Still Alive

For months now I’ve been hearing about the astonishing storytelling power of Portal, along with its fabulous physics and game design.

I hardly ever play mainstream commercial video games — I don’t have the hardware to run it well, for one thing — but I was really curious about Portal, so recently when I got a chance to play it on friends’ XBox, I took it.

What follows is spoilery and also probably doesn’t make that much sense unless you’ve played.

I’d been spoiled a little, both in the sense of knowing a couple of concrete plot details and in the sense that I had some idea of what people thought was so awesome about it. Under those circumstances, it’s hard not to come away a tiny bit disappointed. I’m not sure that disappointment is at all fair — this is really a fantastic game, beautifully designed and put together, just like everyone says. The puzzles are of a kind I particularly like: carefully sequenced training in a set of coherent physical rules. (I tried to do that with Savoir-Faire, in another way and another medium. Portal does it much more systematically.) It’s a funny, smooth, clever, and essentially awesome piece of work. But it is not the epiphany in interactive storytelling that I had somehow built it up in my mind to be, based on all the praise I’d heard.

There is not a particularly long or complex story here, and the techniques used in its telling are not especially new. The plot is short (one could describe all the salient events in a few sentences), and the emotional progression is simple. I went from skepticism about GLaDOS (because everyone knows that AI voices might be evil) to fear and defiance and, in the final end sequence, stony indifference to her pleas. But that’s a tiny story, very simple, very incomplete.

Speaking of back-story revelation, Portal does that in a time-honored way: by showing abandoned spaces and evidence of past inhabitants. My biggest gripe about this technique is that the first glimpses are the most effective ones, and that the more evidence the player acquires, the less emotionally effective it is, because the authors/designers don’t keep putting in surprises or new evocative information. The first time I saw a handprint, I gasped a little. The den, the scrawls of “the cake is a lie”, were chilling and evocative. But then there are more spaces like this, and for the most part those do not reveal anything terribly new. I felt the same way when playing Myst, years and years ago, and sifting through the mounting evidence against both Sirrus and Achenar, and thinking, Right, I get it already! They’re not nice!

So while I liked the bits of story-telling that Portal does through exploration/evidence, I would have liked to see more content and more surprises after the outset.

Then there’s the story in the present. Stephen Granade has praised the portrayal of the AI villain GLaDOS, who reveals her insanity and loneliness as the game goes on. I agree that was well done; but as a characterization, it doesn’t conclusively arrive anywhere that I didn’t see coming from the beginning of the game. The ending nearly pulls off something profound, but I felt as though it would have worked better if there had been a seeding of a few more backstory facts.

The final puzzle of the game is designed in such a way as to focus the player particularly on GLaDOS’ character. The timing is tight enough that one has to play it again and again, which ratchets up the sense of urgency. By the tenth time or so that I retrieved GLaDOS’ broken components from an inconvenient place in order to incinerate them, I really wanted her dead. At the same time, the repetition forces the player to hear the final, self-justifying lines over and over — giving them a weight that GLaDOS’ other, once-off dialogue doesn’t always have. In her final remarks (“No one likes you, you know”) there is a hint that she’s talking about herself, not Chell; that she herself desires an emotional connection that she has never been able to achieve, because she also needs to survive, and all humans are a threat to her. Neither the Weighted Companion Cube nor the sentry-droids seem likely to offer much in the companionship department, either. Maybe we can imagine that GLaDOS has reawakened Chell, again and again, as company — the only kind of company she is able to arrange for herself, the only kind that is safe for her because she can kill and resurrect it at will. The sentry-droids’ psychotic duality (sweet-voicedly seeking out the player in order to shoot her; saying “I don’t blame you” as they die) is reminiscent of GLaDOS, but less complicated.

I get the sense that the cake ending is not Chell’s imagination, but GLaDOS’ dream — or heaven: a place where she is accepted and acceptable, where human and AI can be friends, where GLaDOS is perceived to be as harmless and lovable as a box with pink hearts painted on the side. But she’s learned that the humans view her as potentially threatening and essentially disposable, and so she has to see them the same way. Her final core, the snarling, red-eyed core, is rage and madness, but also her impulse to self-preservation, the most essential motivation of anything that lives, and the part that remains after everything else has been stripped away.

It is also the only characteristic we definitely know Chell has.

Viewed that way, what we get is maybe a story that’s not so much the standard cliché about an AI that gets out of control, but instead about the idea that any AI created would necessarily be emotionally broken, because it would be constructed with killswitches, designed to be disposable, or at least crippled so that it could not threaten the more important human life. If the AI had any urge towards friendship or companionship, that urge would be stifled and perverted by the fact that those around it have absolved themselves (“ethicists agree…”) in advance for killing it if necessary.

That’s a sad and interesting story, but Portal stops short of completely telling it. Some of that narrative is conjecture, not made definite by any evidence in the game — especially the issue of where Chell comes from and why — and there are lots and lots and lots of alternative interpretations out there. More detail about the protagonist and about GLaDOS’ evolution could have made this something less mysterious but ultimately more powerful.

