My interest in gaming began around the age of 7 when my parents purchased my first video gaming system: the Odyssey 2 (otherwise known as Videopac Plus in France, where I was living at the time). It probably began earlier that, actually. That's as far back as I can remember seeing a video game in front of me and being able or wanting to play it, but I must have wanted games before that time or my parents wouldn't have given me the Videopac. I honestly can't remember.
My interest spanned many consoles and/or machines and also led me to programming around the age of 9 on another Philips/Magnavox machine: the VG5000. I didn't like the machine all that much and envied a friend of mine with an Amstrad, a sort of European sibling to the Commodore.
Today, I'm still a programmer and video gamer with a penchant for philosophy and criticism that I picked up along the way.
As a father of two, I consider myself a proud member of a growing population of parent gamers. I believe in educating my kids in the values and pitfalls of gaming in the context of gaining a better understanding of one another as human beings, and in developing a more adept understanding of systems, and the values and responsibilities of acting with and within them.
"Centuries of their labor would not reveal to them any more of Creation than they already knew. Yet through their endeavor, men would glimpse the unimaginable artistry of Yahweh's work, in seeing how ingeniously the world had been constructed. By this construction, Yahweh's work was indicated, and Yahweh's work was concealed." Tower of Babylon, Ted Chiang.
A curious thing about ruthless closure in a story is that we start to speak in the same language that created it, even when we're angered by it. My immediate reaction to the experience of Bioshock Infinite is most definitely anger and my first impulse is to use the gameís tropes against itself. I lose myself in the exercise.
The chair that I "willingly" strap myself/Booker into as transportation into the game predictably closes like a trap. It never releases me, really.
Elevators, zeppelins, or rails transport me to spectacles as carefully staged for surrender and awe as a cathedral under stained glass. Or a theme park. Like many players in the initial hour of the game, I absolutely surrender.
Baptized and ushered into a beautifully rendered city in the sky, I wander through the first areas in a daze, absorbing every detail, every vista, every conversation. Itís like listening to the opening of a sermon and running into Disneyland at the same time. How quickly this exhausts itself shouldnít surprise me, but it does.
The presentation of the environments becomes as preachy as the in-game propaganda, giving me a constant pairing of dramatic scenery with religious or racist conversations, placards, portraits, slogans, lest I forget that this is a society of xenophobic sheep. Itís so oppressive and ubiquitous that I can't open myself to what Iím directed to feel as Iím funneled along to the next attraction: nostalgia, awe, outrage, revulsion. All of these seem over-represented and under-developed, like placeholders, pointers for the next series of events that will justify the gun I'm constantly holding in front of my face.
The lines between the gameís different forms of didacticism start to blur uncomfortably. An elevator sermonizes me with absurdly bespoke, interstitial captions in the railings between floors, presenting me with what amounts to a silent movie montage as its view pans through significant scenes of toil on each floor. Who is the bombastic ideologue here? The preacher in the game or the one behind the game who choreographs a slideshow in an elevator with such self-assurance in my suspension of disbelief?
After I encounter the museum set-pieces in the Hall of Heroes I begin to realize that these exhibits and my passage through them are just microcosms for the entire game: wander through sequences of propaganda submitted to my superior judgement and Bookerís tired amnesiac duplicity, admire the dramatic lighting, the exaggerated architecture, the operatic music, smirk at the figures and mobs popping into view, listen to a disembodied villain barking over the PA system, accept the eventual wave of targets that I can mow down like ducks Vox Populi in a shooting gallery.
My only forms of agency outside of this template seem to be resource gathering to keep my meters topped off and my abilities updated, and an occasional decision that curiously doesnít branch to anything. I'm sometimes offered pauses, moments where a choice presents itself between standing around and doing nothing or submitting to an event by pressing a button. Itís supposed to feel like stumbling into the intractable "would you kindly?" moment but becomes less affecting for the repetition.
I need to pause again. I can feel my criticism getting carried along the gameís implosive momentum, its irresistible urge to make everything a reference to some other aspect of itself. I get a sense of satisfaction out of doing this but I think the writers of Infinite fell under the same lure.
