Monday, June 18, 2012

Everything is More Horrible in Texas

So it's been about a week since I stepped off the plane to begin my banishment here in the corn capital of the world. Yes...Texas.

Seriously, I've put off writing this post for so long because I have trouble putting into words just how bizarre this place is. I'm serious. It's not like just being in another state. It's like another state of mind, another country; for what it's worth I might very well be on a different planet.

Sure, everyone knows that people from Texas love their precious state, it's kind of taken for granted. But it's impossible to really understand how much they love this state without actually being here and seeing the insanity firsthand. Everyone has the ubiquitous Lone Star above their front door. Everyone. Plus, the Texas flag is absolutely everywhere too, more than the American flag by a large margin. Remember how in Half-Life 2 the Combine would plaster their planet-in-claw symbol on everything they owned? It's like that, everything here has the star on it to remind you that this is TEXAS.

It gets worse.

See, I'm from California so I'm used to rolling hills and dramatic landscapes. I'm most at home at the sea and the vinyards of our noble wine country. There is none of that here. Really, there is no way to prepare oneself for how flat this state is. I swear, on a clear day I can see New Mexico if I focus on the horizon. The geometrically perfect flatness is, dare I say, harrowing.

And it's hot, relentlessly so. There's a constant cloud cover that acts like a giant meteorological oven, baking any poor lifeforms trapped underneath it. To step outside is to be suffocated by the thick, murky air and to be roasted by the intense glaring heat. There's very little shade here, since practically all the land is occupied by corn. Seriously, there is corn everywhere. In every single direction I look there's just more corn.

But there's always the internet, right? I can always escape this desert island in the sea of corn and plunge into the waiting arms of TVTropes, right?

Wrong. Since we're out in the country we can only be connected to the internet for about an hour each day. This land is so desolate that it resists connection like a white blood cell resisting the cold. This post has actually taken two whole days to write just because I never have enough time to finish it, especially since I have to share this ancient laptop with three other people.

I'm serious, I might die out here. If I keep living like this it'll do me in. The only solace I have is that Mother bought me a tiny USB salt lamp yesterday. They're like regular lamps except they're blocks of salt. Apparently, when it's turned on it emits "negative ions". Details are vague but apparently it's supposed to cure cancer or something, it magics away disease. We got it at some hippy surplus store so I'm not to confident in it's abilities to cure me of my chronic sorrow.

That's all for now. Just in case this post seems more incoherent than usual it's because, again, I can only be on here for an hour at a time or less, so proof-reading isn't feasible.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Incapable of Thinking With Portals

High Anxiety is finally done and on the Workshop to play, so that's good. By virtue of being a Portal map it didn't take as long to make as a more detail-intensive Half-Life map, about a month to finish from initial planning to publishing. All in all I think I might make another one soon, now that I'm introduced to the style I feel a little more confident in trying more unconventional puzzle designs.

But there's no getting around it, this whole exercise was definitely a pain. First of all, I had no idea how to make a test chamber when I started this project. That's not to say that one can expect to have a concept for a test in their head and expect to transcribe it to map perfectly. I was just so jarred by the experience; I built and scrapped three whole maps until I settled on a shape that looked good, with a dozen or more puzzles that didn't make the cut either.

After the dust settled and I was left with something I could show in the daylight only one step was left: getting it on the Workshop.

Bizarrely, there's almost no instructions anywhere for how to publish a map like this. There aren't any instructions anywhere on the Steam website explaining how it's done. It's almost like they've tried to actively exclude Hammer-made maps from the Workshop which is weird because when this update was announced they specifically said that Hammer maps could be uploaded just as easily.

After a long search I found some instructions from the Thinking With Portals website, hidden on a page that isn't linked to anywhere on the homepage. Why they would try to hide this is beyond me. At least I found a video that helped explain more clearly what I was supposed to do.

Honestly, I don't like using func_instances. This has more to do with me being a stick in the mud than anything else, but I like building all my testing elements with scratch and not relying on pre-made templates. I'm sure plenty of other people have found a use for them. No doubt they save a bunch of time for larger, more complex maps; but I like knowing that I built everything myself, even if it comes at a terrible, time-consuming cost.

But we must remember that this little project was merely an experiment. Now that we know the rules of Portal maps, we can break them more efficiently and make more psychedelic tests as a result. But as it stands there are certain laws we must abide by:
  • No timed puzzles: I've been playing a lot of custom maps recently and for some reason they all have arbitrary time limits on them, forcing the player to frantically run across the map and solve the test as quickly as they can so that when they're done they're a stressed-out wreck. To me, timers are just an easy way of increasing a test's difficulty without actually making a difficult test. Instead of challenging the player to overcome functional fixedness, they just rely on speed and muscle memory. This isn't to say that timed puzzles are inherently bad, they're just very hard to do well and newer mappers rely on them too much to artificially inflate a map's difficulty. Either way I probably won't be using them unless I have a good reason for it.
  • No Gel: I don't have any profound reason why I won't use any mobility gels. I just don't want to, that's about it.
  • No linked_portal_doors: It hurts to say this, but these world portals aren't the 24 hour party I was hoping they would be. For one, their draw distance is absolutely puny. This means that if the player is looking at one from far enough away it looks like a blank white rectangle. The only way to fix this is to crank the game's graphical settings as high as it can go and most computers just can't handle that stress. Plus most people just don't like world portals. Critics on forums have poopooed the idea, saying that one can't violate the player's intuition and have a good test at the same time, others have said that they will outright refuse to play a map if it has non-euclidean geometry.
This comes as a huge disappointment to me. Here I was, thinking people would jump on the chance to fool around with impossibly-shaped maps, but it turns out the market for it is much much smaller then I thought. I forget that the majority of people just get frustrated and give up if their surroundings are sufficiently four-dimensional. There's no point in hiding my disappointment in these kinds of people. Shame on them.

But as it stands, the linked_portal_door has very real problems unrelated to these feeble minds. For one, if too many of these entities are in the same place and the player can see them all at the same time, they run the risk of some manner of recursive portal-viewing that floods the console with error messages, not a pretty sight by any means. So, because of general bugginess and general resistance to 4-D shenanigans, I must abandon my plans for the linked_portal_door...

...mostly. No one can deny me my triangles.

Oh yes, I'll be visiting Mother in Texas for the next month and a half starting Tuesday. So in case none of you hear from me for a while it's safe to assume that I'm dead. Or I can't get to the internet.

Or maybe both.

Monday, June 4, 2012

REALLY Not Thinking With Portals

I'm just going to admit it; I don't like the linked_portal_door as much as I thought I would. Granted, it's pretty easy to use and the possibilities it opens up are completely insane but it's also very buggy and looks terrible at lower graphical settings.

The entity has a much shorter draw distance than I thought. From far away it looks like a bright white rectangle, completely ruining the illusion. I've looked on forums and apparently there's no solution. Either I have to use these doors in much smaller rooms or accept that people that don't have shader quality ramped up to High are going to think I'm an incompetent rube.

The map proper is almost done; all the vital testing elements are in their place and all that's left is some sprucing up to do. But honestly, I'm not happy. This minor fiasco with the world portals has left a bad taste in my mouth. Now that I know how temperamental they are I don't think I'll be working with them again. If I make another Portal map it won't have any mind-boggling geometry. A sad state of affairs to be sure.

In the meantime, here's some things from the evidence bin:

There's no point in hiding it: Frankenturrets are my favorite testing element.

Getting fancy at the Bath and Body Works.

Strangely enough, the walls were the most complicated part about building this room.