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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Game Play: Portal

Let's cut to the chase. Portal is great. Game of the Year, though? I really don't think, so. But let's get to that debate in a second. Let's enjoy some cake.

Portal is what happens when the guys from the indie hit Narbacular Drop teams up with the guys from Valve. And honestly, I tried Drop for about an afternoon before getting somewhat bored with it ... and hence from my perspective that union has been nothing short of brilliant.

Portal does right where Drop went wrong. Portal is a clean, streamlined experience. Drop was cluttered, literally, with mirrors and boxes and goblins and stuff. Portal lets you worry about the problem at hand. It presents the puzzle and sets you about the task. Whereas I found Drop to be distracting and confusing, Portal was engaging.

Aside from simply killer level design, Portal has benefited from stronger game mechanics. Portal layers on the difficulty level, the enemies, the equipment and brings you deeper into its little world.

Speaking of the world - there's been a lot of discussion about Portal's storytelling. Honestly, I find it a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, Portal has a more honest concept than, say, Half-Life 2. Valve designs Gordon as a tabula rasa character but never really admits as such in the story. Hence it seems odd when three people ask Freeman a question and nothing happens. Portal admits you have no idea who you are or how you got there. It even admits that you are trapped running experiments with no logic or, at times, even sanity.

And that honesty bears more immersion than nearly any cinematic in the history of games. It's easy to feel like a nameless avatar running a maze when you are playing a nameless avatar running a maze. The real weak point here is a lack of explanation for respawning. And that's too bad, because as anyone who has read I Have No Mouth... could attest, Valve missed some opportunities there to bring out even more madness with GLaDOS.

Ah GLaDOS. If anything else, there should an award for the monologues here. Her quotes and quips are some of the most priceless ever recorded. Let's be honest, without her you could still have almost the same game. The puzzles are still the game, but GLaDOS just really sells it. The quirks - the companion cube, the cake jokes, that poor missing other subject - flesh out a concept which is simply delightful.

However, I don't think it is honestly great storytelling. I'm not even sure it is much of a story at all. Here we get even less backstory than Half-Life 2 ... we know that Aperture was a competitor of Black Mesa and that GLaDOS went nuts. Most players probably had that figured out within the first few hours of play. After that the plot is what? Run around and then get sucked into an implosion?

Don't get me wrong - Valve is still the master of set pieces, but stage design is only one part of a play. Portal has even less plot than Half-Life 2, which had a plot of "Gordon mysteriously appears, runs around shooting stuff and blows up a tower." Yeah, I know some stuff happened in between but it was so forgettable and unimportant to those three points that I've already forgotten them. If you think Portal had a good story, go read Ellison's I Have No Mouth ... But I Must Scream from which Portal has a somewhat mirrored premise. Except if the Harlan's short took the same route as Portal, it would be "Some humans woke up, got tortured for a day and all but one died."

The difference between the two is the detail in the characters and the interactions. Its their resolution with the past that has caught up to them and their final triumph of a machine world gone mad. But Valve consistently robs players of these possibilities by asserting blank slates and "the backstory is what you make of it" style writing.

If Portal is short, it has to be in part due to this. While I'm sure designing good puzzles with the concept is hard - how much longer could they have dragged out the whole GLaDOS thing? If Portal had been twice as long, her quips could easily have gone from funny to annoying.

So yeah, I think Portal is great - but I'm not sure I agree that it will revolutionize storytelling in games or that we'll see a flood of clones. The puzzle premise in Portal would be hard to outdo, so expensive to ripoff. And honestly the rest is extremely clever writing, but something of an empty shell.

Hey, I'm still humming "Still Alive" in my head and think Portal is the bee's knee's - but I don't think it's Game Of The Year material. In part because I think it's a short concept piece and while wonderful - is riding a lot of hype on the GOTY train. Also, I think GOTY games are one of the few times we should reward big production pieces. Consider all the design time that went into a game like BioShock. GOTY games should celebrate those times when games come completely together - voice acting, level design, music, texture design, etc. BioShock was designed from the ground up whilst I can't help but notice that Portal's androids are just remodelled autoguns.

Now if someone wanted to pitch me The Orange Box against BioShock for Game Of The Year, I'd be willing to listen.

For differing opinions, see Leigh's Aberrant Gamer column and a couple of editors duke it out.


Weefz said...

I can't say that putting any single game up against the 3 wildly different game types available in The Orange Box is a fair fight.

Josh said...

I dunno - Orange Box offers a short (but very good) single player campaign, an *extremely* short (but very good) puzzler and an online mode. That seems pretty similar to the offering a lot of games try to match.