Tensions Rise — ‘Portal’ Vs Mode Round 2

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(Warning: "Portal" spoilers throughout this post)

Round 1 of the latest Vs. Mode was tame. I told Newsweek's N'Gai Croal why I thought game companies would be hesitant to rip off "Portal" even though I then listed three things it did splendidly.

He praised the game's minimalism.

In today's Round 2 I take up N'Gai's offer to talk about bosses but do so by stubbornly talking about the game's story and characters.

N'Gai then lets me have it, explaining that I've talked right past him. In the process he tells me just what he thinks of the game's story and characters, or lack thereof.

If you like it when people argue, this round's for you.

Excerpts:

Totilo: I will tell you what I liked most about that boss battle: the fact that I wanted it. Did you ever get to Bowser at the end of "Super Mario Sunshine"? Or that whiny guy's dad at the end of "Final Fantasy X"? I was miserable when I got to those boss battles. I was mad that they were in there. They were roadblocks and they killed my gaming flow. And did I really care about taking out Bowser in his giant bath tub? Or evil dad at the edge of some wrecked roadway? No sir. But I wanted to hunt GLaDOS down, confront her for her lies, and break free of her clutches. I wanted this boss battle. I don't know if I ever have wanted a boss battle before. The narrative, slight as it was, suckered me in. The level design vaulted me forward. I cared to take a boss down, and never throught I was desiring this clash because I was being told to. I desired it. How rare is that? How odd is it that it's so rare?

Croal: you still haven't managed to convince me that there's a story in Portal. The only thing that we know is true is what Chell we did--GLaDOS, after all, is far too unreliable to trust anything she says--so if that amounts to "Portal" having a story, what then of "Tetris," "Bejewelled" and "Lumines"? As for the cake being real, that certainly wasn't Chell's our POV. Who are you going to trust--GLaDOS or your lying eyes?

Read on for the whole thing.

(This entry is mirrored at N'Gai's excellent "Level Up" blog.)

To: N'Gai Croal

Fr: Stephen Totilo

Date: November 13, 2007

Re: The Only Boss I Ever Wanted

N'Gai,

You asked me to talk about bosses for this next Vs. Mode round. But you're not the boss of me! Why should I? Next you'll ask me to jump in a fire, and I've learned anything from "Portal" it's not to take orders.

You want to talk bosses? Then let's talk… story. Seriously. Isn't it one and the same in "Portal" anyway? Isn't the entire "Portal" game the lead-up to the boss-battle? One long interactive, voice-over preamble to the (first? final?) meeting between the game's two characters? One long, slow burn between GLaDOS and - ahem - the other character in the game: the girl you're playing as? Goodbye, old video game story: you are the hero rescuing the captured Princes Peach. Hello, new video game story: you are the hero freeing your captured self. Now hunt that boss.

One of the special qualities Valve's title has it that "Portal" tells a story that fits a game. There is no extraneous back-story, no lore, no text a writer was paid to make that didn't really enhance the gameplay-driven experience. There are no bunches of baubles to collect, no extraneous bits of gameplay that require clumsy narrative explanation or willful ignorance thereof.

There's nothing awkward here, no forced final-boss confrontation that, at the last minute, lurches the narrative from its set pace. Instead the final boss battle is a welcome confrontation that only occurs after the player has, on their own, lurched the game from its own pace into an hour-plus sequence of escape. The final hour-plus is a breaking down of the game level's walls (another "Super Mario Bros." allusion) that puts the game's heroin on an aggressive march against her apparent captor. This game's boss battle comes upon the player oh so naturally.

"Portal" doesn't solve all narrative problems in games. But it stakes out stable terrain. It leaves on the frontier the possibility that games may someday tell a great love story or conspiracy thriller. "Portal" can only prove that, for now, games can at least tell a story of captor vs. captive really well -- after all, such a storyline and any video game are both all about control, no?

"Portal" says nothing profound. It simply tells a tale that works as a game, a rare feat.

