Thursday, May 19, 2011

Theoretical Mongoose: Level Design Ire.

Over the past twenty solar periods, i've been wrestling with a rather rare case of "I really don't like this game" and have been attempting to figure out why so that I could correct that so that I may be able to continue my work. However, the level design work i've been doing is, I found, precisely the reason for the feeling. Portal Un is perhaps the best example of a self-contained level system, not a single space is wasted and there is no hint of filler anywhere. The game is really just that, a puzzle game. As the Obligatory Mongoose noted earlier in the term, "The level design is symbolic of GLaDos herself: functional, highly lethal, and incredibly dark and oppressive", the operative word being *functional*. Portal Deux, however, is not functional. Portal Deux features enormous levels with mind-bendingly distant platforms, with the obvious culmination being firing a portal ONTO THE FRIGGIN MOON. The extent of the large rooms and the nature of the chapter system breaks the game into three or four seperate sections, with some video cutscenes tying the sections together, and here is where the level design + this video cutscene bollucks really puts the jam on the downside of this magnificent piece of toast.

Before I go on, I will establish that, from a theoretical standpoint, Portal Deux is a magnificent work of art that can really push the boundaries for game studies as a whole. That said, Portal Deux against Portal Un is the best example of the argument which Dr. Rees introduced last Tuesday. Portal Un is a puzzle game with some amusing story bits tossed around the edges of the gameplay. Portal 2, however, is a game where the game forgot it was a game until about the time the developers realized that the players expected a *game*. You go from room to room like a distracted child looking for the piece of candy (white wall) to grab (shoot a portal onto) and eat (find the exit). In terms of the argument Dr. Rees presented, Portal 2 is a marvelous example of how popular mainstream media attention turns actual games into story-driven mono-rails that literature people like our lovely English majors can use to infect the genre of video game studies with our glitter-like approach.

Back to the level design. Portal 2's level designs that weren't ripped from the original Portal are immense, huge rooms that turn the player into something like a mouse in a very large cage with a Portal gun. These extremely large rooms, I argue, do not serve to give the game a sense of grandness, because this is not a game in a genre that can use such stylistic approachs to heighten its ratings. Better puzzles and new puzzle elements do that, like the hard-light bridges really forcing the player to utilize a new skillset than previously applied. The hard-light bridge rooms can be quite challenging, at least they were to me, since I was not accustomed to using portals to create ledges to fire more portals. This is the direction Valve should have taken, but instead continued on with the Bigger is Better approach following the escape. Correct me if i'm wrong, but Portal Two seems to be far more focused on telling a story than giving us a game, which is why literature people everywhere can encroach on the genre like herpes or swine flu.

The redeeming parts of the level designs have been in the co-op campaign, where the actual PUZZLES are. The puzzles in the co-op campaign are more expansive due to the extra portals you can have, and the sinking feeling "where is that stupid patch of white wall" is not present, as the entirety of the co-op campaign is not a sight-seeing tour on the way to murder town but a true sequel successor in that the co-op levels are actual well-designed puzzle rooms in lieu of shiny, well-oiled factory produced scenic adventures. I say all this knowing that some of you share absolutely no feelings with me, but I feel compelled to point out that both escape scenarios are essentially running through giant rooms whose scenic value is incredibly diminished since you're looking for a white wall patch to solve the puzzle. This is not Xenosaga!

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