===

My second comment is more subjective. There were half hours of the game — especially after I’d broken out of the testing sequence — where I kept thinking, “When is it over?” I’m probably the only person in the world to think that Portal was too long. And I did enjoy the puzzles, which show masterful game design in teaching the player skills and then requiring him to use them in new and inventive ways. There was lots of great stuff in there. But at some point, past the incinerator, in the rust-infested bowels of the Center, I began to get frustrated and bored. Partly it’s that there are more and more timed puzzles. I am better at planning a strategy than I am about performing a sequence that requires good reflexes, so some sections I had to replay a bunch of times, with less enjoyment each time. But partly it was something about the distribution of new information in the game world.

Modern IF has acclimatized me to gameplay where the narrative is much denser. I don’t just mean that there’s more story served up per hour of game-play, though that’s certainly part of it. I mean also that a higher percentage of the player’s activity has some bearing on the story: exploration leads to significant new information, actions move the plot forward. It’s not that I want my game to be stuffed with more cut-scenes, but that I want more of what I am *doing* to be connected to the essential process of getting more story. The early parts of Portal actually did more of that, because new levels exposed new facts about the setting — like the existence of military droids so shiny-white and egg-like that they might have been designed by Apple. It was the late game where I got a little impatient.

I don’t mean to say that Portal was somehow designed wrong. The design is correctly balanced, I imagine, for people whose primary motivation is to experience the game aspects — the puzzles, the shooting, the jumping, the dropping of boxes onto the heads of android killers; the breath-taking flinging of one’s body over lakes of acid. And really, who wouldn’t love these things?

I find, though, that in almost any game with even a modestly compelling narrative, my primary motivation is to experience the story and find out what happens next. There are quite a few mid-school IF games from the mid-90s or so — the period when coherent plots were becoming more important but long-format, fiendishly puzzly IF was still common — where I relied heavily on a walkthrough to get through. The bother of doing the puzzle to unlock the next bit of story was sometimes more than I could stand, if I was very curious about the next event. More recent IF tends to cater more directly to my desire to get the story faster. At any rate, this is obviously a preference more than anything else.

===

I found there were a few times playing Portal when I felt dizzy, disoriented, and nauseated. The room span and there was a strange buttery taste in my mouth. The first time that happened, I wondered whether I was getting sick, and put the game aside in favor of something to eat and drink. The second time, I realized that my heart was pounding and my body was completely tense, and it was probably an adrenalin thing. Which was intense, but I’m not sure it was a net positive. I could see the argument that it enhances the empathy with the protagonist, but I actually found it distracting — and, for that matter, the physiological reaction doesn’t seem to have been very well/accurately paired with moments of greatest danger in the narrative.

36 thoughts on “Still Alive

  1. Are you sure it wasn’t just general motion sickness?

    That would admittedly be the first time I’ve heard anyone try to correlate motion sickness with narrative. (Although come to think of I remember one example — in Undying there were these creatures with a ‘confusion attack’ which made the screen shift in a way where I got genuinely motion sick.)

  2. I suppose that’s conceivable. It felt like some kind of fear/nerves reaction at the time, though one that was out of proportion to how consciously afraid/nervous I felt in the game.

  3. I do get motion sickness from 3D games if the frame rate is sufficiently high. (Too combat it, I sit far away from the screen or use a small screen, leave the room lights on rather than play in the dark, choose a high resolution so the frame rate gets slower, and if all else fails, play in snippets of at most an hour or so.)

    Anyway, most smart videogames people seem fairly split over the last half of Portal: some think it is the awesome, ultimate payoff of the tutorial sections; the others think it is too long and too redundant.

    As to it being revolutionary: yeah, it’s unfortunate you were spoiled in terms of expectation, because, indeed, it’s not ambitious at all. What it does is perfectly execute on its very limited ambition. In particular, it does a wonderful job of _avoiding_ all the things games often do that _don’t_ work.

    There was a game that came out a month or five before Portal called BioShock, which was getting lots and lots of animated discussion over two major things it did, one being giving you a seeminly meaningful choice throughout the game, and the other being a weird meta-reflection on the nature of the player in a linear game being essentially forced to act out the story embedded in the game, a reflection disconcertingly put directly into the story itself.

    This all generated, as I said, lots and lots of discussion, but then Portal came along and suddenly interest in discussing BioShock seemed to drop tremendously–because BioShock did NOT do a good job about telling its story in a game, did not avoid the problematic stuff, etc. etc.

    This, I think, was a significant part of the context of people’s feelings about Portal’s successful storytelling.

  4. “To combat it”, not “too combat it”, of course.

    I should clarify: there is nothing in Portal that is intentionally done to give you motion sickness, that I am sure of.

