The Big Finish – Croal And Totilo Wrap ‘Portal’ Vs Mode With Big Questions

Breaking all previously established rules N’Gai and I are completing out “PortalVs Mode in overtime.

Today’s installment appears one week after the first, bringing this sordid saga to a close — though the arguments we bring up conclude absolutely nothing.

In Round 1, I listed three things that the critically hailed “Portal” does well and explained why I thought few game companies would rip them off. N’Gai offered his own minimalist take on what “Portal” gets right.

In Round 2, I affirm that “Portal”’s story and characters moved me. N’Gai then told me the game doesn’t have a story and that the person I was controlling wasn’t a character.

In today’s Final Round we further the story and character debate. I explain why I think “Portal” represents game storytelling at its possible finest. N’Gai presents a great analysis of what a player in a game really means, in terms of the characters you play/control/identify-with.

Excerpts:

Totilo: I couldn’t cast I/Chell in a movie, that’s for sure. But I can tell you some things: she’s a she; she’s a test subject; she’s willing to follow orders only to a point; she doesn’t get tired when she runs; she has 20/20 vision; she cared about a companion cube; she was willing to kill her boss/captor. Were these all traits programmed into her by Valve? Were some of these brought into the equation by me? Well, sort of. Did I really bring my concern for the companion cube to the game myself? Or did Valve cull that out of me, essentially grafting certain actions and reactions onto me, puppeteer-ing me? Where exactly, in the spectrum between “Chell”-ness and Stephen-ness, is the character I control defined? And if it’s somewhere in the middle, is that not possibly a proof of how a character in a video game is defined differently than one written about in a page or displayed on a TV screen?

Croal: I don’t have this entirely figured out yet, but it should help explain my skepticism about your insistence that Chell is in fact a character, even by the lower different standards of videogames. Take “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.” Solid is a grizzled, cynical, war-and-world-weary black ops veteran, while Raiden is an eager, impetuous, somewhat naive rookie agent. I know these things because they are depicted in the game. Can you tell me anything similar about Chell–anything besides restating either the premise of the game or simply recounting your actions during the game? You say, “she’s a she; she’s a test subject…she doesn’t get tired when she runs; she has 20/20 vision.” I say, given GLaDOS’s references to “android hell” in Portal, how can you be certain that she isn’t actually an “it”? You say, “she’s only willing to follow orders to a point” and ” she was willing to kill her boss/captor.” I say you’re mistaking game progression for character development. You say “she cared about a companion cube.” I say, where’s the evidence? I didn’t see any tears or hear anything approaching remorse. In fact, didn’t GlaDOS say that you/we/Chell terminated the companion cube faster than any other test subject?

You can read the rest of the exchange below (and, as always, it will be mirrored over at N’Gai’s blog).

To: N’Gai Croal
Fr: Stephen Totilo
Date: November 15, 2007
Re: As The Reverend Said, I Am Somebody

N’Gai,

I’m closing in on the end of MTV Gamer’s Week and am pretty wiped out. So let the record show that if you get the better of me in any more of this exchange, it’s because I’m tired. Wiped out. On my last leg. It couldn’t be for any other reason. I mean, it’s not like you’ve proven that you can beat me in a video game argument before.

But still. I’ve got some “Portal” patter left in me.

I can’t drop our discussion of story or character. You’ve pushed back on both points and I think they’re well worth considering some more.

You said, of the individual we play as in “Portal,” that “a character she most certainly is not.” She may not fit dictionary definitions of character to a T, but I think she might be a video game character.

You said, of me, “you still haven’t managed to convince me that there’s a story in ’Portal.'” There may not be a story that fits the definition of “story” to a T, but maybe there’s a different kind of story being told that doesn’t waste time with the way video games often fail at telling stories.

I take all your skepticism to heart. I hear you. But what I’d like to consider is that when it comes to the still nascent medium of video games maybe terms like “character” and “story” are best applied and developed differently than they are in other media.

