Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Portal

Okay, I just played Portal, which has seen a bit of discussion in the IF world, so it might be interested to comment on it here. Also, this game has been hailed as something that can evoke great emotional responses through effective storytelling and characterisation.

This is going to be completely spoilery, so if you don't want to be spoiled, don't read on.

The game is certainly too short and too easy; there wasn't a single puzzle in it that had me stumped for longer than a few minutes. The final boss fight was exciting, but not terribly hard either. (F6 and F9 are your friends.) I hope that the advanced maps are more challenging; otherwise, those portals are a brilliant puzzle idea left woefully underexplored.

The player character is constantly pestered by a female voice that talks her through the tests, but reveals itself as unreliable in the first thirty seconds. The writing here lacks all subtlety. The voice tells you things like: "Your safety is ensured if you ***static***", which really is a cheap trick. Valve also decided to use 2001-style modulations of the voice's pitch, which suddenly drops from high to very low on several occasions. But in 2001 this happened once, in an emotionally gripping scene; in Portal, it happens all the time, and is just one of a hundred signs thrown at us that scream "Look out! The computer is insane! Don't trust it!"

The entire game consists of such shouts. You find a secret room were someone has written warnings on the wall in blood. All right, I can't trust the voice--I understood that already. Then, in case we missed it, we get treated to another twenty places where people have written warnings on the wall in blood. Identical warnings. This gets very tiresome, and destroys any emotional involvement with the story that might have been achieved if the designers had opted for a subtle disclosure of what was going on, rather than beating me over the head with the stick of obviousness.

Emotional involvement, then, there is none. One especially lauded scene in the game is where you have to sacrifice a metal cube with hearts painted on the side. This is supposed to be an emotional moment, which makes you feel guilty. It does not. The things I have to sacrifice is a metal cube with hearts painted on the side. I don't care about a metal cube with hearts painted on the side. (The emotionally manipulative voice and the emotionally manipulative designers at Valve don't succeed in actually manipulating my emotions, mostly, I guess, because their attempts are again so incredibly obvious.)

The final scene is okay. It doesn't have the impact of Hal's death in 2001: a Space Odyssey, it doesn't even come close, but it's not bad. It might actually have been good if I had cared about the AI, or about the player character, or if I had understood what the hell was going on, or if I had seen the AI in a sane state before I saw her mad. As it is, the song over the credits is more gripping than the game itself.

So, it is a nice puzzler, recommended if you want to spend a couple of hours solving puzzles. (Though Professor Fizzwizzle is more fun in that respect, and also more challenging.) But a game that can evoke great emotional responses through effective storytelling and characterisation? Not at all.

23 comments:

  1. I also spent a bit of time with Portal recently, and came away similarly underwhelmed. It's a fun and clever puzzler, but hardly the piece of interactive art it's so often hailed as. I was equally nonplussed by Bioshock, for what it's worth.

    I think there are a subset of academics, players, and critics who are so hungry for games to break out of their adolescent, hyper-violent, paint-by-numbers box and actually, you know, engage with something that matters, or even just pay a little bit of attention to their own aesthetics, that a game like Portal, which does something at least a little bit different than the mindlessly violent norm, gets praised beyond all reason. And yet, what is it really? Just a transplantation of some fun puzzle-game mechanics into a first-person three-D engine, with a story that is notable primarily because it at least isn't about killing hordes of aliens or demons. Similarly we have Bioshock, which made a few lurches at making a (simplistic) philosophical argument amidst the usual hordes of FPS monsters and buckets of gore, and was rewarded with praise worthy of a Citizen Kaine.

    It's a glass half-empty / half-full situation. On the one hand, when placed against even moderately intelligent films, games like Portal and Bioshock still appear quite infantile. On the other hand, at least some people are beginning to try in some sort of way to push out of the teenage ghetto we've been trapped in so long. Perhaps they are indeed harbingers of much better work to come.

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  2. I wonder. If people are so hungry for games that engage with something that matters, than why don't I see the rave reviews of Portal and Bioshock (which I have not played) accompanied by rave reviews of The Witcher, which makes a far more serious attempt at engaging with something that matters than Portal does. On the one hand, The Witcher is as violent as any other RPG; but Portal is far more violent than most other puzzle games, so that cannot be the criterion. On the other hand, Portal presents us a story about an insane AI that we have to kill in order to survive, and makes us sacrifice a metal cube painted with hearts. The Witcher presents to us a world rife with racism and consequent terrorism which leads to some very serious questions about when violence is justified. It puts us in situations where we can choose between killing or not killing members of a terrorist organisation, while we know that these people have a cause for complaint, while we understand why they have stopped believing in peaceful solutions, and while we also know that they will kill innocents to achieve their goals (and we will in fact see this happen if we decide to let them go). That is surely far more interesting than anything Portal does, as far as interactive morality is concerned.

