Here’s one of our favourite origin stories in video game history: way back in the mid-eighties, designer Will Wright created a level editor to help with the development of his top-down shoot-’em-up, Raid on Bungeling Bay. Discovering that the process of constructing level layouts was more absorbing than the shooter itself, he kept refining his level editor until it became a standalone game – the seminal SimCity. We mention this not just because there’s a distinct construction theme running through this edition of Wireframe, but because platform puzzler Portal Mortal had a similar genesis.
In 2012, Finnish indie developer IsmoLaitela (not his real name) was working on a completely different game called Circuit Confusion, which involved rotating circuits to control the flow of electricity. Like Will Wright years earlier, IsmoLaitela created a level editor to speed up the construction of puzzles, only for it to gradually build into an entirely new game with a life of its own. “It soon became so much larger that I just scrapped the original project,” IsmoLaitela tells us.
Portal Mortal’s title provides a clue as to what it’s all about: think of a 2D take on Valve’s Portal, but with the snappy speed and repeated gory deaths of Super Meat Boy, and you’re getting close to the essence of its platforming action. Like Portal’s Chell, your alien-looking character is armed with a gun capable of zapping them to different locations – firing at one wall with the left mouse button will create an entrance; firing at another wall with a click of the right button will forge an exit. Canny use of this ability will allow you to traverse the assorted barriers and traps IsmoLaitela has set out for you, and while the game’s flat, side-on view might leave you thinking it’s easier to get to grips with than Portal’s mind-boggling spatial puzzles, the sheer number of spikes, deadly lasers, and spinning blades mean that death is seldom too far away. Even the earlier stages require some pretty deft uses of tricks like flinging, and it isn’t uncommon for backgrounds to become covered in blood as you repeatedly mess up your attempts to reach the exit.
A game made in IsmoLaitela’s spare time over the past seven-or-so years, Portal Mortal was built in GameMaker Studio 2, and getting something as important as its physics and handling just right has, he admits, taken quite a while. “I’m still not sure if I’m completely happy about them,” he says, candidly. “The player has full control over their character: they stop almost instantly after letting go of the ‘up’ key, and have full air control – unless they’re being flung from a portal. There have been plenty of issues with this, and at one point, fixing one [mechanic] seemed to break another one. But nowadays everything seems to work rather nicely, even though I think there’s still at least one bad underlying bug. I’m not sure if I’ll ever manage to get it fully fixed.”
Super portal maker
Fittingly for a game that began as a level editor, Portal Mortal itself is open and hugely editable: players can not only create their own stage layouts, but also add their own sprites, audio, and sound effects. There’s even a multiplayer mode – another inclusion that’s provided IsmoLaitela with a design challenge, particularly as he’s had to fit development on the game around his other work. “I do code as my day job, mostly back-end stuff, but that’s in a different field,” he tells us. “I think this may actually be a good thing, since writing back-end stuff for Portal Mortal feels like working and has been not-so-motivating. Because I work whenever I want, I sometimes just open GameMaker and do nothing, and some days I spend a couple of hours writing code for a new feature or whatnot. So far I’ve managed to fit it nicely in-between sleeping, working, gaming, and marriage.”
Although Portal Mortal is currently free to download, IsmoLaitela also has plans for a commercial release on Steam, with ports to Linux and Mac. Until then, he’s still refining things like menus and gamepad support – fiddly jobs that, he admits, he’s had to muster the energy to finish up. “It’s not that they were too complex, but rather the lack of motivation I feel towards them. Luckily, my artist keeps on pumping out new graphics, so it gives me a bit of motivation to push forwards with these things!”
You can download Portal Mortal for free at portalmortal.net.
”I’ve never used paper to scribble things,” IsmoLaitela says when we ask him what his process is for designing levels. “I just boot up the game, throw in some blocks, and see what happens from thereon. The process of creating levels is so easy, and as I can test my ideas right away, I don’t see the need for an extra step.”
As for balancing difficulty, IsmoLaitela says he doesn’t think there are any “overly complex or over-the-top impossible puzzles” in Portal Mortal – apart from one. Called Trauma, the level was essentially designed by several players in one online session. “Builders could see us in edit mode trying to solve their puzzle, so they were able to adjust changes instantly on the go, and ask us to go over specific parts again until they were completely satisfied.”
The resulting design, IsmoLaitela suggests, was swear-inducingly tough. “It was a fun thing to do,” he says, “but the level itself can go [have fun with] itself due to its difficulty curve.”