When discussing rising stars in the video game industry or the women who have attained game development hall of fame status, it is impossible to overlook Kim Swift. Born in 1983 and a game designer since 2005, Kim’s game designs have made considerable impacts in the industry. During her attendance at DigiPen Institute of Technology, she and her peers designed and created a game called Narbacular Drop, which was promptly discovered by Gabe Newell -- the co-founder and managing director of Valve. Newell was so impressed with the game concept that he hired Kim and her entire team to re-create Narbacular Drop using Valve’s Source engine. As employees of Valve, Kim and her team designed the critically acclaimed Portal.
“[Portal] primarily comprises a series of puzzles that must be solved by teleporting the player’s character and simple objects using ‘the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device’, a device that can create inter-spatial portals between two flat planes.” These portals can be navigated as if they were connected doorways. Entering through one, the player emerges from the other. Portal’s originality of concept and design was universally praised. It has received multiple game of the year awards, several awards for innovation and originality, and in 2012, Time Magazine named it as one of the 100 greatest video games of all time. So what is it about the game that makes it so great?
What makes Kim Swift’s design some of the best in video game history?
“The basic formulas of level design go... When you start out, you want to teach the player how to play. You need to make sure they understand every mechanic of the game. Every level... needs to have some example forcing the player to do something -- in order to beat the level -- that they will need further in the game. Just in case somebody didn’t play that level, a couple levels later... reiterate. [Teach] the player that ‘You can do this.’ Everybody in the world will see a problem and want to solve it. Once you try it yourself, you’ve taught yourself, and not only do you feel smart -- like you’ve figured out something yourself -- You also now, for sure, know how to do that from then on in the game.”
This process -- as illustrated by game designer Edmund McMillan -- is an accurate description of Kim Swift’s level design in Portal. One of the best examples from the game is the “fling” mechanic. In Portal, the portals preserve the player’s momentum as the player passes through them, which -- for a fast moving player -- causes them to be “flung” out of the exiting portal. The level in which this concept is introduced -- Chamber 10 -- is almost insulting simple. As Rock, Paper, Shotgun describes it, “It’s an antepiece, a brief task that exists not to provide challenge in itself but to introduce an idea that will help the player deal with a setpiece that will come soon after it.” In Chamber 12, the player is given control of both the entrance and exit Portal (compared to Chamber 10, when the player only controlled the entrance.) “Chamber 12, then, exists mostly to make you handle both ends of a fling.” Beginning with Chamber 15, the player is introduced to a slightly modified version of the fling. The process is based upon the same idea, but takes it a step further, showing the player, once again, “You can do this.” “Here, if you plop out of the portal on the thrusted panel with zero momentum, you’ll just fall onto the black unportalable floor. That’s why you use the petite fall in the room on the right to get a minor fling – not enough for you to clear the glass barrier, but enough to get you to the white, portalable floor. It is when you’re falling towards that surface that you slap down a portal in front of you, allowing you to chain directly into a second, more powerful forward fling that completes the puzzle.” Throughout the game, mechanics such as the “fling” are introduced through simple puzzles, and then modified further and further into larger and more expansive mechanics, with multiple applications based on the situation. In this way, players are not bombarded with all of the possibilities from the beginning, but learn them along the way as they develop as a player. “Portal forced me to use its own mechanics to see myself and learn who I was playing.”
On top of the sequencing and education of game mechanics, designers must also be wary of the components that make up the mechanic. Too few elements can leave the puzzle wanting, making it easily solvable by the players. Too many elements can confuse the players beyond solvability. It is a delicate balance between what the player has to interact with, and how much activity takes place in their mind. Portal rides this line well, having only a few select environmental objects -- moveable cubes, lasers, enemy robots, etc. -- but varies both their combination and situational layouts to make each interaction with them both familiar and unique.
Another crucial element in the construction of a puzzle game is the dexterity required by the player. Typically, puzzle games require little physical dexterity, as the game is based around mental obstacles rather than physical ones. Portal is non-traditional in that it requires both. Again, this is a question of balance, but one of potential player-base: too little dexterity limits the game to traditional puzzle-gamers and too much dexterity ostracizes them. Kim Swift specifically addressed this in Portal. “Ideally, you want a player to come into a room, take a look, and within 30 seconds to a minute, know what they have to do, and then it’s a matter of executing on it.”
Kim Swift not only creates and evolves these elegant mechanics, but uses them to manipulate the players throughout the game. She says, “Level design is a meta-game for us as designers, to take a look at a space, and we as a designer have a particular mentality of how it’s supposed to be solved, what we want the players to look at, what do we want, where do we want them to go. It is a game for us to see if we have manipulated you the way we wanted to."
While being manipulated by the designer may sound negative, it is this manipulation that leads to excellent gameplay. “It’s leading the player without making them feel like they’re led, because you don’t want to just hit them over the head with the solution – because that’s just like talking down to somebody... But at the same time, you want to be able to steer them in the correct path, so that way, they’re not just sitting there thrashing, trying to figure out where to go or what to do. And so it’s a balance, for sure. You want to add as many environment hints as possible while at the same time not making it stupidly obvious.” These environmental hints were so cleverly designed in Portal that many users weren’t aware they were being led until their second or third playthroughs.
However, designing an excellent game isn’t all about mechanics and leading people through them. You must respect the player and realize that they are people -- in search of an adventure or story or engaging experience. The designer can do their best to craft an excellent game, but in the end, the player is the key to an excellent experience. “You can create the sandbox, and put tools inside of it, but you can’t control how the children play.” “I think it's about, yeah, you're playing into the world the designer made for you, but at the same time you're also creating your own story within this world, as well, just by your actions. I think players should impress themselves onto the game world, and I think it makes it more immersive, and makes it more fun, and I know I do that. At the end of the day, I want to make products that people have a good time with.”
It’s easy to list the qualities of excellent game design. On paper, they seem like variables to be accounted for, a list of steps to be taken whilst creating a game. But those that are not designers often fail to recognize the difficulty of these achievements: the years of study, practice, and execution required to produce a game of excellent quality. Jacque Schrag of Root Beer Float Studio says, “This is something I said at the very beginning of our first sprint - ‘Game Design is Hard’... I’m realizing just how far off the mark I was initially with my assessment of game design... I had never sat down and thought about the basic mechanics of a game... These were elements of a game that a designer actually had to think about, even though, to the player, they might seem completely trivial... I have quickly realized that it does not matter what your theme is or how developed it is, it will not make a successful game if it does not have a corresponding set of successful mechanics behind it.” Many developers, especially at Kim’s age, have had no commercially successful projects at all.
For Kim Swift, the culmination of her years at DigiPen, her original idea with Narbacular Drop, and her brilliance in terms of gameplay mechanics, level design, and player psychology was Portal -- undeniably and near-universally agreed upon as one of the best designed games in video game history.