When Valve first announced an in-game level editor would be coming to Portal 2, I was excited. Not because I am the type to ever mess around with such a feature — outside of TimeSplitters 2 I can’t think of an example of a map editor I have ever spent any extended period of time with — but because I’m intrigued to see what sort of test chambers others create. That functionality was already in place for those who are more technologically inclined. Still, the new in-game editor promised it would be “easy-to-use” and allow for levels to be shared with other players. Based on the few hours I’ve spent with the new Perpetual Testing Initiative DLC, both of those promises have been met and, much to my surprise, I now find myself more excited to see what others think of my level than I am to try out others’ creations.
Valve hasn’t included any new test chambers of its own in this release. It has provided more than a simple level editor, though: New Cave Johnson story content is wrapped around the levels players create. Following up on what’s laid out in the trailer above, the beginning of each test chamber features a new clip of the J.K. Simmons-voiced Aperture Science founder talking about alternate dimensions and passing along knowledge his new assistant has shared with him. Just as within Portal 2 proper, nearly everything he says is hilarious, and in GLaDOS’ absence, his comments provide a welcome feeling of cohesion as you make your way through test chambers which otherwise lack any connection with each other.
The level editor is, as advertised, straightforward to get the hang of. To start, you’re presented with a basic room containing nothing more than an entrance and exit which you’re allowed to modify from there. I’m hardly a natural at this sort of thing, and I was able to almost immediately begin manipulating the environment, moving walls around, adding objects and connecting them to one another (like a button to a cube dispenser), and manipulating turrets’ field of vision.
At least at this stage, there are no instructions within the editor itself on how to use it. This was initially off-putting as I hoped to be given some guidance, but it quickly becomes apparent it’s not needed. With very exceptions, everything should be self-explanatory to anyone who has played through Portal 2 and is familiar with all of its elements. A press of the tab key allows you to jump from the editor view to an in-game view, which can be handy when trying to get a better grasp on what the player will see. Unfortunately shifting between views like this doesn’t update the level with any changes you’ve made; no matter how minor the alteration, if you want to see the effect of something you’ve done from the in-game view the level has to “rebuild.” This sticks you back at the beginning and resets everything in the level. This means changes toward the end of a level will require you to run through the entire thing again, and after a while, it can become an annoying chore to have to do so again and again to ensure a small change your make works as intended.
As I said, with this update, I was primarily looking forward to playing others’ levels. I presumed I would only spend enough time in the editor to be able to pass on impressions of how easy I did or did not find it to use. I initially set out to make a simple level that would function — press a button, get a cube, weigh down a button, and you’re done. Yet whenever I completed my goal, I consistently found myself wanting to add just one more layer of complexity to my test chamber. What if, to get the cube, you first have to press another button that drops Propulsion Gel and allows you to reach it? What if I incorporate a laser that needs to be used? What if the exit is open from the start, but a turret guards it which is destroyed once everything else is completed? What if there are five turrets? What if I work in some Repulsion Gel? What about having to transport some of that Propulsion Gel to another part of the level so you can reach the exit once the turrets are destroyed?
By the time I was satisfied with the many additions I had made, I had spent almost three hours perfecting my creation. You could undoubtedly build a level in less time, but if you’re hoping to have much complexity and for things to work as you’d hope, you can expect to pour a serious amount of time into it. That becomes apparent as you begin to search for ways your level can be exploited; all those additional layers I went about implementing are worthless if the player can shoot a portal to the end and circumvent all of the challenges along the way. I chose to cheat to a degree by making it so most of the surfaces in my level could not have portals opened upon then, decreasing the likelihood that I have not found all of the ways someone could make their way through in a manner I did not intend.
Searching for these loopholes may sound like a chore. In fact, it may have been the most fun I had creating my level. I found it challenging to determine how I would go about solving the chamber if I did not know every aspect of the way it functions. But what was even more difficult was forcing myself to look at solutions in different ways; how else might someone approach the challenges I’ve laid out? Whether players could cheat and knock over the turrets I had laid out without dying was a major concern for me, and it was immensely satisfying to identify workable strategies I had not anticipated and come up with ways to prevent them from working.
This has all caused me to have a much deeper appreciation for the thinking that went into the design of Portal and Portal 2. While you can search YouTube and find ways to go about things the game’s designers did not intend, it’s remarkable how they came up with so many different chambers that are comprehensible yet challenging and entertaining.
Once you’ve spent, however, much time creating a chamber, the process for sharing it is incredibly quick. Publishing a level requires little more than a click of a button; you assign a name, provide a description, and specify whether you want it available publicly or only to friends, and it becomes available for download. The Steam Workshop, which allows Steam users to navigate and download content for Team Fortress 2 and Skyrim, is used for distributing levels. It works well, allowing you to look at pictures or video of a level, see comments left by other players and the creator, and queue it up for download. This can be done from a browser, Steam, or in-game (in which case you’ll use Steam’s overlay browser) and, in the case of the latter, levels are brought into the game almost immediately. There does seem to be a bug that requires you subscribe to a map twice in order for it to pop up in-game; it’s a simple problem to work around, and I expect it will be fixed by the time of the official release on May 8, so I’m not concerned about that.
With the ease of downloading levels from the Steam Workshop, this free DLC should provide players with a great incentive to start playing again. The quality of the levels varies wildly at the moment, but once the editor is in the hands of all Portal 2 owners, I expect there to be no shortage of quality content to check out. And, like I was, you might be surprised to discover how satisfying designing a functioning test chamber can be.