Arbitrary Criteria Game Review: Portal is as delicious as cake

What a great time to be a gamer. It seems like there is no end in sight to that steady stream of excellent games. We already got Bioshock, Halo 3, the Orange Box, Guitar Hero III, and we're waiting for Rock Band, Mass Effect, all before Christmas. What we lack is time to play them all.

This is one that won't take too long. So I'm seeing this through our arbitrary prism of Seven Deadly Sins of Game Design...

  1. Checkpoints: the game automatically saves whenever you do something significant. Essentially, you never need to worry about saving. But you can if you want. Anytime. Perfect.
  2. Boss fights: there is one, and it's fun and balanced enough that you can reasonably beat it on your first try (I did). Perfect.
  3. Mini-games: there are none. Portal is a game that knows exactly what it is about, and it doesn't waste time diverging from what it does best. Perfect.
  4. Cut scenes and dialogues: Portal is a talkative game, and the text is wonderfully funny in a dark, random way. That doesn't break the rhythm of the game in any way, it just happens as you play. In that sense, the storytelling (and surprisingly there is storytelling in this game) is even less obtrusive than in Bioshock. Perfect.
  5. Reload times: the time you spend in elevators between levels could be shorter, but reload times are perfectly reasonable. Plus, you don't need to reload that often.
  6. Camera: you own it. No problem here.
  7. Control scheme: it's the usual FPS dual stick scheme, plus one button to jump, a choice of pressing a stick or a button to crouch and the triggers to project a hole of either color (blue or orange). Couldn't be simpler, each button has at most one function and it doesn't insist on using them all. Perfect.

So here it is, it's perfect. Buy it.

Seriously, this game is outrageously fun and clever at the same time. It will create fireworks in your brain. You'll have a big grin on your face the whole time you're playing it. The level design is exquisite, there is a unique atmosphere and personality to the game and of course it relies on an extremely original idea, which is this portal gun that can connect two places with a pair of portals no matter how far away from each other and enable instantaneous travel. This was originally a independent student's project (Narbacular Drop, free to download) that was bought by Valve to become part of the Half-Life universe. And one can see while playing the game how Portal is just an opening. The possibilities are endless. The first thing that comes to mind is how well this could work in a FPS like Half-Life. This portal gun may well be the new gravity gun, only even better and a lot more mind-bending (in addition to being space-bending).

Sure, it only lasts two to three hours, but three hours you'll never forget.

Just in case you don't know, Portal is part of the Orange Box.


Plastic X-plorer paint job

The guitar Harmonix chose for the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II is not exactly my favorite guitar. The Gibson X-plorer just reminds me too much of german hard-rockers from the eighties... and mullets. Harmonix' plastic rendition of the guitar doesn't look any better than the original of course, and white doesn't help. I've seen things at Toys'R'Us that look less toy-like. I can't do much about the shape but seeing that I had already done a red paint job on my faceplate a while ago, I thought that at least the color had to change.

Here's what it looks like now:

Red Xplorer guitar

So how do you make one of these then? Well, here's how. First, here's what you'll need:

What you'll need

  1. A respirator. Don't even think about doing that job without one. That paint is really dangerous stuff, don't mess with it. A respirator will cost you less than replacement lungs, and it will make the spraying comfortable, with no nasty odor or aftertaste... Don't use a dust mask, those are for dust, not chemicals. Use a proper respirator. Also, do that in a well-ventilated place. Follow the safety instructions on the paint cans.
  2. Not just any plastic paint. What you need is this kind, which gets into the plastic and changes its color. Instead of adding a layer of color, it chemically reacts with the plastic and colors it in the mass. Once it's dry, it has the same texture as the original surface, is not sticky and doesn't peel. But it's really toxic, so again, you need #1. The paint is easily found at arts and craft shops such as Jo-Ann.
  3. Latex gloves. And working clothes. You'll get paint on them, so don't wear your best suit for that.
  4. A small Phillips screwdriver is enough for the whole project.
  5. A bunch of brushes if you want to add your personal touch, for paint and varnish. Not necessary if you just want to change the color. For the motto, which is really precise work given how small it is, no brush was fine and precise enough, so I used a small nib.
  6. Some acrylic paint for the personal touch.
  7. Varnish ditto.

