Tuesday, August 12

Aperture Science

"This is cake," my brother Hans exclaims, completely oblivious of the irony of his statement. Watching my brothers and friends play Portal is like, well, maybe the cake isn't a lie after all. Interested in player-learning, I put a number of my family and friends through GLadDOS's test chambers. As their first game since the days of Ikari Warriors, Portal was an anomaly, a universe unexplored. And like GLadDOS, I was a passive observer. No clues. No hints. Just the players finding their way. Aperture Science isn't the real analyst of the Portal gun, we are. Portal is player-teaching, player self-learning, player-everything. Portal is Aperture Science. And Aperture Science is teaching players how to teach themselves.

"I got to go through a chute and there's cake at the end," my brother Noah surmises, looking at one the test chambers' helpful diagrams. Also playing Portal for the first time, Noah is learning all about Portal's and guns and suspicious wall-mounted cameras. "I love how you run into this and it makes sound. . . .I never use my strafe button. It's a lot of fun. . . . . This is amazing! I'm totally in another world." We're fairly jaded as core gamers. A good example, we take it for granted that we are actually playing as someone. "I can see myself," my friend Mike exclaims, "I'm a girl." For Noah, this realization comes in waves. "Hey! there's a person". And later, "It's me." he pauses to make sure, "It's totally me cause she does everything I do." Hans is more critically observant. "That body runs weird." Hans is an exercise physiologist.Learning is about trial and error, and so is Portal. At the 2008 Nordic Game Jam, Jonathan Blow discussed conveyance, or how a game teaches players how to play. Conveyance, Blow says, is when "you start to make inferences about the game world and how it works." Aperture Science. During his presentation, Blow looked at a number of indie games, discussing at one point Rod Humble's The Marriage:
So you start playing this game, and you've just got a mouse cursor, and you move it around, and you notice that things react to where you put the cursor. And you start to understand the patterns. And then you start to interpret the patterns . . . You really understand what he was trying to say simply through this process of conveyance.
Blow is discussing a seamless conveyance. A far cry from the established tutorial, seamless conveyance is experiential learning. Play and learn. Learn and play. For experiential learning, Portal's test chambers are a pristine model. Seamless conveyance, experiential learning, aperture science: they all refer to the same thing. It is creating a guideline for player learning, for player self-teaching.Earlier today my nephew Foust was playing with a Batman action figure. "What does he do?" he asked. I answered, "whatever you want him to." Foust proceeded to fly Batman around as if he were Superman. Players are looking for boundaries. They want to know what they can do and what they cannot. It's up to us to show them. In Portal, players teach themselves these rules, exploring the limits of the Portal gun. But if we let players run rampid, they might become frustrated and confused. The success of Portal is its test chambers. The test chambers are specifically designed to allow players to teach themselves the game's mechanics. Portal travel, cubes, prolonged exposure to buttons, the game's mechanics are numerous. But the game plays simpler than we imagine because its rules are presented so smoothly. Learning them is natural, challenging, and fun.

introduction of challenge.As a matter of fact, this is a good time to mention the interdependence of these concepts. Challenge is fun. Challenge engages players' minds, forces them to think, to reason, to use logic. The lack of challenge means easy gameplay, which means boring gameplay, because the minds of our players aren't working. We want the mental cogs to be spinning. On the flip-side, however, if the challenge exceeds the player's present skills, then it's like throwing a monkey wrench into the player's mental cogs: the game is too hard, the mind cannot process everything being presented. But challenge remains for only so long. Something difficult, when learned, becomes second-hand nature. And this is where flow comes in. Mathematically, one challenge looks like an inverse U curve. Easy, then the challenge comes, then easy again once the challenge is mastered. Flow equals a constant upward curve of Challenge. This achievement requires a continuousClosely related to this is something called M+1. This comes from a developer commentary in a level of Sly Cooper (hands-down one of the best games ever). M in this equation is a skill, challenge, or obstacle, and the +1 refers to the amplification of that challenge. This found all over Sly Cooper, but in this particular level, M+1 meant dodging a series of lasers which became continuously more and more complex. This continuous amplification of challenge assures player flow, as the player's skills are continuously both learned and tested. In lamens, we need to maintain challenge and flow while teaching players new mechanics, obstacles, and skills in order to create a continuity of fun. How about some more algebra. If the answer is always Fun, then what is the question?Portal teaches players incrementally. If you pay close attention, you'll notice that a mechanic is introduced in one level then reapplied two or three levels later. Level 7, for example, is just like level 6, but opposite and combined with the skills from level 3. In reality, there is no formula. Valve simply devoted themselves to intense play-testing and reiterated their levels probably hundreds of times to create a smooth flow for players.