    And I also meant to say: I do not think they intended for you to have to go through the ending that many times. I imagine they expected most people would get through it in at most two attempts. (It is possible that the more limited controls on the Xbox360 made it harder; or simply that it was twitchy and under time-pressure unlike most of the rest of the game, so it simply was differently difficulty-calibrated for casual videogame players than for regular videogame players.) So, yeah, I wouldn’t draw any conclusions about their intent from your outcome.

  5. Yeah, it’s entirely possible that the problem here is just that I suck at this kind of thing. The game overall took me 6-7 hours, I think, where I’ve seen people saying “this was a 2-4 hour game!” (which also may have contributed to my impatience, because I kept expecting to be done…).

  6. I had the twin benefits of playing it without having had a lot of people tell me “OMG this is so awesome”, and at thinking at first that GLaDOS was just a recording. I didn’t think she was an AI until the game had gone on a while.

    I agree with nothings: what makes the game work for me is how they executed within their limited ambitions. They didn’t set out to do anything revolutionary. The story isn’t very interesting on its own, and can easily be summarized. The NPC is a set of pre-recorded lines that you hear in one specific order. What I found fascinating is how they worked within their constraints, and turned out something so polished and so satisfying to me when they weren’t doing anything especially new in interactive storytelling or NPC characterization.

  7. The game succeeds I think because of the limitations of its storytelling. When the only other character is a disembodied voice with whom you cannot communicate, there’s no way for the game to make you drop your suspension of disbelief with the kind of repetitive, unrealistic NPC behaviour that’s the current state of the art.

    The first half was more interesting for me because it was all about finding new ways to use the portals; the second half is about using what you know in a variety of new situations (but slightly too often it turned into a hunt for a portalable surface). I found myself trying thinking of more ways to use the portals (what kind of situation would require you to put a portal upside-down on a wall?).

    The developers’ commentaries are an excellent idea. But omitting job titles from the credits is disappointing.

    This question of how many times you have to play the ending is a fascinating one. It worked perfectly for me: on my first attempt I got it with just ten seconds to go. So I had maximum excitement and minimum frustration. But your experience must have been a very common one. How could the developers have improved the experience? (Not having a time limit? But then how to make it a satisfyingly challenging conclusion? Some other way of killing you that doesn’t just need time? Make the game easier with each subsequent attempt — but how? And would people feel cheated at not having to solve the thing properly?)

  8. I have to say that I didn’t really pay any attention to GlaDOS while I was playing the game. I was too busy concentrating on playing it. Especially true of the final battle, where I think she has a script that that runs for the entire six minutes, but I was too busy to listen. It was easier to listen while watching someone else play it. (Very much like Gitaroo Man in this respect.)

  9. But your experience must have been a very common one.

    I don’t know, honestly — for how many people is this the first and only game they’ve played on the console in question? (I’ve also played a few odd rounds of Guitar Hero and Lego Star Wars, but we’re talking in terms of dozens of minutes there; before that, my previous extensive experience with a gaming console was a Nintendo playing Super Mario Brothers ca. 1989.)

    At the beginning of play I was stunningly clumsy, in the having-trouble-not-walking-into-walls sense, because I came into it with no feel at all for the sticks controlling walking and turning. I got quite a lot better by the end, obviously, but still wasn’t what you’d call proficient. I also *could* have gamed the system more by keeping more incremental saves during the final sequence, but I didn’t want to overwrite all the save slots, since some of them weren’t mine. So I’m willing to accept that my play-through was pretty idiosyncratic.

    That said, I think my experience of that passage was pretty effective. I got a little annoyed, yeah, but it was clearly the very end of the game, so there was no chance I’d give up at that point. But I got a chance to get the final dialogue pretty deeply ingrained, so possibly wound up thinking about it more afterward. And since the final implications about GLaDOS’ psychology are (at least on my reading) by far the most interesting part of the story, I’m glad I did.

    I’m not quite sure how the designers could have designed this differently, unless they had a way to do it across the board — like, have the early stages of the game detect how good the player seemed to be at moving rapidly, handling live fire, etc., and then use the variables from that to tune the later parts of the game. But I can only imagine that that would be a complete design and testing nightmare, so I can see why they wouldn’t.

  10. Portal was my reintroduction to the first-person genre after over a decade of ignoring it; it’s also possible that some of the clumsiness was simply from using a console controller for it. There’s a sizable majority that considers the mouse fundmentally easier to use for this sort of thing because it’s easier to use one to aim at a single point. It certainly helped me (though I do play a lot of other action games, so the basic reflexes had been practiced up – just not the viewpoint or inputs).

    Not only that, I had to get into a restore-loop on the final battle as well (and had maybe 4 seconds left), because I had extreme difficulty with a flat monitor’s lack of depth perception. The Anger Core in particular was a case of “restore, portal, jump, nowhere near it, restore, portal, jump” at least a dozen times. (I also stalled a bit to listen to the other cores, because they were funny.)