About the final boss: story and boss battle converge smoothly in this game, as I've stated. And while I can't find much to fault with this game, I'm surprised to see you say that the final encounter in "Portal" is "rivaling 'Metal Gear Solid 3"'s sniper duel with The End for my favorite boss fight of all time." That's not praise I was expecting. That good? Really? It couldn't be because of the gameplay. Even though I'm far less enamored of The End confrontation than many others, I recognize the value it provided in letting players try different take-down strategies. Fighting GLaDOS doesn't. You have to remove her orbs. Give her the HAL 9000 treatment. De-evolve her. And fry her. And she's dead.

So what drew you in? I'm sure you'll tell me. But I will tell you what I liked most about that boss battle: the fact that I wanted it. Did you ever get to Bowser at the end of "Super Mario Sunshine"? Or that whiny guy's dad at the end of "Final Fantasy X"? I was miserable when I got to those boss battles. I was mad that they were in there. They were roadblocks and they killed my gaming flow. And did I really care about taking out Bowser in his giant bath tub? Or evil dad at the edge of some wrecked roadway? No sir. But I wanted to hunt GLaDOS down, confront her for her lies, and break free of her clutches. I wanted this boss battle. I don't know if I ever have wanted a boss battle before. The narrative, slight as it was, suckered me in. The level design vaulted me forward. I cared to take a boss down, and never throught I was desiring this clash because I was being told to. I desired it. How rare is that? How odd is it that it's so rare?

Too bad GLaDOS actually did have cake for me and was just testing me all along. Sorry about that, "Portal" end-game boss! I didn't mean to kill you. You didn't deserve it. I'm relieved you're Still Alive.

Let's hear you talk bosses some. But let me also answer the question you posed to me.

You wrote:

“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?

Yes, student, you did. "Super Mario Brothers" created as much immersive atmosphere and as much gameplay variation with as spare a design. "Tetris" is king of immersive atmosphere with minimal elements -- does any other game so effectively take you down its rabbit hole and away from the real world? I don't love many of the old games, but I'm sure others could cite their relatively minimalist favorites, and if they did, they'd help me make a point: the minimalist success of "Portal"'s design is primarily striking when compared to the rest of the games that play in three dimensions. Next to them, "Portal" is a stark, confident sleekness is a throwback. On the other hand, two-dimensional games were this simple and this elegant a long time ago. That was before, as I mentioned in my first letter, 3D came into play and gave game designers the understandable but generally overzealous ambition of trying to do so much more.

The secret of "Portal"'s success, you see, is that it may well be a 2D game in 3D clothing. Not in terms of how it's actually designed, but in terms of the values in the design: its spartan life. "Portal" is a reminder that a three-dimensional game can be simple. It's a refinement of what "P.N. 03" -- the GameCube game that looked like a 3D action game, played like a shmup -- was designed to express. It's a victory for those like me who enjoyed "Crackdown" because -- not despite -- its neglect of the "GTA"-style side missions that clutter so many open-world games. Ultimately, it's a reclamation of 2D game design values. Keep the concept to a simple thing and do that thing right.

The next time you play an impressive 3D game, ask yourself, could the designers have made a great game around this one gimmick here? A game just about fighting Big Daddies? A game just about using the "Metroid Prime" grapple hook? A game just using "Mass Effect"'s conversation system? Just using the climbing in "Assassin's Creed"? I'm not saying trying to make a fully-featured game is a bad idea. "Portal," simply, reminds us that there is -- and has been for a long time -- another way. A way that lately has been ignored.

So tell me about bosses. And about the virtues and vices of keeping it simple.

-Stephen

portal3281×211.jpgTo: Stephen Totilo

Fr: N'Gai Croal

Date: November 14, 2007

Re: No Hard Feelings

Stephen,

Perhaps my Round 1 entry was too minimalist. Because we seem to be talking past each other here.

To clear things up, let's start with character. In Round 1, you wrote that:

The game defines characters. More importantly it reveals characters in an artful way. Did GLaDOS 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.

To which I replied:

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.

And now you're pushing back, writing:

You want to talk bosses? Then let's talk… story. Seriously. Isn't it one and the same in Portal anyway? Isn't the entire Portal game the lead-up to the boss-battle? One long interactive, voice-over preamble to the (first? final?) meeting between the game's two characters? One long, slow burn between GLaDOS and--ahem--the other character in the game: the girl you're playing as? Goodbye, old video game story: you are the hero rescuing the captured Princes Peach. Hello, new video game story: you are the hero freeing your captured self. Now hunt that boss.

