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Write every day no exceptions – Portal June 17, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in write every day no exceptions.
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A few trailers for Portal 2 recently surfaced (thanks, E3!), and I feel compelled to comment on this game.

I’m a gamer. I love games. If I had more money and time I’d play them constantly. I kind of wish there was a real way to break into the video game reviewing scene besides posting on a blog and hoping feverently that someone, anyone takes notice, but it seems that getting paid to tell people why their games suck is a privilage reserved for brits who talk very fast and live in Australia and have excellent video editing skills, or people who can pair their writing talent with a witty comic. In other words, not exactly me, given that I hardly have the attention span for this sort of thing.

I digress. I love games. I’ve loved games since before I was actually allowed to play them – I’d beg friends to let me play their Nintendo 64s while my mother bought into the media hype about Doom making kids kill people (ah, the 90s). When my parents got Might and Magic 6 for the PC I used to try to play as much as I possibly could, forcing my parents to put a one hour time limit on my game time. I love videogames.

And Portal is a perfect game.

“What!” you say. “Blasphemy! What about Half Life itself?! What about Goldeneye? What about Halo? What about…”

Nope. Portal is perfect.

This isn’t to say that Portal is my favourite game. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it, and I wish I had a computer that could actually play it. Once I manage to purchase my Xbox360 I will gleefully buy it and then lament that my hands are exactly the wrong size for the Xbox’s absurd controllers and wish that Valve would release a Wii version. For my psychotic AI protagonists, System Shock 2’s SHODAN far, far outstrips GlaDOS in how godsdamned scary she is. In terms of atmosphere, Bioshock infinetly outpaces Portal, particularly given that Portal’s environments are, well… a little bland. Hell, they remind me of old school Dungeons and Dragons in their bizarre dungeon-ecology nonsense. Even the later levels in the actual test facility still give me Galaxy Quest moments where I go “WHY IS THIS HERE?! WHOEVER WROTE THIS EPISODE SHOULD DIE.” Planescape: Torment is the most well-written game of all time, nothing I have ever played comes even remotely close to the emotion that game put me through (a post for another game, perhaps), and Kingdom Hearts will always be my fallback game for good old mindless fun. And as for puzzles? Riven, even with its genuinely impossible Fire Marble puzzle, will win for me due to its compelling story and incredible atmosphere.

So, it’s not my favourite game. And clearly, other games do certain things better than Portal. So why do I say that Portal is a perfect game?

Because none of those games combine all the elements that make a great game into one seamless whole. Each one has a stellar spike in some singular area, but each one also severely fails in some area. Riven doesn’t allow you to freely roam about, and as mentioned earlier some of its puzzles are bone-headedly impossible. Planescape was sometimes too wordy, and I’m sorry Allandaros, I will never, ever like 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons mechanics no matter how much you laud them. Kingdom Hearts suffers from Japanese RPG Syndrome in that the plot often makes no goddamn sense and there’s really no way to customize anything. Basically, each of these games has some kind of big flaw.

Portal… doesn’t. Not really. The biggest complaint I’ve ever personally seen towards the game is that it’s too short, which to me isn’t a flaw. I hate games that are too long. I’m an incredibly busy person with a severe case of ADD; I’ve never finished Disgaea: Hour of Darkness because it’s nine hundred goddamn hours long and 90% of that is grinding.

So, let’s back up a bit and look at what I consider the fundamental elements of a game:

Gameplay. This is the first and foremost. It’s a goddamn game, people, and it’s scary how often people forget this part. Failing here is the fundamental flaw of many a Japanese RPG and every single movie tie-in game. Gameplay has to be fun. It doesn’t have to be unique, exactly, so long as it works.
Engagement. It’s all well and good if you can push a button and you get shiny lights, but the player has to feel like they’re actually doing something. This is, again, a big flaw in your average Japanese RPG – the game feels like it’s on auto-pilot. A good game enables the player.
Plot. A game has to have a story. This is a failing of most Western shooter games – 90% of them are “Blah blah A Space Marine Is You blah blah Some Kind Of Bad Guy Probably Aliens Or Terrorists Blah Blah you shoot them.” On the other end of the scale, you get Japanese RPGs (and some Western RPGs!) that get these massive plot tumors that cease to make any sort of goddamn sense at all.
Environment and atmosphere. This doesn’t make a good game – I know quite a few truly excellent games that were pretty shitty in this regard. Just look at text adventure games – WHAT graphics?! But environment and atmosphere can do wonders for making a great game. You could have made the Myst games without any graphics at all, but no one would have given a damn – they would have been just another Zork. The fact that Myst had freaking gorgeous photorealistic (for the time, anyway) graphics that gave you a sense of interacting with a living, breathing world is what made that so-called ‘pretty slideshow’ into the runaway bestseller of the mid-90s. So many games forget this as well. I again point to Western style shooters – Real is Brown! Have endless dark industrial environments repeated over and over again in GLORIOUS BROWN!

… I seem to be picking on Japanese RPGs and Western shooters a lot, don’t I? Bah, call it writer bias. I’m also probably missing some points.

So, how does Portal hit all these points?

Gameplay. It’s simple and intuitive. Anyone can pick it up fairly easily. There’s no fiddly learning curve to figure out menus, there’s no work to be done in regards to learning how to aim a complicated gun. There’s a portal gun. You press left and right to fire different colors of portal. Then you can run forward, back, and jump. Easy. Simple.
Engagement. My god, it’s fun! Wow, remember when games were fun, guys? The game challenges you in a myriad of ways, constantly coming up with new ways to completely immerse and engage the player. At no point do you feel like you’re on autopilot, even though GlaDOS is doing her best to railroad you into all sorts of odd situations, you can often find multiple solutions to a single problem.
Plot. Portal is a master of the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’. At no point are you outright told anything. At best, you have an extremely unreliable narrator in the form of GlaDOS. Thus, like much of the best literature, the player is left to figure out things on their own. And what an engaging exercise this is! In the end, some is revealed, but not all, leaving ample room for a sequel hook.

And aw dang, that’s all I have time to write tonight. Sorry, folks. I’ll try to stop failing to finish entries.

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