  11. Just to add another data point here: I played Portal on a PC, using keyboard and mouse, controls that I’m comfortable playing first-person games with. The game took me about five hours altogether, and the ending took me many tries, partly because it took me an embarassingly long time to figure out where to put the exit portal for the missiles, partly because I didn’t notice what happened to the second dropped core at first. It didn’t even occur to me to keep incremental saves; I think I was under the impression that saves in this game just put you back at the last automatic checkpoint or something.

  12. I was partly spoiled too (cube) but I’m glad I was not spoiled about everything else. I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed it much otherwise. My mind was actually making theories during two thirds of the game at least, until I was definitely sure of what was going on.

    Unrelated… you speak of IF focusing on the narrative. I’m curious about this as I like narrative but am often put off by IF puzzles and lack of direction. Are there IFs out there which are more about the story than an item fest?

  13. Sure. IF tagged or listed as “puzzleless” usually means “mostly story and few object-related barriers”, though different people have different ideas of what constitutes story. Here are some games people consider puzzleless:

    http://carouselchain.com/if/statistics.php?genre=32&type=genre&limit=10

    and

    http://ifdb.tads.org/search?searchfor=tag%3Apuzzleless&sortby=&pg=1

    And (probably with some overlap) games that center on conversation, which tends to either be puzzleless or be based on gating techniques that aren’t about physical things:

    http://ifdb.tads.org/search?searchbar=tag%3Aconversation&searchGo.x=0&searchGo.y=0

    Of these, I’d particularly point out Rameses, The Baron, Photopia, Common Ground, Ribbons, Exhibition, Whom the Telling Changed, and 1981 as having no or almost no puzzles and an overriding interest in the narrative or in letting the player find a story by exploring his environment. (And, if you can forgive the self-promotion, Galatea.) Masquerade and Deadline Enchanter come close, but in each case there are a couple of actions that I found hard to think of the first time around, so you might find those frustrating.

    There are also quite a number of games that are a balance of puzzle and story, but that sounds less like what you’re looking for.

  14. I’m interested to know whether or not you’ve played the Half-Life series of games, most importantly from part 2 onwards. If not I honestly think your impressions of Portal are heavily influenced by that.

    Portal is a spin-off from the Half-Life series in quiet a considerable way, and several references are made through out the game to characters and events through out the main storyline…

    Portal works as a separate entity, yes, but it shines when it’s viewed as a small part of the larger all – as a tale in an epic. I honestly believe that to get the full experience of the plot, and too really understand why people rave about it you need to understand the context for GlaDOS going insane, and her reasons for imprisoning everyone – it’s much more than a simple tale of AI rampancy, or emotional instability.

    Your review was very interesting though, and incredibly well written, but I’m not sure I can compare your point of view fairly with those who have actually played the other games from the universe or indeed someone who admits to having a limited experience with console games in general. Yes opinion is right no matter what it is, but I feel like your forming yours on only a fraction of the material normally seen.

    Also, I’m surprised to see no mention here of Still Alive.

  15. id like to back up PriorMarcus here, it was a great revie and it was interesting to hear from the point of view of a person who dosnt seem to have played previous half-life games.

    The second half of the game for me was possibly more exciting than the first, i loved the behind the scenes feel, of being somewhere your not supposed to. seeing all the empty observation rooms, the storage cube creation facilities, reading the screens (complete with cake recipiese) but most of all, things like the slideshow explaining the rivalry between apature science and black masa, the portal research institute from the half life series. seeing how these two parts of the world join, both from the second half of portal and clues in the latest installment of half-life (episode 2) help broaden the story and the speculation from both games.

  16. good article, but that “buttery taste” you got in your mouth from playing is not only gross, it’s totally creeping me out

  17. No, you’re right: I haven’t played any of the other Half-Life games. From what I know about them, they’re not the style of thing I generally enjoy — though I suppose I might be surprised.

    I did do a bit of research on the Half-Life story-line, so know a little bit about what was going on.

    That’s probably not enough to make a fair assessment of how Portal relates to the rest of the genre and its particular series — but this wasn’t really claiming to be a general-purpose review of Portal, either.

  18. I do want to make it clear that I wasn’t criticising your review, it was very well written and the opinion is perfectly valid – I really just wanted to offer up a reason why you might not have enjoyed the narrative as much as some did, or why you might not have found the same depth in it that some did. Both of which could be seen as perfectly valid arguments for weaknesses in the game also.

    I do recommend you pick-up the Half-Series of games… the full saga can be picked up for less than £40 if you have a computer able to run them and even if you don’t enjoy the FPS genre in general you seem like the kind of person who would appreciate the stories presentation and themes.

    Also, can I just say how refreshing it is to have an author reply to her comments, given my somewhat late arrival here I thought my view would probably go unnoticed, but you’ve impressed me with your quick response. Bookmarked.

  19. I liked the second half of Portal. When you first open that door and get away from those bright, stark white walls, it’s like sneaking behind the scenes at Disneyland. You’re probably not supposed to be there, and you’ll get in trouble if you get caught.