And of course, a guitar. Be warned that this is work you should do very carefully. If you screw up, you may well not have a usable or presentable guitar in the end, and your warranty will be voided, so do that at your own risk. Also be warned that the paint takes almost a week to be completely dry so you must be prepared not to play Guitar Hero in the meantime.

The first step is to take apart the guitar completely. This is not very difficult, it's putting it all back together that's more challenging if you don't remember what goes where. So the thing you need to think hard about as you're dismantling the axe is what goes where (especially screws). Take notes and draw schemas if necessary, put all the little screws in separate boxes and try to remember what type of screw goes where. The pictures and instructions below should help.

There are five types of screws in the guitar:

Five types of screws

The black ones are for the case, the silver ones for the inside (circuit boards, triangular plate, etc.). The only thing you don't need to remove is the circuit board that keeps the fret buttons in place. All the rest must be removed (there are just four screws on the strum bar's circuit board -those in the middle as seen on one of the photos below- which should stay in place), after which you should have the three parts to paint (two halves of the case and the triangular face plate):

What to paint

And a mess of cables, circuit boards and plastic pieces like this:

The insides of the guitar

So now it's time to spray the paint on the three white parts of the case.

Start by cleaning the parts carefully. You don't want any dust or hair or anything on the surface, before or after you apply the paint.

Take your time to apply the paint. It takes three layers at least to get a uniform color so make quick, light passes, don't overpaint as you can't sand that stuff afterwards (it's in the mass, not over the plastic). After the first pass, you'll see plenty of white, which is fine. Take care to hold the piece for a while before you set it down, and be super careful while doing so as not to hit or rub against anything. What I've done was to hold the piece from one of the numerous screw tubes on the inside surface (which remains unpainted) and put it down on a table with only the part from which I'm holding not on the table's surface. The idea is to be able to put the part down for drying while not touching the painted surface. When you've done enough passes to have a uniform color, take care of any remaining touch-ups, such as the seams: make sure that no white will still be visible there once you put the guitar back together. You must also know that while the chemical reaction is taking place and until it has fully dried, the plastic will be relatively soft and more vulnerable to any kind of impact or even to your fingernails. The surface will remain a little sticky to the touch for about a week (in my experience) so keep the guitar in a safe place during that time. The stickiness was actually what I used to determine when it was dry. The surface of the guitar feels now exactly like before but it was not the case during that week after painting. Still, it's relatively safe to reassemble the guitar after an hour or so if you take care of avoiding hitting anything.

Here are the parts after the paint has been applied:

The parts after painting

Check out how even the smallest details are still exactly the same, there is no additional layer on top of it, the color is really in the mass:

All details are preserved.

Once everything dried reasonably, it's time to reassemble. Start with the triangular face plate and then move on to the control panel. The three buttons are very easy, but the d-pad requires a little more attention. screw the front and back parts back together, then put the rubbery contact sheet in place:

Control panel reassembling

Once this is done, you can screw back the main circuit board over the control panel buttons:

Main circuit reassembled

It's now time to put the strum bar back in its hole, and then the two plastic parts that will maintain it in place. Don't put any screws yet.

Reassembling the strum bar.

The circuit board will maintain all three parts once the four screws are put back. Check that the strum bar moves normally.

The strum bar circuit reassembled.

The whammy bar can then slide in its place. There's nothing to maintain it in place, it's the case itself that will secure it.

Reassembling the whammy bar.

Secure the extension connector (the one that looks like a network or phone jack).

Slide the headphone connector's small circuit board into the black plastic casing.

Reassembling the headset connector.

Just leave some room to be able to secure both parts against the case and both screw holes.

Headset connector done.

Secure the black wire with the small plastic part with two holes, secure the connector in the case, and then put the neck back and attach it to the case with four screws. Make sure that no wire is over a hole (they could get damaged when you close the case, and as a matter of facts one of the wires on the photo below will have to be moved slightly to the left of the whammy bar). Just inspect the whole thing, it should look something like this:

Done with the inside.

You can now close the neck and secure it closed:

Closing the neck.

It's time to close the case. Don't forget the strap's button that gets secured between the top and bottom of the case. Note that the photo below makes it pretty clear where you need screws.

Time to put the final screws back.

