Didn't we have some fun, though? Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit and I said ‘Goodbye’ and you were like ‘NOO WAAYY,’ and then I was all ‘We pretended we were going to murder you.’ That was great. --GLaDOS, Portal (2007)
Set your wayback machine to 2005 and imagine yourself a Valve developer attending a DigiPen career fair in Redmond, Washington. Seven students present their collective senior project, a game called Narbacular Drop, in which a player navigates a dungeon using interconnected portals.
Intrigued, you invite the students to visit and demo the game at Valve HQ. Your colleagues love what they see, and boss Gabe Newell hires the whole team to build a new game for Valve. Two years later: Portal. Success. Acclaim. Huzzah.
It's a wonderful Cinderella story, but in this version Cinderella is no princess. She's a mechanic. Nobody at Valve fell in love with Narbacular Drop's looks. The charm was the portal gun, and it's easy to imagine the wave of inspiration that hit the folks at Valve when they first laid eyes on that device. This Cinderella also traded her glass slippers for heel springs.
Reasons to portal
When considered in this light, Portal's game design elements are brilliant, but hardly astonishing. If someone handed you a portal-making device and told you to design a game around it, what would you do? Chances are, you'd devise a bunch of environmental puzzles with a variety of challenges (moving platforms, sequential triggers, etc.); obstacles (turrets, deadly hazards, etc.); and constraints (countdown timers, no available weapons, etc.). In other words, you'd dream up as many playful reasons as possible to blast portals.
Portal was seen as startlingly original when it appeared, but it also treaded familiar territory. Silent hero enters dungeon room. Door locks behind him. Hero must "solve" room before moving on. But in Portal, Link is an acrobatic woman, and his grappling hook is a teleportation device.
It doesn't diminish Portal's inspired mechanics or puzzles to suggest that they're predictably deployed. Like other well designed games, Portal's puzzles leverage the unique properties of the tools built to solve them. Portal is undeniably brilliant, but as a puzzle game it unfolds in familiar ways, with ramping difficulty and plenty of satisfying "I feel smart" fun.
Tricky levels and a novel gun make Portal fun, but they don't account for why the game soared so high. Valve's genius was situating the gun and the puzzles inside a world wherein they make perfect, maniacal sense. Setting Portal in a series of increasingly sadistic test chambers - overseen by a dispassionate computer AI bent on killing you - establishes a context that enables Valve to slowly reveal the true nature of the Aperture Science Research Facility. In the process, the narrative world of Portal uncoils - revealed and discovered by the player - and GLaDOS emerges as one of the great indelible characters in the history of video games.
Portal is an extraordinary game because its narrative, setting, and characters (turrets and Companion Cube included) flow naturally through its game design. The Enrichment Center's test chambers present diabolical puzzles, even as they gradually reveal a sordid history and an increasingly unreliable guide. Sharp writing, ironic humor, and a gleeful sense of computerized menace elevate the game even higher. Portal was a revelation when we first discovered it in '07, not simply because we didn't see it coming, but because it succeeded on its own terms even better than the acclaimed Half-Life 2 games that accompanied it in the Orange Box.
Narrative games have long struggled to forge a plausible bond between mechanics and storytelling. We shoot, drive, and fight in games because that's what games know how to do. We try our best to naturally fuse gameplay and storytelling...which works great if your game is about hunting down a Russian ultranationalist, but maybe not so great if your game is about finding a missing child.
The original Portal strikes this balance elegantly, and it does so by wisely limiting its ambitions. The only recurring criticism of the game was its length, with some reviewers bemoaning the fact that the game could be completed in four hours or so. Valve apparently heard this complaint and designed a sequel roughly twice the size of the original. Sadly, bigger isn’t always better.
Airplanes and peas
Portal 2 is a fun game, but it's burdened by a new array of mechanics that give the player more things to do, yet fail to add value to his experience. It’s a classic case of too much airplane and not enough peas. Let me explain.
Have you seen a parent entice a child to eat her peas by scooping them into a spoon and flying it around like an airplane? "Bzzzzzzzzzz! Open wide, here comes the airplane!" Enchanted by the flying spoon, the child opens her mouth and eats the peas. If all goes well, she discovers she likes them after all.
For many years games have employed a similar strategy delivering story to players. Run here, jump there, shoot that, cutscene! We entice the player with action, motion, and sensory stimuli...then sneak in a little storytelling while we've got his attention. Like the peas, we feed him story knowing he probably doesn't want it, but hoping he'll like it anyway. And sometimes he does. It helps if those peas are well prepared.
Portal 2 flies that spoon around with so many laborious mechanical gyrations that the savvy player begins to suspect something is wrong with its pea cargo. Stuffed in between all the new toys - hard light surfaces; excursion funnels, conversion gel, repulsion gel, propulsion gel, redirection cubes, etc. - is plenty of skillfully penned dialogue. GLaDOS turns berating into an art, and Wheatley yammers hilariously.
But roughly a third of the way into Portal 2, one begins to sense that storytelling has been affixed, rather than fully integrated, to Portal 2's high-flying mechanics. To be sure, Portal 2's script is full of clever bits and inspired delivery, but it's mostly in service of the game’s shiny/bouncy/slick new materials.
I'm not dismissing the importance of mechanics. It's not a question of which is more important. After all, without the portal gun, GLaDOS is irrelevant. It's a question of balance, and the original managed it better than the sequel. In Portal, testing had an integrated narrative function. In Portal 2 that function is hyper-extended through Cave Johnson's audio diaries and Wheatley's desperate ploys, all of which feel like excuses to protract and recombine Portal 2's new mechanical toys.
Of course, storytelling needn’t be delivered via script and performance. In Portal, the player constructs a story by leveraging the game's mechanical elements and piecing together bits of evidence discovered along the way in hidden rooms with poems, graffiti, and desperate warnings scrawled on the walls.
Slipping between the cracks of GLaDOS’ carefully constructed artifice reveals ghastly events, and this process of investigation and, finally, evasion from GLaDOS’ control is enhanced by the player’s experience navigating a backstage she never wanted us to see. Her efforts to stop us - relying on the only method she knows: testing - become challenges we must overcome using the tools we were given in the game’s opening stages. We must use what she taught us against her, and there’s a certain poetry to that.
Contrast this with the 2nd act of Portal 2, essentially a travelogue through Cave Johnson’s career as a mad scientific industrialist. Again, the VO work is first-rate, and his remarks interspersed throughout are entertaining, but they don’t bear on our experience playing the game. His experiments with gels (and their convenient tendency to appear where we need them) feel less like organic storytelling than gameplay grafting.
Likewise, the most notable outcome of Wheatley’s descent to madness is an additional hour or so of puzzle solving. Even GLaDOS’ suffers as the game wears on. With each nugget of backstory delivery, she grows more human-like, which, ironically, makes her less interesting, funny, and distinctive.
Portal 2 has many virtues, and by no means am I suggesting it’s a failed game. If you enjoyed Portal, you should absolutely play its sequel. Even when it stumbles, Valve produces work of exceptional quality and craftsmanship. As a co-op game, it has no peer (excepting, perhaps, Valve’s Left 4 Dead) and I’ll try to explain why in a future post.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Portal 2. Thanks for reading...and eat your peas!