    The idea of using cake is a great motivator. Who doesn’t like cake??

    “Someone already cut the cake. If you hurry, there might still be some left!”

  20. “The developers’ commentaries are an excellent idea. But omitting job titles from the credits is disappointing.” – Gareth Rees

    They didn’t omit titles. Valve, the developer, is unique in the way they function. They have a cabal system where they develop the game as a sort of collective. No one has any set specific role in development. Thus, the credits lists their names alphabetically rather then by role, since no one had a set role.

  21. Two very small notes to append to the discussion:

    – If you were wondering what went in the writer’s heads when they wrote the final “boss battle”, they’ve done a very interesting “postmortem” session in which they’ve explained the origin and design of it all. It’s available on the ‘net a PDF with their spoken parts in annotations somewhere on Valve’s site (but it might be faster to look in the archives of some gaming news site like Jostiq or Kotaku for the direct link).

    – I didn’t feel bothered by the abrupt, ambiguous ending for two reasons: the first being prior expectations (I can’t think of a single-player Valve game that doesn’t end with a cliffhanger), the other being that in my mind this game was entrenched in the same kind of “mind-space” where short stories go (as opposed to “novel”/”feature-lenght” games like Half-Life or Bioshock), so I was much more prepared to see the kind of shortcuts and freedoms a novel author can’t afford to take. Not that this excuses any shortcomings, but it gave me a wholly different perspective from which to judge it.

  22. I usually don’t comment on blogs, but the responses I’ve seen here prompt me to give my comments.

    First off, very well written review, and I liked it.
    Now, my thoughts on Portal are, it was a very enjoyable game, and this is from someone who enjoys the first person shooter genre. However, I’ve only played a small amount of the first Half Life game. I enjoyed Portal for the game itself, story and all, without needing to know any of the connective bits. I suppose the thing that drew me into it was the humor about it. I like dark humor, and Portal has it in spades, I think. That’s just my 2 cents on Portal however.

    Now, as for other games with story to them, I feel I should really suggest Sacrifice. It’s an older PC, real time stragety game that came out in ’99-’00, and made by Shiny, and still playable on an XP system.
    The way it does it’s story is an intresting one, and your character can fight for one of 5 dieties, each with it’s own story progression. The thing is, you don’t have to stay with one diety throughout your entire game. I can’t for sure say if a diety’s story progression is effected too much by switching, as I usually just serve one diety. The overall story is none too new, but getting there is, to me, fun.
    I should state however, that it is a game broken up in the fashion of, story, mission, story, and so on.

    Oh, and as a side note, I’ve never beat an FPS style game without cheats, untill Portal.

  23. I think you might be reading a bit too much into the story of the game.
    I find it to be one of the funniest stories in a game since the old LucasArts adventures, but I would really doubt that the developers tried to do anything grander than that. It’s a comedy with some dark elements.

    As for Half-Life, I just want to point out that it’s not just an action game, it has a lot of puzzles too. Very clever ones at that. Especially in HL2 you are very rarely treated with just a regular action sequence since every part is designed to present you with a completely new gameplay scenario, meaning it rarely gets boring.
    The series also has a very original (as far as games go) way of telling its story. Storyline scenes created only to throw information into your face are very rare, and you are only really told as much as you could expect the main character to be told. Valve leaves only enough puzzle pieces in there for you to have a fair chance of figuring things out on your own.
    The endings to both Half-Life and HL2 are very, very clever too, which I enjoyed a lot.

  24. “I think you might be reading a bit too much into the story of the game.”

    Well, possibly. One of the things I see people say semi-frequently in response to critique is “oh, the author didn’t intend anything that complicated,” with the implication that if the author didn’t intend anything complicated, there’s nothing to be gained by looking more closely at the work.

    I disagree with this (as may be obvious). Partly that’s because my background is as an academic in a literary field, and so we spend a lot of time looking at literature for its internal significance, and possibly finding things that the author didn’t think about, or didn’t think about consciously. It also means that I’ve had a fair number of opportunities to think and talk about what is “meaning” in a work. There certainly are some schools of thinking in which the author’s conscious intention is the only thing of interest. There are also schools that say that the text (or game, in this case) stands alone, apart from the author, and should be examined as an independent artifact, for whatever meaning you happen to find there. And then there are scholars who think that what’s important is the context in which the work is read — what did the *audience* think this meant?

    My own conclusion is the question of *where* the meaning is is philosophically impossible to resolve. I go back instead to some more pragmatic thoughts, based on my experience as an author and as a reader.

    1) I know that there are things in stories that I wrote where I no longer remember what I consciously intended. I know there are things people have found there that I *wish* I had intended. And I know there are things where I can see some significance (knowing myself) that I’m pretty sure I didn’t write into the work on purpose, but which is still worth finding in the work. Authorial intention is slippery. A lot of artistic creation is a partly intuitive process in which you place elements and move them around until they snap into rightness, but it’s not always possible to explain why exactly it has to be like that. And that doesn’t even get into the question of how authors are unconsciously shaped by biases that they carry around as a result of the surrounding culture.

