The Portal 2 DLC “Perpetual Testing Initiative” came out about a week ago, featuring – and sometimes it’s easy to forget just how expansive this DLC is, so let’s go in order – seamless integration with Steam Workshop that lets players distribute, download and play custom-designed maps and stories *directly in-game* without having to install any executable packages separately – a simple yet comprehensive tool that allows even the least-experienced of players to create custom chambers easily (albeit obviously a good deal simpler than their custom-designed-in-blender counterparts), and almost an hour’s worth of new dialogue from JK Simmons as Aperture CEO Cave Johnson. That all would have been fine by itself if they had decided to simply make it all fun and non-canon, but rather than just do that, they decided to go the extra mile and make it as simple as possible by giving the DLC in-universe justification – ie, we technically got new plot/story as well (though not exactly comprehensive).
What makes this DLC *so* cool is that, rather than abandoning the already-existing Portal 2 mapping community, Valve has made it possible for custom chambers built in Hammer (or whatever) to be uploaded to the Workshop’s collection as well. They could have just as easily made the entire system just based off of the new level designer Valve built – ie, all chambers are made from it and downloaded, etc – which is what I *thought* was going to happen. It seemed clear that the system they put together seemed to revolve around the new map builder (with it being most relevant to the Cave dialogue, etc) but no, instead they took that extra step and included everybody.
It doesn’t even really break from the story of the DLC – your character, a hapless tester – seems to be jumping from universe to universe. It can be justified that occasionally you jump into a universe where Aperture is in disrepair, or GLaDOS is in charge rather than Cave, etc.
It’s really the “not knowing what to expect next” aspect of this (plus the ridiculous dialogue) that makes the DLC so enjoyable, which almost makes me wish they had included a system whereby it generates a random testing track by downloading a series of random chambers from the workshop, putting it in your queue and setting you off. (And according to Reddit, I am not alone in this desire.) Obviously, being able to pick and choose chambers or sets of chambers is nice, but that ability would really make it feel like a “perpetual testing initiative -” you go home and say “let me try another testing track” and then you just go ahead, always getting something new.
But going back to before, where we talked about the map-builder maps vs. maps built in hammer, I gotta say there is a certain level of disconnect. The map-builder is great, but it’s clear that there are a number of limitations that are preventing it from being as great as it *could* be. Namely, I think the goal should be to, over time of course, narrow that gap between the two kinds of chambers until it is less noticeable. Now I’m not complaining at all, mind – note as I’ve already said that this DLC is awesome and way more than I was expecting from Valve – but I imagine it would be in their best interest to improve the builder over time. Valve has always been one to tweak. If they do, I hope they keep the following things in mind.
I – The builder itself
1. Level Designs – So, I should first say that I don’t actually *care* too much about this one – but as long as we’re talking about narrowing the gap between Hammer and the Editor, this is probably the more obvious one. Again, this actually doesn’t bother me that much – working in those sterile environments is what the Portal world is all about, so the design template being limited to that “normal” style doesn’t bother me that much. But obviously an option to swap between design styles would be pretty cool. At least for the 50s Aperture, anyway – I totally get that creating maps in the “ruined” style is a huge issue because recreating that “haphazard destruction” look would be really difficult to pull off in a simple map creator like this. But maybe just the skins and audio. *shrug*
2. Props – I think anyone who has worked with the level creator has noticed that it seems like there aren’t that many props – only to be shocked by just how much can be done with the props available. For what’s there, it’s actually surprisingly comprehensive collection. That being said, I imagine some folks would be interested in populating their maps with stuff that is there “just for show” – especially if someone is trying to create a “behind the scenes” styled map. Again, that actually doesn’t bother me too much, but there are other implications of this that really do pique my interest – more testing elements.
That is to say, incorporate testing elements that were cut from the game or are not featured as much in the game, or bring old test elements back, and make them available for use in the map maker – just to create as much diversity as possible. Allowing all kinds of different test elements should always keep custom gameplay feeling fresh. Plus, we haven’t seen the high-energy pellet used at all in Portal 2 – I know they essentially replaced it with the laser, but they actually serve very different functions and are used very differently in-context. Plus with all the new gameplay additions in Portal 2, it might be interesting to see how it could work in tandem with newer elements. (Plus, with Portal 2 Valve did a thing where they replaced sfx that were previously borrowed from HL2 and replaced them with new, original sfx. I’d be interested in seeing if they did the same with the pellet.) This includes the pneumatic vents, crushers, perhaps even the cut “futbol” – though I wouldn’t lose any sleep over not seeing it, to be honest.
EDIT: Know what I’ve been realizing is really missing from the editor? Vertical/Horizontal panels. It can move up and/or down, like a victory lift, except it’s a panel, and is therefore portal-able. I’ve found there are many places where this would come in handy, and it’s used *ALL the time* in the actual campaign. There’s a lot of interesting mechanics including this could bring forth, so I hope this gets added, even moreso than some of these other ones.
