I'm making a note here
So yeah, I completed Portal last night and now I know what the Internet was going on about a year and a half ago.
It was actually a different bit of The Orange Box that stuck in my mind, namely Half-Life 2: Episode Two. I couldn't do the big setpiece battle at the end, and was berating this fact to a friend in the pub last week, who suggested I check what difficulty setting I was playing on, maybe shift it down to "easy". So I did, and the plan worked.
My problem was that when you have a game like Half-Life with a very strong narrative, getting stuck on a hard bit is extremely annoying. If you've engaged the player and they want to know how the story progresses, forbidding them because they're not good enough isn't on. It's like reading a book and then suddenly the author puts his hand over the page and says, "No, you can't read any more, you didn't fully comprehend that metaphor. Stay on this page until you get my meaning."
Another game I completed this week was BioShock, which understood the idea. You have an arrow pointing the direction, there are hints on the pause screen to help you progress, and if you die you respawn in a "Vita-Chamber", normally a little way back through the level, with weapons and such intact. In last issue's Official Xbox Magazine there's an interview with Jordan Thomas, the creative director of the forthcoming sequel. He explains that, "We felt the Vita-Chambers were pretty important in terms of making it a shooter that was more about offering you hard choices and less about stopping you finishing."
I loved the Vita-Chambers. BioShock was incredibly narrative-heavy, and 2K knew their place in not preventing me from enjoying the narrative. Some didn't like them, so BioShock 2 will apparently have the option to turn 'em off. Everyone wins.
It's a tricky line, of course. You've got not stopping the players from finishing the game, but you've also got not taking all the challenge out. Obviously there are many gamers who enjoy pitting themselves against a game, the sort who play Ikaruga blindfold with one hand behind their back, but I've never been that sort of player. I'm of the opinion that I don't mind being challenged, but I've paid money for this and if I'm irretrivably stuck I want a hand. That's why I like the idea of this "Kind Code" that Sir Shigsy of Moto is yammering about (even if it's already been done in Alone in the Dark). The thing about the way that gaming is opening up to more people is that there are a lot of new gamers who've never even heard of Mega Man, and keeping everyone happy is only going to get trickier. It'll be interesting to see what ideas come up.