Thursday, July 21, 2011

Portal: A Look Into Gaming As Art

Wow, it's been a while since my last post! I've been very busy with graduation, animating, and job hunting that I haven't really had time to write anything that would be worthwhile (at least, worthwhile to me). Here're some fun new things to celebrate my coming back to this blog. 1) My blog posts should now get linked to my Tumblr. This still is kind of a personal blog for me in the sense that I'm still just really accruing/dissecting interesting things for my own benefit, but people who read or stumble upon my Tumblr might find these sorts of things interesting. So I'll be friendly and share. Ha ha. 2) I'll try to post more often. I've got a lot of things that I should be sharing here. Seriously. A lot. No exaggeration. You should see my desktop— actually, wait, you shouldn't. Anyone who looks at it is amazed at all of the things that I accrue on there. But it's all just things I collect to inspire my art and just to inspire me in general. And I'd like to write more posts explaining why I enjoy what I snag off the internet.

Alright. Let's end this long period of silence with something that I really should have been talking about four years ago (and something that I've been blabbing about more than usual on Tumblr since March): gaming, narrative, and character— specifically in my favorite video game, Portal.

I've never really thought of myself as a gamer. I mean, I've played video games for my entire life, but I was playing games like Berserk on my dad's Atari 2600. I was trying to catch Carmen Sandiego on our Tandy. I'd trade Pokémon with the kids in my fifth grade class during recess on my Game Boy. I never thought of myself as someone who could ever get really invested in video games, or see them as anything that could ever provoke deep meaning.

I knew about Portal through a friend who had gotten the newly released Orange Box and had watched her play it, but it was such a short playthrough that we didn't have any time to view anything other than a part of a puzzle she was still working on. It wasn't until I stumbled upon this video that I really became intrigued. The quips were hilarious, but I wanted to know: who the hell was this character? Cue me getting an XBox after watching a full playthrough of the game for the sole purpose of playing through it for myself.

It got me thinking about other games that I hadn't played. I wasn't going to let my XBox go to waste, so I started buying other titles: Fallout 3, Halo Reach, Mirror's Edge, the list goes on And, honestly, all of these first person shooters and other puzzle games don't hold a candle to the overall feeling of Portal. Boiled down to it's essence, a video game is a series of puzzles you are rewarded later on for. For example, in FPS games, you have to figure out how to strategize and find your opponents, then take them down with whatever weapon you think will get the job done so you can rack up points and win the game. Same thing with platformers and RPGs (and the whole idea of item collecting and achievement hoarding). In the beginning of Portal, it's clearly established that you will be going through a series of tests and will be rewarded at completion of the course. The fact that this is a game is not hidden, but it's still disconcerting. At least in other games, you know that there're going to be villains you have to fight along the way. In Portal, the only character you know through the entire game is an AI voice guiding you through a tutorial on how to use a Portal gun. There are no other human characters other than the player. And yet, as you continue through these seemingly pointless tests, the turrets that try to kill you and the Weighted Companion Cube that you are forced to carry around with you feel more human and alive than some other video game NPCs.

And then comes the surprising plot twist to the game (note: SPOILERS for anyone who still hasn't played this game): the realization that, all along, this AI that has been guiding you through the tests isn't just spouting off pre-recorded messages. After almost getting killed, you have to use everything you've been taught in the previous test chambers to escape from being roasted in a fire. That's the amazing thing about Portal: clearly, the first half of the game is a tutorial, but it doesn't feel like it at all. Once you've flung yourself into the inner workings of Aperture Science, you really feel as though you're violating someone's privacy, going into a part of the game that neither your omniscient tester nor the game developer wanted you to go into. The best part is the feeling of satisfaction when you've realized how you can use portals to traverse through such clandestine areas. There's a particular room that, when I first played, took me about an hour to figure out how to get out of. I was kicking myself when I figured out that the solution was extremely easy (two portals, no complicated flinging involved: color me embarrassed).

Rarely is a pathway obvious to the player (except, of course, the directions you get from the Rat Man, but that's all a consequence of the story) as there are multiple solutions to avoid each obstacle. I don't want to talk about Portal 2 too much (I'll leave it for a future post), but I think the main difference between the sequel and the original was that, in the second game, the player's hand was held way too much. There was usually just one way to solve a particular puzzle, and while it helped with the pacing of the story, it felt artificial at times. Places to put portals were clearly marked with lined boundaries (it was one step behind placing large, neon "PUT PORTAL HERE" signs everywhere). In the first Portal, I think there was only a few times where places to put portals were marked with multicolored tiles, but that was it. And with that lack of information of where to go, a player felt a lot more rebellious while running away from the disembodied voice of their captor.

And speaking of that mysterious woman, let's talk a bit about GLaDOS.

To me, GLaDOS is like a mixture of Josef Mengele and Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development. She's sort of a sultry robotic scientist who has really no regard for human life and only for her own (and the life of science, at least). While on one hand I like how her history was revealed in the sequel, from a story standpoint it really wasn't necessary. More of a welcomed bonus. The allure of GLaDOS is exactly that you don't know who she is. You don't understand why you are where you are, or why you're being tested. You don't get why she's so murderous, if it's just a result of faulty Aperture programming or if AI in the future not only can become sentient, but passive aggressive as well. But in the end, there are no loose ends. There's really no resolution to the story. And, if you ignore the events of Portal 2, it seems that GLaDOS lives on to continue science for mysterious purposes.

I always say that a movie is successful if you can have an in-depth conversation about it once you've finished watching it. Portal is the art house movie about two women trapped in a mad house of science that was made in video game form. It's the first video game that ever blew my mind, and the only video game that I still go back to time and time again to appreciate for its story along with its fantastic gameplay.

As an extra bonus, here are some links that I've gathered over the past year about why Portal is such an amazing game and general info about females and female characters in gaming. Most of these can describe why I think Portal is great a lot better and more in depth, and why it was a call to video game artists to focus on story and character (and the role of the female in games).