GMotW: Portal, and “Whatever works, works”

I’m more than a little overdue for a Game Mechanic of the Week. Forgive me. I’m a busy fellow, and I’ve been distracted by Fate Core (I’ve got a game starting in a few weeks! Yay me!) and the SW/TX Popular Culture and American Culture conference (I’ll be speaking about the Fallout series and their concern with the past and the future), and basically letting you all down.

So, back on the saddle, and with a little more restriction. It’s, what, Friday today? Let’s try and make this, officially, a Friday thing. Good? Good. Now, let’s talk about Portal.

“Please proceed into the Chamber-lock after completing each test.”

GLaDOS tells us this just before the end of the first chamber, but it’s not quite worded as a dissectable rule… in fact, it’s rather the opposite of the rule which governs the game the way it’s worded, so let’s me rephrase:

“The level is completed when you go through to door at the end.”

Much better. This is true of Portal, and it’s true of Portal II (although the definition of “level” can be a bit more obtuse at times), and it’s true of Quantum Conundrum, and Perspective, and, well, most of the genre of First Person Puzzle Games. FPPGs are a nascent genre, to the extent that they might not even be considered a genre separate from puzzle games or first-person platformers, though I would argue that they are a thing apart. Regardless, there are a series of games similar in mechanics and presentation with this commonality: you get to the door at the end of the level, and you have finished the level.

Portal is an extremely linear game; linearity is rather a hallmark of Valve’s single-player efforts–you begin at point A and arrive at point Z and in between you hit the entire alphabet, in order. Half-Life II has been compared to a twisting hallway full of soldiers, which is unfair but not entirely inaccurate. While games have made great strides in open worlds and branching storylines, there is nothing wrong with the classic structure which dates back to Mario and even earlier: a series of levels which are surmounted in order, telling a precise narrative. But while Portal and similar games has a very linear NARRATIVE, the gameplay is less so. Obviously, there are solutions to the given puzzles, solutions which you are intended to discover, but (and here’s the money bit) sometimes you don’t discover those solutions. Sometimes you discover something else.

This is a big part of Quantum Conundrum, for which a number of levels can be “solved” by virtue of clambering wildly up crates and making stacks of couches that more or less get you where you need to go. In Portal, there are ways to avoid the real puzzle and fling yourself wildly in the general direction of victory. You can craftily take out the turrets which block your progress, or you can run screaming and holding a storage cube up to eat the majority of the bullets. And hey, if it gets you to the exit point, then it worked.

That’s great! That’s one of the things which I wish FPPGs could make more of… the ability to brute force your way through the problem with luck and blind persistance. For some reason, I have seen this suggested as a fault with these games… as if allowing a player to survive a less-than-elegant run was somehow a bad thing. I could not disagree more with this sentiment though! An elegant solution is its own reward. A half-assed idiot’s solution? IS ALSO ITS OWN REWARD.

If I were the king of games, I’d call for more of this action. A jump that can work if you do it JUST right and latch onto a TINY little ledge? YES. A button that you can only find if you pick up everything and toss it on the ground in a rage? YES. Enough loose books, cameras, and end tables to form a ramp you can run up so you can fall out of the level and into the next one? YES, PLEASE. I would love for all of those to be true, gormless solutions for folks who reach “try literally anything” before they reach “Oh, I know what I’m supposed to do here.”

But even if they aren’t programmed in on purpose, they show up sometimes, and I’m glad that the game doesn’t needlessly penalize the player for not doing it right. If you reach the end of the level, you reached the end of the level, and should be rewarded for it.


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