In general, it’s hard sometimes to get a particular “look” for something when a certain design or prop is only seen in-game. This is particularly noticeable when one tries to recreate existing maps – especially Portal 1 maps (for example, the way floors in pits are slightly grated at the edges – this is seen in the ruined Portal 1 maps as well.) There’s also no doors available other than entrance and exit doors – I think we can agree including some more doors could allow for some fun ideas with sub-rooms, etc. But you’ll find including this is moot without the following bit as well:
3. Finer editing – Or, more specifically, the ability to edit to 1/2 of a unit. When I originally wrote this, I put it on par with some of my thoughts about the music (as you’ll read later) but having played around with it for a week or so more since then, I’m realizing more and more that this can potentially be a serious problem if not addressed.
This is actually a bigger point for me than a lot of the others. It becomes particularly hard to get that exact “look” you want without being able to edit to a slightly finer degree. What I’m talking about is this: The level designer’s 1×1 space is equivalent to the width of two of the vertical wall panels – a lot more space than it looks in the editor. As a result it’s often hard to get stuff to look balanced, and attempting to recreate elements as they appear in game – for instance, areas of space that *look* 3×3 but are actually equivalent to 1.5×1.5 of the map maker’s units, with (for instance) an apparatus vent evenly centered over the space above. That’s not possible to do in-game – you can’t create space of that size, and even if you could, the vent would just sort of awkwardly sit at one corder or the other, since you can’t center it. I think granting players the ability to move/size stuff by half-units could help in this regard, and I can’t imagine this is too much of a stretch nor would it be particularly difficult to implement – then again, I don’t know as I didn’t make the game.
4. RETROACTIVE ADDITION! Test chambers without “building” each time – Having now played around with it for about 2 weeks, I can’t tell you how irritating it is to make an adjustment to a chamber, spend half a minute (to a minute) building the darn thing only to find there’s an unforeseen problem with it. Then you have to go back to the editor, adjust the problem, and spend another lengthly period of time just letting the thing sit there building the map so I can test it. This continues ad infinitum.
Thing is, if all I’m doing is running through to make sure things work, I really don’t need, or want, lighting, detailed textures, background audio, and the like – just the *physics.* If there was a way you could go directly into a simple first-person testing mode using the editor itself, you would save a *lot* of time and irritation. That is to say, “testing” the chamber and “playing” the chamber shouldn’t have to be the same thing. But, the way it’s currently set up, that’s the way it works. This is something that I really hope they consider next time they decide to revisit it, which they have, in fact been doing – a week or so after launching it, they patched it so that when you’re building the chamber, you can see what exactly it’s doing as it progresses. This is much better than staring at a blank, context-less radial symbol, as it gives context to the time you’re spending waiting – but it still doesn’t cut down on that time, and it’s still longer than I think it needs to be, when all you want to do is test a few things out.
II – Audio and Music. (Yeah, this gets its own section, even.)
1. Background Music – players will notice the music in the chambers cycles between different versions of “Robot Waiting Room” from the soundtrack – even giving us a new one in the style of “You are not part of the control group” (to replace, I assume, the version of “Robot Waiting Room” that was *literally* just that track). It’s a cute tune and it works pretty well, but the thing is, it gets repetitive real fast, and it doesn’t always seem to fit with the *feeling* the chamber designer was going for.
So yeah, I think we should have a level of control over the music for the custom chambers – at the very least, the ability to turn it off. I often found playing Portal 1 (and 2) that some of the most interesting chambers were the ones that left me completely to my thoughts and the background noises – even though I really enjoy the music in both.
But I think there should be other options too. There’s a plethora of music in Portal 2 and a lot of it is very very good – it would be really great to have the opportunity to re-purpose some of those tracks. But allowing for custom music could be really great too – naturally there is the risk of teenagers submitting test chambers that play Nickelback in the background (but I think that’s a violation of the Steam Workshop terms *anyway,* so I guess there’s that) – but what I envision this would allow (mostly) is the inclusion of Portal 1 tracks (which I love dearly. I’ve been wanting really badly to see a chamber in the new style but with Portal 1 music. It’s great “just sit back and think” music and fits the atmosphere – Portal 2’s is kickass and everything, but almost too a fault – it’s very sort of “grand and romantic” in its stylings, but there isn’t a whole lot of the “moody background-ness” to it that made Portal 1 feel so interesting), and also original tracks. I’d love to see someone design a testing cycle that they developed completely, down to the music.
2. Testing Element sounds / Interactive Music – One of the first things I noticed when I was playing the DLC was that the testing elements didn’t have their trademark interactiveness to them. I get that this seems difficult to implement given the changing music. But the thing is, since the only music we have available is 5 (or so) different versions of the same track, you’d think it’d have been pretty easy to do.
Actually, the bizarre thing is that the interactive music is there, but it’s not very noticeable. It’s most obvious with the funnels, which hum the same way as they do in-game, but following the chord changes of “Robot Waiting Room” (again, since it’s all the same). There is something there for repulsion gel, the same counterpoint that was designed for the Co-Op lobby. Thing is, it’s kind of subtle (probably not on purpose, but the tones blend into each other such that it’s not ver obvious) so you really don’t notice it unless you really listen for it – which I think defeats the purpose of having it. The main reason it’s subtle is because the counterpoint is in the same range as the melody, while in the game it’s usually about an octave or so higher, which makes it stand out and ring. I’m thinking they should do away with the counterpoint they have for the repulsion gel already and replace it with a more obvious one – because it’s just too dang fun not to do.
