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10 ways to improve your Test Chambers
By Happy Little Cloud
This guides offers ten rules that will improve the design of your chambers.
The puzzle is not about figuring out, where to go, but figuring out how to get there.
Make the exit visible from the start of the level.
If your puzzle consists of multiple separate rooms, use lighting to show the exit.
If you have multiple stages in one puzzle separate the stages and hint the sequence through the level’s architecture. You can use lighting and height differences, for example.
Don’t let players get stuck
There are two main ways players can get stuck: there is no way out of location or they destroyed an item they needed for the puzzle.
First of all: Never force the player to suicide during your level.
Make sure the player can get out of any location. Place surfaces for portals, use faith plates or similar items.
Always use a cube dropper, since Cubes can be destroyed in unexpected ways. The dropper makes sure there is always a backup.
Show, don’t tell
If you have to provide an explanation during playtesting or require a description to be read your level is too complicated.
If you use a new unusual mechanic, introduce it before you use it in a puzzle.
• Separate this introduction from the main puzzle to make sure that the player sees it first.
Don’t let players die on accident
If a player dies he should know why and not be surprised. So make it obvious which actions get a player killed.
Make sure the player sees the danger before encountering it. For example, don’t place water at the very bottom of a pit so the player can’t see what is inside. Place it so at the top so the danger is obvious.
Never set up traps (for example faith plates that catapult players into doom). If players want to be surprised by sudden death traps they would be playing Dark Souls.
Death should be a punishment for a reckless action by the player. So make sure that there is no doubt an action is dangerous and not intended. An example is making a body of water very wide, so it can’t be possibly jumped.
Don’t let players wonder what that button does
Every button or switch should lead to an action the player knows beforehand.
Make sure to use ant lines to connect the button with the object. Keep the lines short and simple. You can use light sources to influence their shape if necessary.
If you have multiple close panels hooked up to one switch it can be more clearly to only display one line.
If the ant-lines are very long, consider getting the button closer to the action. If this is not possible, keep the action in direct line of sight.
Less is more
Limit the number of items and elements you use in your level. The more elements you have in your chamber, the more possibilities for unintended uses you create.
Keep in mind that each element has certain constraints. For example, when you place blue gel it is good practise to place a cleansing gel dispenser. It helps players to get rid of constantly bouncing cubes.
Make sure each element is introduced.
Place fizzlers as a backup to ensure items stay in the area they are supposed to be used in.
Never ever place items with no use for the actual puzzle. If a player solved the puzzle and an item is left, he will be left wondering what he did wrong.
Use lighting to guide the player
Portal 2 offers some items that emit light. Use them in various ways to guide the player through your chamber.
First of all, always make sure that there is enough lighting in your chambers. Don’t let your players walk around in the dark.
Place light to guide the player. Illuminate important locations and keep less important ones darker.
Use light to guide the view of the player if important areas tend to be overlooked otherwise. It is notoriously hard to make players look upwards, so use light to help you out in that regard.
Reward players if they solved a section of your chamber
Solving large chambers can be tough so make sure players know when they made progress.
Always make sure the player sees that they did something right. Keep in mind that motion attracts attention more than anything else.
Each section of the chamber should offer something new. This could be a new element, a new combination of elements or simply a different light setting.
If a player makes a mistake later in chamber don’t let him start all over from scratch. Use either save points via Beemod or unlock shortcuts so the player can skip finished parts.
Place surfaces for portals with care
Choosing the right amount of surfaces for portals is difficult. Too many and your chamber has many more convoluted solutions, too few and the solution will be obvious.
Don’t make every single surface white. It allows for a lot of unintended shortcuts.
Avoid white surfaces directly above each other. This allows the player to create infinite loop, which might be tough to get out. They also distract you from you puzzle and might even create motion sickness.
Make sure the player can decide where to place portals. A method of doing this is making some surfaces portable that do not lead to a wanted result.
Allow the player a margin of error when placing portals. It can be frustrating if a player can’t solve a puzzle only because he was a couple millimetres off. This holds especially true for players using a controller.
Take in consideration that players might accidentally delete an older portal. Design your map so players do not have to backtrack a long way, when this happens.
Portal is about solving puzzles…
…and not about reactions or timing.
So make sure to place time limitations sparingly and in a forgiving manner. Don’t let a player backtrack too much if he missed a time window.
Don’t include difficult jumps. It might me unclear if a jump with a slim chance of success is intended or not.
Additionally, Portal 2 has a first person perspective so it is difficult to know where exactly the character stands. Neither Chell nor the Robots have feet even if you see from your perspective.