This week, Digital Lore Compendium examines puzzle-making in the Portal 2 test chamber editor. Richard Hayden ends up smashing his Rubik’s Cube
I’m an editor. I know this because it says so on my business card. So, the Portal 2 test chamber editor ought to be a doddle to a man of my skills, right? Wrong.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Steam Workshop but most of the best uses of that feature seem enormously complex to create and, to be honest, a bit intimidating to a beginner like me. For instance, I absolutely love that people are creating entire new story chapters in Skyrim but the idea of replicating that level of work and ambition tends to frighten me off.
But the Portal 2 test chamber editor is a smaller beast, a concept contained in a single room. Or, at least, it seems like that to start with.
First of all, to be clear, this is the Steam Workshop version of the editor we’re talking about here, not the extraordinarily flexible Hammer toolset used by seasoned Portal 2 level designers. That’s not to degrade the quality of the Workshop. Far from it: its restrictions come from its accessibility and that’s the reason I’m here.
So, newly invigorated and quietly confident of my ace puzzling abilities, I popped open the editor to be faced with a 3D representation of a basic test chamber; a simple boxlike room with an entrance, an exit and the inevitable observation window from which those craven Aperture Science boffins can balefully gaze.
On closer inspection, I noticed that the room was divided up into square tiles, which can be individually selected or highlighted as group (in 2D or 3D, with a bit of care). Walls can be pushed back and even altered to change the basic shape of the room away from the default box. Another simple keystroke can change tiles from being coated in portal paint to plain black and then back again.
But what about all the puzzle stuff? The fizzlers, the goo, the cubes, the buttons and the tractor beams?
Don’t worry, they’re all here. Just drag out a tray of all the items and drop them on a tile, where context-specific menus can be accessed through a right-click. Honestly, you can learn all the tools in less than two minutes.
But where to start?
And here’s the really difficult part and it has nothing to do with the Portal 2 editor and everything to do with the P2R editor sat before it. Designing puzzles is hard. Really hard.
This is because working through logic from start to finish is not as easy as working backwards from the finish to the start. Basically, it is usually easier to solve a puzzle than it is to create one. Or, at least, to create one that will challenge someone.
My first attempt at creating a test chamber (brilliantly titled Alpha Test) could not be described as challenging. More like, inept. Initially, I got carried away and threw everything into it. It had tractor beams, flingers, lasers, fizzlers, buttons, cubes, pressure pads and a goo pit. No expense spared.
However, after a few test runs it became clear that one of the buttons wasn’t really doing anything; I removed it and the puzzle still worked. Then I realised the flinger was just window dressing because I’d left portal paint on every surface. I removed that, too.
I was left with a test chamber that worked but looked like it had been designed by one of those spiders the army forcefed LSD in the 60s. A mess, basically.
That’s okay, I told myself. I’m just warming up. I bet even Gabe Newell’s first attempt looked a bit shoddy. So, I started again with a bit more resolve. Bravo Test (the genius naming technique continued) still received a pile of testing goodies but this time I plotted it out in a (figurative) line, creating each stage of the puzzle in order and testing it before moving on.
Clearly, the lessons of Alpha Test had been learned and, as with most things, more experience began to bring better results.
Okay, Bravo Test is hardly likely to rocket up the Steam Workshop charts but it works and it plays out more interestingly than Alpha Test did. It looks better, too.
So, basically, what I’m saying is Charlie Test will knock it out of the park. I’ll let you know when it’s done.
• If you want a laugh, you can find Richard’s Portal 2 maps in Jick_Hambleton’s workshop on Steam.