next few months is to reexamine this console generation.  As I’m probably going to hold off on getting a next-gen console (most likely the PS4, first) until next year, I anticipate having plenty of time to get caught up on some backlog titles, and to revisit the console games I felt compelled to hold onto (which is to say, the games I liked too much to want to trade back for credit).   When I consider my Top 10 of this generation, it’s mostly just off the top of my head – with the exception of Red Dead, which I recently played to get warmed up for GTA V, I haven’t played any of the other games in my Top 10 in at least a year or two.   And it turns out that I really want to play Portal 1 and 2 again.

some ramblings about Portal 2

(I’m kinda working on a Portal 2 review, but in the meantime I’m just rambling.  There will be spoilers at the bottom, mostly consisting of guesses about Portal 3.  You’ll be warned.)

Portal 2 is a big deal.  That it has become a big deal is kind of awesome, when you think about it; Portal began as a student project (Narbacular Drop), and now it is the first full-length, single-player first-person game Valve has released since Half Life 2.  It also features no blood, (almost) no violence, and no other living characters.  You don’t have an inventory – indeed, you don’t even have a voice.  You have a gun, but you don’t kill anything with it – at least not directly, and the things you indirectly kill are robotic turrets.  Indeed, for the most part you aren’t killing anything – you’re solving puzzles.

Even more fascinating – at least to me – is that while it’s true that you can only really “solve” the puzzles once (and thus only generate that genuine, exhilarating “a-ha!” moment once as well), the game never stops being entertaining upon multiple playthroughs.  I’ve played the original Portal maybe a dozen times, and I’ve already beaten Portal 2 twice after only owning the game for 3 days.  Some of the puzzle solutions are just awesome.  They are fulfilling to solve, absolutely, but they’re also incredibly fulfilling just in the pure act of execution, and as you get better at the game you find more efficient ways of solving each puzzle, which is also fulfilling.

For example, there’s a puzzle in Portal 2 (I believe it’s the first puzzle in Chapter 3, the one that begins with repeated aerial faith plate malfunctions) that I solved without much difficultly on my first run, although I’d found it somewhat tedious to keep walking back and forth between portal openings.  On my second playthrough, I suddenly realized that I could simply jump into one of the portals I’d just created, thus making everything move a lot quicker.  So it’s not just the thrill of the initial solution to a problem; it’s the subsequent discovery of more efficient solutions that’s just as thrilling.

I think for me, though, the main reasons why I keep coming back to Portal and Portal 2 are:

      • The world.  Every game that’s out these days is either set in some post-apocalyptic wasteland or some variation on the standard platformer themes – forest, desert, lava, ice.  The original Portal had a very simple and very distinctive look to it, and it was all the more thrilling when the curtain was pulled back in the final act.  Portal 2’s environments are even more varied and diverse, as well as still being incredibly unique, and the fact that so much of it takes place “behind the scenes” makes it all the more special.  Portal already has somewhat of a “meta” vibe in the first place but this notion of being off the beaten path is thrilling, especially when the settings are so epic in scope.
    • The attention to detail.  It’s easy to fly past a lot of the little things in Portal 2, and for the most part it’s not at all necessary to stop and inspect every single piece of litter you come across.  And yet there’s actual writing on each coffee can and fuse box; it goes an incredibly long way towards making the world believable, even while you’re doing unbelievable things.  Everything is in its right place, even when it’s out of place.  The best games generally get this – Bioshock, GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption certainly get it.
    • The quality of the storytelling.   They’re paced incredibly well, and Portal 2’s pace is among the best of all time.  Puzzle concepts are introduced gradually, and eventually you’ll be doing some completely insane things in order to solve them, and as a reward there’ll be an exhilarating chase sequence or an extended, slow exploration sequence when you get to a new area.  And it’s not just the Portal games are hilarious – it’s also that they’re smart enough to both tell you what’s happening, and also let you infer what’s happening indirectly.  (And there’s quite a lot happening, and we’ll get to that in a bit. )
  • The love.  I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say.  But you can tell when a development team genuinely cares about the game they make, and it’s very, very clear that Valve cares.  The original Portal is a game that people adore, and as such the expectations for a sequel were astronomically high – even though it would be impossible to guess just what, if anything, the sequel would look like.  There’s not a single bum note in either of the two games, and that’s not because of luck – that’s because an enormous amount of time went into polishing everything, from the graphics to the dialogue to the puzzles themselves.  In a recent interview with Gamespot, writer Erik Wolpaw (one of my personal heroes) said that it doesn’t matter to him whether games can exist as art – games need to be entertaining, first and foremost, or else what’s the point?