Let’s consider the prospect that “Portal”’s lead person is a character. Whether the identity of this person who I control is “Chell” or me, she is, either way, defined clearly to me in the game as the test subject of GLaDOS. I/Chell begin the game in a specific situation, in a glass-walled room. I/Chell am put through a series of tests, all the while cajoled by GLaDOS to do more. I/Chell are teased with the prospect of rebellion and eventually “decide” to partake in it. We are addressed; we are reacted to. Do we have characteristics? Am I/Chell lazy? Funny? Dishonest? Italian? There’s so much we don’t know. I’ll grant you that.

I couldn’t cast I/Chell in a movie, that’s for sure. But I can tell you some things: she’s a she; she’s a test subject; she’s willing to follow orders only to a point; she doesn’t get tired when she runs; she has 20/20 vision; she cared about a companion cube; she was willing to kill her boss/captor. Were these all traits programmed into her by Valve? Were some of these brought into the equation by me? Well, sort of. Did I really bring my concern for the companion cube to the game myself? Or did Valve cull that out of me, essentially grafting certain actions and reactions onto me, puppeteer-ing me? Where exactly, in the spectrum between “Chell”-ness and Stephen-ness, is the character I control defined? And if it’s somewhere in the middle, is that not possibly a proof of how a character in a video game is defined differently than one written about in a page or displayed on a TV screen?

I’ve previously likened video games to movie scripts. I’m talking about linear games, of course. Games where a series of events (trying to avoid saying story yet — but trying to make sure you understand I mean “BioShock” and “Final Fantasy” and not “Wii Sports” or “Gran Turismo“) happen. Game developers present players a script to read; a role to play. Some games allow us more leeway to interpret our role than others; some games let us play differently than others. When I play a linear game and jump through its hoops I am somebody. That somebody isn’t just what the script-writer wrote. It’s partially me. But that role isn’t just an avatar either.

Part of what I liked about “Portal” was the role I was offered to play. I was someone I am not in real life. I enjoyed starting in a cage, being introduced to my benevolent jailer and then rebelling. I feel I played a role. I feel I was a character.

Am I just arguing semantics with you? Is this really a big who-cares? I don’t think so, because I think that if it can be argued that “Portal” has done enough with character — if it can be agreed that they have written the lead “character”’s role sufficiently — then we can point to this game as a lesson on how to prune back some of the over-writing we see applied to other game’s main characters.

As for whether there’s a story here, I say there is. It’s the story of rebellion I described above. “Portal” isn’t just a series of things that happen. It isn’t mere sport. Character(s) live and die (?). Minds are changed. Cake is offered. Ultimate revenge is teased. Beyond that, we are informed that the Aperture Science exists within the “Half-Life” universe. These guys are rivals to the Black Mesa scientists. There’s a world around this whole thing. Is this a story I could write as a book or make into a movie? Not without a lot of added details. But certainly this game is more “Puzzle Quest” than “Bejeweled.”

What do you feel is missing that leaves you unconvinced that “Portal” has a story? I want to know, because I’d like developers to believe me when I say that the story in “Portal” is plenty of a story for me. I’ll take more story if need be, but, really, keeping it as simple as “Portal” does is just dandy. I don’t need a love interest, or quest for three sacred gems, or a series of side-missions that require me to talk to people who stand outside their huts all day to make a game qualify as having a story. Come on, N’Gai, can’t we tell people there’s enough story here? Think of all the extraneous voice-overs and text boxes we’d be sparing ourselves in the future.

Attention game industry: ignore N’Gai unless he agrees with me. So many of you are over-writing.

Alright. Physics. You asked how I’m feeling about them now that I’ve finished “Portal.” Yes, I’ve been very skeptical about the application of physics in games. I’ve played hundreds or thousands of games and I’ve never felt I really needed physics. When game companies demonstrate their in-game physics, they tell me that this will let doors break and cars explode in new ways every time I play their game. OK. But will it make the game more fun? I don’t like stacking boxes in games that have realistic physics. Maybe I would if I was able to use a realistic hand with several realistic fingers to stack them. But if game controls are going to offer me a dumbed-down way of interacting with a dumbed-down version of the real world, then give me dumbed-down physics, please.