It was very interesting when this failed. Will struggled during a level when he inadvertently skipped the learning of an essential skill earlier on. In level 9, the "impossible" level, players generally shoot a portal through the hole in the wall then walk through the fixed orange portal behind them with cube in tow. Will, however solved the puzzle by walking through the energy field, and shooting a portal on that side of the wall creating a link between the two rooms without using the hole. Surprisingly, this innovation hurt him when level 11 came around, the level where players retrieve the orange portal gun. In level 11, players are required to quickly shoot a portal through the door near the ceiling after opening it with a button. At least twenty minutes went by before Will figured this out. He failed to learn this skill two levels previous.
In my observations, players were learning all of the time, sometimes blatantly so. While playing level 10, Noah exclaimed: "Oh! you can make portals in the floor. Oh! that's what they just showed me on the picture." Level 14: "Lines show you a door is over there!" and when he solved the puzzle: "I figured it out. I'd forgot about my power fling." Level 16: "This is a hard level. It's a new element." But perhaps most revelatory, Noah said in Level 7: "Can't I just use the skills I already learned?"

My friend Will is a longtime console gamer, but this was basically his first PC game. Like Noah, he frequently verbalized his thought-process (NSFW): "You cant do anything with black tiles. They suck balls." Level 9: "You just have to put it right through that conveniently box-shaped hole," (making mistakes is learning, too).In the same presentation as above, at the Nordic Game Jam, Jonathon Blow discusses a game called Mr. Heart Loves You Very Much, a graphically-simple, avatar-based puzzle game. This game, like Portal and The Marriage, teaches players how to play through gameplay.
And so these aren't really puzzles yet, right? Despite the fact that they're not challenging, they're interesting to the player. Because I'm seeing new things. I'm learning new things as I proceed through the game. So it doesn't have to be challenging yet, even though its a puzzle game.....that's all the game mechanics. It showed you each one, one at a time, and then it shows you how to combine them together, all in something that's not hard to figure out...It should be intuitive but also compelling. I play so many games where they have a really boring tutorial at the beginning. And I'm like 'Ah! I just want to skip through this and get to the real thing.' That was the real thing, but it was also teaching me about it.
The most difficult level in Portal, and most critical to understanding the game, is unquestionably level 3. Players need to know two things. One of these things they have already taught themselves: go through blue portal makes come out orange portal. The other skill, however, is not so obvious: you can walk through orange portals, and, doing so will take you to blue ones. Sounds obvious, I know. But that's because we've already played the game. It took one android subject at least fifteen minutes to solve this. Up until this point, we always traveled through blue portals, never orange. Its almost subliminal.

Confusing description? About Mr. Heart Loves You Very Much, Blow makes another, very revelatory statement: "I don't even know if I would have understood that if he tried to explain it in words. But in gameplay its so simple. You touch the wall and it moves."

Portal has a guideline structure. Players walk a path of self-learning. But the path is not entirely scripted, there is room for diversion and play, for players to have a little breathing room during their learning. Players assume a distinct gameplay style in the test chambers. In fact, Portal acted as an outlet for players to express themselves however they pleased. Noah was curious, inquisitive, and excited about everything in Portal, like in real life. For Mike, the test chambers were like a playground; Mike was playful with his new Portal gun-toy and was most interested in exploring its limitations and the limitations of the world around him. Also like in real life. Mike was actually an interesting player to watch simply because he is really, really intelligent. Honestly, Portal was too easy for Mike; he solved every level instantly. After creating infinite loops with a wall camera, Mike finally sighed, "I guess I should go to the next level." This statement is indicative of so much. To Mike, Portal was not challenging. Mike wasn't interested in performing something he knew he could achieve. Mike was more interested in discovering other things about the game, like infinite loops (shame on you Mike coughjavacough), and how far he has to fall to die, and how portals do not affect momentum. Will was quite the opposite. Like usual, he just wanted to swear a lot in frustration. "Portal? Portal can sucka my balls."
Aperture Science is players teaching themselves how to use a set of tools. Aperture Science is a guideline by which players teach themselves skills. But aperture science isn't directly applicable to every game. I would argue the opposite, in fact. Portal's aperture science, as with The Marriage and Mr. Heart Loves You Very Much, functions well because the entire game was designed alongside the teaching style. Good game design requires synergy. Aperture Science cannot be shoehorned into every game we make. A teaching system, like any aspect of game design, must work with other aspects of the game, harmoniously. I played part-way through Call of Duty 4 recently, and even it began with a fairly short tutorial level. But its tutorial was fun, a training session. It worked for the game.

Like many other gameplay systems, aperture science is just another example of a tutorial system. But its a system that works well when implemented correctly. Portal is a fun game. Portal offers a constant stream of new challenges and puzzles for players to solve. Players are always having fun because the challenge flows parallel to their competence.

Aperture Science
ap-er-cher sahy-uhns
1. The learning of new skills.
2. The process by which new skills are taught to players.
3. A guideline for players to teach themselves gameplay skills, restrictions, limitations, and boundaries.

Synonyms: conveyance, player-learning

images from Valve and Rod Humble.
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  1. Hah, yeah, I saw an article in Wired about that.