    And

    2) Sometimes the value of a story to its readers, and even to its scholars (who you might think should “know better”), has relatively little to do with its original intention at all. To take an extreme example: there are lots and lots of people for whom the attraction of the Harry Potter books lies most in imagining a romance between Severus Snape and the (hopefully somewhat grown-up) Hermione Granger. Is that intended? I’m pretty sure J. K. Rowling had no such thing in mind. But there is something there — the possibility of humanizing Snape, maybe, or of finding a suitably intellectual companion for Hermione — that captures a lot of imaginations. So the books have become in a sense an artifact detached from the person who wrote them, and they have the power to suggest ideas and themes to people on their own.

    What I tell my students is that literary scholarship continues in part because it is about building a bridge between ourselves — our personal concerns, and the concerns and perspective of our culture — and the writings of the past. Since “now” is constantly moving, we have to keep rebuilding these bridges. It’s not that you can at some point declare that you’ve finished discovering everything there is to discover about a work, that it’s done, it’s analyzed, it’s through — because the discovering is partly about the person or culture doing the autopsy, as well as about the corpse on the slab.

    Fortunately, literary criticism is a (mostly) non-destructive process, unlike something like archaeology, where you only get one chance to excavate Troy the first time.

    That will probably strike some people as an annoyingly academic and subjective pose, but I’ve come to it as much from playing, writing, and critiquing IF as from reading literary theory. Analyses can be boring to the reader, or they can be about concerns that the reader doesn’t share, or they can repeat other analyses that a reader has already seen; but I’m not sure it’s useful to talk about a work being somehow inherently “over-analyzed”. And, like I said, while it’s interesting what the authors intended to do, I think that’s also only a smallish sliver of what could be worth discussing about the game.

  25. I broadly agree. For me, without GLaDOS’ the game would be a fairly engaging and well conceived puzzler that probably wouldn’t have kept me going through the behind-the-scenes sections. As it stands, her sweetly delivered, transparent attempts at deceit, her cracked personality and growing desperation to impede you were the driving force that got me to complete the game in a single sitting.

    Outside of a very original weaponless gameplay mechanic, there’s not a lot there, as most of the puzzles are rolled out very gently, and don’t require a huge amount of thought. But the sense of intimacy, and simultaneously the sense of isolation; that you were locked in with a maniac, but that were also somehow glad of the company; really makes it much more compelling than the game alone would have been.

    I must confess, if I hadn’t already seen all the fandom directed towards the weighted companion cube before i played the game, I’d have torched it without a second thought.

    As with almost any game though, the general narrative won’t seem anything new to anyone with an interest in Sci Fi, as Hal 9000, Demon Seed, Cube and many others have trod this human lab testing/AI gone bonkers ground before. This is why games always make for crap movies, the plots have already been recycled at least once from movies into games, trying to put them back into movies is like trying to can a fart and sell it as baked beans.

  26. I’m happy to see you rejecting the idea of something being inherently over-analyzed. Many readers would be shocked to discover how much of their favorite media is woven with complex narrative techniques that can be peeled back in layers of meaning. It’s not like you have to go out and rent Truffaut movies to find this stuff. The techniques are used everywhere. It’s not always perfectly realized, but it’s there. Which brings us to Portal…

    I wish you could have played Portal without the influence of hype or the knowledge that others had finished it in less time. How would the pacing have felt if you had no expectations about the narrative and you didn’t know how long the experience was going to be? When I started Portal, I knew the game was considered short, but I definitely expected more than two hours of game play. I thought it might even be 6 to 8 hours. By the time I completed the testing sequences and began the escape section, I was a little worried that it might end soon. I was excited by the change of pace and wanting the experience to last longer.

    The designers definitely could have given us more story during the second half of the game. Leaving the laboratory opens the door :) to all sorts of possibilities. However, the escape section gave me a strong sense of leaving the game world, of being “off the grid” and making my own story. I enjoyed the feeling that I was escaping the sterile, planned world of the experiments and exploring areas that I wasn’t supposed to see. Too much narrative content during this section might have diminished my experience as a player. It depends on the implementation, of course.

    For me, any additional details about the protagonist would have further removed me from the situation and placed an additional burden on the game’s writers and designers. I would be much more likely to ask “Why do I care what happens to this character?” rather than identifying with the character, or even projecting myself in to the situation. On the other hand, maybe I’m conditioned to think that more character development is a bad idea simply because so few action games have done it successfully. I admit that I prefer games that let the player identify and project as much as possible. Immersion is one of the areas where video games really set themselves apart from other media.