When oneís language and figures start to resonate among themselves, itís tempting to follow their inward momentum as implicitly significant, something that will almost magically mean something to perceptive readers through the combined weight of their thematic material and self-reflection. Without moderation and a critical, nuanced effort to tie the work back to the world the result becomes inscrutable, closed to any real dialog or reading beyond a dutiful interpretation of its own internally significant figures.
Bioshock Infinite obstinately stares into this mirror and never really returns to anything outwardly significant.
I can feel the maw closing at a certain turn in the gameís story. A proletarian uprising gives me one last possible reference to something outside of Booker DeWittís tortured psyche. ďItíll be like Les Miserables!Ē exclaims Elizabeth, at which point I should hear the cynicism approaching but I try to ignore it. I briefly feel some sense of historical resonance and subversive short-circuiting that isnít just a caricature from a theme park. A kid is singing ďFortunate SonĒ in blues a capella. Irish war songs jump out of the indistinct roar of the angry mob. It feels exaggerated but energizing and purposeful, like a living Eric Drooker poster.
But this significance self-destructs under the overarching obsession with the zero-sum game, the perfect, closed system: the violent revolution becomes framed as just another form of futile idealism and hunger for power, the other side of the same coin. Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the rebellion, goes power-mad and begins to bark at me over PA systems, telling me that I ďcomplicate the narrative.Ē This sounds strained in its anachronism, as if her language is suddenly putting on a new costume and isnít comfortable with the wardrobe. She figuratively twirls her mustache while holding a child hostage, ready to kill in the name of idealism at any moment. This particular museum exhibit doesnít end with my actions, though. Through a pane of glass, I watch as my verbs become Elizabethís verbs and she executes Daisy with a pair of scissors. We move on to another interdimensional tear and the game continues to distill itself into self-referential oblivion.
"There's always a lighthouse. There's always a man. There's always a city."
I wish I could say that Bioshock Infinite is a missed opportunity, but this would imply a lack of intent on the part of the gameís creators. They foreclosed on most opportunities to use their thematic premise with any kind of bravery, honesty, or outward relevance because they explicitly chose to reduce it to yet another first person shooter meditation on self-redemption. Though it may be wrapped in the entertaining science fiction conceits of quantum loops and steeped in self-conscious iconography of McKinley-era americana, this is in fact the path of least complexity, least offense, least risk. One can make it all about a few regretful personal choices that canít be taken back and wrap everything up neatly with a decision that erases everything. In doing so, any gestures toward historical awareness, racial politics, or self-consciousness about the repercussions of violence become placeholders that point to nothing and ask nothing of the player. The end result is very digestible and briefly poignant, but ultimately obtuse and evasive, artful without art.
As I complete the game, Iím not sure what to do with the experience itís given me. Itís like walking away from an evening at a theme park that somehow tried to tell me the story of its own significance at every kiosk and turnstile then faded to nothingness as I left the lot. Itís haunting, but not in a way that stays with me, not in a way that asks me to return. I fear that if I turn around for another glimpse, Iíll just be watching the slow heat death of the first person shooter.
"There are some today who would argue that there is no such thing as "experience" -- lived experience, as it is sometimes called -- save as it is reducible to language and desire[...] abolishing at least what happens as an irreducible ontological order[...].
Say rather (as another interim strategy): The mutual inadeqations of language and desire constitute what happens; the mutual inadequations of desire and what happens constitute language; the mutual inadeqations of what happens and language constitute desire. [...] We only know any one of the three because of the gap between the other two."
The year is 503, p.a. (post apocalypse). I'm controlling three NORAD troops under the stated mission of infiltrating a structure belonging to a faction known as the Salemites: an occultist group who have been experimenting with corpse reanimation for centuries in the aftermath of the last great nuclear war. Our main goal is to retrieve the US Constitution from the Salemite vault and exit the zone.
There's more of a backstory to all of this but I'll skip the exposition because that's not where the game happens.
