Croal And Totilo On The Surprise Hit Of The Year -- 'Portal' Vs Mode Round 1

portalvs1.jpgLet's not waste too much time here. Hot on the heels of last month's "Zelda" edition of the N'Gai-Stephen Vs. Mode exchanges, we're launching a week-long discussion of "Portal."

If you've played the game, I think you may already be hooked. Why is this game so important? What should other developers copy from it? What's the likelihood that they will? What are the three lessons I think the game can teach the industry? What is the single best quality N'Gai has found in the game? Which of us finds a way to compare "Portal" to "True Crime"?

Read on below (or, if you want to view it in a different layout, go read it at N'Gai's "Level Up" blog). Be forewarned: THERE ARE "Portal" SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THIS POST

Some highlights:

Totilo: At the end of 2007, the accountants and the titans of the industry will look back and everyone outside of Take Two will say, "We need a… 'BioShock.'" They won't say they need a "Portal." Why?

Croal: Forget "American Gangster"; I wish that videogames had a sufficiently visible cultural profile that Jay-Z would create an entire album inspired by "Portal".

Come back to Multiplayer later in the week for Round Two.

To: N'Gai Croal

Fr: Stephen Totilo

Date: November 8, 2007

Re: Steal This Cake

When can you confirm that a game is great?

When you find yourself using a one-liner from it in conversation with friends? When you can't stop thinking about the gameplay? When you play another game and wonder why the people who made that one didn't do what the makers of the great game did?

When it compels you to declare that it has given us the move of the year? When it makes me to rashly suggest that it contains the best song ever sung in a game and no one thinks to say I'm an idiot?

"Portal" has made the people happy. How? Why?

If ever there was a game that needs to be laid out on a slide, clipped to the examination tray of a microscope and given a squint-eyed look, it's this product of Valve Software. It's a puzzle game with a moving story. It's a first-person shooter with almost no harmful shooting. It's a realistic-looking game not colored in grays and browns.

It's also a game that is short enough that people who have played it can assume that other people who also say they've played it have finished it -- or will within a week's time. (Note that this is what we cannot say about you and "Phantom Hourglass" or "Metroid Prime 3" -- just sayin').

One other bit of preamble about "Portal": it's a game that the industry won't necessarily copy.

At the end of 2007, the accountants and the titans of the industry will look back, and everyone outside of Take Two will say, "We need a… 'BioShock.'" They won't say they need a "Portal." Why? Because "BioShock" got the sales. And "BioShock" got the big review scores. "Portal" was sold on its own to some people via the Steam PC download service, but everyone I've talked to who's gone nuts for it has played it on the Xbox 360. On the 360 the game was sold as part of "The Orange Box," along with "Half-Life 2," two "HL2" episodes and "Team Fortress 2," so which suit could say that "Portal" was the reason "The Orange Box" did or didn't sell? As for reviews, how many people reviewed it on its own? To know what reviewers really thought of the game, marketing people and gamers would have to deal with the lack of "Portal" review scores and -- gasp -- rely on what reviewers wrote about the game within larger "Orange Box" write-ups. These are not the things that make a game the template for the future

So: "Portal." It's a fine gem of a game. Is it once-in-a-lifetime? I hope they'll at least make a multiplayer sequel, so that they can call the game -- free suggestion warning -- "Portal Combat." But, really, I don't think I even care about whether the game gets a sequel. The game is pretty great as is.

What I'd like to talk to you about in this first round is what lessons you think developers should take from "Portal." What did this game do right? What should the industry rip off from it if they actually did find reason to?

I have a few ideas.

Lesson 1: A Good Game Can Still Be Built On A Gameplay Gimmick.

There was a time when it was common for a new game that I played to be based on a single gameplay gimmick. "Castlevania" had the whip. "Bionic Commando" had the grappling hook. Technically "Super Mario Bros." was just about jumping (an ascent toward blocks to reveal items and a descent to crush enemies). "Metroid" was about a little more than rolling into a ball, but that was a key draw. "Metal Gear"? OK. That one wasn't based on a single gimmick even back then.

