*If you’re one of the few people who haven’t played Portal then this entry contains spoilers. Sorry.
Like Bill Hick’s rant about your children not being “special”, the times I’ve shared my views on Portal have stunned, outraged and provoked scenes of outright incredulity. It’s as if someone were to stroll up to a holy cow, lovingly place a garland of flowers around its neck and then punch it straight in its fat stupid cow face. Twice.
Let’s be clear, Portal was a triumph by any measure. Within its short playtime it delivered excellent storytelling, level design, atmosphere and charm. It ripped up the rulebook (for a bit), defied preconceptions, achieved commercial success and cemented its place as a critical and popular darling. Valve triumphed (again) with their pioneering spirit, their daring and you loved them for it.
Yet, after being wowed by the initial experience (the first hour or two), I came away feeling empty and disappointed. It was like going to a Michelin star restaurant, having the most amazing starter and then finding out that all the subsequent dishes on the set menu are going to made out of variants of dog poo and bits of sick. Surely I can’t be the only one who felt this way? (Not the dog poo, the disappointment.)
Portal’s problem wasn’t that it was too daring and unorthodox; the problem was that Portal wasn’t daring enough. It felt as Portal gave into expectation and tradition at the points where it mattered the most.
Portal plays with our expectations from the outset. We’re playing a first person game, yet our avatar is not a burly marine or a begrudging hero suddenly imbued with special powers, rather a female test subject in an anonymous-looking lab. You don’t have a weapon you can use either; the player is relegated to being little more than a lab rat at the mercy of a sadistic inquisitor.
Yet despite this opening setting (as all designers know, players hate to feel small and helpless), the opening few hours of Portal are a lot of fun. The clever level and puzzle designs delighted and amazed in equal measure. On top of this the writing was charming and witty to the point where people felt a sense compassion and regret at being forced to destroy an inanimate metal cube*. Seriously, when was the last time you felt empathy for a hunk of metal, you heartless bastards?
* The way the Companion Cube had a “personality” and provoked a sense of emotional attachment to the player is a discussion worthy of its own post.
And then slowly it all started to slip…
In hindsight, I should have known when the turrets appeared.
Throughout the opening part of the game, the only contact the user has with anyone else is through hearing the disembodied voice of GLaDOS taunting you about your intelligence and (lack of) ability.
A little while in as things get more difficult and more deadly, cute tripod-mounted gun turrets start to make scattered appearances throughout. Although these mark a shift toward more traditional gameplay mechanics, they still managed to fit neatly into Portal‘s world. With their slightly animal-inspired design and their cute snippets of dialogue, they felt a world away from the traditional macho death waves of enemies I’d been mowing down for the previous 20 or so years, so I dismissed them as a nod toward convention without worrying too much about it.
I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Gradually over the course of the second half of the game, things become a lot less about careful exploration, smart puzzle solving and interesting and inventive twists and turns. Instead it’s more about surviving ever greater numbers of turrets either by avoiding them or USING YOUR PORTAL GUN TO KILL THEM IN NOT VERY CLEVER WAYS.
At this point my enthusiasm was waning. It was as if the beautiful girl I’d fallen for from across the room was looking suspiciously masculine the closer I got. There was a brief moment where my morale (excitement) rose as I escaped GLaDOS’ clutches and started investigating forgotten areas of the complex. Out of her reach you had a few fleeting moments to indulge in the setting and backstory and really get a feeling for the game and the world GLaDOS. Then everything came crashing down in the worst possible way.
To recap, so far I’d navigated my way through the game vulnerable and almost unable to defend myself. Avoiding enemies as much as possible, solving mind-bending puzzles and moving through environments featuring level design that at times can only be described as sublime. Yes, it started to grate as things became more “combat-focused”, but by no means was the experience remotely like an FPS.
I’d escaped the test area and was about to leave the lab and leap into the loving arms of freedom when…
A wild boss battle appeared! Really?! REALLY?
An unseen enemy is always far scarier than one you come face-to-face with. At this point all the suspense and magic has gone. All the good work setting the mood and making the user feel helpless yet somehow triumphant despite the odds is undone.
Way to go!
So blah, blah, blah… Test subject suddenly becomes some sort of portal gun wielding superhero, slays an evil hydra-headed computer (voiced by Mike Patton), escapes and shit blows up. Cue credits and nerd anthem.
I’ve discussed my feelings on Portal with friends of mine and the response I usually get goes something like this, “Well of course they ended it with a boss battle, that’s how games end. Innit?”
That’s a valid reason for doing something, because everyone else does? More worryingly (to me anyway), is that these are usually people who work in the industry. Why are we happy to accept 30+ year-old conventions rather than try something new?
Never mind that Portal broke the rules throughout the rest of the game, it’s almost as if the creators felt they had to deliver the means of closure that everybody expected. There’s no shortage of great ideas throughout, and I’ve no doubt they could have devised something infinitely more enjoyable than (let’s be completely honest about this) a very average boss battle. I’m not against boss battles per-se; I’m against the idea that a game where you overcome enemies must have one.
“If you love Portal so much, why don’t you just go and marry it?”
Truth be told, Portal is a good game. In fact, it’s a very good game. However, it’s not a great game.
I believe there are three reasons why Portal is so fondly remembered by gamers:
- It’s charming (see Psychonauts)
- Some of the content lent itself to funny memes/merch, which in turn made it more fondly remembered
- It did some things which were original and different
The status that Portal holds in the minds of many gamers says more about the general dearth of creativity, new ideas and charm in games today than the greatness of the game itself. This shouldn’t be the case, consumers should expect intelligent, innovative and witty games, and we as an industry should be delivering them.*
Some will argue that the indies are doing this already. The problem with this line of thinking is that Minecraft aside, I can’t remember the last time an indie had a genuine mass market hit outside of the casual/mobile space.
In the past 10 or so years we have sacrificed creativity and inventiveness on the altar of technological greatness.
You can’t reasonably expect a team of 200+ developers on a game to do anything other than the bleeding obvious. The financial cost of failure for these teams is so great that anyone who even dares to suggest something bold is often looked upon like some kind of deranged lunatic.
I would like to see the industry move toward a return to smaller teams with a focus on creativity and fun over technological excellence. This has already started to happen in the download space (take From Dust for example), let’s just hope this trend can spread into mass market retail products.
The sad fact is that the reason Portal is considered great is because there have been so few recent alternatives.