Chell? A character? Could I have been so forgetful? Um, no. I consulted Dictionary.com, and grabbed the following relevant definitionss:

1. The aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.

2. (Of a part or role) representing a personality type, esp. by emphasizing distinctive traits, as language, mannerisms, physical makeup, etc.

3. A description of a person's attributes, traits, or abilities.

4. The combination of qualities or features that distinguishes one person, group, or thing from another.

5. A person portrayed in an artistic piece, such as a drama or novel.

6. An imaginary person represented in a work of fiction (play or film or story); "she is the main character in the novel."

7. The set of qualities that make someone or something different from others.

Of the seven definitions I've culled, only #5 and #6 would seem to apply to Chell, the protagonist in "Portal." When I said that I counted a single character in the game, it wasn't because I'd forgotten about her. I left Chell out because she may be many things, including an avatar, but a character she most certainly is not. She's not defined. She isn't revealed. She doesn't even speak. (That's not to say that a silent video game hero can't genuinely be a character, but we'd at least need a good deal of body language to overcome that, and for the vast majority of the game, we don't see Chell either.) This may seem like nitpicking to you, but it's an essential part of Valve's aesthetic in the "Half-Life" universe: the player is Gordon Freeman; the player is Chell; and certain things that Valve believes will get in the way of player identification, such as giving voice to the protagonist, are eliminated.

I'm generally not a fan of the silent protagonist approach, a topic that recently prompted an interesting debate on the Surreal Game Design blog. At least not when it leads to semi-interactive sequences as in "Half-Life" and "Half-Life 2" where people are speaking to Gordon me and Gordon I can't respond. This is supposed to be more believable than having the hero speak? Put me through enough of those sequences, and I start to feel as though I have no mouth, and I must scream. (In that sense, "Portal" is already more plausible than "Half-Life" because there are no other humans sentient creatures humanoids who appear in the game besides Chell, so it makes sense that she would have nothing to say; what's more, her silence reinforces our sense of isolation.)

I will however give Valve props for sticking to their guns, for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the power of consistency in video games, much as "Metal Gear Solid" did when Hideo Kojima opted to use the in-game models for his cut-scenes rather than Square Enix-quality CG animation or "Command & Conquer"-style live action footage. From the beginning to the end of "Half-Life" and "Portal," we see just about everything from the hero(ine)'s POV, so the fully interactive and the essentially non-interactive portions of the game are visually blurred, and we're never taken out of the game. (Except for those "Loading..." screens, which Valve has shockingly been unable to eliminate in the year 2007. What's up with that?) Second, it's a convention that frees Valve from having to attempt something that games aren't very good at: simulating plausible and emotionally believable conversations between the player and an AI-controlled character. It's always best to minimize your weaknesses and play to your strengths.

Moving right along, you professed surprise at my reaction to the game's finale, writing:

About the final boss: story and boss battle converge smoothly in this game, as I've stated. And while I can't find much to fault with this game, I'm surprised to see you say that the final encounter in "Portal" is "rivaling 'Metal Gear Solid' 3's sniper duel with The End for my favorite boss fight of all time." That's not praise I was expecting. That good? Really? It couldn't be because of the gameplay. Even though I'm far less enamored of The End confrontation than many others, I recognize the value it provided in letting players try different take-down strategies. Fighting GLaDOS doesn't. You have to remove her orbs. Give her the HAL 9000 treatment. De-evolve her. And fry her. And she's dead.

I'm surprised too--that you misunderstood what I actually wrote. (I won't blame you, for the culprit is once again my own minimalist prose.) Because what I said was, "Room 19 not only addresses many of the criticisms I had of "BioShock"'s final boss, it's rivaling "Metal Gear Solid 3"'s sniper duel with The End for my favorite boss fight of all time." The reason I cited Room 19 and not GLaDOS was because of how I phrased my criticism of "BioShock"'s boss fights in comparison to "Metal Gear Solid 3"'s.