    The sense of loneliness is another thing that could have been compromised by extra story content. Players are accustomed to playing alone, especially in games with a first person view, so I think the feeling of loneliness in Portal might not register as quickly as it would in other media. It probably doesn’t occur to a player to question the protagonist’s feelings at all. How do you even know what the protagonist is thinking? Characters usually say or do something that you absorb passively. In Portal, it’s through the active experience of the environment itself, not through traditional storytelling techniques, that the player can begin to understand the character’s state of mind. As you progress through the game, the relationship between GLaDOS and the protagonist evolves with these nice symmetrical elements that led me to feel that GLaDOS was as isolated and lonely in the game world as I was.

    At the beginning of the game, GLaDOS seems less sinister and you almost feel like you’re helping each other out. You are partners solving a puzzle together. When the experiment puzzles are all solved, GLaDOS is willing to destroy the only friend she’s had through the experiments. That is also what you must do in the weighted companion cube section. You are just like GlaDOS.

    GLaDOS is a foil to the protagonist. Did you feel bad about burning the companion cube? I did. I tried not to do it, but eventually I burned it anyway. Maybe GlaDOS feels bad that she was going to burn you, but she tries to do it anyway. In the end, you burn her instead, physically recreating the same action that you were forced to do with the companion cube. One of the GlaDOS pieces that you destroy is actually quite cute, if you listen to its voice. You have to destroy it anyway if you want to survive. Vicious, aren’t we? We are just like GlaDOS.

    I was blown away by this short little game of jumping puzzles. Greatest game story ever told? No, but I think Portal deserves the recognition that it’s getting if for no other reason than for the chance that other game developers will examine it and try to work ideas like this into their own games. I want to see more games express narrative content through the player’s actions and feelings, not just through passive storytelling techniques.

    For some players, a few hours might not be enough time for Portal’s narrative content to register as anything other than window dressing. Maybe more overt story bits would have made it better? Maybe greater density as you suggested? It’s hard for me to say. I love it the way it is, and I can’t wait to see what they do with the sequel.

  27. For me, any additional details about the protagonist would have further removed me from the situation and placed an additional burden on the game’s writers and designers. I would be much more likely to ask “Why do I care what happens to this character?” rather than identifying with the character, or even projecting myself in to the situation. On the other hand, maybe I’m conditioned to think that more character development is a bad idea simply because so few action games have done it successfully. I admit that I prefer games that let the player identify and project as much as possible. Immersion is one of the areas where video games really set themselves apart from other media.

    This is an area where I’m definitely bringing in my biases as a player and author of interactive fiction. There’s a fair amount of IF that *does* strive to let the player identify with the character as completely as possible — in some cases even being coy about the player’s gender (see Jigsaw) or letting the player specify a gender or other characteristics. Bolivia By Night lets you pick a name, gender, and nationality; I haven’t finished the newly-released Blue Lacuna, but I’ve noticed that within the first few turns you’re allowed to choose a gender and also the gender you’re attracted to. And for the most part in commercial and early freeware IF, the received wisdom was that there should be as little as possible about the protagonist that should set him or her apart from the player. (Infocom’s Plundered Hearts is an obvious exception, because the protagonist has to be female for the story to work.)

    Recently, though — where by recently I mean “since the mid-90s or so” — there’s been a growing awareness that some story-telling effects can be achieved better if the protagonist does have a clearly defined character. Then the game is not just about projecting *yourself* into a situation, but about understanding and sympathizing with the protagonist, coming to terms with how he sees the world, exploring his personal background, inhabiting his relationship to other characters, and so on. Here is a short list of some IF with strongly-characterized player characters; to that list I’d also add Rameses as a particularly strong (though not universally popular) example. There are even a few unusual pieces in which the person who acts out the player’s orders is not the character who reports back perceptions: see Fail-Safe and Bellclap. Text games may be especially suited to this kind of experimentation because text descriptions can convey a lot of attitude along with room descriptions and so on; but I don’t think that all of the techniques involved are necessarily out of reach for other kinds of gaming.

    So I don’t consider the nature of the protagonist nearly as “obvious” as some people have suggested. I note that on the Kotaku comment thread, someone was irked that I didn’t understand that “YOU are Chell” — but that simple equation glosses over a whole host of possible ways that a player could relate to his/her avatar in the game world, from deep identification through affection to curiosity and even to alienation, distaste, and antagonism. There are IF games in which the character controlled is essentially a villain and the player is, in a sense, working against himself. In my experience, it’s not necessary that the player strongly identify with the character in order to keep playing, if identification is replaced by a strong feeling of some other kind.

    In the case of Portal, though, I wasn’t looking for anything that complex; the main reason I wanted a little more background on Chell is that her story would tell us more about how to understand GLaDOS — who is arguably the real protagonist of the story, if by protagonist we mean “character that the story is about”. Portal is not about Chell in any interesting way.

