Developer Commentary

I just finished my second playthrough of Portal 2. It’s astounding how many puzzle solutions can slip your mind in less than forty hours.

I virtually never replay games… which means I virtually never replay games immediately upon completing them. Portal 2 is the first exception in a very, very long time. In fact, the previous exception was the previous Portal. No, this isn’t just a funny coincidence! See, the Portal games do something fairly cool and unique in the world of video games: on replays, you can turn on the developer commentary. Which is to say, you can get some interesting, amusing, thought-provoking and sometimes downright technical insight into the team which put the game together.

My initial knee-jerk was “every game should do this!” And in fact, that’s initially what I rushed off to my blog to say. But now that I’ve started typing it, I don’t think that’s really true. Remember: Portal is the only game that doesn’t do anything wrong. As a result, it’s a treat to listen to its development process, because every iota of it is talking about how to do things right. Could the same really be said for, well, any other game? The list of things Final Fantasy XIII got wrong is long, sordid and ugly. Learning the rationale behind game mechanics like “it’s game over if your party leader dies, and oh also you can’t change your party leader in combat” or “many of your attacks depend on positioning, but there’s no way to directly change your position” cannot teach me anything. The ideas were bad, so the rationale behind them must be bad too. The alternative would be listening to the developer explain why the mechanics were bad but had to be included anyway, which would just be pathetic.

And this is to say nothing of games that are just the developer masturbating furiously. I’m certain the commentary for Metroid: Other M would just be a sad old Japanese man yelling about how much of a genius he is.

So no, I don’t really think every game would benefit from this kind of commentary. Maybe just the games at the pinnacle of their own genres. Portal is certainly the pinnacle of whatever genre you’d care to put it in.

A surprising amount of the commentary deals with how the dev team responded to player feedback. There’s lots of “Players had a hard time figuring out x, so we y.” The end result is like taking a crash course at game design college. It’ll be easy to summarize, because there’s only one lesson: listen to your player feedback. That’s it. If you can do that, you’re going to make a quality game.

Spending so many years in the RPGMaker community, it’s taken me a very, very long time to get my brain turned around the right direction when it comes to player feedback. By and large, people who make games have this narrow, singular vision of what their game is going to be, and any deviation from that is seen as an affront to their ability. I imagine this is true with a lot of game designers, from garage-based indie developers right up to the highest echelons of Capcom and Square-Enix, which is why we see bad design decisions cropping up in virtually every game that ever gets released.

Listening to the Portal staff talk about some of the amazing stuff that had to be cut from the game, from puzzle elements to great story ideas to reams of hilarious dialogue… man. It’s heartbreaking. You can imagine Portal team members getting into shouting matches over some of this stuff. You can imagine the guy who designed that one puzzle fuming about how the playtesters are idiots and that moving the block or the door or whatever would ruin the puzzle and therefore ruin the game. You can imagine things being tweaked, and re-tweaked, then put back, then tweaked a different direction. You can imagine someone coming into the office every day for weeks trying to cram a round tube into a square hole, only to show up one day and be told that neither the tube nor the hole were going to work.

But the results speak for themselves, don’t they? Portal is the only game that doesn’t get anything wrong. There’s a place in the gaming landscape for games that are pretentious, or artistic, or the product of a single mind. There’s a place for games that purposely cater to a very niche market. However, we almost always end up describing these games as being “unpolished”, or “rough around the edges”, or “bad except for that one part”.

But Portal isn’t that game, and that’s why its commentary is so important. If you design games, or think you might want to someday, consider the commentary in Portal and Portal 2 to be required reading. It’s practically a textbook.

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4 comments to Developer Commentary

  • Yeah, I absolutely loved the Valve developer commentary, from Lost Coast to Episode 2 to Portal. The one thing I’ve been hoping they’d add was commentary mode for the original HL2, because it was just so great to be going through the levels and have an opportunity to hear some insight into why things were developed the way they were.

    I beat Portal 2 the other day, and I’ll be replaying it again in a bit with commentary on myself, because I’m looking forward to what they have to say this time.

  • ShifterChaos

    So, I haven’t bought Portal 2 yet. Every one else I know has. Do you think I should?

    Also, how about minecraft?

    (TROLOLOLOLOL)

  • ASandoval

    I want to take this blog entry and brand it on the backs of every myopic game design hobbyist/student who exist in the world.

    Also, I probably need some form of medication for these outburts.

  • EtherealMoon

    The only thing Portal 2 lacked was more commentary from Ellen McLain. The voice actors tend to give just as unique commentary as the developers and artists, similarly with Alyx’s actor in Episode 2.

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