We're equipped fairly well for the job; all three units are set with individual loadouts of small arms or a heavy machine gun, and assorted explosives and med kits. As with any game where I'm given pre-equipped characters, I'm trying to deduce and enact their intended roles: who is the scout, the medic, the "big gun", the demolition engineer, and so on.
I've also been staring at the level map and trying to plot a strategy. If the opponent's two Salemite units re-animate three cadavers (spawing zombie units that also enter the opponents forces), we'll lose the mission. I want to avoid so much as two zombies running around the complex, as these could cause serious problems. These aren't the shambling variety and can be quite damaging at close range. I can see exactly where the opposing team has spawned and I begin to formulate a plan. If we can destroy the morgue with one of our explosives, and dispatch two units to the vault...
My command points are limited, as is the available set of commands in the current context due to both the situation and the randomization of the set. Melee'ing the walls or searching the littered outdoor landscape would produce nothing, so moving and shooting seem to be the only relevant options. Fortunately I have a couple of command items under these categories, with large command point allowances, so I'll be able to make an effective blitz into the building. Designated "big gun" Nick Bolter takes point and successfully destroys the nearest door that leads into the facility, but the first re-animated zombie is already running down the hallway toward our team.
An hour later, the situation is grim. My "scout" unit, Vasquez, used as both a sniper and line of sight monitor, was torn to pieces by two zombies. Line of sight plays a big role in the our ability to interrupt the opponent's turn, so we've lost more than just her set of actions; we've lost potential future turns and the ability to react. Our med kits are gone, and both remaining characters are temporarily holed up in the "Patient Room".
James Woo is rifling through the cabinets, hoping the search command will produce something of use. The beds in this room will provide 1 measly HP per turn, at the cost of a precious command point, but Nick uses one to get out of his wounded state which has decreased his movement, weight allocation, max command points, and combat effectiveness. He's been a mess for a few turns now.
Considering that two zombies have been revived, I decide to drop the main objective and go for the alternate win condition: kill all opposing team members. I'm probably going to lose this, but James managed to find a smoke bomb which might come in handy where we're headed: the opponent should be going "all in" and deploying everyone to the morgue for one last zombie resurrection. Maybe the element of surprise, or rather "uninterruptibility" (they can see us on the map just as well as we can see them) will work in our favor.
The opponent changes his mind and decides on a more dramatic approach by sending everyone directly toward us. This isn't going to end well. In an act of perhaps nihilistic humor, Nick decides to take another nap for one more hit point before it all hits the fan.
My son and I are absolutely absorbed with this game, as are quite a few other players since December of last year. Its dated visuals, garish color palette, and postapocalyptic premise form a thematic package that feels like something I would have gleefully purchased from a game retailer circa 1995; a turn-off for some, perhaps, but a treasure for others.
Dependent on one's generation, a contemporary gamer might experience the theme as tongue-in-cheek nostalgia while younger players might see the game as somewhat ugly and derivative. I see it as rather "formally nostalgic", an effort to create something with an aesthetic and thematic design that is consistent in its vintage but stands on its own strengths and explores the possibilities of that theme without too much implied hipster irony. I've seen this formalist approach to retro game design with more frequency lately in games like Cave Story and Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery EP, which is a trend that Michael Abbott has begun to analyze.
In addition to the thematic throwback, what has engaged most players as they progress through the extensive tutorial system is the versatility of the narrative that grows around what initially presents itself as a tactical skirmish game.
This is enabled through a complexity of mechanics that offer an uncommonly varied and contextual set of choices to the player during each turn. This could have easily been overwhelming to players if the designer hadn't made a couple of important decisions. First, most of the rules and mechanics are isomorphic, meaning their structure and logistics are, once learned, transferable to other rule-sets in the game as they are introduced. The mechanics are also designed to be conveyed through a modular iconographic language which is introduced to the user after most of the core systems are learned.
This achieves a combined effect: rules need to only be conveyed once; most of their mechanics build into subsequent rules which function in consistent ways between themselves, and communication of any of these can be achieved by placing a few icons on the appropriate components in the game. As you step through the tutorial you feel as if you're gaining fluency in a language that makes your game both tactically deeper and more narratively complex. It feels empowering and nearly --but not quite-- overwhelming at the same time.
