About a year and a half ago The Orange Box came out. Even though it contained the successful Half Life 2 and the two episododic sequels, it was the game Portal (which was bundled in the package) that really caught everyone's attention. At its core it was a puzzle game but the level of polish, charm, and humour is where everything really shined.
Blue and Orange
The Puzzle aspect of Portal is where the actual gameplay lays. Without it no amount of clever writing could make the game playable. Luckily the puzzle aspect of the game was unique, fresh, and revolutionary. Puzzles comprised of going into a room and figuring your way out of it. You had a gun which shot orange and blue portals. Go through a blue portal and you come out the orange portal, and vice versa. Like any good puzzle game it has a simple premise that can be used in a variety of ways to make it more complex and flexible. Since Portal was a new game with a new puzzle the game designers designed the rooms in such a way that each one got just a little bit more complicated. The learning curve in a game is one of the hardest things to master and all designers should really look at Portal as a great example of how to do it right. When games start off too hard many players give up and become frustrated, but if a game is too easy for too long the player becomes bored. Its a hard task to design a game that ramps up the difficulty just fast enough to accommodate almost everyone. Portal was never overbearing and with enough practice anyone could complete the game. This wasn't becasue the game was too easy but because it was designed in such a way to constantly improve the players abilities in a seemless way. One of the best ways to understand art is to learn to appreciate it, and the designers of Portal did a fantastic job on keeping the player in the know.
Short and Sweet
Game length is one of the ongoing debates within the gaming community. Some people demand long epic games, and become frustrated when a game isn't more than at least 12 hours. Others get bored when a game refuses to end after playing for 20+ hours. My personal feelings are that a game should last as long as the designers vision warrents it. Portal clocks in at about 3-5 hours (depending on how well you adapt to the puzzles) on the first play through. It is the most focused 3-5 hours of gaming anyone could ask for. Because the game is short and focused it never has a chance to let the player down. On the other hand, you would expect since the game is so fun that the player would be disappointed when it ends, however this is not the case. Portal is a puzzle game and even the best puzzle games would get a little repetitive if dragged out for too long. Of course after beating the game you are excited to see what the developers of the game will bring in their next game but you do not feel cheated. The other thing that the short length brings is the ability to beat the game in a single sitting (or two). Many games take a long time to beat and by the end of the game you have forgotten what happened at the start of it. You can take everything the game has to offer in a short period of time which makes it all that much more powerful and memorable. Portal is the perfect length for the game it is supposed to be.
The art direction in Portal is also another stand out feature. At first glance of any screenshot the game looks very sterile. This overly white and clean look to the start of the game adds to the mystery in the atmosphere. You wake up as a test subject and really have no clue what your character is doing in the lab. The white walls have a contrasting effect, both looking calming to the player (since there is no sensory overload) and at the same time confusing (since it still looks very sterile and odd). Throughout the rooms you see slightly frosted glass up near the cieling and you can somewhat see an office space. These little things stand out against the white walls since any change in colour or art will immediately catch the player's eye.
A little bit later in the game once you have become completely comfortable with the controls and puzzle aspect, the environment changes. You go from white sterile labs to dark run down back rooms. The art direction changes when the player escapes the lab tests. The later levels stand out even more because it is such a contrast to what came before it.
The Cake is a Lie
The one thing that no one expected from a puzzle game was a good story. Typically a puzzle game doesn't need a story since they are rewarding enough on their own as a mind teaser. But the designers went above and beyond what they needed to do and made sure that not only that Portal had a great stroy but a humorous one. Creating a good video game story line is hard enough as it is, but creating one that is funny is even harder. Video games have never been known for getting players to laugh, it is much easier to create action and stress then pull off comedy. The comedy in Portal would be categorized under "black comedy" or "dark humour" which is described as (by dictionary.com):
- the juxtaposition of morbid and farcical elements (in writing or drama) to give a disturbing effect
As stated before, Portal starts off with the player in a lab not knowing how they got there or what they are doing there. It seems like they are running tests that revolve around portal technology. This scenario seems more like the set up for a horror story then a comedy but that is what makes it a dark comedy. GLaDOS (a robotic voice that gives you your instructions) is constantly promising you cake after completing the tests. Furthermore she taunts you in many rooms even saying how impossible the room is or that you might end up dead soon. Alone these lines are not funny but when delievered through a robotic voice they have comedic timing and tone to them. When you finally get to the cake you learn that it is a lie. The cake is there but it is across a pit of fire that will kill you. It is at this point the player realizes that GLaDOS has taken over the lab and you may be the only survivor. Having the cake as bait to lure the player to their death gives that Wily Coyote vs Road Runner aspect to the game. GLaDOS is Wily with all her traps and technology and the player is the Road Runner with all the smarts and wit.
An example of GLaDOS wit through monotone.
One room in particular has you using a companion cube. Many rooms have the player picking up cubes and placing them on buttons to solve puzzles, but this cube is different. GLaDOS instructs you to love and care for this cube and keep it with you. It even has some hearts painted on the cube. This whole idea is silly but the player cannot help but get a little attached to it. The cube does help you get through most of the level and you are pretty happy with yourself and the cube for solving the puzzles.
However, in order to leave the level you have to burn the cube, effectively killing it. GLaDOS taunts you saying that you killed the cube faster than any other test subject making the player seem heartless. It may be silly but it is dark humour at its best. You laugh at the fact that you are growing attached to a silly metal box and then get a little upset when you effectively have to put down your only friend. The companion cube would not stand out so much if it wasn't for the fact that you meet no people throughout the game. All you have is yourself and GLaDOS (who is mean spirited and trying to kill you). The little companion cube with a heart painted on it is the biggest personality in the game that you interact with. It is a ridiculous scenario and one that really exemplifies what dark comedy can achieve.
Finally you have the story that is told through the writting on the wall. You see this from time to time when you have a chance to get out of the lab tests. You can see previous scribbles left from old test subjects. They warn you that the cake is a lie and that the place is more dangerous than you may expect. This part is actually a little creepy which helps bring out the humorous parts of the game more. By having this dark and creepy part of the game the humour stands out in contrast.
The music throughout the game is mostly dark and mysterious. It has a lingering effect on the player and almost goes unnoticed just enhancing the players mood. It is very subtle which works to the games advantage since the game has a very sterile and lonely feel to it. Too much noise would hurt the mood. Also the eerie sounds help bring out the humour a little more and twist it into dark humour.
Notice how the score of the game is very subtle and adds to the eerie atmosphere.
The music in the game that got the most attention was the song that comes at the end of the game. This song was such a success that it became downloadable on iTunes and a song to play on Rock Band. The song reinforces the humourous aspect of the game. It is sung by GLaDOS and she is taunting the player letting them know that this game was just a trial and everything went to plan. Even though you supposedly killed GLaDOS in the final battle/puzzle she is singing away telling you it all went to her plan. It is a nice twist on the final scare that usually happens in horror movies (where the monster or killer comes back at the very end for a quick scare nodding towards a sequel). Rather than having the quick scare or just a scene of GLaDOS coming back to life, she sings a fun little song. The best way to appreciate it is to play through the game so you can see how it is a nice capper to the whole experience. I will end my blog the same way. Please listen and enjoy Still Alive, written by Jonathan Coulton.
One of the best endings to any game. Its dark humor at its best, the evil robot who has been trying to kill you the entire game comes back to taunt you in a sweet little song.