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Are Difficulty Settings Necessary?

The pursuit of a challenge can be a driving force in life. The accomplishment of something thought to be unobtainable has a certain allure which some find irresistible. Game designers tend to play off of this concept, creating challenges that seem insurmountable in the context of the game world. Typically there will be an option for the player to affect the likelihood of beating the odds through game difficulty. As a designer, the proper implementation of difficulty, in my opinion, is instituting a learning curve and building from there. Once the player has gleaned the knowledge the game has presented, the designer is free to introduce complex obstacles that utilize this knowledge in varying ways. Approaching the difficulty question from this angle allows designers to create more involving situations during the progression of the game. This concept of “learning in order to succeed” seems to eradicate the necessity of a difficulty option altogether.

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Human beings have an interesting reaction to Things That Are Good. Instead of loving them and appreciating them for what they are, we tend towards finding flaws, looking at the things that don’t stick. We say we want something brilliant, but when something brilliant arrives, we pick holes in it and try to find something else even more brilliant.

When something is good, we tell ourselves that it sucks and that we shouldn’t appreciate it as much as we should.

There are hundreds of good examples of this. The most famous, in my book, is Led Zeppelin, easily the most timeless and gifted band of the 70’s, who the world decided it hated because they couldn’t stand to hear Stairway to Heaven another time. It’s what happened to Final Fantasy VII: Aeris dying was the most profound moment in video games, possibly ever, so we decided to tear it apart, decrying Cloud as a crybaby and Aeris’ death as a stupid incident of polygon on polygon violence.

Recently, we did it with Bioshock, a game of huge narrative importance, by slamming its narrative’s delivery through audio logs for not being immersive enough, and its Save/Kill mechanic for not being weighty enough. The most brilliant game of the decade, and we shat on it until it fell beneath other, lesser games. We did the same to Mass Effect 2 for not allowing you to play a full spectrum of character types, for having a solveable suicide mision. We slam Grand Theft Auto 4 for being dissonant despite having one of the best narratives of revenge in any medium.

In other words, we hate success. We hate that which is good because we can never be satisfied. And now we’re doing it again, with Portal 2.
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My Experiences With Portal 2’s Co-Op

It was almost impossible for me not to get excited over the release of Portal 2. After all, it was the follow up to one of the most acclaimed games of the last decade. Portal itself wasn’t really even a full game– it was a short proof of concept from Valve that happened to take off.  The sequel couldn’t afford to be just a Portal clone, it was going to contain far more mechanics and even a Co-Op mode. The idea of going through all of these mind-bending puzzles with a buddy seemed like a refreshing idea to add to the series.

With all of this in mind, I was ready for Co-Op. I came home to my pre-loaded Steam copy of Portal 2. I summoned up a Steam friend, and we dove right into it. After doing a short test to get ourselves acquainted with the new protagonists, Atlas and P-Body, and the concept of both having portals, we were placed into “The Hub”. There are 5 sets of test chambers in total, all accessed via this “Hub” (a kind of virtual lobby, where a screen displays small stats and tidbits about your game on a large screen). Sometimes getting to each set of test chambers is like a micro puzzle, requiring you to place a few portals, but never anything remotely challenging. Here, you are free to go back and repeat any test that you have already completed, at your leisure. We then got started on the real tests.

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Valve swearing off single player?

Well this is the saddest thing I’ve heard all day. Apparently Gabe Newell, in Geoff Keighley’s Final Days of Portal 2 app, says that “Portal 2 will probably be Valve’s last game with an isolated single-player experience.”

Which would be unbelievably disappointing. It’s not like I just wrote an article lamenting how Valve hadn’t released a single player narrative experience for years or anything, and it’s not like we have an article forthcoming about Portal 2’s multiplayer’s lack of narrative or anything like that.

This is honestly depressing news. It’s like Michael Jordan quitting basketball to be a scrub at baseball. Why would one of the most prominent, talented developers of single player experiences go to developing multiplayer ones? Oh, right, because of piracy.

Really, it’s dreadful news. And it’s coming on the heels of news that Bioware wants to make Mass Effect into a shitty MMO. It’s like all the best developers of narrative in video games are going off and trying to make more multiplayer shooters, which I can’t be the only person in the world to have no interest in. It’s really awful when you think about it. There’s no upside here: I want Half Life 3, not Team Fortress 3 or Left 4 Dead 3 or Counterstrike 3. I want video games to do something new and unique, and not just become fast paced, interactive versions of chess.

Portal 2 and Imagination

For those of you keeping score, Valve have not released a narrative based game since October 10th, 2007.

That’s four years. Four years of co-op multiplayer shooters and hats and no Half Life. This has been a great disservice to the gaming world, because Half Life 2 is one of the pinnacles of video game storytelling. Other games have stories, while Half Life 2 told one in ways that so few titles are capable of.

Coincidentally, on the same day as Valve released the most recent bit of Half Life 2, they also released Portal. Portal was a proof of concept wrapped up in a polished meme-worthy package. It was, in its own way, narrative brilliance: it was a masters’ class in making gamers care about inanimate objects in the game world, in letting the player affect his or her own salvation, in providing a compelling villain. It had all the things other games lacked, and it came without the trappings of an overbearing mythology no one cared about.

It also created about a half dozen memes that have stuck with us until today, so there’s that, too. We often forget the quality game behind the memes when we talk about Portal; I was lucky enough to be the first person in my group of friends to beat Portal, so I remember Still Alive as a charming, fantastic ending rather than a cloying thing referenced to death by everyone and their brothers. I know GlaDOS as a villain instead of as someone who’s voice you imitate when you’re being evil or as a line of quotations. I have a homemade companion cube that was made before it became a fetishistic object of desire.

What I’m saying is that Portal was a fantastic game in its own right, and that Portal 2 builds admirably on that, in ways which video games have rarely touched before.

(And now the cavalcade of spoilers. If you have not played Portal 2, this is one of those situations where it’s really, really, really a good idea to go in as unspoiled as possible. More than other games, it needs that. So if you’ve not beaten it, stop here, bookmark this page, and come back later, when you’ve beaten it yourself. If you want a mini review, it is a great game that is the best video games have to offer.)
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Portal 2 box art emphasizes co-op

I remain skeptical about the prospects of a game that was brilliant as a brief downloadable title (and Orange Box pack-in) extended into a full $60 retail release. Valve is obviously not known for releasing bad games, so I feel safe purchasing it, but it will be interesting to see whether all of the added content improves or detracts from the original experience.

Chell and GLaDOS are back, with new puzzle mechanics that I’ve seen referenced, but–like Tom talked about yesterday–I’ve been avoiding a lot of the coverage.

Given the repetitiveness inherent in the rebuilding of the Aperture Science facility (rather than transferring the game into a brand-new environment), a lot of Portal 2 will come down to the separate co-op mode. It adds new story which I’ve been avoiding in the trailers. More importantly, adding a co-op partner allows new devilry in puzzle design which I’ll gladly start tackling in April 20th.

If this cover art is truly “it”, it makes a lot of sense. Rather than put Chell on the cover (which would be awkward for a game where she’s revealed only through Portals), Valve is putting the co-op robot characters in the featured spot. Plus, 2-player co-op plays on the “2” in the title. Marketing people love that.