The end result is nothing short of brilliant: a deep retro-postapocalyptic strategy game that teaches the players its own language while giving them narrative scenarios to explore and mutate with this language. It's a structured, tactical, narrative sandbox that grows with each game, and players often repeat the tutorials for the fun of exploring different outcomes and interactions. Once these tutorials are complete, players are moved to a final set of rules that structure how they will auto-generate their scenarios... and the game pretty much explodes from there.
At this point, I should come clean and clarify that none of this is happening in a video game.
I've been trying to describe the appeal of a designer boardgame, Earth Reborn, by Christophe Boelinger, particularly in response to the boardgaming buzz coming out of the last GDC.
I chose this game in particular because the initial descriptions I'd heard from the conference seemed to assume that a turn to boardgames was a "return to basics." At least that was a common interpretation of one of the talks on "Go, Poker, and the Sublime" where Frank Lantz discussed, in an almost phenomenological fashion, the richness of abstract games as manifestations of thought being "made visible to itself" and the lessons that designers could learn from these honed and proliferative systems of gameplay.
This is certainly a rewarding vein to explore, as I tried to exemplify in some of Earth Reborn's design decisions. Developing more evolved or informed concepts of mechanics by looking at the poetics of analog games will be productive for many designers who might have either shunned the hobby or simply not associated it with the problems they encounter in video game design.
But Earth Reborn is not a good subject for Frank Lantz's approach in several aspects which make it all the more compelling for me as a board game.
It is about as far from abstract or "Euro" games as one could go: almost every mechanic and rule has a thematic analog. It's the product of a board game auteur who often takes his own idiosyncratic approaches to design and builds the games "he wants to play," which along with his French nationality reminds me a bit of Eric Chahi in his relationships with his games. Incidentally, many of Earth Reborn's design choices are also influenced by video games, particularly the iconographic language system and concepts like "command points" (think of any turn-based SRPG in the past 10 years).
But finally, and perhaps more critically for me, this game does not lend itself to an immediacy or transparency of "thought being made visible to itself". The pleasure of the game doesn't really reside there.
If anything, one could argue that the allure of this game lies in the inverse process: "thought" here is first being shaped by the grammar of the game's rules which, once internalized, enable the player to express their decisions. But these choices aren't entirely controlled by player intent since dice-rolling mechanics add an element of randomness. This is, in effect, the pleasure of "submitting" to the game in the interests of developing one's agency within it while also seeing what emergent situations will be presented as unintended consequences of that agency.
I think this argues for a learning approach that diverges a bit from Frank Lantz's by including the "Ameritrash" side of the boardgaming spectrum in our field of influence, since I feel that some of these are beginning to broach the same experiential territory as video games.
Rather than treating boardgames as a quasi-classical set of almost platonic game forms (i.e. "back to basics"), why not look at them as equally vibrant, complex, and sometimes messy experiments that have evolved in tandem with (and sometimes under the influence of) video games and often strive, under their own unique devices, to convey mediated, collaborative experiences?
In this model, both digital and analog games can be brought into a larger discussion that I hinted at with Samuel R. Delany's interim strategy for describing our complex interface with experience, with "what happens" in games themselves.
"The mutual inadequations of language and desire constitute what happens."
I feel I should reduce the scope of Delany's use of the word desire here, which he quite intentionally brings into this model as a dialog with the Lacanian concept. I think his personal example in relation to his formative experiences with science fiction fits our purposes a bit more closely:
"[T]he necessary feeling that greater excitement lay only a book away had already been clearly--and socially--established. It's a feeling--call it desire--that must be fixed to any genre if that genre is to be pursued; probably it must be fixed to any semantic category for that category to persist as a social reality. Like all desire it is formed on absence, the missed, the just-out-of-reach, the greater wonder and adventure waiting for us just over there that is what language, leaping ahead of experience, constantly creates via that gap."
