Examining what made Valve’s science fiction puzzle-platformers absolute must-plays for any and all gamers.
We’ve seen a lot happen in the past nine years of gaming. Video games became widely accepted as a legitimate art form, and in addition to the prettiest graphics ever we started seeing new kinds of games that fully utilized the medium’s capacity for interactive fiction on a level we’d never seen before. It’s been a good decade for us.
But with so many choices out there, how does one decide on a single franchise to represent the unheard-of bounty that the PlayStation 3/Wii/Xbox 360/PC wars have bestowed upon us? Do you go for the epic ambition of a Mass Effect? Part of me wants that desperately, but BioWare may have blown that at the literal last minute. Plus, some gameplay aspects of those games may not age so well. Grand Theft Auto? Maybe if V’s story had built upon the artistry and completeness of IV instead of focusing so heavily on impressive-but-unnecessary detailing of the environment. Nope. How about the mass appeal of Call of Duty? Bro, shouldn’t you be out skipping the campaign to go spawn-camp or something? It’s a Tuesday, there must be a new one releasing today. Go get it.
No, no, no. The definitive must-play franchise to define a generation must be timeless if not nearly flawless. It must be so good that there is almost no valid criticism available to level at it. That leaves two candidates in my mind: Irrational Games’ Bioshock and Valve’s Portal. Each were born in the early days of this console gen and released superior sequels towards the end, and all four games are pretty much beyond reproach as they combine artistry, creative storytelling, flawless mechanics, polish, and brash intellectualism that refuses to lower itself to a level where it can be fully understood without a substantial period of mental digestion. These are games that are the equivalent of timeless literary classics.
So going forward, which first person science fiction masterpiece takes the award in my book? Well, I suppose the spoiler for that is right there at the top of the article isn’t it? While Bioshock may have refined the first person shooter beyond its previous reach, Valve literally redefined the entire genre with Portal. A shooter with no actual violence that functions as a puzzle-platformer with a narrative to rival anything that came before it from any genre; how does this even exist? Portal takes the cake. No lie.
There is so much depth and enjoyment in the simple story of an unwitting test subject struggling for her freedom against a lovably psychotic AI with a sadistic passive-aggressive streak a mile across it almost hurts to think about it. Portal’s ultimate brilliance and what sets it apart from the Bioshock games is that Valve did so very much with so very little. Some creative physics puzzles utilizing their standard Source engine, some exceptional voice acting, and a lot of imagination was all it really took to make a game that was created as a practical afterthought to accompany the murderers’ row of PC classics that made up The Orange Box collection an instant hit and the highlight amongst a set of near-flawless games.
Portal is the kind of game that could potentially be made by anyone and can be enjoyed by everyone. The amount of resources to create a Bioshock, a Grand Theft Auto, or a Mass Effect is astronomical. Be it crafting and balancing effective combat powers, arsenals of weaponry, or recording countless hours of voice acting from dozens of actors, CG cutscenes, and endlessly diverse landscapes; this stuff is hard, expensive, and complicated to make. Why not spend most of your time in sterile-looking rooms where all you do is jump and make portals while a computerized voice chides you and have every bit as much fun? Sometimes less really is more.
Valve’s Spartan approach to crafting this story stands in direct contrast to the rest of the industry’s MOREMOREMORE philosophy the same way that understated independent films stand out against big blockbusters. Reservoir Dogs was a cheaply-made film consisting mostly of people talking, but I think most of us would rather watch that than Waterworld, yeah? And that’s the lesson that should be learned from Portal and carried forward into the next generation: creativity and style can beat spectacle. Handily.
Mind-bending physics-based problem solving lessons aside, Portal’s sparse narrative contains layers and depths that the likes of which most writing-heavy games like GTA V and any number of RPG’s can’t even conceive of. While this uncompromising combination of depth and simplicity leads to a lot of misunderstandings, these misunderstandings can lead to debate and discussions that help further the cause of games at art so there’s no real downside.