And we're almost done...

Time to apply the personal touch.

All that remains to be applied is the personal touch. Choose a place out of the way, to prevent your Guitar Hero routine from wearing out your work over time (if I redid this, I would write slightly to the right to get it out of the way). I used acrylic paint over the triangular faceplate and then varnish over it. If you wonder about the rougher look of this part of the guitar, I have to admit I screwed up here. I accidentally dropped the part right after painting it. So I just chose to roughen it up and give it this look using a soft cloth Dremel tool and redo it. In the end, I quite like it.

Ceci n'est pas une guitare. Je ne suis pas un héros.

I chose to write "Ceci n'est pas une guitare. Je ne suis pas un héros" in an obvious reference to Magritte's Treachery of Images and of course to make it super-clear that yes, I know this is not a real guitar. It means "This is not a guitar. I'm not a hero."

As a final note I'd like to acknowledge that the inspiration for this work came from Alcaron's Noir 360 project (a black controller that he did way before the Elite).


Is Bioshock perfect game design?


This being out of the way, let me explain why (just in case you haven't read one of the million reviews that already say so). Some time ago, I wrote a blog post with my good friend Fabien Royer about what we consider to be the seven deadly sins of modern game design. We pointed out that even great games such as Gears of War or Oblivion always had at least one of these flaws. So how does Bioshock measure up against those (arbitrary) criteria?

  1. Checkpoints: Bioshock has checkpoints, but they're not your (big) daddy's old checkpoints. They are non-destructive checkpoints. They don't affect your progression, they just respawn you at some specific point. This is absolutely brilliant as it never punishes the player for trying something new. In this game, you'll never have to redo the same boss fight a thousand times because you died a millisecond before the boss: the damage you inflicted persists even if you die. It all plays beautifully as the game's difficulty is very well-balanced (if a little on the easy side, even on the maximum difficulty level). While it's true that you could take down a Big Daddy with just the wrench if you're patient enough, it will take forever and you won't have as much fun as if you waited for him to step into gasoline and set him on fire after tricking security turrets into attacking him. I love how they put the responsibility of how fun the game is in the hands of the gamer: the game is just as fun as you make it.
    Oh, and on top of that, you can save whenever you want.
    So, yes, perfect and innovative checkpoint system. Bioshock, one point and a half for brilliant innovation.
  2. Boss fights: see above. Thanks to the brilliant checkpoint system, there is no boss that you have to fight more than once. You may die several times in the process of defeating him, but you don't have to redo the same thing over and over again. The great game mechanics also encourage the player to try a different approach if they fail: bosses don't have a single weak point, they are just stronger or weaker for different types of attacks, and there is always a large number of ways to kill them. Bioshock, one more point.
  3. Mini-games: ouch, Bioshock almost lost a point here. There *is* a mini-game (hacking) and like most mini-games, it's disconnected from the main gameplay and not much fun at all. But it redeems itself by being entirely optional. If you don't like it, you have plenty of options to get the same results: you can buy your way around it, you can use an auto-hack tool that you built or found in the game or you can just do something else entirely and not attempt the hack (destroying the security device, paying full-price in vending machines, etc.). So, well, half a point here.
  4. Cut-scenes and dialogue: the narration in Bioshock is absolutely brilliant both in contents and form. You learn about the background plot by finding recordings as in-game objects. These recordings play while you can continue playing so they never disrupt the rhythm of the game. There are also a few cut-scenes during which you can look around a la Half-Life, so it's not full interactivity but they are at least very well-integrated into the game. I never felt the urge to skip them so I don't even know if it's possible, but that's a good point: you don't want to skip them. And you don't have to watch them more than once because again of the brilliant checkpoint system. One point.
  5. Reload times: the loading times in Bioshock are not especially short nor especially long, but again, the checkpoint system makes it so you won't have to endure them except when going to a new level or reloading a saved game (which you'll almost never do). So nothing exceptional here, but the generally great design of the gameplay makes it a minor inconvenience. One point.
  6. Camera: it's an FPS, so you are and manage your own camera. One point. Oh, but wait, your senses in Bioshock actually go well beyond sight. The audio and noise localization is the best I've seen in any game. You'll usually hear the enemies before you see them, which really creates an incredibly immersive experience. You need 5:1 to enjoy the game at its full potential by the way. One point and a half.
  7. Control scheme: it's ok. I've inadvertently injected myself EVE more than once because of some button overloading but it's nothing terrible. Half a point.