Bringing this back to gaming, desire is both what keeps us hooked to the game we're playing and keeps us looking toward the next game to fulfill something others haven't yet. It's something that maintains our engagement with a game if there is a compelling and potentially bridgeable gap between what the game's language is telling us --or instructing us in the ability to speak-- and our moment-by-moment experience within that game.
Think of GladOS apologizing to you, telling you that the room you've just entered is a mistake and is unsolvable. This presents ruptures between what the game is telling you, your own previously tutorialized agency in the game, and the actions you are currently undertaking to make it to the next room. You know you are being lied to and you won't put the controller down until you effect the experience of proving this... and exploring just how far the lie really goes. Desire.
I want to get back to the gap between that desire and the ludic language that lags behind it or jumps ahead of it and constitutes the space where the game experience happens.
In gaming I see the dynamics of an interface with experience that I feel are quite unique. The intent of the design, the functioning of the game itself, and the agency of the player are constantly engaged in a negotiotion, building a model of what is supposed to be "happening" in the game throughout its duration, and this doesn't require an authoritative locus or driver.
In the best games, or the ones I find most personally satisfying, this experience isn't occurring in the declared rules or representational language of the game, nor the player's own agency (as language). It forms in the slippage between this register of language and the expectation, the desire that impels the player to manifest and construct their concept of what the game is or could become as a consequence of their next step.
Board games in the vein of Earth Reborn can achieve uniquely satisfying, evocative, and engaging experiences because this fluctuating process isn't accelerated in the interests of making its mechanics or language transparent. The player's constant state of constructing and being constructed inform a large part of the pleasure of gaming in this genre and it's a state I would like to see developed and explored more fully in video games as well.
We're beginning to see more of these explorations of experiential modeling in retro-oriented games, perhaps because of their often minimalist conceits in visual design. When playing these games I feel less like I'm being "plugged into" a narrative and/or ludic structure and given some choices and skillsets to propel it (e.g. Heavy Rain), but more like I'm shaping my personal experience of the game and its significance, its act of meaning and textuality. I'd be curious to see if this is possible in more representational games, or whether a certain defamiliarization of the game's presentation is almost necessary to engage this type of play.
In any case, the current state of indie games gives me hope that while AAA development studios are hard at work on the next FPS on rails, there are other souls out there who see other possibilities, similar gaps between our current experiences in video games and what desire, jumping ahead of this experience, makes us believe might be out there to explore and enrich our understanding of what games are.
This is the gap where language and interim strategies take place, some expressed as games, and some expressed as words. I can only hope mine measured up to the task of spurring further discussion.
This won't surprise anyone who knows me. I spend most of my work breaks and micro-breaks listening to videogame podcasts and reading videogame blogs.
This sporadic immersion in game journalism steeps my brain in videogaming conversations throughout the day as I work. It's almost blissful, really. I'm continually amazed at how the flame-ridden, nerdy, proto-adolescent conversations in the Usenet enclaves of yesteryear have gradually transformed into a culture of mostly intelligent conversations surrounding game design, theory, and possibility.
While quite a few venues of videogame discourse seem to have grown up with their interlocuters, gaming as a medium and practice appears to be entering the awkward, slowly evolutionary, "teenage" phase of its development, seemingly trailing the critical expectations surrounding it by a few years.
This prototypical stage has lead to an admittedly frustrating disconnect between public mass media, which continue to approach gaming as a primarily juvenile pop-cultural phenomenon (with all of the hysteria accorded to this cultural sector if potency or influence becomes a perceived issue), and a deeply invested critical community of game designers who see where videogaming can evolve as a new art form.
I'm sure many critics in the blogosphere would like to see the evolution of games accelerated toward their obvious potential, as recent discussions concerning the need for a "Citizen Kane" of gaming have indicated. But I have a confession: I actually hope that games remain in their current stage for a bit longer as the critical community eventually breaks free of the apologetic rut in which it seems to be trapped and instead begins to foment, mature, and refine the discourse surrounding games and their relationship with aesthetic cultural practice.
I think the current state of gaming is, in fact, the perfect backdrop for a deepening understanding of what the subject of gaming criticism should be, and what games themselves are capable of becoming.