As technology advanced, games could do more than one thing well at a time, and so we saw fewer and fewer games that tried to do one thing well, certainly not one gameplay-thing well. It became rare to find the game based on a gameplay gimmick. Your "GTA"s, "Halo"s and "World of Warcraft" -- even "Wii Sports" -- succeeded by doing so much more than one gameplay thing well. How often do we see a game designed to do less? "Katamari Damacy"? "Every Extend"? Could we say "Gears of War" is just about the gimmick of fighting from cover? Nah. That's stretching it.

"Portal," though, is just variations on one gameplay gimmick: shoot a gun that attaches an entry and exit portal on most flat surfaces. That's it. A wild concept that most people who played the game hadn't done before. And that was it. Variations on that theme for four hours.

Now remember how I said on 1upyours that I would have paid full price for "Portal"? I would, because it's such a wonderful game. The reason why is this first lesson. It let me do something new that was something I'm glad I experienced in my gaming life.

Lesson 2: Gameplay Can Be Playful

The victory of "Portal" is that it is fun just to mess with it. Can you agree with me to apologize to the inventors of the English language for all the misuse we've made of the phrase "sandbox game"? Before "Portal" I, like many people who play games, was using it to describe open-world games like "GTA, "Gun" and "Spider-Man" -- games that allowed me to veer from a linear path and sample many a hidden side-task. I guess that's sort of analogous to what I did as a kid in my and my brother's green plastic sandbox. But I think what I spent more time doing was just: playing. Picking up sand and letting sift through my fingers. Making mounds of said that I probably thought looked like castles. Smushing those mounds of sand back down. Drawing lines in the sand with a stick. Just playing.

"Portal" has such a strong and clever mechanic, that even though it is a strictly linear game not at all designed with the openness of "GTA," "Gun" or "Spider-Man," it's much more like my old green sandbox. It's a fun place to hang out in and just play. I stand in a room in "Portal" and shoot my portal gun every which-way. I play with it. How many other games -- particularly modern games with three dimensions around them -- compel us to be playful? Let's praise this one on that merit (and give the similarly playful "Crackdown" some credit too).

Lesson 3: Meaningful Story Is Possible Without Cinematic Action

No one looks at the camera in "Portal" and cowers in fear. No one looks dreamily in love. No one jumps out of a flaming car at the last minute or saves someone from falling off a cliff by catching their wrist. No one looks at the sky and yells. No one strikes a heroic pose while standing across the room from the villain. No one stares at the lead character and poorly lip-syncs an info dump.

"Portal" bears none of the signs that, in modern games, signifies that storytelling is being attempted. And yet it tells a tale. It makes the player care. At least, it made me care.

The game defines characters. More importantly it reveals characters in an artful way. Did GLaDOSs wind up being exactly who you thought she was when the game began? Did your understanding of her character change? If so, when did it change? I don't recall a pivotal moment. Instead, my understanding of her developed slowly, somewhat subtly. This is advanced stuff for an interactive experience, especially one that offers little interactivity in how the story is told.

I see the storytelling in "Portal" as a step ahead. That said, I'm not sure what it offers to other types of games. Your thoughts?

Okay, N'Gai. I know you've been raring to go. Have it. What are the lessons of "Portal"? What should the rest of the industry beg, borrow and steal? And do they have reason to? And the will?

-Stephen

portalvs2.jpgTo: Stephen Totilo

Fr: N'Gai Croal

Date: November 12, 2007

Re: Grand Theft Portal

Stephen,

Thanks for throwing me a perfectly placed alley. I'll take the oop from here.

Seriously, though: your questions about the lessons that should be derived from "Portal" are precisely where I wanted to begin our discussion. I'm also intrigued by your privileging of commerce over art in deciding to first speculate about how "the accountants," "the titans of the industry" and "marketing people" would respond to "Portal"'s critical acclaim before offering your thoughts about how developers should draw from the game. (Was that your attempt at a free agent tryout for Monday Morning Quarterback? There's always room on the depth chart for a guest QB of your stature.) Out of respect for the creatives, however, I'll tackle the art first before I get into the business.

