For Science: An Experiment in Random Portal 2 Co-Op

Hypothesis:
Portal 2’s co-operative campaign is the worst possible game to play with the Xbox LIVE randoms, including games that involve watching an ‘Attempting to connect to other players’ bar load indefinitely because no-one else is playing.

Testing Method:
Playing as many games with strangers as possible within a one-hour time period.

Disclaimer:
Attempting to play Portal 2 with strangers is not recommended, by Valve, common sense, or anyone in possession of common sense. Players are warned before entering a co-op game with randoms that they should turn back and play with friends. However, a system of gestures and tags have been included within the game mechanics to give a fighting chance to those brave enough to attempt it.

 

Test Subject #001

Gamertag: [censored]
Country: UK
Gamerscore: 9,240g
Using microphone/headset: Negative
Additional Notes: Majority of gamerscore achieved through playing each major Halo release. Few other games played except brief flirtations with either AAA titles or games aimed at children.

Initial testing with this subject was not positive as subject was initially confused by the genre of game and attempted to frag me with the portal gun numerous times. Subject refused to leave hub area and, on realising that the gun did not shoot bullets, started commiting suicide by jumping off the main platform. Subject continued to commit suicide after each respawn for multiple minutes until the game ended due to me quitting to the title screen.

Dawning sense of realisation about how painful the next hour was going to be occurred during this testing.

 

Test Subject #002

Gamertag: [censored]
Country: UK
Gamerscore: 2,700g
Using microphone/headset: Negative
Additional Notes: Majority of gamerscore achieved through playing each major Halo release. Few other games played except brief flirtations with either AAA titles or games aimed at children. Subject appears to be a fan of melancholy post-grunge band Three Days Grace, or is possibly a serial killer and the quotage of ‘Get Out Alive’ lyrics in their bio is a tragic coincidence.

Subject initially appeared receptive to co-operative gameplay, however attempts to leave the hub area and start a level proved futile as the subject disconnected at the last minute. Current theory as to the motivation for this action is that the subject was demonstrating reasoning and intellect by quitting after seeing how much effort it took to get us both into the same room to begin the first level. Subject may have inferred that doing an actual test chamber would be multiple times harder and abandoned at this point. This theory was also backed up by monitoring the subject’s subsequent activities, as they were seen playing Portal 2’s single-player campaign minutes later.

 

Test Subject #003

Gamertag: [censored]
Country: USA
Gamerscore: 2,970g
Using microphone/headset: Negative
Additional Notes: Majority of gamerscore achieved through playing each major Halo release. Few other games played except brief flirtations with either AAA titles or games aimed at children.

This test subject was the third in a row to have a low gamerscore, supporting the theory that the only people who would consider playing Portal 2 with randoms are people who have limited knowledge of gaming and Xbox LIVE in general. However, this test subject showed considerably higher ability than his predecessors as we managed to successfully leave the hub area and attempt a test chamber.

Subject used tags and gestures well, and responded to them well in turn. Lack of microphone usage was frustrating, as the subject did not realise that walking through forcefields erases portals, extending the time taken to complete the first chamber by an estimated 20 minutes. Subject expressed signs of frustration when I refused to follow his tags (as I had the puzzle figured out and knew what he was planning and that it wouldn’t work because forcefields erase portals), however ultimately the first chamber was completed. Subject demonstrated numerous slapstick events which caused humour, such as smashing headfirst into a wall. It should be noted that much of the humour derived from the quality of the animation in these instances, and that the fiction of the world including dialogue is more relevant and funny when the co-operative partners are regularly failing and injuring themselves or each other.

Multiple test chambers were completed, with both team members eventually becoming proficient in communicating complex suggestions and instructions using tags. After a few chambers, the lack of microphone wasn’t a problem and communicating through the tagging system became a game in and of itself, with its own sense of satisfaction when effective communication was achieved.

Test came to an end when the subject failed to pick up a companion cube in mid-air after numerous attempts. I suspect they weren’t pressing ‘x’. I was unfortunately unable to swap places with them and collect the companion cube myself because the subject was confused by the necessary portals he would need to place in order for that to happen, and after some time spent failing, he decided to quit the game.

 

Test Subject #004

Gamertag: [censored]
Country: Russia
Gamerscore: 11,820g
Using microphone/headset: Negative
Additional Notes: Majority of gamerscore achieved through playing each major Halo release. Few other games played except brief flirtations with either AAA titles or entries in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, in which the subject has consistently high gamerscore.

Subject demonstrated an immediate and unremitting passion for violent gestures from the commencement of testing, which was a troubling sign. Although being repeatedly subjected to the same ‘beheading’ gesture in the hub world brought back memories of babysitting young children who are obsessed with playing the same meaningless short game over and over again, I did achieve a roflcopter whilst staring intently at a puzzle and trying to figure it out when the subject snuck up on me and kicked me in the balls. This was presumably making use of the stealth skills learned through many hours of Assassin’s Creed.

Subject demonstrated proficiency at the game mechanics, but a stubborn play style not befitting co-operative gaming. They regularly used tags to communicate instructions to me, but were unwilling to pay any attention to any of my tags, preferring to pretend I wasn’t there and play through themselves until they eventually figured out what I had been telling them all along and tagged it for me to do instead.

Eventually a small measure of mutual respect was established after I had proved myself to be at their level, after which point the subject did occasionally place trust in my tags, although generally after trying it out for themselves to check that I wasn’t being stupid.

Although quick progress was made due to a solid understanding of game mechanics from both contributors, ultimately the session ended before the conclusion of the testing. The subject repeatedly tagged a set of instructions that did not work and was becoming annoying, adding to the frustration by refusing to swap roles so that I could see what they could see and make more sense of what they were trying to say. For the fiftieth time in the last hour, I wished Valve had incorporated a gesture that means ‘Why don’t you just plug your bloody headset in and tell me what you’re trying to say?’

After going round in circles for 20 minutes and suffering through increasingly hostile behaviour from the subject I decided to quit, ending the experiment before it destroyed the last slither of patience I had remaining.

Conclusion:

Valve don’t let you play with strangers without you first acknowledging that it’s extremely unlikely to be any fun, and you should listen to them – they know what they’re talking about and I appreciate their honesty. That I had one decent game out of four is actually fairly positive compared to what I expected.

The tags and gestures system is great. It’s really well-designed, has plenty of flexibility and frankly, without mics it would be nigh-on impossible to play the game without it unless both players knew the chamber off by heart, which would somewhat defy the point. It’s almost certainly a more effective method of communicating than talking over a headset is when it comes to portal placement or other geographical/spatial things, but should be used in conjunction with two talking people, otherwise minor misunderstandings can stretch on for what seems like forever.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t play with anyone with a microphone, but them’s the breaks, and I won’t ever play Portal 2 with strangers again so I guess that ship has sailed. I say this as someone who considers the game a true modern masterpiece and a practically flawless product: it’s probably better to not even bother playing it than it is to attempt a random XBL game. However, I can also confirm that playing with friends, as it was intended, is every bit as awesome as it has the potential to be, as long as you’ve got the right friends.