So all in all, where are we? Seven point! We have perfection! OK, I cheated a little and gave more than one point here, less than one there. But that's actually how this game is: it is so brilliantly put together that everything fits and the very few minor weaknesses it may have are made completely irrelevant by other design decisions. The checkpoint system is an example of a very simple innovation that is much farther reaching than it may appear at first.

This game is pure joy, it is art, and if you're old enough (it is also very violent, be warned) you'd do yourself and the industry a great favor by buying it. This game must be a hit because we want many others to imitate it...


Seven deadly sins of game design

There are a few very obvious game design flaws that for some reason still commonly get perpetuated today. They're especially infuriating when found in otherwise good games. The only explanation I could find was artificial lifetime enhancement, which is a bad idea because it can in reality dramatically shorten the lifetime of the game since many gamers just won't want to finish it. Which also means that they won't buy the sequel either.

Here's my list of sins, with a few arbitrarily and subjectively selected saints and sinners for each of them...

  1. Checkpoints
    No matter how great your level design is, no-one wants to play the same thing 50 times (except in Guitar Hero of course). Checkpoints made sense on consoles when memory units were small. Today, they are unacceptable if they are more than 10 meters apart. They're made even worse if going back to a checkpoint means watching the same unskippable cut-scene for the umpteenth time (Gears of War, I'm looking at you). Let us save whenever we want or even better, save all the time.
    Saints: Viva Piñata, Oblivion
    Sinners: Ninety Nine Nights, Gears of War, Crackdown, Rainbow Six Vegas and almost any Mario game
  2. Infuriating boss fights
    Boss fights are alright if they can be done. The idea should be to find the weak point, exploit it a few times, have fun doing it and get going. Once again, doing the same thing 50 times is the opposite of fun. Malus points if you need some magical object that you may not have found yet, or if the boss fight lasts twenty minutes.
    Saints: Most Zelda games
    Sinners: Kameo (I had no trouble myself but I know too many people who struggled endlessly with that water boss because they didn't find and didn't know they needed the regeneration orb), Tomb Raider Legend, Ninety Nine Nights, Condemned
  3. Mini-games
    The game I put in the disc tray is the game I want to play, not some lame mini-game. Why do so many RPGs insist on breaking their own gameplay? If I wanted to play mini-games, I'd pop Rayman or Warioware in (not Fuzion Frenzy 2 or Wii Play, avoid those at all cost).
    Saints: Any game that stays true to its own gameplay
    Sinners: Jade Empire, Fable, Oblivion (for the lockpicking and persuasion), Condemned (for the mentally-challenged forensics), Splinter Cell: Double Agent (a timed Sudoku puzzle in an infiltration game? WTF?)
  4. Unskippable cut-scenes and dialogue
    I'm all in favor of storytelling, and the dialogues contribute to a good immersion. But once I've seen them, I want them out of the way.
    Saints: Most Zelda games
    Sinners: most Japanese games, Lego Star Wars (in story mode), some portions of Gears of War (preceding direction choices) and some Rainbow Six Vegas cutscenes
  5. Long reload times
    I can understand some loading times, especially seeing the complexity of modern games, but when reloading the level you just played takes 20 seconds or more, there's a big problem, especially in conjunction with sins 1 and 2. Why do they have to reload the level entirely? Can't they just reset it? Please? Alternatively, game designers, don't make us have to reload the same level over and over again. When you spend more time reloading than playing is when you're most likely to drop the game.
    Saints: GRAW, Rainbow Six Vegas
    Sinners: Condemned, Tomb Raider Legend, Gears of War
  6. Bad camera
    Have you ever seen yourself instinctively (and pathetically) stretching your neck to try to see beyond the border of the screen because the camera can't be controlled and doesn't look where you want to aim? Just let us move the camera from your automatic angle when we need to.
    Saints: GRAW, Rainbow Six Vegas, Oblivion
    Sinners: Gears of War, any 3D Sonic game
  7. Control schemes designed for mutants
    Modern controllers have so many buttons you could control a nuclear plant with them. That doesn't mean that every single button should be used by all games, up to the click on the sticks. Games should be simple to handle, and the buttons should fall naturally under the fingers. The pad should feel like an extension of the body, not some alien device. Overloading buttons with multiple functions depending on the context or how long you press them is just bad design. Simplify your control scheme instead.
    Saints: Guitar Hero (that's what I call a perfect controller with absolutely natural controls)
    Sinners: Gears of War, Rainbow Six Vegas, GRAW

What are the things you can't stand in modern games?