When developers are confronted with a genuinely groundbreaking game, they're just as likely to learn the wrong lessons as they are the correct ones, in part because the lessons to be learned from a breakthrough title are so varied. Look at what happened with the most influential game of the previous generation: "Grand Theft Auto III." It was a 3-D open world game; a hard-M-rated title; a crime simulator; a pop cultural satire of a particular era; a juvenile, bloody "F--k you" to censorious minds. So what did the various developers take away from GTA III and its sequels? "BMX XXX" (2002) wasn't an open-world game, but it was clearly inspired by "GTA III," with developer Z-Axis exchanging bouncy hookers for live-action footage of Scores strippers and Rockstar's low comedy for profane toilet humor. Luxoflux ripped off the 3-D open world, but swapped out "GTA III"'s crooked protagonist for a cop in "True Crime: Streets of L.A." (2003) and its sequel "True Crime: New York City" (2005).

Radical Entertainment churned out a string of open world games based on licenses. Two were T-rated ("Simpsons Hit & Run," 2003; and "Hulk: Ultimate Destruction," 2005) and one decidedly M-rated (the highly profane--and appropriately so, given the nature of the source material--"Scarface: The World is Yours," 2006). "Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction" (2005) from Pandemic Studios married open world gameplay to a paramilitary setting. EA Redwood Shores opted for a licensed property in "The Godfather: The Game" (2006), creating a narrative that could be weaved in along side the events of Francis Ford Coppola's eponymous film. "Grand Theft Auto San Andreas"' shift from gangster to gangsta served as the basis for "Saints Row" (2006) from Volition, while Real-Time Worlds' "Crackdown" (2007) put a super-powered cop in a cel-shaded, futuristic open-world.

The best thing we can say about any of these games is that they may have improved upon the GTA series' notoriously mediocre controls ("Scarface," "Saints' Row"), extended those controls into new areas ("The Godfather") or pumped up the sense of freedom that an open world can provide ("Crackdown"). But none has had the cultural impact or the influence of the original. That's because none has captured--or reinvented--the magical blend of elements listed above that makes "GTA" games special, which was the most important lesson of all. Nor do I expect any developers to recreate the lightning in a bottle that is "Portal." But if "Portal" is the "Grand Theft Auto" of action-puzzle games--the world's first story-infused first-person puzzle-shooter, or SIFPPS, whose manifold lessons will continue to be teased out by developers for years to come--my contribution to society will be to distill the genius of Portal into a single Grand Unified Theory (my job) from which developers can then attempt to translate into an equally ambitious and brilliant game of their own (their job). Are you ready? Here goes:

Portal is a triumph of minimalism.

The gameplay mechanics are stripped down to the bare essentials: the two-shot Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device; its built-in gravity gun capabilities to pick up and put down objects; and the physics system for momentum. Simple (for us gamers, anyway; I'm sure it was anything but for the developers) and oh so much fun to play.

The obstacles (walls, gaps, floating platforms) enemies (turrets and energy balls) and hazards (toxic water) are bare-bones and in many cases, multi-functional. The environments are generally pristine and uncluttered, with laboratory whites, institutional grays and ominous blacks as the dominant hues until you start pulling back the curtain to reveal the corroded browns, sickly yellows and hellish reds behind it.

The sound design is spare: the ambient hum; the various moving parts; the handful of pieces of music in the score; the charming childlike utterances of the turrets; and the satisfying "thoomp" of the portal gun.

The game is short: it takes roughly two to four hours to finish.

And finally, the narrative itself is minimalist. Sorry, Stephen, but I'd be hard pressed to call the events of "Portal" a story in the traditional sense; it doesn't much resemble a movie, television show, a novel or even a short story. The narrative is more allusive (and elusive, for that matter) than expository and more suggestive than straightforward, thanks in no small part to the maternal, mischievous, malevolent and finally murderous unreliable narrator that is GLaDOS. As a result, Portal is closer to a poem or a song, making the track that wraps up the game wonderfully appropriate. Even better, "Still Alive" is sung in character, like a song from a musical; it reminded me of "Pirate Jenny" from "Threepenny Opera" or "Epiphany" from "Sweeney Todd." (Forget "American Gangster"; I wish that videogames had a sufficiently visible cultural profile that Jay-Z would create an entire album inspired by "Portal".)