    (And it's not like The Witcher is an obscure game, with depending on the source 600,000 or 1,000,000 copies sold.)

    So I still don't understand why Portal has received so much hype, and I wonder whether it might not have something to do with the fact that (1) it was made by Valve, (2) it is so short that everyone can play it and have an opinion about it.

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  3. I don't think the cube sacrifice scene was intended to be emotional. It was a joke. The cube has a heart on it so players will know they're supposed to carry it around with them, instead of leaving it behind after the first puzzle, and the incinerator is there to make them stop (and also to set up the ending).

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  4. Who really thought that the cube sacrifice scene was heart-rending? Did someone really think that? Maybe they have problems.

    This game is a comedy, for crying out loud. Stylistically, this isn't a 2001-style drama, and it's got no pretense of one. The computer voice-overs are hilarious, not emotionally jolting. The cube destruction scene is funny because it's a ridiculous thing that's ironically made out to be dramatic by GladOS.

    There are some honestly dramatic scenes, like at the end of the last test, but isn't it obvious that "The cake is a lie The cake is a lie The cake is a lie" is meant to be funny?

    The only explanation I can think of for such a misunderstanding is a case of reading too many artsy reviews before playing the game. You didn't mention comedy or even the lack of it in your review, so I can only imagine you honestly didn't perceive it as a work that's meant to be comedic, which has me at a loss. Now, *as a comedy*, I think the writing is fantastic, and I think all those silly things done with GladOS's voice, and the static, etc, are honed and well done, within the context of being a comedy.

    There is some good story telling in Portal, but it's mostly implicit: nobody's there. There are observation booths which are slightly obscured, but you see no human shadows behind them. You start wondering what kind of place you're in. Clearly a research facility. Then you learn they have a robot military program (the hard way, by going through the military robot assessment course). You learn that others have escaped, and that no person is left. And, if you've played Half Life, you learn the context of this research facility in that world (by finding a slide show which mentions competition with Black Mesa). But what happened here?

    Well, I hope we find out in Half Life 2 - Episode 3. :-)

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  5. Comedy?

    I'll admit that I did not come to the game expecting comedy, so maybe I missed entirely; but even in retrospect, I don't see any comedy.

    What's so funny about messages scrawled on the wall in blood? About an artificial intelligence with the emotional maturity of a psychotic girl trying to kill me with nerve gas?

    There are some honestly dramatic scenes, like at the end of the last test, but isn't it obvious that "The cake is a lie The cake is a lie The cake is a lie" is meant to be funny?

    It seemed and still seems to me to be meant as a warning against believing the "sweet" words of the AI. It doesn't strike me as funny, no.

    I'd say that as comedy, Portal is even less successful than as tragedy.

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  6. Yeah, Portal is pretty much a comedy but, for whatever reason, a bunch of kids with Asperger's glommed onto it like it was the second coming of Computer Jesus. It's also got some pretty rad feminist undertones, but critics have blown those out of proportion too. I'm glad I played this game before its critics, commentators and fans ruined it for everyone, and was able to enjoy it on its own, humble merits.

    By the way, the game is easy as pie (cake?) so if you're looking for a challenge you can check out the advanced chambers or (if you were wise enough to have purchased the PC version instead of a console version) you can download some third-party add-ons for the game. Some of them are absolutely devious.

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  7. "I'll admit that I did not come to the game expecting comedy, so maybe I missed entirely; but even in retrospect, I don't see any comedy."

    It's dark humor, and even perhaps a kind of humor confined to a younger generation, one jaded enough against the horrors of totalitarianism and torture to find a phrase like "assume the party submission position" humorous. But it's there, yeah, throughout the game. One-liners like that pepper the script: "This puzzle is impossible; make no attempt to solve it;" and "You destroyed your weighted companion cube faster than any test subject on record, congratulations;" and "Remember when the platform was going into the fire and you were like 'NO WAY' and I was like 'We pretended we were going to murder you...?' That was *great*."

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  8. I'm with Christopher and Paul. Portal is a puzzle game the story is just a joke. Consider it background music. If you have played a few games you might find something about it funny or cute. I for example cannot imagine how the idea of a computer trying to get you emotionally attached to a metal cube with hearts on it by saying "It is your best friend." can leave you without a grin on your face.

