Perpetual Testing Initiative

No, this one isn’t about school, though our state is certainly fond of standardized tests right now. Rather, it’s about the next step in Dante’s Portal journey, which is fully underway. Having solved Portal, then Portal 2, and finally the co-op levels in Portal 2, it appeared that there were no more Portal levels to solve.

Not so! Valve, the makers of the Portal games, enhanced the game after it was released with something called the Perpetual Testing Initiative. What’s that mean? Well, the conceit of the Portal games is that the player is being tested, by a company named Aperture, in the name of Science, with a capital S. Each test is more difficult and deadly than the last, and finally at the end the player character breaks out of the testing facility, into something like freedom. Thus end the tests. But the story behind the PeTI (as the Perpetual Testing Initiative is affectionately known) is that Aperture discovers a way of leveraging the multiverse, tricking an infinite number of Apertures in parallel universes into creating new test chambers.

What is this, really? It’s a level editor! In other words, a puzzle maker’s toolkit, allowing users to create their very own levels, and publish them on the Internet. This has resulted in two very cool things. First, there’s an endless stream of new Portal puzzles to solve, and a rating system in the publication mechanism makes it easy to find good ones. Second, and even cooler, Dante can have endless fun designing crazy levels for the game. Dante has loved game level editors for years, and the PeTI is the most awesome level editor he’s ever used.

So now he splits his portal time between playing levels other people have made, and making new environments for he and I and his babysitter Rhianna to play in. He’s gotten quite skilled at solving Portal puzzles, but my observation is that making new puzzles isn’t his primary interest in the creator. Rather, what he loves most is novelty. He spent some time trying out every possible element in the puzzle editor, and configuring them in the various ways they can be configured.

Screenshot of the Perpetual Testing Initiative editor interface, showing Dante's "Whee" level.

Once he had squeezed all the juice out of that, he went looking for more, since the editor doesn’t contain all the elements that show up in the game itself. As you might expect, there’s a Portal 2 modding community, and it’s still pretty active even though the game is several years old. That community has put together some packages which add a whole lot of new elements to the PeTI, and which allow the designer to select from a whole bunch of different “palettes”, essentially themed sets of skins for the various elements. It’s a candy store, though some of it is pretty experimental candy, that may not taste the way it should.

There are a number of pieces in the biggest, most recent package, which just don’t work quite the way they should. Dante’s attempts to troubleshoot those have led us from PeTI to the Hammer editor, which is the tool that Valve developers themselves use to create levels, objects, and scripts in the game engine. This is the deep end of the pool, definitely. Still, thanks to some helpful tutorials, we’ve managed to scrape through a few steps, manipulating maps in Hammer, testing the changes, and then iterating through that cycle until we burn out. We’re still a long way from fixing the broken pieces, but we’re learning an awful lot in the process.

Meanwhile, Dante keeps making maps. Here are a few examples:

  • Wheeee! – A level in which he cleverly strung together a series of flipped staircases, to make a long slide from the entrance door to the exit door.
  • Turrets!!!!!1 – In which you plummet past row after row of automatic turrets, only to land on springy plates that make you fly back in front of them. (The trick is to make portals that let you slip behind the turrets and disable them.)
  • Faith In Plates – In which those springy plates are spread out all over the room, bouncing you from one to the next.

…and lots of others. Many of his levels aren’t meant so much to provide a fun experience for a player, but rather to let him play with all the nifty toys in the toybox, finding out what they do and what their limits are. Still, there’s a kooky pleasure to playing through one of his nutso levels. Occasionally he’ll fetch me so I can experience his latest wacky creation — tonight it was the slide one. It’s great fun to see him putting these environments together, and I love it that Valve and the hobbyist community have made such a robust and fascinating tool for doing so.

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