Friday, February 14, 2014

Steam and Portal

I'm not much of a gamer these days. I don't have all that much free time, and what game time I do have is amply covered with Humble Bundle games and Minecraft. Besides, as I use Linux choice has been limited. I play more often on my Android tablet than on my desktop.

I've been vaguely aware that I've missed out on some game-culture touchstones, and that many of them are available on a game service called Steam. That has been available for Linux for a while now, and it was in the news lately when it gave free games to any Ubuntu or Debian developers. So, I thought I'd see what this "steam" thing is all about.

I made an account and downloaded the Linux client (all of which is free) from the Ubuntu repository. The client started, updated itself and let me log in. Very smooth, very painless.

The client itself is made for players in their 20's and 30's. How do I know? The text is grey-on-dark-grey and tiny. You are clearly not supposed to have presbyopia as a gamer. It's decently easy to navigate, though.

The Steam client. I'm sure the game blurbs are amazingly enticing, but tiny grey-on-grey text? I'd get a headache trying to read them. Other than that the client works well.

First I wanted to install something — anything — just to test my set-up. I don't want to spend money on a game only to find out nothing works. I browsed the free game area, and while most are Windows only there's a few for Linux as well.

I picked a game called "Dwarfs". Didn't look too inspiring, but it doesn't matter for a test. Steam downloaded and installed it fine. I tried to start it — and nothing. It wouldn't start. I go digging a bit and find that Steam sensibly installs itself and all games under a ~/.local/ subdirectory in your home. I try to start the game directly and see that it crashes on startup.

A bit of googling turns up lots of Linux users with the exact same problem, dating back several months. A quick fix (adding a symlink) lets the game start and run, but it still crashes whenever you finish a level. That makes it impossible to finish the tutorial for instance. Not a very promising first impression of the Steam system.

The comments suggest it's this one game that's bad. I want to try some of the games I've missed, and at the top on my list is a game called Portal. It's famous — when even I have repeatedly heard of it, it has to be — and I know many people love it to bits. It's made by Valve, the company behind Steam, so the Linux port is bound to be decent.

I add it to my shopping basket, register my Visa card and pay for the game (a reasonable 1000 yen) and let it download. I click on the "Start" button, hoping the experience will be better this time around, and ...

Oh yes, this is the good stuff. Portal is pure, 100% unadulterated gaming crack. The game pulls you in the moment you hit the start screen and it doesn't let go. You wake up in some sort of research facility, and have to try to get out, one room at a time. An in-game voice guides you as you move from room to room.

It's an older game, so it works smoothly and flawlessly even on my laptop with integrated Intel graphics. Installation took just a few moments and startup is quick. And there's nothing old about the game to me; the graphics and lighting are smooth and detailed and capture the mood perfectly.

You start in the glass-walled cell on the left. The red and blue holes are portals; from the red portal you actually look through the blue exit at the same cell from a different direction. You can easily see yourself too if you want.

The game hook is deceptively simple: there are "portals", paired entrance and exit holes. Anything that enters one hole comes out the other. You can place these holes anywhere, including floors and ceilings. The game is centred around placing and using these portals in creative ways to solve puzzles and get out of each room.

The execution is brilliant. You soon realize that there's quite a back-story, and the guiding voice is not just a neutral guide but an in-game character in their own right. The game is brimming with small details that enhance the atmosphere, and the sound and music add another layer to the game.  As a thoughtful detail there's not just subtitles but also close captioning so you can play just fine without sound too.

Steam is a worthy addition to any Linux system. It's not without flaws, however. People seem to have complained about font sizes for years so that's unlikely to be addressed. But they should not leave a non-working game in the store for months — especially as it's likely to be one of the first games any new user is likely to try on their Linux box. It makes for a bad first impression.

In fact, I think a good idea would be to have 2-3 free games from different genres preselected for new accounts; games that are known to work well, showcases Steam and gives people an easy, reassuring test that everything works.

If you are a Linux user and have any interest at all in games, you really should take a look at Steam. And if you haven't played Portal it's time you did. You won't regret it.

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