I wrote about this topic last year, in a piece in which I quoted Jade Raymond, Shigeru Miyamoto and some other fine folks about the pros and cons of physics, I cited a couple of examples where I found more promising use of physics: a sinking aircraft carrier mission in “Army of Two” and some crowd-pushing stuff in “Assassin’s Creed.” So I saw glimmers of hope back then.

“Portal” has made me no greater fan of physics. I’m still more annoyed than charmed when I try to place a box on a switch and watch it tumble off because I didn’t place it just so. I’m still not convinced I benefit as a gamer because the turrets I can knock down will tilt, twist and topple in realistic fashion. But, boy, did I ever like some of the physics that affected me: my character’s acceleration while in free fall, to be specific. Physics involving the rest of the “Portal” world? I’m still not seeing any gameplay superiority over canned animations. The exploration of the physical properties of my own character? I’m into that.

Hey, if you can remain a skeptic about this story and character stuff, can I remain a skeptic on physics?

Since you’ve been so deft at assigning me topics for my letters, might I do the same for yours? I’d like to know what you think of the length of “Portal” and whether it is the size game you think other developers can and should make. I’d also like you to bring this discussion full circle. You never did say what you thought the business side of the gaming industry should make of “Portal.” You’re a more astute analyst of the money part of the industry than I am. Do you think “Portal” will change any decisions being made in corporate boardrooms?

Oh, and there was cake at the end of the game. I saw it myself. No lie.

Now it’s your turn. Close the show. And in the spirit of the game, please end with a song.

-Stephen

To: Stephen Totilo
Fr: N’Gai Croal
Date: November 19, 2007
Re: Critical Error

Stephen,

I know how you feel, man. I’m still pretty fried myself. Between a lack of sleep due to my scrambling to get a bunch of things done before my trip to the West Coast and an epic recording of the 1UP Yours podcast upon my arrival (nearly three hour running time, with copious drinking throughout), I’ve definitely seen better days. But given your inspired, thoughtful post above, I’m fully motivated to push through the fog—two parts alcohol, one part a typical morning in “Silent Hill” San Francisco—and deliver some closing remarks that will hopefully match the bar that you’ve set. And if I seem a little abrupt in my response, it’s only because I’m jamming as fast as I can so that we can get this Final Round out to our readers before their Thanksgiving vacation begins.

You’re correct that we need to appropriate words like “character” and “story” and use them in discussions of videogames until better terms or more native terminology comes along. Part of the challenge of writing critically about videogames for a non-academic audience is establishing a common language that encapsulates some of the more difficult or nebulous concepts, but as I told the folks at GameCritics.com in an interview earlier this year, it’s a necessary endeavor. Fortunately, in this case, there is a word to describe Chell, and you’ve already been kind enough to use it.

That word is “avatar.” Returning to Dictionary.com, here’s what we’re given as a definition:

1. Hindu Mythology. the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form or some manifest shape; the incarnation of a god.
2. an embodiment or personification, as of a principle, attitude, or view of life.
3. Computers. a graphical image that represents a person, as on the Internet.

Interestingly enough, all of those definitions are relevant to videogames. Let’s start with the first.

I’ve long believed that there are five types of player roles in videogames, i.e. where the player is located relative to the (inter)action taking place before their eyes. What are they?

1. The player as Monotheistic God. In games like “The Sims” and “Sim City,” there is no god but us. We are omnipotent and omniscient, free to shape and mold the world as we see fit, though we do have to manage the consequences of our decisions and the reactions of our creations.

