We have a sustained reaction to taking a linear route for an unspecified reason.
Me, aged 17. Or maybe I was 18. I’d prefer to say younger as it gives me a better excuse for why the article was so poorly written. And by that I really mean pretentiously written – it’s pretentious done badly.
I was reminded of my old article and the story behind it after my recent re-play of Half-Life. It all started when I read a poem about a dog with fleas. I remember sitting in my college’s canteen (that’s a sixth-form college, not university college) and happening on a very cheap looking student magazine. Flicking through the five or so black and white pages I saw there was a poetry competition and a poem about washing fleas off a dog was featured as one of the winners. I was dumbfounded. “Such a poem is fit for neither human eyes nor lips,” I said to my friend, Dan. (Later we found out the author was mentally disabled )
Right there and then we agreed we would takeover the magazine and run it ourselves. As it was, the magazine was god-awful and we figured it’d be impossible to do a worse job – it could only get better. We met the editor to discuss ideas. She was the only person working on the magazine and although we offered to take the responsibility off her hands she wasn’t about to give it up, not without a fight anyway. We agreed instead that Dan and I would each write an article for the magazine – an opportunity to take it over from within, as I saw it. I decided my debut article would be on Portal. It was a pretty recent game at that point so it was current, plus I’d noticed a reference to Emily Dickinson in the game. Dan and I were doing English Lit at the time and we both had a crush on the teacher; to woo her Dan persuaded me to add the Dickinson quote.
In the end, Dan compromised his initial artsy-fartsy article idea (inspired by his love for our English teacher) and submitted a piece listing 10 hangover cures, which was accepted for the magazine, implying that it was somehow more relevant to the student body than my own review of a 15-certificate videogame. “Students won’t want to read that,” was Candice’s response to my article. This despite the fact that minimum drinking age in the UK is 18. Bastards. Anyway if you’re reading this now Candice, my blog is doing great on the subscriber front, thank you.
Portal: a bastion of promise. Should’ve been the tagline, if games had them. First I should explain, Portal is a computer game released at the tail end of 2007, originally bundled in with a collection of first person shooters in its retail release, the aptly named Orange Box (the box is mostly orange). Portal consists primarily of a series of puzzles that must be solved by teleporting the player’s character and other simple objects using the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (“Portal Gun” for short), a unit that can create an inter-spatial portal between flat planes. The goal of each puzzle is to reach an exit point. The manipulation of your environment allowed by the portal gun is the main focus. The character we play as is led through these puzzles, accompanied by the female voiced GLaDOS computer. GLaDOS gives the experience so much character, as its spoken voice lends all manner of amusing and threatening comments throughout the puzzles that give the game its mystery, as it is never clear whether the feminine computer tells the truth about anything.
First person shooters, as they’re called, have been a fairly stagnant genre over the years, with very few changes since the mid nineties when they originated in their current form with popular titles such as Doom and Quake. Portal subverts expectations by being a story driven, first person puzzler. It surpasses and surprises in its balance of humour and menace, enigmatic atmosphere, perfect pacing and excellent writing. Rather than focus on all of its many merits, I’d like to address issues that surround the medium and suggest to the reader that while Portal is not, in my opinion anyway, a high art masterpiece, it makes an excellent showcase for the potential that lies in interactive media.
I’m not going to lie to the reader by suggesting that there is a wealth of unplumbed intellectual depth in current offerings – for the most part games are shallower versions of already shallow films and books. There are many hurdles for game developers to overcome. For example, a depressing film like, say, Requiem for a Dream; I was at a party recently, and someone person referred to the film as being “amazing”. I agree with them both, although isn’t it a bit of a paradox to be so positive about such a depressing film? Both of the people I talked to on the subject agreed that it was a very depressing experience to sit through.
It is the intent behind the film to create that experience, the deliberate thought put in, which allow the film to succeed in its aim to win over the viewer in some way, to immerse them. But can deliberate emotional investment be translated into something interactive? How can one articulate and put into practice the concept of inherently emotionally involved game mechanics?
I don’t mean merely having a depressing storyline in a game, which can be easily achieved by taking away control from the player and playing a video – that is a simple imitation of film. Any game that plays out like a film in this way is very open to criticism; commonly one might find that if the non-interactive story is good, the interactive portion, the actual gameplay itself can feel like a chore, or have no bearing on the story itself, or both.
Portal isn’t perfect in this particular regard, but at the very least it takes steps to minimise it; you are always in control of the main character, constantly able to move and look around freely, from the very beginning up until the final credits. Furthermore, the main character is an anonymous woman (pictured left in freefall between two portals). She never speaks and it works because we, the player, don’t have any input from “her” and are allowed to fully indulge in our own motives for progressing. We have a sustained reaction to taking a linear route for an unspecified reason. Portal gives the player a very controlled environment, but it isn’t contrived – you are a prisoner in a controlled testing environment, that’s the story, and it doesn’t beg any questions as to why you can’t do this or go there.
In the future I hope that the foundations set by Portal will be built upon, as the potential is there, no matter what critics will have you believe. It is an antiquated mind who attempts to denounce interactivity as being merely a distraction; critics were highly sceptical of cinema on its arrival, and the early years of film did little to sway it. Today film is considered a highly viable artistic medium – the times have definitely changed. Now with videogames we have a more complex medium, which requires more mastery than any medium before it. It takes masses of effort to form a piece of humanistic art out of pure technology; the humanity has to be transfigured into a computer’s way of understanding and then remoulded back to an aesthetically and artistically pleasing result.
I recommend unto all readers to push aside any prejudices and give Portal a try. It is a very accommodating length for a game (it took me about 5 hours my first time through), perfect for anyone who would balk at reading a long novel. I’d also like to commend the suspiciously DVD-like developer commentary that can be unlocked in the game, whereby you can play through the entire game whilst being able to experience hearing different members of the development team explain some of the choices they made in designing the game, during the relevant sections!
As an endnote, I should like to add for any literary buffs reading that Portal contains a darkly comic take on the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, although it is hidden deep within the game’s walls so it is easy to miss! Make of that what you will.
Portal is currently available at retail, contained within “The Orange Box”, RRP £35. The fascinating Portal trailer can be found online at www.steampowered.com, where it can also be purchased for $20. Please note that purchasing online means you will not receive a physical disc, it is simply downloaded.
That was the article. The article is almost unbearable for me to read now but I love my amazement in the end disclaimer that you wouldn’t get a DVD if you buy the game online. Any thoughts on the article? Feel free to hit me up via MSN Messenger seven years ago.