    Portal was fun and a great idea. It was to short and and to simple.

    Saying anything more would be giving it to much attention.

    Oh, yeah! The outro-song was awesome, too.

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  9. Yep, it's really comedy. I'm not so disparaging of the story as 'touchy' is, but I'd say that you (Victor) have thoroughly misunderstood it. Valve even hired the two guys behind Old Man Murray (a humorous game review site) to write for Portal, specifically for their comedy.

    Paul S cited some more one-liners that I can't imagine being interpreted as non-comedy, even if you don't actually find them funny.

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  10. First, I really enjoyed Portal. I thought it was a nearly perfect example game design and execution.

    Second, yes, it's a dark comedy. It is not trying to delve into the verities of the human condition.

    Third (and enough with numbers): the comedy comes through the computer's narration, and the darkness is because you're never sure what to make of her. Is this a benevolent computer aid gone buggy? Is there now a malevolent personality in there or is it just broken? Was there ever really a test procedure? Were there previous tenants and what happened to them?

    So you get to the cube-euthanasia scene, and of course you don't take the guilt seriously -- but you have to wonder what *the computer* is thinking to *think* you should take it seriously. Or does she? Maybe she's just laughing at you.

    The threat is both understated and over-the-top. That's the tension that made the narrative atmosphere so much fun. It takes a lot of cues from _The Prisoner_ and, I don't know, _Charlie and the Chocolate Factory_ maybe.

    As for storytelling -- it neatly presents an emotional arc, using only external narration and set design. That isn't easy. I got a lot of good press for doing that in _Shade_, and I'd say _Portal_ does it at least as well.

    You say "The game is certainly too short and too easy". I say "xkcd386". Portal was short and easy; it was also the right length and the right difficulty. It presents its mechanics; lets you figure out each of them; lets you figure out how to deal with interesting combination of them; and then tears the roof off and lets you use those skills in a good go-round of "real-world" environments. None of those phases would benefit from being any longer. You would be adding slog and repetition, not adding fun. I got to the end of Portal just as I was feeling like I could get tired of it; that seems ideal.

    Difficulty, well, I could have solved a harder game. But I was thinking about each piece as I got to it; being stumped for *longer* than a few minutes would not have been more enjoyable for me. And a harder game would have been less accessible to a whole lot of people.

    (I tried some of the "advanced challenges" that came with the game, which were familiar rooms with the hazards or restrictions cranked up. They were all too hard. I probably *could* have solved them, with a lot of time and patience; but fitting that experience into the game's narrative would have killed both stone dead.)

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  11. Okay. I still have a really hard time thinking of Portal as a comedy, and I think I may know why. What drives me as a player through the story is the wish to survive, and what Portal's environments and Portal's single NPC present to me most of all are (active or passive) threats to my life. They're out to get me. The world consists of machine guns, electrified water, incinerating orbs and crushing pieces of metal. I have to be alert and smart and fast in order not to die, and I still die often and see the dreaded red screen.

    Now, being in a situation where you can be killed any moment is not funny. I would go as far as saying that it is the exact opposite of funny; it is deadly serious. (There's a reason those two words are combined so often.) So the entire gameplay of Portal puts me in a mood, when I play it, which makes a comical interpretation of what happens around me extremely inappropriate. The world cannot be a comedy to me when I face the constant threat of death.

    Does that make sense? Apparently, none of you experiences Portal this way, which surprises me.

    @ Andrew:

    The threat is both understated and over-the-top.

    Well, no. The threat is always very concrete: it is a machine gun, or a lake I shouldn't fall into, or a lot of fire. I never experienced the voice as a threat; I experiences those parts of the environment as threats that actually threatened me, and those were all of exactly the same type that you woulf find in Half-Life 2 (or any other shooter).

    (In fact, I think Portal could have easily been incorporated into Half-Life 2. It even turns into a shooter in the final scene, which has no puzzle elements.)

    As for storytelling -- it neatly presents an emotional arc, using only external narration and set design.

    I'm not convinced. There seemed to be hardly any narrative development between the first and the last scene. With the AIs very first words (which were already strange and distorted) I suspected that I was to be killed; this suspicion became knowledge in perhaps five minutes. After that, there didn't seem to be many new facts to discover, no new emotions to experience.

    None of those phases would benefit from being any longer. You would be adding slog and repetition, not adding fun.