OK: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

Portal 3 speculation:

    • We now know about Aperture’s origins, and somewhat about how GlaDOS came to be.  But what of Chell?  Where did she come from?  Was she someone’s daughter in “Bring Your Daughter To Work” day?  [EDIT:  Yes, she is.] Was she Cave Johnson’s illegitimate daughter with Caroline?  (Would that even make sense, time-line wise?  Is it ever specified when the first game take place?  Considering that Aperture was already messing around with pretty high-tech stuff in the 50s, the original Portal could conceivably take place in the 60s, right?  They do have some old computers and rotary phones in the original Portal.)  (Also – I never looked at the “Lab Rat” comic, and it’s possible this was explained there.  I should probably look at it first before speculating any more.)
    • OK, I’ve read the Lab Rat comic.  Notes:  Page 8 – Chell’s last name is redacted.  Page 9 – Chell refuses to answer if “anyone would file a police report if [she] went missing.”  Beyond that… the comic is somewhat vague.
    • At the end of the game, when Chell is standing in the field – does she have the Portal gun with her?  I don’t think so – you see both of her hands grabbing on to Wheatley after your final portal hits home.  By the same token, Chell didn’t have the Portal gun at the end  of the first one, either.  In any event – the Lab Rat comic’s final panel says that Chell has remarkable tenacity and stubbornness.  We don’t know why, though.  The point is:  at the end of P2, she is free.  The question remains:  would she go back?  And if so, why?
    • Wheatley has to return, doesn’t he?  You can’t make a character that wonderful and have it be lost forever, right?

>E3’10

>Someday, I will figure out a way to attend an E3 in person. I will behold all there is to behold with my very own personal eyes, ears and hands.

Because when you’re not there, and the only way you can learn about things is via hastily written typo-riddled liveblogs, inebriated podcasts and awful, awful G4 television packages, it’s just maddening.

That won’t stop me from casting ill-informed judgments, however.

In terms of the big 3, the clear winner of this year’s E3 is Nintendo, and you have no idea how strange it is for me to admit it. I covet the 3DS like a drug addict, and not just because it’s a super-snazzy update to an already super-snazzy handheld; it’s got games that look awesome. Epic Mickey looks amazing, and I loathe Disney. I keep hearing that Kirby looks good, but I haven’t seen it in motion yet and it’s not like I ever cared about Kirby before – but hey, if it’s a good game, then we all win. I don’t particularly care about Zelda, either, but if it’s fun, it’s fun.

Microsoft put on a pretty good show, too. I was unsure about Kinect, but I showed my wife Katharine the MS press conference and she was SOLD. And, really, that’s the whole point. The Kinect wasn’t ever designed or intended for someone like me; it’s meant for someone like Kath, who ordinarily doesn’t like most videogames. She doesn’t like buttons; she doesn’t like not knowing how things work. But moving your arms in a certain way and seeing it reflected on the TV – that makes sense. We both were intrigued specifically by Kinect Adventure (which had the river rafting mini-game and some other obstacle course thing), and Ubisoft’s Your Shape Fitness program (as we were already familiar with the Xbox’s YourSelf Fitness). Kath even was intrigued by Harmonix’s Dance game, although you will never in a million years see me playing it. But it’s not even just the games that Kath was interested in – the whole UI seemed ingenious. She was especially excited by the video chat feature, which she can get some use out of.

Sony’s press conference was kinda depressing. Kevin Butler’s appearance made a lot of hay, but when you think about it, what was he even doing there besides being amusing? He didn’t announce anything. When one of your press conference’s bullet points is a new marketing campaign, especially one devoted to the sad, sad PSP, that’s kinda terrible. The biggest coup, really, was that Portal 2 will be on the PS3 – and with SteamWorks support to boot. I already know that I’ll be playing Portal 2 on the 360 and my PC; if I have to play it on the PS3, I will.

