Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Best Game

It’s clearly an overstatement to say that Portal is the best video game. That’s like saying The Siren is the best painting. There are too many factors involved in the art to be able to say that. But, I can say that Portal may be one of the best examples of an actualized video game that exists.

Portal is a complete interactive narrative, executed in such a way that its separate elements reinforce each other without interrupting each other. This is not something most games achieve and those that do do so by being very simple, visually and thematically. The simplest parts of the game are its premise (you have a gun that makes portals and must get from A to B) and the solution to it’s casual plot (the computer flipped out and killed everyone, and is now running on it’s own.) And honestly, a simple premise that becomes complicated and an archetypal plot that is introduced in a roundabout, mysterious way are elements of good games and good stories respectively. The graphics, mechanics, environment and puzzles are fairly complicated.

As far as a gameplay goes, Portal is executed extremely well. It has all the elements that decades of gaming have taught us are important for the experience to be fun. Its game mechanics are straightforward, the learning curve is natural, and the game stops before it becomes tedious. Your ability to play with portal technology freely lets you feel like you have been allowed to exploit the idea as far as you might like to. There's nothing I wish I'd been able to do but couldn't.

Portal has a plot. Well, Portal has a story. Not very original, but entertaining. What’s great is that Portal’s story is told brilliantly, almost without any expository information for nearly the entire game. The hardest thing in gaming, it seems, is to integrate a narrative with free control. Things like cut scenes and environmental boarders make play separate from story. They make a distinction between when you are playing and when you are listening. Portal tends not to. At all. The plot comes entirely from auditory and visual clues that may or may not be noticed by the player the first time, or any time, they play. All narrative information comes through almost subconsciously. Although the story telling value of hidden rooms and GLaDOS’ intonations depends on the player’s attention to them, there is no separation between the world and the player. The gameplay and story are one. What you see and hear in the process of playing is all that’s needed to communicate the game’s narrative. What makes things more perfect is that the passive plot and active play reinforce each other perfectly. The environment is much more real the more you explore it, using the gun is more fun because of GLaDOS’ comments, and failure more frightening as GLaDOS’ backhanded compliments remind you of the immediacy of the danger facing your Every[wo]man character.

This sort of symbiosis wouldn’t be possible if Portal’s simple features were not so simple. That being said, this game is a new archetype of how to do a game right. It could have easily been the same game it is now minus the monologues and visual cues. It could have been a ton of fun without any of it’s humor. But the added voice, the hidden graffiti, and environmental story clues make the game. As does the humor. I’m not sure what to say about the song except “kudos” and “thank you”. All games should have this much personality.

I don’t remember where I heard it, but I heard it that game design companies were hiring people as staff writers specifically. What I hope happens is that they don’t write simply dialogue, or general plot elements. I hope that part of video game writing involves writing plot as gameplay. I hope writers will storyboard and sketch and pitch ideas to the concept artists. I hope the timing of game elements and the layout of the environment will be territory of writers as well. In fact, games should have directors. Do they, Warren?


Anonymous said...

The fact that games now have writers and have for a little while now is getting closer to faithfully recreating in games the most important tenet of storytelling:

Show, don't tell.

I don't know how many times I was told this in various writing classes - journalism, creative writing, literary criticism, everything. It is the foundation of good storytelling, and games can only execute a great story when they follow this one simple rule.

Portal is a special case, because this is one of those rare games (along with, say, Bioshock) that goes very little along the lines of "tell," and is almost exclusively "show." No narration, no scrolling text recap at the beginning to explain what's going on, you are thrust headlong into the world. And you just go from there. And that is how I remember my favorite books starting.

Fred said...

I'm so glad your blog is back! And what a fantastic new post. I definitely agree that Portal is a landmark spot in gaming, and definitely a top game of all time. I'm also glad it's part of such a strong outing from Valve in The Orange Box. If this doesn't establish them as THE most exciting PC game developer to watch right now, I don't know what would.

Derek said...

To say that Portal is the "best game" would be something of an overstatement—it would deny the impact, and importance, other 'silent' games have had over the years(ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, Silent Hill(1 and)). Valve did, indeed, manage to present their narrative in a more agreeable fashion than, say, Final Fantasy, but there are other games that need to be considered. All those mentioned before are more mature products thematically and structurally(though perhaps they do not have the cool “indie” feel that Portal has).

Also, I think more could(or should) be made of the main protagonist being female. It is interesting, given how rare non-sexualized female characters are, that she is given a weapon to manipulate the environment rather than for overt destruction. Is it that women(or females, if you will) are questing for the (true) cake over anything else(rather than fighting)?

I was disappointed that Valve cheaply ended the game with a final boss. For a game that so obviously touted its originality, it is odd for it to be so level based and coded in older styles. For a game that literally kills the God of its tiny world(due to it trying to dictate the terms of interaction), I am saddened by Valve’s tacit agreement with past design decisions. There’s a whole world out there—as the end implies—and I can only hope we get there.

All said though, it was still pretty good. I cannot criticize a game too much when it actually tries out new things.