2. The player as Pantheistic God. Think strategy games like “Starcraft,” “Command & Conquer” and “Desktop Tower Defense,” or sports titles like “Madden NFL” or “NBA 2K.” In these titles, we have some of the divine attributes as the monotheistic god: the ability to place units, harvest resources, direct attacks, call plays, shuffle lineups, switch control from athlete to another, etc. The difference is that we are simply one god among many, so our omnipotence and omniscience are radically reduced. Instead, there are rival gods–AI-controlled opponents–who have the same abilities that we do, and who must be defeated before they can defeat us.

3. The Player as Guardian Angel. In games as varied as “Pac-Man,” “Super Mario Bros,” “The Legend of Zelda,” “Final Fantasy,” “Metal Gear Solid,” “Grand Theft Auto,” “Halo” and “Gears of War,” we guide our neither omnipotent nor omniscient onscreen protagonist(s) through a series of situations and confrontations to safety and victory. They’re generally presented to us as capable and/or determined, but without us seated on their shoulders, guiding, nudging, jumping, shooting and otherwise pulling the strings, they won’t make it through. (Or at least we won’t see them do so.)

4. The Player as Actor. Here, the player “inhabits” the role of the protagonist–appropriate, since actors were referred to as “players” in Shakespeare’s day–as the developers do their best to collapse the distance between us and the avatar. That would be “Half-Life,” “BioShock,” and yes, “Portal.” Here, the hero is silent, even in non-interactive or minimally interactive cutscenes. We rarely or never see their/our faces or bodies. (We do, of course see their/our hands and forearms–how else would they/we kill their/our enemies?) Any other traits that would truly give the protagonist an identity–“The distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity; individuality,” says Dictionary.com–distinct from our own.

5. The Player as the Player. In games like “Tetris,” “Bejeweled” and “Scrabulous,” the player is located not within the action, but completely outside of it.

These categories aren’t airtight–as you and our readers will most certainly point out–particularly categories 3 and 4, where the line between the two can be blurry. Take the “Metroid Prime” games, for instance: even though Samus Aran is silent, we see her armored suit in cutscenes; we see her reflection in her visor; we see her morph ball when we transform her. So which of the two categories, 3 and 4, do the “Metroid Prime” titles fall into? Where should we slot vehicular games, like racing games or flight sims? Twin-stick shooters? Massively multiplayer online games? Can a single game shift among various categories, like “Puzzle Quest” (3 and 5), “Battlefield: Modern Combat” (2 and 4), or “Spore” (all of the above)?

I don’t have this entirely figured out yet, but it should help explain my skepticism about your insistence that Chell is in fact a character, even by the lower different standards of videogames. Take “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.” Solid is a grizzled, cynical, war-and-world-weary black ops veteran, while Raiden is an eager, impetuous, somewhat naive rookie agent. I know these things because they are depicted in the game. Can you tell me anything similar about Chell–anything besides restating either the premise of the game or simply recounting your actions during the game? You say, “she’s a she; she’s a test subject…she doesn’t get tired when she runs; she has 20/20 vision.” I say, given GLaDOS’s references to “android hell” in Portal, how can you be certain that she isn’t actually an “it”? You say, “she’s only willing to follow orders to a point” and ” she was willing to kill her boss/captor.” I say you’re mistaking game progression for character development. You say “she cared about a companion cube.” I say, where’s the evidence? I didn’t see any tears or hear anything approaching remorse. In fact, didn’t GlaDOS say that you/we/Chell terminated the companion cube faster than any other test subject?

You then go on to write:

Were these all traits programmed into her by Valve? Were some of these brought into the equation by me? Well, sort of. Did I really bring my concern for the companion cube to the game myself? Or did Valve cull that out of me, essentially grafting certain actions and reactions onto me, puppeteer-ing me? Where exactly, in the spectrum between “Chell”-ness and Stephen-ness, is the character I control defined? And if it’s somewhere in the middle, is that not possibly a proof of how a character in a video game is defined differently than one written about in a page or displayed on a TV screen?

