Friday, July 24, 2009

A Portal Through Time

This past weekend, I plugged a gaping hole in my personal gaming experience: I finally played through Portal. Let us dispense with the formalities: the game is a masterpiece. The marriage of a brilliant concept and a sublime execution is a rare treat. Anyone who enjoys games, science-fiction, or simply fine storytelling should play it.

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:


  1. Have you seen this analysis of GlaDOS? Still Alive? She’s Free.

  2. Congratulations on your first run through Portal! I only just played and beat the game for the first time a few months ago. It really is brilliant through and through. Some of the best level design and in-game narrative I've ever seen.

    You should know, that one of the reasons I like your blog is because you guys are sometimes late to the party. I generally don't play games until they go down in price, but then I have some great experience and wish there was someone who still cared about my game to talk about it. Hell, I'm still playing games I missed out on back into the 8-bit days, not to mention whatever current gen game has expired past its two-month-long shelf life. I hope you guys continue to chew your food, digest, and hopefully provide more new insightful commentary on the games that are collecting dust at sites like IGN that make it their goal to stay on top of everything. A lot of gamers don't play games at launch. There is an audience.

  3. Oops! ^^^That was me. I usually use this account when posting here. I am Cory.

  4. I think one of the best signs that games are being taken more seriously as their own narrative medium and (dare i say it) a unique form of art is that it is becoming more accepted to experience a game a year after it comes out.

    Literature and film studies don't rely solely on releases from the past month for analysis, so why should gaming be any different?

    That said, as the medium is still relatively young, there are still going to be releases that completely redefine our views of gaming (such as Portal or, IMO, Bioshock) and these need to be experienced as soon as possible if we want to make more meaningful criticism of gaming in general.

    I only just recently played Bioshock and it has made me reconsider the 'choices' i made in many games I prioritised over it.

    I am only just now playing through Shadow of the Colossus and am still overwhelmed by its sheer beauty.

    I think, also, that the trend in more recent years has shifted away from needing state-of-the-art graphics to more enjoyable gameplay (thanks to Nintendo, mostly) and tis in turn has led to a lot more interesting discussion about gameplay and game theory that isnt solely graphics-driven and thus can be a bit more retrospective... or something.

  5. @Tal

    I have seen that article, but I was waiting to finish the game before jumping in. Thanks for reminding me!


    Thanks for the encouragement. It's good to shake off the effects of marketing hype and slow down every once in a while.

    Like a lot of folks (especially these days), I have to pick and choose which games to buy and play right away, I just wish there were a way to tell which ones are worth playing right away!


    Sounds like you're grappling with some of the same issues I face when deciding which games to play right away.

    I do agree that as the medium ages, we'll start to see more "canonical" games that continue to undergo analysis. I'm interested to see which games will undergo a "Great Gatsby"-esque rediscovery.