I said that the battle with The End was the logical-yet-heightened extension of the tactical language that "Metal Gear Solid 3" had already established, but that the battle with Fontaine--patterned attacks in a confined arena--violated the tactical language that "BioShock" had established. I then went on to say, "Maybe the finale shouldn't have been a boss fight, but rather a boss level, a new environment that we would have had to navigate, learn and master while alternately hunting down and being hunted by the powered-up Fontaine. To thine own self be true, 'BioShock.'"

Room 19 is a template for how "BioShock" should have concluded. It's not a boss fight, though it has the final boss fight in it; it's the boss level I've been looking for. It starts out as our final test, veers into GLaDOS attempt to get us to kill ourselves by incineration, then opens up into a backstage flight for freedom as we navigate our way behind the curtain to our climactic confrontation with GLaDOS. And all the while, Room 19 requires us to use the same techniques--the same tactical language--that we've been using all along, but in grander ways. It's filled with fiendish traps. It introduces the rocket turret, and with it, the ability to shatter glass, not only to clear escape routes and free companion cubes, but to ultimately strike at our electronic antagonist as well. It guides us into a massive atrium filled with turrets, eliciting first the fear of confronting so many enemies, followed by exhilaration as we realize that we can simply portal hop from one exposed sub-chamber to another to dispatch our foes. It even requires us to use your move of the year on an even larger scale than we had previously.

Did Room 19 satisfy your thirst for videogame empowerment? It certainly did mine.

You cited "Super Mario Brothers" and "Tetris" as worthy additions to my "so much accomplished with so little." Clearly, my Round 1 post wouldn't qualify, because yet again, my stripped-down text didn't capture what I really meant to say. What I should have done was drawn a more explicit connection between that statement and the one that followed about the ways in which Portal "is a simple yet indelible feat of emotional engineering." That's why I cited "Everyday Shooter." It may have seemed to some like a ringer, but the visuals, the music and the various chaining systems come together in a way that is frequently moving. I can't say the same thing for "Tetris." Can you?

I'm also skeptical about your theory that 2-D games reflect simplicity, while 3-D games reflect complexity. "Fallout" was 2-D. "Sim City" was 2-D. Heck, the first two "Grand Theft Auto"s were 2-D, proof that side missions are not the demon spawn of polygonal graphics. The 2-D "Desktop Tower Defense" is on your shortlist for Game of the Year; would you say that it's simple or complex? Obviously, movement and orientation generally become more complicated in 3-D, but any other factors stem from a developer's approach to game design, not the presence of polygons or lack thereof.

As I said previously, I don't think the key lesson for developers to extract from "Portal" is that they should all make stripped-down, simple games. That approach works for "Portal," but it won't for many, many other games. But "Portal" should cause them to question anew each and every element they're putting in their games. Does this game really need that gun, that ability, that character, that cut-scene, that line of dialogue, that bit of exposition? "BioShock," on the other hand, shows how games can serve up a good deal of complexity without overwhelming the player. Got a plethora of weapons and abilities? Bind the weapons to the right hand and the abilities to the left? Got more abilities than a player can keep track of at once? Only let the player swap those abilities at select points? Got a ton of story elements to dole out? Lay them out as audio bread crumbs for the player to pick up and listen to as he or she chooses. By doing so many things in stark contrast to the way that the majority of contemporary AAA games are being made--lets call one radical minimalism and the other managed grandiosity--and doing them exceedingly well, "Portal" and "Bioshock" are high water marks against which other developers can measure their works-in-progress.

By the way, you still haven't managed to convince me that there's a story in Portal. The only thing that we know is true is what Chell we did--GLaDOS, after all, is far too unreliable to trust anything she says--so if that amounts to "Portal" having a story, what then of "Tetris," "Bejewelled" and "Lumines"? As for the cake being real, that certainly wasn't Chell's our POV. Who are you going to trust--GLaDOS or your lying eyes?

Cheers,

N'Gai

P.S. You've been downplaying the importance of physics to video-games ever since this generation of consoles began to arrive in stores. Has "Portal" changed your mind about this?