The philosophy of Portal, then, is that less can indeed be more. This is in stark contrast to the more-is-more aesthetic that informs "BioShock": more choices, more weapons, more abilities, more systems, more environmental detail, more characters and more exposition. There are definite similarities between the two games, as each is essentially a "haunted house" game populated primarily by enemies and obstacles; an unreliable, manipulative character who guides the player; and a late-game plot twist. Yet "Portal" manages to create out of far fewer elements and systems an experience and a sense of place that is easily as immersive as "BioShock"'s, with fewer flaws because Valve ruthlessly eliminated anything extraneous or discursive. Has so much ever been accomplished in a videogame with so little? (Certainly "Ico" and "Shadow of the Colossus" come to mind, as does "Rez" (most notably its fifth level), the first "Manhunt" and, more recently, "Everyday Shooter." Did I leave anything off my shortlist, sensei?

The way that "Portal" cleverly anthropomorphizes various objects in the game--the turrets; the Weighted Companion Cube; the cores that you blast off of GLaDOS during the final boss battle--is a simple yet indelible feat of emotional engineering. I may not have had to call you or my sister to help me through the moral quandary of whether or not to incinerate my heart-stamped box, but the fact that I desperately searched for a way to preserve it is a testament to the work done by Valve's writing team of Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek. In a recent Vs. Mode, I drew an analogy between "BioShock" and Francis Ford Coppola's similarly ambitious-yet-flawed "Apocalypse Now"; if I were to continue the parallel, I'd say that Portal is the equivalent of Coppola's "The Conversation": a smaller-scaled, finely wrought masterpiece whose multi-layered impact reverberates long after the credits have rolled. Less is attempted, but what is there is honed and buffed to perfection.

None of this is to say that "Portal" is the game that everyone should emulate while "BioShock" is chopped liver. Rather, both games are two sterling examples of how to create compelling experiences at opposite ends of the narrative and gameplay spectrum: the sonnet vs. the epic, the pop song vs. the opera. I understand why you'd consider the storytelling in Portal to be "a step ahead" of even "BioShock;" there's something about that statement that feels right. But "BioShock" wouldn't be "BioShock" with a narrative as stripped down as Portal's. (You said that "Portal" defines and reveals "characters," plural; I count just a single character in the entire game--GLaDOS--and I'm not sure that I would agree with you that the mercurial GLaDOS is defined or revealed as much as she is depicted.) Nor would "Halo 3," "Call of Duty 4," or "Ratchet & Clank" or any number of this fall's titles. Different games have different premises; they're trying to elicit different responses and/or create different experiences for the player, so there can't simply be a one-size-fits-all solution.

That said, "Portal" suggests that many games--even those as ambitious as "BioShock"--could stand to pare way back on the amount and the nature of the story elements that they try to include. It also insinuates that allusion may be more powerful than confession; that mystery may be more immersive than exposition; that questions may be more engaging than answers. Why? Because figuring out the story--or more precisely, assembling the story in our heads--is a final puzzle to be solved. It's another form of play that, upon reflection, a non-trivial number of us prefer to do ourselves rather than have the developers spoon-feed us. This is something that game creators will have to think about in the post-"Portal" era.

Cheers,

N'Gai

P.S. How do I know when a game is great? When I text friends of mine--including people who work at the publisher in question--and tell them that they have to play the game.

P.P.S. Since you're in the pole position on this Vs. Mode, you get to dictate which direction this takes us in. But considering the amount of discussion our "BioTroid"-era Vs. Mode exchange on boss battles generated on other sites--and the fact that our follow-up during our "Phantom Hourglass" exchange was partially aborted because I hadn't played enough of the DS title--why don't we pick it up again here? Because Room 19 not only addresses may of the criticisms I had of "BioShock"'s final boss, it's rivalling "Metal Gear Solid 3"'s sniper duel with The End for my favorite boss fight of all time.

Come back to Multiplayer later in the week for Round Two.