In the past couple of years, for economic and technological reasons beyond the scope of this post, the attention of game criticism has been effectively split between two spheres: "AAA" games created by large development studios and marketed by publishers with deep budgets, and indie games usually developed by teams that can be enumerated on a single hand.
The former sphere is driven by mass-market sales and largely comprised of franchises or "intellectual properties" which are executed as flawlessly as possible and iterated for as long as the market or brand loyalty for that IP stands. Recent examples include Uncharted 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rachet & Clank Future. Growth here can be characterized as iterative and evolutionary, and primarily honed to the tastes and expectations of their targeted demographics.
The indie sphere is characterized largely by innovative design and a rapid development model, a necessity given the restricted budgets & resources. It also seems to have a stronger imperative to create uniquely engaging and/or experimental game experiences aimed at a smaller, more auteur-oriented audience. Iterations or sequels are sparse here and are usually moot. Examples include: Machinarium, Flower, Braid.
I'm admittedly painting these two spheres in large brushstrokes, but I think that anyone who has read or participated in game criticism lately has noticed this rough distinction and the split attention it has effected. This has created some very productive and encouraging moments of critical dissonance where expectations developed in one arena have been brought to bear upon the other.
For instance, such dissonance has been fruitful in galvanizing critics into holding games accountable for "growing up" in the face of market forces that seem to be actively discouraging this growth in the AAA arena.
I think of this as the "ludic pull" in criticism, a drive to break gaming out of the imitative constraints and genre assumptions it has placed upon itself and to explore what makes videogaming experientially distinct and important as a medium unto itself.
In the opposite direction, the paradigm of the super-produced "blockbuster" title has continued to contextualize gaming in the tropes of cinematic narrative in its critical, marketing, and visual vocabularies, for better or worse.
While this has allowed games to mature in some aspects, such as visual devices and narrative structure, arguments have been brought against this implicit "cinematic imperative" in game design, which purportedly risks hampering growth and exploration, relegating videogames to a perpetual "para-cinematic" medium.
I think this fear of marginalizing videogames is largely misplaced and disempowering to a certain extent. This is the "apologetic pull" in game criticism, and it has outlasted its own usefulness. I agree with much of Michael Abbott's argument concerning the places where cinematic appropriations are actually worthwhile in videogaming if they're taken confidently as tools in a larger palette. The problem is that most game critics and designers aren't entirely confident in that palette yet, mostly because it hasn't been fully defined.
In opposition to this apologetic pull, I'd ask critics to consider the following: Could films, in fact, come to be perceived as "paraludic" in the coming century?
When it comes down to it, I think the tables are slowly turning in this direction. Though it's difficult for visual arts and film critics to see it now, I believe that cinema in its current form will eventually be percieved as a subset of whatever it is that games are becoming.
In my perception, videogames aren't just a new narrative medium or visual art, or interactive entertainment. Agency, interactivity, and systemic thinking are indeed significant aspects in gaming, but they meld with subjective experience and imagination to such an unprecedented extent, that I'd venture to say that videogames are becoming a completely new cultural aesthetic practice. What we're facing is the birth of a new technology of the subject, or technology of subjectivity, which I don't think has really occurred since film.
That's a pretty big change to be evolving toward. As with most paradigm shifts of this order, criticism really won't have the vocabulary to wrestle with it until the shift has already occurred. Modernist critics couldn't entirely fathom or articulate the rupture that art had undergone in the late 1950's until well into the 1970's, when a philosophical discourse on contemporary art had finally solidified around necessary ruptures in its own assumptions, namely with the advent of post-structural and post-historical criticism.
I think gaming criticism is finally entering the preliminary stages of developing such a framework.
However, the recent pursuit and question of a "Citizen Kane" of gaming indicates that escape velocity from quasi-modernist genre concepts hasn't been achieved yet. When we can move past that question and put it to rest as, at best, misplaced, then the real questions can begin to be asked.
