The Portal franchise is a beautiful anomaly of the gaming world – the Coup de Ville hidden at the bottom of a bloodthirsty, often mindless Cracker Jack box. Just how did a non-violent puzzler become one of the most recognizable brands in gaming? And what can stagnant genres learn from it?
As the walls of Aperture Science Facility shift and rearrange you can catch a glimpse of the sprawling immensity beyond the test chamber. There’s a thrill to it, the shuddering foundations, the vastness of our prison. But look a little closer. It’s out there, in the world encompassing the puzzle, that Portal finds greatness. It could’ve been just another puzzler, albeit a clever one. But the golden children who tinker in the depths of Valve’s Washington headquarters (including the ex-DigiPen Tech students who developed the concept) reach for loftier heights. And like GLaDOS constructing a test chamber, they began with the portal and built a world around it. That’s how a great game became a classic.
Besides its mind bending puzzles are several aspects that make Portal unique in the commercial sphere. Two of the main characters (including your avatar, Chell) are women. You don’t kill anyone. It’s run on Valve’s Source engine, software old enough to remember when Saddam Hussein went on trial. The POV never shifts from the eyes of the protagonist (not until the last scene). It’s one of the very few games that’s successfully funny. Hell, you can even play it on a Mac. I could go all day about the shrewd decisions that led to Portal‘s success. Some are move obvious than others. Inspiring voice talent. Classy aesthetics. Disguising their puzzler as a first-person shooter is a stroke of mastermind genius. There’s a reason it’s a portal gun. And what a gun it is. A futuristic, white-plated hand cannon with strong linage to Half Life 2‘s, Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator. Portal‘s art direction is a case study in identity – its blue and orange ovals are instantly recognizable, the companion cube has become a shibboleth of geek love, and orange jump-suited beauties stalk the floors of comic conventions worldwide. If you’re lucky you’ll see fan-made Aperture vans cruising your capital city. I know, because I’ve seen one. And as it arced across the intersection of Flinders Street Station, windows tinted, hidden in plain sight like an easter egg for the escapees of Aperture, a chill ran up my spine. I had a very real sense that somewhere beyond the boundaries of my city, beneath the folds of some corn field, GLaDOS was coming online. And I understood the most crucial creative decision made on Portal: Valve chose to insert a rich story into a game that didn’t necessarily need one to be considered a success.
Commercial games of late seem intent on a convolution of messy plot lines, two-dimensional characters, and information crammed cut scenes that fail to evoke any emotional response. Portal‘s motivation is simple: escape. And as you careen, levitate, bounce your way across the facility, the world of Portal unfolds effortlessly. GLaDOS, Wheatley and Cave Johnson (the second most quotable game character behind Duke Nukem) tell you their stories and that of the facility. It’s a game that treads the boards between storyline and gameplay as deftly as Zizi Jeanmaire.
If I was brazen enough to reduce Valve’s illumination to a simple formula it would look something like this: 1. Have a solid concept with great mechanics (The portal puzzle, portal gun) 2. Have an elemental motivation (escape the facility) 3. Build characters, conflict, and story around 1 and 2 (the world of Aperture Laboratories and sadistic AI). Some games nail number one, fewer again grasp number two, but it’s number three that separates the bit players from the all time greats. And if you find a quiet corner and nurse a bottle of Chivas Regal to emptiness, applying this formula to different genres, you might just see a gaming future yet to pass.
Eventually, you’ll wake up in the wee hours, drooling onto your smoking jacket, your Dickens’ Christmas novel sprawled at your loafers and hopefully, you’ll have come to the same conclusion as me. There’s a large subset of gaming titles that have solid concepts and great mechanics but are completely bereft of motivation, story and character – arguably the most perfected, most stagnant genre in all of gaming. Simulations. That’s right sports fans, sports. Namely individual sports, extreme sports, and racing. Now, I know there will always be a place for soulless simulation. FIFA are going to release a game each year until Earth’s shifting gravity makes soccer itself unplayable, and even then, they’ll release FIFA Classic. But what happens when you apply the Portal formula to one of simulation’s front runners? EA’s, Tiger Woods’ Golf, for example?
TW is struggling for ideas. Golf inspired gaming is almost as old as gaming itself, and the controls haven’t changed much in that time. Not because developers are too lazy to improve them, but because they work. All glory to the power bar. More recently we’ve moved to the control stick (and Wii golf) but it’s the same principle. It’s a game that’s as good as its going to get, save advances in graphics. And it will never be great.
EA (and nearly all sports titles) go to huge lengths to make their games look and sound like television broadcasts. Utilizing the same camera angles, commentators, mimicking flashy titles and score displays. After all, that’s how most of us view sports. But this puts a tremendous distance between the player in the beanbag and the player on the field. We’re not becoming the stars of the game, we’re not there in the stadium, reading the green, traversing the gridiron. We’re still at home, some omnipotent sports enthusiast, puppeteering events thousands of miles away with no real bearing on us. There’s nothing to lose. You don’t become Tiger Woods like you do Master Chief or Max Payne. To do so would be to know the weaknesses, the vices, the fears and hopes of the character. We all know they won’t make that kind of game about Tiger Woods. There’s no story because there’s nothing to play for, no strong motivation, no obstruction, no villain, and as they say; a story is only as good as its villain.
Strip Tiger Woods of its merchandising, its broadcast lens, and Tiger Woods and you find yourself at the core of golf gameplay. It’s a good start. Tried and true. Honed to a knife blade. Add a clear motivation, story and likable characters and you might come up with something that is for sports simulators what Portal was for puzzlers. Imagine stepping out onto the tee with Shooter McGavin (Happy Gilmore) or Judge Smails (Caddy Shack), staring across the greens, gleeful in the certainty and greatness of your failure. You’re playing for sweet old grandma’s house, releasing her from a hellish retirement home or playing for the next generation of middle-class, everyday members of Bushwood Country Club, and suddenly, as your thumbs shift into position over the controller, there’s something to play for. The world beyond the lynx presses down. The consequences. The hopes and needs of your friends. You’re playing for them. And failure is not an option.
In my Chivas Regal delirium I dreamt of treading the same path as Rocky Balboa as he accended from a thumb snapping muscle-man to his glorious bout with Apollo Creed. I followed Paul Newman as the Hustler, playing for everything in the lamplit seediness of underground poolrooms. Trekked with the surfers in their journey for the perfect wave in Endless Summer. Fought for freedom in Rollerball. Played alongside the Hanson brothers in Slap Shot. It’s the magic of story and character, the elemental motivation these films share that make them ideal frameworks for gaming – the same magic that dances behind the chambers of Portal – the wealth beyond the game.
The power bar is perfected. Now, balance the world upon it. Make me love it. Make me fear it.