Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mini-Review of Portal

I just finished playing Portal. It's been one of the most pleasant surprises in all my years of playing computer games. (And I've been involved with these things since the Atari 2600, so there you go.)

I actually didn't know much about it until recently, when I noticed that this "Portal" thing seemed to be showing up on a lot of "Best of 2007" web sites and TV shows about computer games. Somehow it even won awards like "Best New Character" and "Best Story"... but I knew there weren't any people characters in it! How could this be? I'd also been hearing that "The Orange Box" (which contains Half-Life 2, HL2: Episode One, HL2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, and Portal) was selling really, really well.

So I've been sick the past several days. While picking up some medicine, I swung by Best Buy, and in checking out the PC games section saw The Orange Box. "What the hell," I thought. "Let's see if all the gushing about this Portal thing is warranted."

It was.

And now I'm going to gush, too.

Back in 2006 an indie game called "Narbacular Drop" won some awards. I watch that scene somewhat (because it's where so much innovation is lately), so I'd heard about the game -- something about playing with the physics engine. That's cool, I thought; not just a copy of some other game. And then I went back to whatever I was looking at.

Well, what actually happened is that several of the people who made "Narbacular Drop" went to work for Valve -- the makers of the Half-Life games. Once at Valve, they began using its considerable game development resources to build a top-of-the-line game around their earlier concepts. They called this new game "Portal."

It sounds simple: You have a "neat gun" that can make holes in walls; you jump through the holes to get to different places. And that's pretty much it...

...except that doing it is a wonderful set of exercises in observation, perception, timing, motion, problem-solving, creativity, and storytelling. The game is basically a series of 3D logic puzzles presented as a training course overseen by a research computer called GLaDOS. As she talks to you, telling you what to do, you begin to realize that there's a story here, that something interesting is going on beyond the combination of hand-eye control and the intellectual challenge of solving the puzzles.

And did I mention that the dialogue for GLaDOS is wonderful, and that the voice performance of that writing (by Ellen McLain, wife of fellow game voice actor John Patrick Lowrie who's also highly regarded) is among the best ever in any game? And that it creates moments that are really funny, and really ominous... and sometimes both at the same time?

And did I mention that there's a special treat for winning?

Portal really is a remarkable accomplishment. What could have been just a somewhat smarter-than-average platformer/jumping game (which wouldn't have been saying much) is actually one of the most nearly complete, balanced, well-paced, absorbing, and fun gaming experiences I have ever had. It's thinking, and doing, and feeling, all wrapped up in one consistent package.

Now I can see why it's earned all those awards. And while it's a little too short for me to put it at the top of my all-time greatest games ever list, it's cracked at least my personal top ten, and maybe higher. Yes, it's as good as they say it is.

So if you haven't played Portal, you should. And I offer this recommendation (which I don't usually do) for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's a great game in its own right, assuming you're OK with the 3D hand-eye coordination part.

Secondly, it's also worth playing a game like Portal that's so well-done because it gives you perspective on how well-designed and fun all other games should be, but so often aren't. It's a fantastic case study in solid game design. (It even includes numerous audio commentaries from the designers and the key voice artist so you can learn what went into making it.)

In short, I believe Portal is so well designed that I think playing it and thinking about it could help improve our critical understanding of computer games generally.

Now, I think I'll just go try to solve a couple more of the challenge levels. I hear there might be cake....