    No, that's not true. There are puzzle games out there that really challenge you, and benefit your perseverance which brilliant Aha!-moments. (The Professor Fizzwizzle game I linked to in the OP being a good example that continued to impress me wiht brilliant and challenging puzzle design.) I would have liked more Aha!-moments from Portal; it would have made the game more fun for me. But let me try out those advanced maps and report back to you. :)

    They were all too hard. I probably *could* have solved them, with a lot of time and patience; but fitting that experience into the game's narrative would have killed both stone dead.

    I guess our opinion on the game's difficulty is correlated to our opinion on the strength of the narrative. If I had enjoyed the narrative more, I would probably have chosen quick progression over challenging puzzles as well. I know I do in interactive fiction.

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  12. Basically, what you described is the essence of dark humor. I'm honestly curious to know whether you have ever enjoyed a dark comedy horror movie or story. i.e., the kind of thing that mix things such as death (or the threat of it) with comedy. Say, Rocky Horror Picture Show? Dr Strangelove? To take something from IF, how about Necrotic Drift? It doesn't even need to be "dark", really: even Terry Pratchett's novels often have scary, life-threatening situations while maintaining humor on every page.

    To me, Portal has a similar comedic rhythm to Pratchett, actually (I wasn't planning on going on this tangent in this comment, but my thoughts lead me here). Pratchett basically has some humorous turn of phrase on nearly every page. Similarly, almost everything that GladOS says is humorous. But stuff is still going on: Vimes is trying to save is child from kidnappers, and the Portal protagonist is trying to flee from a psychotic AI. One of the reasons I find Portal great is that this contrast is done so smoothly. It kept my emotions in a state where I wasn't just rolling around on the floor laughing, but I also wasn't deathly afraid of what would happen to the main character. I was aware of both the humor and the drama.

    And in the same way that I don't consider Pratchett to be dark comedy, I also don't consider Portal to be dark comedy. That may just be because I'm so familiar with these kinds of dramatic video games; the concept of mixing humor with them is not strange to me. Maybe the same thing happened to Terry when he decided that he'd had enough of stuffy, serious fantasy novels, and went to write the first Discworld book.

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  13. Dr. Strangelove and The Rocky Horror Picture Show are two of my favourite movies. Really.

    Perhaps the difference--for me--between these movies and Portal is that when I watch these movies, I am not trying to accomplish something. I am sitting back and relaxing, enjoying a situation which the movie makes sure I don't take too seriously. But when I play Portal, I am given the task of ensuring the protagonist's survival; I have a very concrete and urgent aim; I am constantly pressing Quick Save; I am all primed for a battle of wits and reflexes against the enemy who wants me dead.

    Those are very different moods. Comedy, it seems to me, requires distancing. Even in real life, being able to laugh about ourselves implies taking a step back, looking at our goals instead of striving for them, and seeing how unimportant they really are. If the game doesn't distance me from the action, but pulls me in instead, it is almost certainly not going to be able to put me in the mood for comedy.

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  14. That's very interesting. I wonder if very many other people who played Portal ended up with a similar feeling about it.

    By the way, I just want to amend something I said in my most recent comment. I do think Portal is a dark comedy. I think I was just mixing up "black comedy" and "dark comedy" (to use some vaguely-defined phrases). Portal doesn't really make me go "ugggh, oh horrible, oh" and then nervously laugh, like really black comedy does. But it's clearly dark comedy, given that it's about a twisted AI and an escape from a horrible prison/research facility.

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  15. Portal had me virtually falling off my chair laughing. I'm afraid you've missed the point.

    Lest you think it's just me--or just a few posters who have this perspective--consider the end-song is done by a comedian song-writer (and it's hilarious). Consider that stuffed companion-cubes sold out by last Christmas when I really wanted one.

    The game is a brilliant comedy that does several things that are innovative in the space (like letting you go "behind the scenes").

    -Marco

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  16. Victor, I find it interesting you mention repeatedly saving and dying, but simultaneously complained that it was too straightforward. Me, I'm a FPS addict but not a very good one, so I bounce on the quick-save key for most games as a coping mechanism. But Portal didn't trigger my "save every 30 seconds" impulse. I didn't need to save much, I died some, but not too often. The game felt had just about the right amount of difficulty; I would have enjoyed just a hair more difficulty, but the bonus levels were just too over the top for me. I'm not sure what's different between our play styles, but perhaps it's part of why you didn't enjoy it? If you're sitting at the edge of your seat the entire time, it probably would make it hard to enjoy the irony that forms the core of the humor.