The traits of the role of Chell are defined by Valve solely in terms of the range of actions they allow you to undertake. Anything else you experience in terms of character is derived from what you bring to the table, because Valve’s writers have deliberately written her to be so thin as to be transparent, presumably so that we can project ourselves upon her without any contradictions. Going back to “Metal Gear Solid 2″ example, I can play Sold Snake as if he were a naive rookie or play Raiden as a cautious vet, because the game is written in such a way that the two characters have personalities that are distinct from the manner in which I play the game. By design, this is not so for “Portal.”

The thinness of Chell’s characterization is mirrored in “Portal”’s narrative, a word I’ve been deliberately using instead of “story” to describe the events in Portal. My choice of words prompted reader tilt3daxis to write in my comments section, “I’m slightly confused, N’Gai, about your distinction between story and narrative. Is it simply a matter of semantics or is there something deeper that I’m missing?” As I see it, a narrative is a series of events, one after the other, as in, “this happened, then this happened, and then this happened.” A story contextualizes the events in a narrative by including perspective, context, point of view, backstory, etc. Now GLaDOS could be said to provide all of those things…but by her own admission, she lies, so the only events we can trust are the ones we see through Chell’s eyes. In other words, all we can trust is the gameplay. (As I said before, that’s also why I keep insisting that we don’t know whether or not the cake is a lie–the POV of that shot isn’t Chell’s, so why should we trust its authenticity?) We don’t even know if we can trust the “facts” described by GLaDOS on the lyrics to “Still Alive.” Are there people who are still alive? Is she experimenting on them? We didn’t see any other people–even if we want to believe Portal’s embedded narrative of the person(s) who scrawled notes and messages and posted photos on walls inside of Aperture Science, how can we be sure that GLaDOS didn’t plant that graffiti herself–so how do we know that they in fact exist. Portal, then, is “The Usual Suspects” of videogames, with GLaDOS as its Keyser Sose.

You say that “[I]f it can be argued that ’Portal’ has done enough with character–if it can be agreed that they have written the lead ’character”s role sufficiently–then we can point to this game as a lesson on how to prune back some of the over-writing we see applied to other game’s main characters.” I’ve already said that the writing in “Portal” should serve as a lesson for how much other developers can pare back their own writing, but not because “Portal” has a lead character other than GLaDOS or has a real story. While I was in San Francisco, I ran my Five Player Roles theory past game journalist Jane Pinckard. She hit me with an alternative explanation. Hers comes from the game’s perspective rather than that of the player: videogame protagonists are either puppets or masks. Puppets are characters that the player manipulates; masks are roles that the player inhabits. “Portal” doesn’t have a story; it has a slim premise, a series of action puzzles, an unreliable narrator and a conclusion. Nor is “Portal”’s protagonist a character; she is a mask.

Still, none of what I’m saying is meant to disparage “Portal.” In fact, it’s just the opposite. What’s great about “Portal”’s approach is that suggestive spareness of the plot and the absence of characterization leaves us plenty of room to fill in the blanks with our imagination, which, when supported by a framework as precisely and elegantly thought out as it is here, delivers a more powerful final product than many other games that give us plenty of characterization and story but precious little genuine mystery. If “Manhunt” and “BioShock” interrogated our unquestioned willingness to take orders from someone we’ve never seen, “Portal” goes one step further and questions the very nature of the (person) thing giving us those orders; like you said, Valve’s puppeteering of its players.

So in keeping with that, I won’t be following your orders. I’m not going to tell developers that “Portal”’s slender narrative is what they should all aspire to, because I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions. I won’t opine on whether game publishers should create games as short as “Portal.” And I’m not going to write a song. It’s far too late here on the West Coast, and I’ve got to get up in a few hours. Thanks again for playing, and I’m looking forward to our next Vs. Mode, which should be more light-hearted.

Sleep mode activated.

Shutting down.

Goodnight.

Cheers,

N’Gai