The Complete ‘Portal’ Vs. Mode - Full Croal And Totilo Exchange

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THERE ARE "PORTAL" SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THIS MASSIVE POST

Newsweek's N'Gai Croal and I just wrapped a three-round Vs. Mode on the surprise hit of the season, "Portal."

What did the game do right? What can other teams learn from it? Why does N'Gai think that some of the things I most highly praise about the game should not be imitated by other developers?

If you've played through the game, fear not any spoilers, and read the whole exchange that follows. And should I warn you that there's lots of talk about the true meaning of story and character in video games? Come on in. It's fun stuff. Seriously.

Excerpts:

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," "Bejeweled" 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?

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?

Read on for the rest...

(These exchanges are mirrored on N'Gai's "Level Up" bog.)

To: N'Gai Croal

Fr: Stephen Totilo

Date: November 8, 2007

Re: Steal This Cake

N'Gai,

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.

portal4281×211.jpgRound Two

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?

portal4.jpg

Round 3

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

portal3.jpgTo: 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