Level Design of Video Games – Portal, a Game that Teaches

This post examines a classic game which I cannot do justice. Portal speaks for itself when it comes to the excellence of its design. What the game does exceptionally is sequentially teach the player very simple systems and mechanics. Then adds layers of complexity to these systems through the combination of mechanics and level design.

The benefit of analysing Portal is that it is a prime example of how to introduce players to your game. When a player begins the game they are offered a completely safe and confined room with which the player can figure out the basic movement controls. It has interactive elements which you can pick up and drop, and it has a radio which draws the players attention and entices them to look around.

This first area is crucial, it shows the player that the game uses standard FPS controls and allows them to make assumptions about the world they are in based on the objects in the room.

What I found most important in this room is the positioning of the portals when the player is first exposed to them. Portals are the core mechanic of the game and the game is developed to serve the gameplay which is centered around them. When the player sees the first portal open in front of them they notice they can look through and see themselves. There is another portal placed over to their right. This placement immediately shows players how the portals work because they can look through one and see themselves moving on the other side.

Portal3
Looking through one Portal to see the Player

It is crucial that the game allowed players to make this connection. Players have to understand exactly how portals work in this game so they can solve puzzles in creative ways. What the game does after this is slowly feed the players more knowledge about how the portals work, and allow the players to test their understanding in a fail proof environment. As the game progresses and the players understanding is more complete the game provides less hand holding and the player is allowed to use their knowledge to solve levels in creative ways.

This development of understanding is vital to any mechanic within a game, and the more this understanding process can be weaved into the game the more the players are willing to absorb the information. The reasoning for this is that you can have UI on screen showing controls but more often that not players are wanting to skip past that “crap” and get into the game. If the game itself teaches the player how to play then it is all the more effective.

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Momentum between portals

The last point I  would like to talk about is the way Portal explains the science behind the portals. There are some great quotes from GLaDOS one which is a good example of a scientific explanation is:

“Momentum, a function of mass and velocity is conserved between portals. In layman’s terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” – GLaDOS

Quotes in a similar fashion to this one are littered throughout the game and offer some simple scientific explanation behind how the portals work and

“how a portal affects forward momentum, or to be more precise how it does not.” – GLaDOS


To conclude, Portal is an excellent teacher. As well as possibly learning a bit about physics the player is taught exactly how to play the game, by playing the game.

– Battz

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