    You mention a "constant threat of death." With a few exceptions, I found the game to be very slow paced. I had lots of time to assess a situation and cautiously explore with minimal risk. Sure, the computer wanted to kill me, but for most of the game that threat was ignorable while I studied a level's components and planned a route. I don't know what the difference we have is, but that may be a clue.

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  17. Victor, I do not think that Portal is really taken by many players as an emotional experience. In particular, I think or quite like to think that all of the hullabaloo surrounding the companion cube is an extension of the game's joke, which is to pretend that you would actually care--that you would hear the cube talking to you because you're losing your mind in this place and that you are forced to "euthanize" this helpful little box. So people came online and, as a way of expressing their joy for Portal, began humorously voicing their heartache over the companion cube. Honestly, if this isn't exactly what the meme is all about, I am deeply concerned for those people.

    I do think however that the game gets atmospherics very, very right despite how over-the-top the black humor gets. It is a visceral and surreal experience. Also notable is the ambiguity of the back story--especially of who you are, how you came to be there, and who the others were who carved out makeshift living spaces in the walls of the test chambers. However, I feel strongly that it was a mistake to have the writings and helpful signs of those who have come before you continue beyond the point of initial escape. Some think that you (Chell) are one of many clones, though I am not sure upon what they base this idea. I very much enjoy GLaDOS's discouraging line, "You're not a good person you know. Good people don't end up here."

    I also think that GLaDOS is an interesting character and one that develops over time. Her initial reaction to your little escape from the fire pit is to pretend that it was all a joke. She makes several further attempts to convince you to stop but eventually gives up and resorts to outright taunting. Most telling, I feel, is the line when she says, "Didn't we have some fun though? Remember when I said 'We pretended we were going to murder you' and you were all 'NO WAY'? That was great." And of course the closing song, Still Alive, which is nicely parodied in the game-thing You Have To Burn the Rope.

    I strongly recommend that you try the Portal Flash Version Map Pack, which you can think of as an unofficial Portal 2. Its puzzles require you to play with physics much more knowledgeably than the first game, and there is much less in the way of guidance. It is a far more difficult game that explores the portal mechanic in greater depth. Additionally, its approach to environmental structure is quite different than Valve's take, which makes for a very interesting contrast. While I enjoyed Portal thoroughly, I definitely have my criticisms, and this map pack is incredibly refreshing.

    You can get the pack here:

    http://portalmaps.wecreatestuff.com/

    I do think it is strange and even possibly inappropriate for Portal to be receiving such special attention among all other videogames from the IF community. Your and Emily's time may perhaps be better spent with Another World:

    http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=431

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  18. How the hell could you review Portal and not mention the wonderful dark humor? That's the whole point of the story! It isn't meant to be emotional -- it's an expression of disillusionment and cynicism, and a very entertaining one at that. My face hurt from laughing after I finished the game for the first time, and everyone I knew was quoting it for months after it came out.

    Now, I do have an emotional attachment to the game, but not because it's emotionally deep. If anything it's more of a cultural thing. Portal became a cult classic overnight amongst geeks, and for a while just mentioning "the cake is a lie" was enough to bring out a giggle in a fellow gamer.

    I hate to say that you missed the point of the game, but you missed the point of the game. You're honestly the first person I've seen not find the game funny.

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  19. Wow.. this has simply got to be the most fantastic, glorious piece of over-analysis I have ever seen, anywhere. Judging Portal like it's trying to be The Witcher. Haha.. next you'll be telling us how Tom & Jerry cartoons just don't favorably compare to the Mona Lisa.

    (I mean, really. They don't. It's just so completely obvious how both the mouse and the cat feel at any one moment, with their wildly contorted and exaggerated facial expressions and their penchant for using explosions and carbonized piles of remains to denote annoyance. And as a comedy it doesn't work either. The mouse - it's trying to survive, you know. It's being hunted. It's fighting for its life. That is some serious business right there. I can't see anything funny about the situation. So Tom & Jerry fail as being the Mona Lisa, but really they fail as comedy even worse.)

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  20. I had to post my agreement with majority of posters here. It's unfortunate that the game's meaning totally missed it's mark on you (victor). Portal is unmistakably tongue in cheek. I honestly can't understand where your particular interpretation of the game has come from. I had the highest respect for you're insights and thoughts on gaming but this review has unfortunately, greatly tarnished your credibility in my eyes.

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  21. I agree with the general assessment that the writing was sort-of typical of double-A titles (and some triple-A titles). It's overall okay, with amateurish moments, lacking in subtlety, reasonably well-polished, clever at times, etc. There are several games which were better-written the past year, so I don't know why anyone would seriously hold this out as particularly well-written.

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