Portal 2 is my personal game of the show. The 5 minutes of footage that emerged looks, in the words of Will Ferrell as Tony Lipton, SCRUMPTRILLESCENT.

But ultimately, the biggest thing I got out of this year’s E3 is that 2011 is going to be amazing. The second half of 2010, on the other hand, looks… I dunno. Kinda average, I guess. 2010 has already been a great year if only for Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption, but that can’t be it, right?

>Game Design by Committee: You’re Doing It Wrong, Especially If You’re Not Doing It At All

>I played the shit out of Portal; I bought it as part of the Orange Box on the 360 and, because my wife was in the TV room with friends when it came out, I ended up downloading it through Steam as well. I’m not necessarily a genius with it; I’ve gotten through a few of the challenge maps, but I my main pleasure in playing Portal is simply playing through the single-player campaign and absorbing the storytelling, atmosphere, and humor.

Portal’s single-player campaign could arguably be the best single-player campaign ever, and one of the reasons why is because it’s incredibly well designed. Its focus is razor-sharp; it does a fantastic job of teaching you how to play, so much so that you’re not necessarily aware of it; the puzzles are challenging but never unfair; and the payoff – the final level – is absolutely brilliant. Up until the final level, you’ve been in very clinical environments, being hand-held throughout the game, and then – suddenly – you are seeing things you’ve never seen before and you now have to improvise your way out of your situation, because the stakes have been raised.

The commentary tracks in the game do a great job of explaining how all this came to be, and I recall being somewhat shocked about how much playtesting Valve does; they do playtesting pretty much on every single day in development, to make sure that everything makes sense and – most importantly – that everything is fun. I was shocked because I generally hate that sort of approach. You can spot it immediately in other art forms – movies, in particular, suffer rather horribly when they are influenced by too many cooks who don’t know what they’re doing. I felt that the amount of playtesting Valve was doing was somehow wrong, that at some point you need to have the original vision of the game come through without being diluted by so many opinions on such a moment-to-moment basis. That Portal turned out to be one of the best games I’ve ever played specifically because of this incessant testing seemed irrelevant; I felt like the creative vision of the game was being diluted.

I bring this up because I had been eagerly antipating the recently released Portal: Prelude single player mod, and the first thing that became clear to me – indeed, in the very first level – is that the reason why playtesting is so important is because it works, and I am unsure if anyone tested Prelude besides the actual people who built the game, if at all. Prelude is everything that Portal is not – it’s not funny, it’s unfair, and it’s not fun.

Case in point. In order to solve Level 2 (!), you need to crouch as you fall through a portal, which grants you better momentum. Keeping in mind that crouching is something you NEVER do in Portal – indeed, I was unaware that there was even a crouch button in the original Portal – I would never have gotten past the level had I not looked online for a walkthrough. The ONLY way to solve Level 2 is by crouching, which is information that I didn’t know I needed.

And what makes this incredibly unfair is that Prelude doesn’t even tell you that crouching is beneficial, or that it even exists, until Level 3. That I had to cheat in order to figure this out, this early in the game, was incredibly disappointing. I’m currently stuck in Level 4 and even after watching a video of the puzzle getting solved, I don’t really give a shit about finishing it – the solution is totally counter-intuitive and requires a degree of specificity that could only have come about from someone who already knew the answer.

I don’t hate challenging games; I hate games that are challenging only because they’re unfair. If the developers of Prelude had simply gotten 5 volunteers to play the game, at least 3 of them would have gotten stuck where I got stuck in Level 2 – indeed, they probably would’ve gotten stuck in Level 1, which I’m still not sure how I survived. They would see that the player didn’t understand what to do, and then – if they were smart – they would have tweaked the puzzle to make it a little more intuitive, without necessarily making it less difficult.

Prelude is a free download, so the only thing you’re losing is hard drive space. But you may also experience the crushing sadness of false hopes being destroyed.