After basking in Portal's magnificence, I began to ask myself why I had waited to so long to play it. I was keenly aware of its existence: it garnered excellent reviews and spawned numerous geek memes. I even had a friend who dressed up as weighted companion cube for Halloween, so why the delay?
I am reminded of a post Michael Abbott wrote during last fall's game release orgy:
For those of us who enjoy contemplative play - and if you haven't tried it, I heartily recommend it - I suggest we slow down and chew our food. Resist the urge to finish a game simply to stay with the pack. Leave open the possibility of writing about and discussing games weeks or months after they're released. Enjoy the scenery. Jump off the [new release] train. I suspect it's headed nowhere anyway.
These sentiments appeal to my preferred gaming style. A completionist by nature, I love exploring everything a game has to offer and reflecting on the experience when I finish. The impulse to "keep up with the Joneses" is expensive, time consuming, and, in my mind, not conducive to fostering thoughtful reflections on video games.
However, as I played Portal, I could not shake the feeling that during the fall of 2007, I was chewing the wrong "food."
Staying up to date on gaming releases allows one to analyze games within their contemporary contexts and to monitor trends within the overall medium. Portal's gameplay and story challenge many traditional gaming conventions. Creating a first-person game that does not involve explicit gore is nearly unheard of, and the game's mechanics allow for a truly novel way to explore three-dimensional space. The game's writing caliber equals and surpasses most television and movie dialogue, and serves to augment the gameplay experience.
If I had played Portal, before now, it would have had major impacts on the work I do for this site. In our discussion on ethical decisions, Nels, Jorge, and I explored how choices, consequences, and personal moral systems affected the weight of in-game decision making. In Portal, I found myself examining the ethical validity of destroying the child-like turrets. If one became turned around and rendered harmless, I elected to let it "live" rather than destroying it. Unlike the Little Sister choices in Bioshock, Portal's rules did not imply a reward/punishment dynamic when acting on the turrets. Even though the game was narratologically linear in both presentation and execution, the combination of strong characterization and my preconceived ethical system engendered moral decisions.
Portal inspired meditations on life and murder, something I would have brought up in last week's podcast. The game uses murder as a means to arrive at a larger message, utilizing it as a tool to fashion a believable story. In the tradition of many murder mysteries, the unseen killing of other test subjects and Aperature staff begins the story. GlaDOS even has a self-professed motive: Science!
At some point in the game, I began thinking of GlaDOS as a person, and I resigned myself to the idea of her murder. It was not enough to escape; she had to be stopped. In the climactic confrontation, GlaDOS seems to dance on the line of sentience. Are her insults and shrieks of pain that of a software program created to elicit unease from humans, or are they signs of intelligent life? If it is the latter, Portal is at once a mystery and an assassination game.
In addition to one's personal experience, it is valuable to play a game along with a community. Being able to discuss contemporary titles with others furthers the collective understanding of a game's importance, as was evidenced by last winter's Prince of Persia discussion. Unfortunately, not all games have the staying power and dedicated community that titles like Far Cry 2 enjoy; most games are fated to burn brightly when first released, and then glow as embers until enough time has gone by to examine them in a historical context.
Limits on time, money, and interest all factor in to deciding what we play, making difficult choices necessary and inevitable. But how do we choose which games we play and when we play them? Do we go strictly by personal inclination, or is there a way to suss out which games deserve immediate analysis?
Recalling Michael's nutritionally-themed metaphor, it seems that some games are best consumed hot out of the oven while others function perfectly well as leftovers. Most importantly, it seems that chewing our food is much more enjoyable when we are all gathered around the same table, sharing the meal.
Whatever the case may be, I think this xkcd comic perfectly illustrates what it was like to hang out with me this past week: