Friday, August 21, 2009

This was a triumph: a freakin old review of Portal

To alleviate the somber tone of my latest gaming obsession, Fallout 3, I had recently decided to try out Portal. This decision was based largely on the ending song that I'd stumbled across when I googled some of the more bizarre lyrics someone had quoted from the tune. The cheerful morbidity of the AI seemed to hold the humor I was missing in Bethesda's post-nuclear opus.

Admittedly, I'm also a sucker for spatial puzzles.

Upon completing the game, my only regret is that I hadn't played this sooner and that I didn't pick up the rest of the Orange Box package. Any universe that can spawn a spinoff as clever and affecting as this one most certainly deserves a playthrough regardless of my aversion for most FPS games.

The synergy of Portal's presentation, narrative context, and central mechanic is rare enough in itself, but I've never experienced a game that complements such a level of design with a commensurately intelligent and layered level of humor. Much of this is effected through an AI named GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) who functions as the player's coach, tester, and warden, delivering a sadism that is as strikingly humorous as it is disturbing in its unassuming, antiseptic quality, spoken in warmly musical vocoder tones.

"Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an "unsatisfactory" mark on your official testing record, followed by death. Good luck!"

GLaDOS is absolutely inhumane, yet equally sincere.

This mirrors the functional detachment the player is made to feel in relation to their own character. The "protagonist" is a rather blank slate whose sole purpose is to wield the portal device and follow your input as you navigate her through each testing room. Our only actual glimpses of her occur in moments when the portals happen to create a recursive field of view that includes her body.

With one ambiguous exception (that I won't describe in detail, lest I spoil it; for those in the know, this does more to personalize GLaDOS than the object in question), one could go so far as to state that there is little to no emotional attachment to any figure or object in the game.

This oddly functions to enhance the player's immersion, directing it as a lightly narrative but mostly cerebral & playful exercise in physics and the pursuit of the next Aha-Erlebnis moment.

And these moments, to my honest surprise, were not nearly as serendipitous as I'd felt them to be. Upon completing the game, I returned to most of the exam rooms and listened to the commentary nodes out of idle curiosity, and I was stunned by the carefully orchestrated and play-tested nature of many of my "discoveries".

Architecturing the lure of these "aha" moments to be the primary driver of the game, and doing so successfully (I never once felt stuck), really shows expert restraint, in my opinion, by keeping the focus on the gameplay and shunning the "cinematic" tropes that many games would fall into in an effort to further immerse the player and drag them along the correct course.

Portal exemplifes the qualitative difference in game design between polishing and belabouring the narrative context. The studio could have easily piled on more visual clutter, more writing, more voicoever work, and possibly a coda at the end, but they obviously understood that this would have diminished the game.

Scattershot "epics" such as those devised by Hideo Kojima almost seem needlessly baroque in contrast to the lean devices here.

Granted the comparison is rather unfair due to the drastically different genres and intended effects, but Portal's style does make a strong argument for finding smarter, more efficient, and dare I say, mature ways to engage the player that don't necessarily use reams of dialogue, contrived plot twists, or hamfisted characterizations. Incidentally, I also believe that it's time for videogames to finally divorce themselves from the cinematic imperative and begin to stand on the strength of their own unique, and uniquely powerful, devices. But that rant's been done before.

In another clever, though somewhat foreseeable twist to the game, the player's progress is accompanied by an increasing sense of distrust in their own trajectory. As the requirements ramp up, so does the player's ability to perceive the possibilities of deviation afforded by the portal gun, and the increasing probability that these will be put to the test.

I'll leave the rest for the reader to experience. The final path one takes, and the obviously inevitable confrontation are too entertaining to spoil here. I can only describe it as something between HAL's demise in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the verbal abuse one might sustain if one managed to really... really piss off Laurie Anderson.

I can only hope that Valve, or at least their Source engine, will bring similarly clever games in the future. In the meantime, I have some catching up to do with the Half-Life universe.

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