As far as tutorials go I think that Portal and Portal 2, when pulled apart, can be considered as somewhat of a tutorial game; if there is such a term.
Whilst I have had a lot more experience with the Portal series then of my other posts on video games, this will go into detail, so buckle up, this post will dive into the gritty detail.
Without the intention of offending those who are avid fans of the game, myself included, it wasn’t until I revisited the world of Aperture Science in Portal 2, that I discovered what made this game so very understandable; it is essentially one tutorial after another. Do not miss quote me when I say this, but when you observe each chapter in its own respective segments, each segment serves its purpose in either building on the skills you previously acquired or teaching you new concepts that will be of use later within the game – essentially a tutorial.
What I like most about the Portal series is its simplistic complexity. By that I mean, the simplistic style (aesthetic) level design (predominantly Portal) met by complex puzzle design. While some may argue that the puzzles in the Portal series are perhaps simple and easy to solve, the intricate nature of how you must utilise each of the newly acquired skills albeit dual portals, physics bound surfaces (coloured paint substances) and springboards just to name a few, provide the foundations of extended engagement.
Now into the detail! [potential spoiler alert…beware]
Introduction to Portal 2
So you start out in a room, your room? The consensus says yes.
Being in a foreign environment, more so for those who have not played Portal, the experience can be somewhat daunting, but what I found to be most successful was with the way player controls are delivered to you. It was not a simple “to do ‘x’ push ‘y’ ” – it was incorporated into the story, it was part of the narrative that introduced you to the story and the world that is Portal 2.
It is made apparent very early on when you are asked to reply back to a question from Wheatley, that you cannot talk. When you are prompted with the “talk” by pressing the “space” key, it results in a jump. This informs the player that the only interaction that you are going to have with characters is that of a physical/motor nature
Now, why is this so important?
As I have mentioned in previous posts, you need to create a meaningful experience, and what better way to do that as an integrated part of the narrative?
An example of how Portal 2 displays user controls.
Not only do you learn the basic movement controls, you also experience through that of purpose, not a dictation. After a quick transition to a generous amount of years later, this style of tutorial introduction to movement controls continues until there is nothing left of what was once your room.
A familiar face, Wheatley greets you after your long slumber now in what seems to be an aged version of the room you were previously exposed to.
Through casual chat, Wheatley outlines objectives that you need to undertake….”find a gun that makes holes”. This casual interaction really aids in establishing that user-inclusive narrative participation; it is a lot better then “you need to find a portal gun so we can get out of here…”
Location of the “gun that makes holes” (a.k.a the Portal Gun)
When you successfully complete each objective you get met, similarly to that in Deus Ex, with quick and direct positive reinforcement. “That’s the spirit!”
Keeping positive reinforcement short and to the point allows progression to maintain its momentum and to give you the encouragement to continue.
Each (tutorial) level builds on what you learned in the previous and with unobtrusive signs on the wall at the beginning of each level, it is indicative very early on through semiotics on what you will expect from the level ahead.
Examples of how each level indicate through progression on what tasks are going to be required within the level.
Reiterating again about the reuse of previous puzzles this goes a long way in reinforcing the same skills in different context. If anything, I believe that this is the best way to demonstrate how something works effectively. When you have say a button that needs an object (i.e. a cube) to be placed on it in order to activate it, placing the button in an environment where there is a few more steps to get the aforementioned cube successfully onto the button causes you to look at the problem from a different perspective; important because in order to understand complex puzzles you need to be able to adapt previously learned skills into the new environment or scenario.
In terms of puzzles, color, whilst there are few dominant colors (blue, orange, gray, red) provide clear indications on whether tasks are successfully done.
The colour change from blue to yellow is an obvious and clear indicator of when something is successful.
As you progress, the challenges develop more. You master a single mechanic, such as the single portal aspect of the gun in one level, where that is the sole focus, you then get introduced to using it with cubes and lasers and then ultimately you are exposed to dual portal abilities. With each new complexity added, puzzles become more intricate and as a result, the levels become extended.
As you come to the conclusion of the basic tutorials (in Chapter 1) you are met by “her”…or as formally known in Portal – GLaDOS. This is where the comfort blanket that is Wheatley is removed (well destroyed) leaving you to feel vulnerable.
Not to fear! Everything that you have used in the previous levels will be of use again, but this time with the addition of more mechanics such as the “Thermal discouragement beam”. “The Cold Reboot” of which Chapter 2 is appropriately titled is reinforced with the negative and harsh comments made by GLaDOS, which is on opposite ends of the spectrum compared to that of the warm-hearted Wheatley.
Lastly (mainly because this is where I finished playing) your original companion (from Portal) – the Companion Cube, makes a star cameo appearance. Your joy and delight of seeing it alive are quickly destroyed with GLaDOS causing it to combust in front of your very eyes with the pleasure of GLaDOS tormenting you. Needless to say, it sparks a fire within the player to continue and push through; appropriate when you can see the goal, know the way around it is just a matter of pulling it all together. Perhaps this is the potential of games in education, creating a similar character to the companion cube that you interact with throughout your academic years, establishing familiarity and a connection and then cold-heartedly causing it to combust into a pile of ashes in front of your eyes. I knew in myself I could finish the puzzle, but to prove it to GLaDOS that you are willing to persist despite her comical degrading comments, is what drives you through an extremely engaging and enjoyable experience.
Learning needs to be fun and it needs to be meaningful in order for you to really care about it enough to continue. Just because something is enjoyable, despite what critics are willing to asset does not mean that you cannot gain knowledge from it.
Overall Portal 2 successfully demonstrates through its gameplay/tutorials:
- Meaningful gameplay, your actions relate to what is happening within the narrative of the game.
- The segmented approach to each of the levels which are constructed into chapters, allows you to establish your skills and develop them as you are presented with various puzzles increasing in complexity.
- Each skill that you learn you will use and need to use later on in puzzles. There is no skill that becomes redundant or substituted for another.
- Portal 2 aesthetics are well orchestrated in the way that they establish the atmosphere extremely well but the level design is confined and structured so that you are more focused on the objective – that is the puzzle.
- Whilst the level design is confined to that of the testing chamber, you don’t feel too restricted, the levels are big enough to allow you to wander and still feel a sense of exploration.
- Adding onto the previous point, everything has an integral part of the game and narrative. This allows for a more meaningful connection to be established with characters (i.e. Wheatley, GLaDOS) and events (i.e. destruction of Wheatley and the Companion Cube) that occur throughout gameplay.
Portal 2 structures the levels within chapters to utilize game mechanics that have been taught to you. The levels are not designed then game mechanic puzzle systems are added, the levels are designed based on the game mechanics and the way in which they need to be utilized in order to solve the puzzles.
I know for a fact when I did physics in high school, even though I had the passion for learning it, it would have been so much more motivating to learn about light, refraction, and reflection, if my homework looked like this.