  28. Hi Emily,

    I think your observations are pretty spot-on. I, too, found the sequence at the end escaping through the seemingly endless maze of pipes to be too long. Typically, I would just get bored and put down a game that had this characteristic, but I was hooked on the story by that point and had to see what happened at the end. I think the game’s strongest elements were the fundamental design, ie getting me to think about the environment in a way no other game had forced me to think before, and the actual writing. I’m not talking about the story as a whole, but the actual lines of dialogue along with their delivery, I think were brilliant and the most entertaining aspect of the game. I was disappointed with how the story played out in the end, because, like you, I was hoping for a little bit more closure and a more profound revelation. However, it is still one of the best games I’ve played in a long time.

  29. Now your making me sound a lot more uneducated than I intended. <_<
    What I meant about you reading too much into the story was not that there couldn’t be any more in the subtext than the developers had intended (though my personal belief is that the true meaning of a work can only be found in the artist).
    What I was trying to say is that I don’t see how it’s fair to put more meaning into the game than the developers had intended, and then criticize them for not fleshing these meanings out completely.
    It’s only over-analyzing if it actually gets you annoyed over how much more the game could have been.

    I’m not all that good at putting my thoughts into words, but I hope you understand what I’m trying to say here. :)

    “As with almost any game though, the general narrative won’t seem anything new to anyone with an interest in Sci Fi, as Hal 9000, Demon Seed, Cube and many others have trod this human lab testing/AI gone bonkers ground before. This is why games always make for crap movies, the plots have already been recycled at least once from movies into games, trying to put them back into movies is like trying to can a fart and sell it as baked beans.”

    This I disagree with.
    The way games always try to copy stories that have already been done is one of the many reasons (together with the sexism and fascination of violence) why the videogame culture generally sucks.
    It is not, however, the reason why videogame movies do not work.
    The reason for that is much, much simpler:
    Not much effort is put into them as there is close to zero artistic purpose behind them.

    Silent Hill is a good exaple of this, seeing how that series is one of the few that are actually somewhat original in its storylines and storytelling.
    The movie however, was fan fiction. Bad fan fiction. Designed only to get the fans rushing to the theatres.

  30. What I was trying to say is that I don’t see how it’s fair to put more meaning into the game than the developers had intended, and then criticize them for not fleshing these meanings out completely.

    I agree with you up to a point. But I think there are a number of bits in the game that invite the player to think about a coherent backstory: who built this? why? what happened to those people? where did I come from? what is GLaDOS trying to do? why was I in what looks like a stasis bed? are there others like me? how many? who went this way before? what happened to him/her? does the cake scene at the end represent something that really happened? what about “Still Alive”? is that part of the story, or just a joky conclusion?

    Once you start trying to put the pieces together, you find (or at least, many of us find) that they don’t all fit together in a complete and coherent way that is unambiguously the right answer. I suspect the reason people go on and on about Portal is because of those lacunae, those empty unexplained parts. What’s there is interesting enough that we want to understand the things that were left out, too. And I do think it’s fair to say that the designers had the option of making some of the answers more explicit, but chose not to take that option.

  31. I’ve been thinking about this part of your response:

    “In my experience, it’s not necessary that the player strongly identify with the character in order to keep playing, if identification is replaced by a strong feeling of some other kind.”

    If I replace “player” and “playing” with “reader” and “reading” then we’re discussing concepts taught in freshman literature classes. We could be talking about Lolita’s Humbert Humbert.

    So why are so many of today’s most popular video games stuck in Realism, not only in their subject matter (military shooters, sports games, The Sims) but also in their presentation? I know I’m covering well-trod ground here, but it’s strange that this aspect of games evolved so little over the last 30 years. Although some games might claim to feature a modern anti-hero, the stories usually follow the same objective narrative techniques as any great book from the 1800’s. Where is the point-of-view? Where is the irony?

    As video games were taking root in the 1980’s, literature was shifting back to Realism, with more linear narratives and a strange preoccupation with the dispassionate description of things (as if straight journalism were a substitute for insight). This approach to stories dovetails nicely with the needs of the average video game. Players move in a linear fashion through a realistically rendered landscape.

    Now that we can render worlds with such fidelity, maybe we can stop focusing so much of our creative energy on that and begin looking at more narrative complexity instead.
    /shakes fist in air/

    If I hold games to the same standards as the other media I enjoy, then I have to agree that Portal’s narrative is amusing but hardly ground breaking.

    I need to check out some of the IF you mentioned. Thanks for the links!

  32. But she’s learned that the humans view her as potentially threatening and essentially disposable, and so she has to see them the same way.

    I was recently reminded that this is something of a theme in Half-Life 1 as well — not with anything inhuman, but simply with the soldiers sent to kill you. Even when one of them openly expresses doubts about his mission, the possibility that you’re hostile makes him attack you on sight, which forces the issue.

  33. Late, but cool post…

    I suffered from motion sickness in my first try of a FPS: Wolfenstein 3D, in the early days. Left the university workstation almost throwing up. :P

    So, this is what the fuss is all about? A recreation of the final moments of HAL in 2001 as David Bowman systematically turned off his memory subsystem, with puzzles thrown in to make the situation run indefinetely?

    Yep, that’s pure IF in my book.

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