Valve’s Elusive F-STOP

What happened to the top-secret cousin of the Portal Gun?

Joshua Bernstein
Jan 8 · 3 min read

Valve’s Portal and Portal 2 are thought to be some of the best games ever made (let alone among the best puzzle-platformers ever created). With their new flagship VR title — Half-Life: Alyx — on the way, quite a few gamers are rightly wondering about the future of the Portal franchise.

For many Portal enthusiasts, discussion around the game’s scrapped mechanics has always been both fascinating and shrouded in mystery. The conundrum became just a little clearer recently thanks to LunchHouse Software, which created a video series called Exposure. The series is being developed with permission from Valve, and the plan is to document exactly how the fabled F-STOP (or Aperture Camera) works. Take a look:

There’s a lot more to this mechanic than what is shown in the video. Even so, I’ve seen many projects explore this clone-and-scale mechanic, and it’s easy to see why it was cut. Interestingly though, Valve aren’t the only studio to have considered employing this mechanic.

An indie studio named Pillow Castle recently released a game called Superliminal on the Epic Games Store — although it started life as a tech demo a long time ago, Superliminal definitely seems to be influenced by both Portal and The Stanley Parable.

Superliminal Launch Trailer.
Original tech demo from Pillow Castle.

Superliminal is all about perception. When you find the right perspective from which to view a puzzle, it feels like an incredibly powerful magic trick. Having said that, the core mechanics can be easily abused — it’s possible to actually skip right past the magic trick, so to speak, and possibly find yourself falling into an out-of-bounds void.

The problem with Superliminal is possibly the same one that Valve ran into: the puzzle mechanic is a gimmick, albeit a very intriguing one. Given that level and puzzle design are the most important elements for these kinds of games, that core mechanic has to be both robust and satisfying. Because only a few puzzle solutions are actually possible with such a mechanic, it’s likely that the game might inevitably become unsatisfying. Superliminal is a pretty short game in comparison to something like Portal 2, and even though it isn’t the masterful, revolutionary puzzle game that everyone wanted, it’s still very interesting.

In my view, the F-STOP mechanic lends itself to more of an experience based around exploration as opposed to linear puzzle solving. The problem is that giving the player an open space to mass clone-and-scale objects creates obvious technical and design issues — keeping the design within reasonable technical and design constraints (while still making the concept enjoyable) is a clear problem. In any case, the quest for a perspective-changing puzzle game continues.

Speaking of which, a developer by the name of Matt Stark has been experimenting with a similar kind of mechanic — but this time, he’s added an intriguing twist.

As you can see, a great deal of technical work goes into these dream-like puzzle mechanics. If you’d like to learn more about the projects mentioned in the article, you can follow LunchHouse and Matt Stark for more updates on the elusive Aperture Camera.

Joshua Bernstein

Written by

Player Experience Designer with a Bachelor of Science in Game Design | I talk about techno life and design ethics while I make games.

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