This post was written with my good friend and fellow gamer Fabien Royer (a.k.a. Gh0st D4wg).

Follow-up: Is Bioshock perfect game design?


The Wiimote doesn't work...

... for anything else than aiming and frantically moving up and down. In other words, slow movements aimed at the screen work well, as do fast, imprecise movements, but anything else is impractical.

But let's move back a little: why am I saying that? Well, it's been a few months since I've bought the Wii. I admit I was skeptical of the Wii-remote at first but revised my judgement once I tried the system at a few friends' houses. I've been a loyal Nintendo customer for years: I've owned every portable system from the first GameBoy to the DS light, as well as a few of their regular consoles. I don't even know how many versions of Mario Kart I've bought. The reason I'm saying all that is to assure you that I'm not partial *against* Nintendo. Call it tough love if you want. Anyways.

I've owned the Wii for a few months now and I've really tried hard to love it. And I do most of the time. What really sold me the console was the Golf part of Wii Sports. Even though the game is incredibly shallow (only nine holes and 3 clubs), it promised a lot. For the first time, a video game system seemed to allow for the possiblity of a golf simulator. Not just a game, but something that feels and operates like the real thing. Wii Sports isn't quite there though: slice and hook are determined randomly if you hit the ball too hard, and it doesn't really follow your moves but really is based only on timing (do any movement in any direction at the right speed and it will just work the same, as my 3-years-old daughter quickly dicovered). But it definitely felt like the potential was immense. So I got up at 5 in the morning and waited in front of Target in the cold hours of a Sunday morning to get the system.

The first golf game I tried was a very bitter disappointment: Super Swing Golf has an absolutely incomprehensible control scheme. You actually need to press a button at the top of your swing. Why, why, why would they break the game like this? Shouldn't the remote just detect that you stopped going up and started going down? At the time I just blamed Tecmo and thought I would just wait for Tiger Woods. I was pretty confident that if someone could get it right, it would be EA. Unfortunately, I later understood that Tecmo wasn't to blame for the clunky controls. The wiimote was.

When I finally got my hands on Tiger Woods, at first everything just seemed peachy. I was (completely) missing a lot of shots but I thought it was just me learning the game. So I tried and tried, and as I gained experience it became very clear that the number of missed shots was not going down. It also became very clear what was responsible for them. The shot would just go before I was done lifting the remote. The wiimote seems to be incapable of reliably detecting the change of direction. The fact that it points away from the the sensor bar at that moment probably doesn't help. In any case it pretty much explains why Tecmo felt you had to press a button to tell the system you were done raising your arm.

The putting has similar issues, again because the remote isn't directed at the sensor bar. The club doesn't move with the remote. It just starts to move as soon as you press B. Like in Wii Sports, it's really only based on timing, not on the way you move.

Finally, to slice or hook, you need to add a different move to the end of your swing, which is untirely unnatural and doesn't exist in real golf where these effects are caused by the angle with which you hit the ball. But of course the wiimote can't detect such subtle movements in the middle of a fast trajectory such as a swing.

It should be clear by now that there is a whole class of moves that the wiimote is very bad at detecting. The problem is that those are the ones that are necessary for most sports simulations, a type of game the Wii looked the most promising for. I'm really afraid that there will never be a good golf (and maybe tennis) simulation on this system.

The Wii remote definitely works for aiming at the screen (but a mouse would be much more efficient). It also works for frantic, imprecise movements. That's why Rayman Raving Rabbids works so well. Wii developers will have to work around those constraints one way or another and I'm pretty confident that this industry has enough smart people to figure out how to exploit the system for what works and carefully avoid what doesn't. We'll see great (non-mini) games for the Wii after a while, just like we did for the DS. I just doubt golf can be one of those...