Thursday, May 3, 2012

Level Design -Portal 2 (side rooms)

I won't focus on the basic puzzle room.  A white box with implements to open and close doors is scary, but not overtly interesting.

I'm talking about the bits and pieces that make up the room. I'm talking about walking into Chamber 16 and seeing the wall propped open by Cubes.  I'm talking about entering the viewing chambers while escaping and finding them completely empty.  I'm talking about the cheerful announcer over the destroyed and rusted rooms.

Specifically, I'm talking about the places in between tests in the middle of Portal 2. (Spoilers)

After Wheatley is corrupted by GLaDOS' harness, he sends Chell and POTaDOS (GLaDOS' mind in a potato battery) down into the sealed off sections of Aperture.  Once they arrive down there, Chell begins to go through the tests in an attempt to get back up to Wheatley since it is very likely he is going to destroy the facility.  As she goes through the old tests, she triggers radio messages.  The messages, along with various "Set Decoration"  help explain Aperture's history. 

When we first arrive, Chell must make her way through unidentifiable ruins.  Railways have fallen down with age, doors have been sealed off, fires burn, and as she makes her way through what appears to be a fallen silo she (and the player) see signs that say "Keep Out".  Clearly, things have not gone well.

As time goes on, we enter into the first segment of the game.  Cave and Caroline (The CEO and his assistant) starts talking, and the areas look very nice... for the fifties.  Awards are displayed (notably, Aperture continually gets second place.  It's hinted they lost to Black Mesa)  the floor is marble, there are some prototypes for computers and the subjects are all heroes who are volunteering for a charity.  It  looks great!  Until you actually get into testing. While it is still maintained reasonably well, Cave is clearly being haphazard with the science... like how he gives his test subjects tumors in order to see what would happen to the tumors.  He also flagrantly ignores normal science procedure by talking about the control group and laughing over how someone got hurt.  It's a good way to set up the dichotomy that is Aperture. 

When we're traveling between the areas we notice some signs.  The sign I wish to bring your attention to is this one.

Apparently, they put anti matter in with Allergens.  They were advanced enough to get antimatter without destroying everything but... they apparently created people who were allergic to it.  Or they could have considered their blowing up to be an allergy.  Either way, some science issues there.

When we go on, Cave Johnson has gotten older, and the company's monetary value has significantly dropped.  Instead of having war heroes do it for charity, they are taking hobos from the street and paying them 60 dollars.  Cave is very obviously dismissive of them.  Most importantly, the chairs have been downgraded to plastic.  They do not have the money to keep it going anymore.  They simply wish to test and go on.  To emphasize, here is a sign seen in the entry and exit rooms:
Finally, we reach the latest testing area. It looks modern, functional, and Cave Johnson is dying. He's more then dying, the company is broke, employees must "Volunteer" for testing, and he seriously campaigns for his and Caroline's brains to be put onto a computer.  The test chambers are purely functional now, and they are blank.  The chambers are so empty it is actually creepy.  When we finish, Cave rants about lemons and we move on. This is the sign of the era:

We see the fall of Aperture in the fate of Caroline (forcibly turned into GLaDOS),  the finances, and the quality of the subjects. It may have experienced a brief resurgence later - they obviously had the money to make GLaDOS and perfect other items- but then GLaDOS was activated and she killed almost every scientist.  The one who did survive- Doug Rattmann- has been hallucinating inside Aperture ever since. 

None of this is ever stated in game.  We can simply tell.  Cave explains a lot of it, but signs about robot bosses contrast heavily with the plush chairs and thanking war heroes for participating in the test.

Valve excels in the subtext. And that is all that is needed to show how a once great company fell. 


  1. Unfortunately, I couldn't read most of the post because I want to avoid spoilers, but I love the Aperture Science "Karla the Complainer" poster about how robots are better bosses. Valve really has a dark sense of humor, but from what I've seen of these games, it works SO WELL!

    1. It works fantastically! I hope you can play them soon. Valve does have a dark sense of humor, but they are very clever about it. "Karla the Complainer" is funny here, but in another game it would be terrifying.