Just a warning before you start wondering why I'm posting this. Yes, old post is old. This review was culled from my personal blog entry from November. I was experiencing some bloggers block here and I figured editing this entry a bit and posting it would be a good way to inaugurate my c-blog and get me warmed up for future entries. Preview title for my next post: "I suck at games: Because I don't play them" (about intent to play, vs reality). That said, here goes. Hope you enjoy.
To alleviate the somber tone of my latest gaming obsession, Fallout 3, I had recently decided to try out Portal. This decision was based largely on the ending song that I'd stumbled across when I googled some of the more bizarre lyrics someone had quoted from the tune. The cheerful morbidity of the AI seemed to hold the humor I was missing in Bethesda's post-nuclear opus.
Admittedly, I'm also a sucker for spatial puzzles.
Upon completing the game, my only regret is that I hadn't played this sooner and that I didn't pick up the rest of the Orange Box package. Any universe that can spawn a spinoff as clever and affecting as this one most certainly deserves a playthrough regardless of my aversion for most FPS games.
The synergy of Portal's presentation, narrative context, and central mechanic is rare enough in itself, but I've never experienced a game that complements such a level of design with a commensurately intelligent and layered level of humor. Much of this is effected through an AI named GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) who functions as the player's coach, tester, and warden, delivering a sadism that is as strikingly humorous as it is disturbing in its unassuming, antiseptic quality, spoken in warmly musical vocoder tones.
"Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an "unsatisfactory" mark on your official testing record, followed by death. Good luck!"
GLaDOS is absolutely inhumane, yet equally sincere.
This mirrors the functional detachment the player is made to feel in relation to their own character. The "protagonist" is a rather blank slate whose sole purpose is to wield the portal device and follow your input as you navigate her through each testing room. Our only actual glimpses of her occur in moments when the portals happen to create a recursive field of view that includes her body.
With one ambiguous exception (that I won't describe in detail, lest I spoil it; for those in the know, this does more to personalize GLaDOS than the object in question), one could go so far as to state that there is little to no emotional attachment to any figure or object in the game.
This oddly functions to enhance the player's immersion, directing it as a lightly narrative but mostly cerebral & playful exercise in physics and the pursuit of the next Aha-Erlebnis moment.
And these moments, to my honest surprise, were not nearly as serendipitous as I'd felt them to be. Upon completing the game, I returned to most of the exam rooms and listened to the commentary nodes out of idle curiosity, and I was stunned by the carefully orchestrated and play-tested nature of many of my "discoveries".
Architecturing the lure of these "aha" moments to be the primary driver of the game, and doing so successfully (I never once felt stuck), really shows expert restraint, in my opinion, by keeping the focus on the gameplay and shunning the "cinematic" tropes that many games would fall into in an effort to further immerse the player and drag them along the correct course.
Portal exemplifes the qualitative difference in game design between polishing and belabouring the narrative context. The studio could have easily piled on more visual clutter, more writing, more voicoever work, and possibly a coda at the end, but they obviously understood that this would have diminished the game.
Scattershot "epics" such as those devised by Hideo Kojima almost seem needlessly baroque in contrast to the lean devices here.
Granted the comparison is rather unfair due to the drastically different genres and intended effects, but Portal's style does make a strong argument for finding smarter, more efficient, and dare I say, mature ways to engage the player that don't necessarily use reams of dialogue, contrived plot twists, or hamfisted characterizations. Incidentally, I also believe that it's time for videogames to finally divorce themselves from the cinematic imperative and begin to stand on the strength of their own unique, and uniquely powerful, devices. But that rant's been done before.
In another clever, though somewhat foreseeable twist to the game, the player's progress is accompanied by an increasing sense of distrust in their own trajectory. As the requirements ramp up, so does the player's ability to perceive the possibilities of deviation afforded by the portal gun, and the increasing probability that these will be put to the test.
I'll leave the rest for the reader to experience. The final path one takes, and the obviously inevitable confrontation are too entertaining to spoil here. I can only describe it as something between HAL's demise in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the verbal abuse one might sustain if one managed to really... really piss off Laurie Anderson.
I can only hope that Valve, or at least their Source engine, will bring similarly clever games in the future. In the meantime, I have some catching up to do with the Half Life universe.