But alas, there’s nothing for propulsion gel or, perhaps MOST sadly, the awesome aerial faith plates. The reason I think this is important is because while I would have been fine without it, having played WITH it, it *really* does add a certain aspect to the gameplay that makes it *that* much more fun. Given the additional fact that the current background music IS just variations on the same track, I hope, before they add anything else, that they address this, by making the repulsion gel stuff more obvious as I said earlier, and adding stuff for repulsion gel and the faith plates. Faith plates are already so awesome, but when your trip through the air is accompanied by an awesome techno beat (or whatever) it makes it that much more awesome and thrilling. That being said, I think something subtler would be fine – something akin to the more reserved sounds they make during the campaign’s third act.
That all being said, like with background music in general, it’s not always appropriate! And again, like I said with the background music, there should probably be a way to turn them off as well. But… maybe instead of dealing with it en masse, there’s a more creative way we could go about it. One that would open up even more possibilities.
Perhaps each relevant element should be customizable – you could turn each one on and off individually. But maybe we can go even further! Maybe we could customize each element in terms of what music layers it adds. The obvious ones have always been the gels, the funnel, and the faith plate, but we’ve seen interactivity with the laser receptacles/bouncers (even quite a few that are designed to create music by themselves in tandem WITHOUT a backing track), turrets (killing them), and even cubes. Plus remember that one level where every plate you bounced off of added a *different* layer? So what if for each relevant item, we could choose what musical layer they contribute in-context (including “nothing”).
This could be getting a little far-reaching; really, the ability to turn them on/off is fine, especially if we assume the background music stays as-is. However, assuming we have access to other trakcs, we have other problems to deal with, and the “each item picks its own layer” thing becomes more relevant. Granted we have the ability to choose custom tracks from the game, in order for this to work the game would have to associate tracks that are background tracks WITH relevant sublayers. ie, if you pick a specific track, the testing elements have access to the set of layers designed to go with this track. This means there would have to be some way the game could easily associate a particular track with its sublayers – which I assume isn’t easy to do.
However, if they did figure out a standardized way of doing it, that could further open the door to more user-created content. Imagine someone designing a custom background track, and designing their own layers to go with it too. Talk about creativity. Even designing new layers for tracks that previously didn’t have one could be neat, too. But again, when you get down to it, it would have to be Dependant on what the background track is. There could be some designed to just work in the silence (I’m thinking of a lot of the laser ones), and then with each track selected, the sublayers for that track in particular are added and become options for the testing elements.
Indeed, this got a bit complicated pretty quickly, but I do think it’s important, and what they decide to do with this is intimately linked with what they do for background music – so adjusting one of them is necessarily going to affect the other.
3. Community Dialogue Lines – Or really, the ability to change the announcements at the beginning (or end) of the test in general. At first this might seem a bit contradictory, since the whole DLC focuses on Cave and his craziness – but again, as I mentioned before, since we’re universe-hopping anyway, it doesn’t really matter that much if we plop into a universe where GLaDOS is in charge, etc.
Of course, the important implication of this is that it would allow for players to create custom stories, similar to what many have done so far (those interested should check out the EXCELLENT “12 Angry Tests” set). Again, like in most Valve games there’s PLENTY of unused dialogue just sitting around in the game files that could be taken advantage of (and have been by many, as can be seen in a lot of the Hammer-designed chambers). But again, it would also allow for context-sensitive announcements to be made about chambers, rather than haphazard ones like the default Cave Johnson announcements. Again, not a *huge* concern for me, as the Cave stuff is great, but having that option available could help to level the playing field a bit more between the Hammer folks and the standard folks.
Okay, well, I’ve rambled a lot here – a LOT more than I thought I was going to, believe you me – but I think I’ve brought up some important points about the level editor and how it can be improved. Again my concerns are mostly rooted in a desire to level the playing field between Hammer designers and the rest of us – not just that it seems “unfair” but also because in comparison, the standard chambers begin to look a little lacking or passe.
I personally am most concerned, really, with the music stuff, and finer editing. At the very least I think the conspicuous lack of interactive stuff needs to be addressed, and the background music should be able to be turned off – but again, having other (even custom) tracks available too would be really very great. But again, I’m finding more and more that I really need that half a unit during editing – Valve uses it a LOT in their chambers, if you look at them, and I really think we should be allowed to use the half unit as well.
I think it’s also important to note that, even in levels designed in Hammer, I still haven’t really seen the interactive music stuff pulled off very well – it never sounds quite as “natural” as it does in-game. So hopefully this will give us the ability to actually do that.
Oh, and new music revisions have been posted. I’ll talk more about that in a future post. Sitting on a lot of stuff I’m looking forward to releasing, just waiting for the right time.