For instance, one analysis I read of the feminist undercurrent that flows through both Portal games declared the antagonistic artificial intelligence GLaDOS to be representative of the strong, independent, successful woman while the protagonist Chell was the obedient “domestic icon” doing as she’s told. This makes me want to punch kittens to death. Not because I hate kittens, but because that kind of inane backwards thinking makes we want to annihilate that which is most innocent and pure before this shitty world can corrupt it.
Chell, of course, represents stoic independence in the face of imprisonment. She strives and achieves in spite of the (literal) machine arrayed against her. She does what she has to do to progress and then when asked to lay down and die, she instead enacts her escape, ignoring every line of bullshit fed to her in favor of climbing towards freedom on her own terms. In my mind, she’s a silent protagonist not because she has no personality, but because she’s never given a good reason to respond to the constant abuse and condescension hurled at her. Rather than argue with a foe she can’t reason with, she responds instead with actions that serve her own purposes.
Over the course of both games, GlaDOS is revealed to be the epitome of the “power corrupts” adage. This is illustrated particularly clearly in Portal 2 as a simultaneous metaphor for America’s broken two-party system functioning on the illusion of choice. When you replace GLaDOS with your robotic partner in crime Wheatley, the two AI’s immediately switch roles. Wheatley becomes a power mad slave to a corrupted all-powerful operating system while GLaDOS –stripped of her authority- becomes vulnerable and conciliatory towards the woman who “killed” her in the first game, aiding in her escape and even saving her life.
How often do we hear politicians tell us that the person in power is corrupt and crazy and bringing us down? How often does the same politician take up the same role once they are in power? Every single time, you say? Meet the new boss…same as the old boss. So while Chell retains the role as the quintessential feminist breaking free of the bonds forced upon her, GLaDOS represents what happens once the struggle is done and systematic integration is achieved: the same thing that happens to everyone else when they’re put in charge. The strength of choice is retained by the individual struggling for personal freedom, not by integrating into the system that’s designed to keep them down. Not bad for a video game.
The elegance of this narrative cannot be overstated. Okay, maybe if I put it all bold in caps and underlined it with like 5 exclamation points, but it’s really damn good. And there’s more. The most important aspect of all in making the Portal games instantly memorable classics is the intelligent satirical humor and charm that accompanies every part of the story.
From the insistence that you cherish your Companion Cube early in the first game (it even has a little heart on it to scientifically maximize affection) to GLaDOS’ cruel demand that you incinerate it for her amusement to her final gesture of kicking the same scorched cube out of the facility after you as your only “friend” in an apparently empty world, both games are almost unbearably clever and filled with arid comedic brilliance from front to back.
So if you have been putting off these games for any reason, now’s the time to catch up before Sony and Microsoft start actually putting out games on their new platforms. If there’s any modern series that every single gamer owes it to themselves to play, Portal is it. Both are games that appear to be designed to stand the test of time and deserve to be remade every couple of generations down the line to show the kids how it’s done.
This generation has seen no better combination of complex simplicity, innovation, intelligence, gameplay, satire, writing, problem-solving, world and character building, artistry, and everything else that makes video games art. These games define the word “classic” and I hope to see them inspire more creative people to think outside of the box and make interactive fiction that makes us think, feel, and have a great time all at once without relying so heavily on killing stuff. And that’s not even taking into account Portal 2’s cooperative multiplayer, which pretty much redefines that concept as well.
Enjoy your cake and victory candescence as we move on to the next console generation, Portal. We’ve done great science together and I’ll miss you. I fear it will be a long time before we see your like again since Valve refuses to count to three because they are horrible people (who are constantly creating instead of rehashing). Maybe they’ll throw us a bone and give us a Mantis Men spin-off at least. What I do know is that if at some point in my short, sad life I don’t get to go back to Aperture Labs, I will be very disappointed, but I’ll understand. Portal was born of this magical place and time in gaming history and as the definitive experience of that generation, maybe it’s best that it stays there. In our hearts. For science.