Meme resistant design

After a year of massive overexposure to Portal-related internet memes, I was finally able to play the game myself (thanks to the miracle of Festivus) and learn once and for all whether or not the cake was, in fact, a lie. Despite its fantastic word-of-mouth, I had two major concerns about this game.

First, I was worried that having lived through a year of references to the Weighted Companion Cube would rob this game of its freshness. Secondly, I hate first person games.

My first concern turned out to be no problem at all. Portal’s genuinely funny writing and brilliant integration of narrative and gameplay were too wonderful for even the collective awfulness of the Internet to ruin. Breaking out of the sterile testing areas to explore the unkempt guts of Aperture Science feels truly subversive. As much as I understand in theory that this is an artificial sensation created through thoughtful design, while actually playing I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had discovered some secret way outside the boundaries of the game that the designers never intended.

[[image:cg_portal.jpg:Everybody do the double fling.:center:0]]
This is enabled by visual design that is at once minimalist and highly expressive. When you enter the forbidden areas of the Aperture Science laboratory, it’s clear that you’re breaking the rules. This is not simply because the story tells you so via dialogue, but rather because everything changes, both visually and in terms of how you solve puzzles. The fundamental gameplay mechanics remain the same, but the sterile and familiar objects you spent the first couple hours of Portal getting to know are gone, replaced with a decaying industrial labyrinth you have to learn anew how to interact with. It’s enjoyably disorienting and feels like breaking out of one game and entering another.

Many of my favorite games present environments with simple but well-defined defined rules that slowly become clearer as you interact with them. Portal goes a step further; it’s bold enough to abandon the environment it creates. The early test chamber sequences establish what seems to be a complete game, and the only vague hints about the world outside these chambers are found in strange hidden rooms with walls covered in graffiti. Leaving the test chambers to escape into a complex with the same visual design as these early hidden rooms creates an exhilarating sense of rebellion and also opens up new gameplay possibilities as mechanical precision of the first part of the is replaced with raw, sprawling machinery.

Portal was a joy to play, and I can’t believe there was a time when I considered avoiding it because of stale internet memes. As far as my general dislike for FPS games is concerned, Portal is just too different from standard entries in the genre to really make me reconsider that stance. However, I’ve been impressed enough by Valve’s design sense that I’m now sincerely excited to give the other games on The Orange Box a try sometime to see if they can get me to change my mind.

14 thoughts on “Meme resistant design

  1. I *still* need to play this game. Perhaps one day I’ll find Orange Box/PS3 for super cheap and pick it up. What I’d really like is a Portal-only PSN download, but I’m not holding my breath. (And no, before anyone asks, I don’t have a PC on which to run Steam.)

  2. Why do you hate first person games?

    I was late to the Portal party as well. For me though, it wasn’t until the very end of the game that I really appreciated what it did well. While I can’t say I enjoyed all of the puzzles, I did enjoy nearly every line delivered by GlaDOS (especially the final confrontation).

  3. I can’t speak for christopher, but first-person-perspective games play havoc with my sense of locomotion. If I see an in-game avatar from behind it registers as a movie, but when they make the character’s eyes my own navigating with a controller or keyboard suddenly becomes completely unnatural and foreign to me.
    It’s hard to describe clearly, but if “I’m” moving I feel I personally should be MOVING, and I’ve yet to find a FPP game that gets me past this hang-up.

  4. Isn’t there a portal-only PS3 download?

    I can understand the dislike of first person games – aiming and turning always really irritate me when playing them.

  5. I’m with you in regularly hating FPSs, but loving Portal. I even tried HL2 after it, but bleh. I’ve come to think its not the perspective per se that I hate, its just the way those games regularly behave.

  6. I first got to play Portal this Spring and it was a huge motivator for me to get back into video gaming. Unfortunately, my computer just barely managed to run the game so the rest of The Orange Box remains out of my reach. That’s a real shame, because if there was any PC game I heard more good things about than Portal this year, it was the madness of Team Fortress 2.

  7. I think you hit the nail on the head about what makes Portal so appealing. Even in the first half, Valve managed to produce a game where getting that feeling that you had done something crazy and awesome that you weren’t supposed to do was actually exactly how the game was supposed to be played.

    I haven’t played the “Still Alive” version with extra content yet. I’m sure I will at some point, but I can wait – for me, Portal’s brevity was another part of its charm. Never once did I find myself thinking, “ANOTHER one of these puzzles?”

  8. I must have played through Portal at least three or four times by now. Listening to their developer’s commentary especially is a gold mine of information that I wish other developers would learn from, or at least copy from.

  9. I stopped playing FPS games around Quake 2, so for me Portal was an extremely similar experience to yours. I really hope your experiences get others to try it out — it’s such a beautifully-designed game.

    The only tragedy is that we don’t have more creative uses of first-person perspective that can be used as a reference-point. All we have are first-person kill-everything types of games, and calling Portal a FPS is like calling Adventures of Lolo a Zelda-clone because it shares Zelda’s top-down perspective.

  10. Well said. Portal is my favourite game ever, and it’s nice to see someone write about liking the exact same things about the game that I liked.

  11. I was late to the Cake eating party as well… However I ignored all the internet talk, so it didn’t bother me at all. I really enjoyed this game, and played through it all in one sitting… (I played World Of Goo like this as well…) and I wish more games were as great as this… Short, complete experiences of Joy! The only 2 games I beat this year followed that structure. :)

  12. I realize this comment is badly timed but I have to say this was a fantastic review. You articulated my state of immersion perfectly:

    “Breaking out of the sterile testing areas to explore the unkempt guts of Aperture Science feels truly subversive. As much as I understand in theory that this is an artificial sensation created through thoughtful design, while actually playing I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had discovered some secret way outside the boundaries of the game that the designers never intended.”

    That’s exactly how I felt. Valve were so smart to include the first little “behind-the-scenes” area that didn’t really go anywhere, just to groom your sub conscience. Truly genius design. It’s always best to throw away bias’ and give things a worthy try.

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