Portal is one of the iconic games of our generation, eloquent to learn, intuitive to play and yet extraordinarily difficult at times. In this post, I will be examining Portal’s method of teaching the player the core mechanics of the game and how Portal introduces difficulty through level design. This game is an excellent case study to examine how we perhaps went wrong with our own game’s level design and the ways in which we taught players the game’s mechanics.

Portal began its life as a game called Narbacular Drop. This game, developed by a small student team, showed so much potential that it was quickly picked up by Valve, evolving into the Portal we know today. As one of the developers of Split, I can tell you that level design for puzzle games is hard. We made a lot of mistakes with our first title, similar ones which I was able to see when I played Narbacular Drop. One of the key mistakes that we made was banking on our Level Editor to be released with the game; in a 3 month development time, this is completely not achievable. We ended up designing our levels to showcase a variety of playstyles that players could design for when they begun building their own levels, we did not consider how difficult it would be for players when the playstyles would switch every level or so.

Portal’s approach to level design was astoundingly more profound than ours. They manage to introduce exceedingly complicated ideas without holding the player’s hand. This was something we wanted to achieve but didn’t understand the value of repetition. Rather than putting players in the deep end with a set of instructions, Portal adds layers of complexity and difficulty to the game, slowly introducing players to new ideas and playstyles. To start with all we have is a room, we wake up in and all we need to do is figure out the controls. Once we manage this we are given our first introduction to what a portal is, we see our character and go through our portal. We are treated to more portal interactions out of our control and are finally given our first portal gun. Then we need to pass a few more challenges using the limits of our one-way portal gun. Only after we have proved ourselves with this do we get to start having real fun and making our own portals. The game then starts using the principles of motion and gravity to add an extra layer to our fun game cake – yes, I went there. One of the best used teaching techniques Portal uses is repetition, players are constantly required to repeat similar tasks in different ways.

The game depends highly on the principles of motion, physics and logic, and it is not surprising that this is being used as a teaching tool in some schools. Portal’s ability to teach players the game’s mechanics so well comes from their unique ability to make players never feel like they are being taught anything. This is a core part of any good puzzle design, you equip players with tools and then give them the freedom to figure it out for themselves. It is Portal’s gradual introduction of these tools that a game like Split could use to improve itself, by starting players off with the bare minimum and gradually introducing more complicated ideas to them. It is this repetition where perhaps Split was not as strong, we thought that introducing a new puzzle idea with a similar mechanic would be enough to teach players. While it was never a major problem, I think that the game would have benefited from having multiple levels repeating similar patterns of play.

As a second year game, Split could still be considered success, but we still have a huge amount to learn and Portal is an excellent example of puzzle mechanics taught right. If would be interesting to see what else we could achieve with our own game if we applied these principles. It is also certainly a good lesson to take into our current third year project.



  • Valve Corporation (2007). Portal [Video Game]. Microsoft Windows,Linux, Mac OS X, Playstation, Xbox
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